Star Wars is, of course, highly covetable science fiction. We’ve got “tales of daring-do” (as Stan Lee would say), awesome anti-heroes, a young person on a hero’s journey, and one of the biggest villains of all time, Darth Vader. But one constant that might escape the ableist point of view is that all of the Star Wars films involve a relationship between the main character(s) and disability. Specifically, one of the central themes of the the film series is how disability comes to define and/or change the character, either taking them further along their hero’s journey or down the path to the Dark Side. The paths Anakin/Darth Vader and Luke take inform how Finn, another character with a disability, will be treated as he develops in the films after The Force Awakens.
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader
Anakin Skywalker’s change into Darth Vader is steeped in a classic film stereotype: defining a villain by their disability. Anakin starts his villain’s journey simply enough; emotionally, his ambitions toward greatness lead him to believe that his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is failing to teach him all there is to becoming a Jedi. Anakin’s distrust of Obi-Wan and the Jedi Order as a whole (which, in fairness, have their part to play in Anakin’s descent by doing nothing to solve the problem of Anakin’s dissatisfaction within the Order) leave Anakin to become easy prey to Emperor Palpatine. Palpatine’s knowledge of the Force allows him to see that Anakin has the potential to become something much greater than what he is, and he decides to use that potential to start the Empire. Not to mention that Anakin believes Palpatine will be able to save Padme from death in childbirth, something Anakin comes to believe the Jedi wouldn’t do (because it’d be an interference with the will of the Force). You’d think with the Jedi being powerful individuals themselves, they’d want to harness all of the power Anakin has for good instead of emotionally leaving him by the wayside, but that’s a topic for a different article, an article that could also compare Anakin to Kylo Ren, who also became a member of the Dark Side due to neglect (in his case, parental neglect).
That by itself has the makings of a great showcase for a hero’s descent into evil (and it would have been great, if the scripts and character development were actually fully realized). But the prequel series decides to ape the original trilogy by having Anakin lose an arm to Count Dooku. Anakin’s first disability is something that defines him both as an able-bodied hero, by taking a sacrifice in order to stop the Evil Sith, and as a disabled villain, a man who will eventually defect from the Order and follow Palpatine.
The loss of his arm leads Anakin to take revenge on Dooku, an act that is taught against by the Order. Anakin cuts off Dooku’s hands and his head, which StarWars.com calls “one of the many turning points for Anakin.” Connecting disability to violence is something that defines the “Disabled Villain” stereotype; because a character isn’t fully able-bodied, the character then becomes angry at the world and decides to take out his or her aggression on others. (It’s also worth mentioning that before and after he loses his hand, Anakin kills the Tuskens and the entire crop of young Jedi trainees, so it’s as if his his inner discord becomes symbolized by his mechanized hand, the thing that takes him out of the “normalized” dynamic and into the space of the “Other.”)
Anakin goes deeper towards his destiny after leaving the Order and siding with Palpatine, who himself becomes disfigured by Mace Windu (after the Order finally put two and two together and realize that Palpatine has been the mastermind the entire time). During his fight with Palpatine, Windu becomes disabled as well—Anakin cuts his hand off, then Palpatine uses his Force electricity to shock Windu out of the window (which strangely has no glass at all). There is a casual quality to the way disability is conflated with evil; two individuals with disabilities are fighting against the “good guy,” who is able-bodied. The theme of inflicting pain on others because of the “evil” disability continues. As Palpatine tells Anakin at some point in the prequels, he must let his hate flow through him.
Media Smarts, ran by Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, backs up this reading of Anakin’s anger and Palpatine’s direction to embrace hate as a consequence of disability. “Throughout history physical disabilities have been used to suggest evil or depravity, such as the image of pirates as having missing hands, eyes and legs. More recently, characters have been portrayed as being driven to crime or revenge by resentment of their disability,” states the site. Media Smarts gives the example of the film Wild Wild West, in which Doctor Loveless has lost his legs. (The site also mentions that the TV version of Doctor Loveless uses another type of disability, dwarfism, to show villainy).
That hate Palpatine carries becomes shown as disfigurement; the hate Anakin carries becomes shown not only as a lost hand, but the loss of all four of his limbs as well as disfigurement. The final battle of the prequel trilogy features Anakin and his once-master Obi-Wan battling it out on an effects-heavy volcano. How they didn’t die just by the fumes and fire is a huge scientific and common-sensical oversight. But the ending of the fight once again conflates evil to disability. Anakin’s transformation into the Darth Vader we know comes after Obi-Wan leaves him for dead in the lava, leaving Palpatine’s droids to piece him back together inside a suit/breathing apparatus. The suit becomes the only thing keeping Anakin alive, but the suit—and Anakin’s disabilities—become symbolic of Anakin’s metamorphosis into a legendary villain. His use of the Force is one thing that struck fear into his underlings, but his classic muffled breathing through his apparatus is what audibly defines him throughout the original series and cements the erroneous relationship between disability and evil for the viewer.
What is interesting is that later on, Vader’s disability makes Vader become a different type of disability stereotype—the Victim.
Media Smarts cites Jenny Morris’ article “A Feminist Perspective” (part of the collection Framed Interrogating Disability in the Media), which examines how disability is used to make the viewer feel pathos with the character. Morris describes it as “…a metaphor…for the message that the non-disabled writer wishes to get across, in the same way that ‘beauty’ is used. In doing this, the writer draws on the prejudice, ignorance and fear that generally exist towards disabled people, knowing that to portray a character with a humped back, with a missing leg, with facial scars, will evoke certain feelings in the reader or audience.” Media Centre cites A Christmas Carol‘s Tiny Tim and The Elephant Man‘s John Merrick as characters whose disabilities are used to garner sympathy, and the moment Luke takes off Darth Vader’s mask during his death scene is also using disability to create sympathy in the viewer. His burned and disfigured face makes him pitiable when Luke finally sees him. Now, he’s not a villain; he’s a man who has finally been redeemed and must be forgiven by Luke and the audience.
Luke’s journey involves disability too, but his tale is laced with yet another stereotype; the “Hero.” Media Centre calls the “Hero” stereotype one involving the character overcoming their disability in order to prove their worth. Stirling Media Research Institute’s Lynne Roper wrote in her article “Disability in Media” that this stereotype is a way for characters to conform to “normal” standards “in a heroic way.” Media Centre uses superheroes like Daredevil (who is blind), Silhouette (who is partially paralyzed) and Oracle (who is a wheelchair user) as examples of the “Hero” stereotype, and Luke adheres to this stereotype as well. Luke is deep into his Jedi training by the time he comes into direct contact with Darth Vader, and his fight with Vader becomes a lynchpin moment for Luke. Vader cuts off his hand and reveals to him that he’s Luke’s father.
There are two choices Luke can make; either he gives into the Dark Side—aka become a disabled villain stereotype—like his father, or he can rise above his father’s expectations of him. Luke chooses the latter, but it’s fascinating how disability is used as means to set up a choice between good and evil in the original series, and how the prequels decide to continue this train of thought.
The theme of disability defining good and evil still endures in The Force Awakens. Towards the end of the film, Finn gets sliced up his spine by Kylo Ren’s lightsaber.
Medically speaking, Finn should have a severe spinal cord injury, most likely rendering him unable to walk or even use his arms. It’s already predestined, by evidence from the other films, that Finn’s disability will propel him even further on the good path (which could include the Jedi path, since the jury is still out on whether he’s Force sensitive).
It’s also clear by all the training John Boyega’s been doing that Finn will be walking in the film. This also ties into another theme of Star Wars: If there is a disability, it must be “normalized.” Anakin goes through excruciating pain as his fake limbs become fused to his body. Luke has a mechanical hand that seems to be linked to his nervous system, just like his father’s. It’s expected that Finn will have a mechanical spine that also has fused to his nervous system, allowing Finn to walk, run, and do other able-bodied functions. In a way, the new appendages not only “normalize” these characters post-injury, but it also suggests to the audience that they are now superhuman to a degree. They can now defy regular expectations and either become a powerful villain or The Chosen One.
Star Wars is a fascinating film series that manages to encompass several themes that are at the root of great science fiction, the main one being that the future features those that accept others regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or disability. But, despite that ideal, the film series still showcases disability in a binary way. Either you’re a once-in-a-lifetime hero or an all-powerful villain if you’re missing a limb. You can probably assume that at some point, Kylo Ren, who wants to live up to his grandfather Darth Vader, will have a missing limb as well at some point in Episode 8. Remember: he still has to complete his training.