Introduction Part 2: Key Terms

Stereotypes are “oversimplified images of a person or group.”1 We often rely on stereotypes as behavioral indictors that are engrained in society. They help us anticipate how to interact with the people we encounter in our daily lives. The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”2 In other words, if we allow our presumptions to dominate our perceptions, we reduce people to generalizations. She argues that humanity is built on narratives—we become the stories we tell. Accordingly, the stereotypes in our stories teach us to allow our incomplete assumptions to tell us everything we think we need to know about people; whereas, this actually hinders our capacity to build authentic connections because we never see our neighbors for who they are.

The obsessive avenger is a stereotype that equates disability with evilness or corruptness.3 We run into these stereotypes with characters like Shakespeare’s Richard III or Hook from Peter Pan. Their disfiguration alludes to a manifestation of their inner evilness. We see this broader sentiment played out in horror films or early Hollywood adaptions of the circus “freak show.”4 The problem is that this stereotype not only devalues those who are disabled but places a moral valuation on human diversity, as if a prosthetic hand makes one evil. Certainly, disabled characters might be evil, but these characters are presented as though their disability somehow defines their evilness.

The sweet innocent is a stereotype that presents people with disabilities as objects for pity.5 Characters like Charles Dickens’s Tiny Tim break our heart, but notice how these characters are defined only by their ability. Tiny Tim becomes the tool for our protagonist’s redemption. These characters usually need rescue or help in some way. They often attract the attention of able-bodied characters who take pity on them. But these sweet innocents are always superficial—incapable of morally corrupt behavior—and never achieve depth or real humanness (both good and bad). The suggestion is that knowing their disability is enough for us to know who they are as people. They are reduced to their stereotype.

The noble warrior is a stereotypical disability related to violence.6 These characters become the objectification of nobility. Soldiers’ war wounds become a status for their pride. Their scars make them heroes, like trophies for admiration. The tendency is to romanticize war and its collateral damage by attaching pride to disfiguration. This neglects the serious reality of these conditions. Additionally, these stereotypes are often only associated with physical deformity. We don’t seem to view PTSD or behavioral issues with the same nobility. Instead, somehow these characters become morally righteous for their suffering.

[The intersection here with femininity is noteworthy. Notice how disfigured women are rarely presented with the same nobility. In fact, women with scars are often coded as disabled because it impacts their capacity to be looked at, as if their scar affects their ability to be female.7]

The tragic victim is similar to the sweet innocent in that it recreates those with war-related disability as objects of pity.8 Moreover, these victims are often reduced to symbols of the broader implications of war. Their impact to the narrative is often politicized and almost always superficial. Again, the characters become their disability, or their death becomes the defining moment of their characters.

Introduction Part 3


[1] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, 2nd ed. (West Sussex: Blackwell Pub., 2009), 428.
[2] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story, (TEDGlobal, July 2009).
[3] Benshoff and Griffin, 365.
[4] Ibid., 363.
[5] Ibid., 368.
[6] Ibid., 371.
[7] Ibid., 376.
[8] Ibid., 371.

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