Difference and Ability: Mental Health and the Superhero Genre

Curator's Note

Recent media scholarship has seen a steady increase of works focusing on disability studies and themes within popular culture, especially in television and film. While much research has loomed around establishing the accuracy of fictional representations of mental illness, it can be argued that, inadvertently, the search for a “truthful image” has ended up reifying stereotypical stigmatization and stifling public debates. In practice, mediatic discourses have continued to be trapped within western binarizing epistemologies that position the mentally ill subject as “other,” abnormal, abhorrent, and less than human. In this scenario, I believe that contemporary fantasy and SF visual works, especially the superhero genre, allow for a ripe discussion about the meanings and practices that surround and support the warped socioeconomical system that differentiates the “able” from the “disabled” in an effort to restrain “otherness.” 

Science fiction as a hybrid genre often melds with horror and fantasy fiction, and against this backdrop the superhero subgenre hails the theme of rebellion and freedom, also addressing trauma and mental illness. For example, superheroes’ superpowers, used for the defense and liberation of humanity, have diverse origins: they can emerge from a consequence of genetic and/or technological enhancement; they might exist at birth, indicating ancestry and kinship ties; or be the result of superheroes’ hybrid nature, commonly composed of organic, machinic, and technological parts. However a superhero may have been empowered, the common denominator is that becoming “super” necessarily involves trauma, physical and mental stress, and causes long-term effects on mental health, such as delusions and post-traumatic stress disorders. Thus, the discussion around superheroes is generative in this context in that it rearticulates not only the debates surrounding the integrity of the body and embodiment but also those that destabilize the meanings of (dis)ability and “superability.” 

Moreover, these debates are part of a larger overarching discussion regarding the idea of posthumanity, expressed by altered or technologically-enhanced bodies and/or composite identities. The posthuman is a concept much critiqued by Afrofuturist scholars and artists who question the validity of the very concept of the human vis-à-vis transatlantic slavery and the construction of the liberal subject propped up against the de-humanization of a “Dark Other.” Scholars have studied the lingering traumas of slavery in terms of the dire consequences for the physical and mental well-being of Indigenous and Afrodiasporic people in the present. Therefore, exploring alternative future narratives in relation of the superhero genre allows for a deep investigation of what we understand as mental illness and disability, and how these can be re-operationalized into technologies of empowerment. New TV series like Marvel’s WandaVison and What If?, for instance, problematize not only the empowerment of female and queer-identifying heroes, but also directly attack the fixed temporality and rational linearity of the white supremacist and patriarchal capitalist system which depends on othering and excluding those who are differently abled in order to thrive. WandaVision’s power residing in its composite identity and the possibility of a female Captain America (What if?) defy the very idea of the singularity of the white/male liberal subject, opening up room for alternative modes of being that celebrate difference.


Julia Peres Guimaraes

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