This is the start of a new subseries in the Feminism and Joss Whedon posts, specifically discussing disability on Angel. Why is it its own series? Because there is a lot of disability stuff on Angel to explore and I’d rather do it piece by piece rather than in a single piece or in a double or triple header. There are layers and layers to ponder while looking at how disability is depicted on Angel, and how the show deals with issues like mental illness. When I first started developing a single post discussing the issue, I quickly realised that it was going to turn into a behemouth, so I think that this approach is better and will allow me to really delve into depictions instead of glossing over them while I try to pack them all in.
Today, I’m exploring the depiction in ‘Blind Date’ (Season One, Episode 21). You may want to read Annaham’s ‘Let me tell you all about my disability superpowers‘ first, as it discusses the historic trend of turning disability into a superpower and provides examples of some other cases where disability is depicted as a superpower. There may be any number of reasons to do this; perhaps people think that it humanises people with disabilities, or turns disability tropes on their heads, or maybe they just think it’s a neat plot device and they haven’t even thought about the problematic overtones. Pretty much nothing would surprise me at this point since I think it’s pretty well established that film and television professionals usually don’t devote a lot of thought to how they handle the depiction of disability.
Now, don’t get me wrong. A disabled superhero would be an awesome thing. But the way that superheroes with disabilities usually work is that the disability is the superpower, and not in a good way. It’s all rather frustrating, really, because there are so many superheroing possibilities when it comes to intersections with disabilities. There are so many things we could play with in so many ways and I would really love to see some of those things explored.
‘Blind Date’ provides us with a pretty classic example of this trope. The story revolves around a blind assassin, Vanessa. She’s working for Wolfram and Hart, the evil law firm, and Angel is out to stop her. But this proves to be a challenge, as we learn when we ‘see’ from her point of view; she’s blind, but of course has developed supernatural powers which allow her to see ‘beyond the spectrum,’ identifying moving objects with her supernatural vision.
Thus, being blind isn’t really a disability for her. She uses a cane and wears dark glasses, the television trappings of blindness, but she doesn’t really need to (well, except that the cane is her murder weapon). She actually has rather acute vision. Acute enough to fight off Angel, which is no mean feat, and to be a very effective assassin.
What the blindness does for her is ensure that she’s regarded as innocent. When she is apprehended at the scene of a crime or while fleeing, she shows up in court looking all woeful and is acquitted because, well, she’s blind, how could she be behind the crime? Sure, it’s a little weird that she’s always showing up at the scenes of violent crimes, but such is the luck of the draw.
A nice reinforcement of the helplessness society assumes is common to all blind and visually impaired people. Obviously, if you are blind, you stumble around the world hoping that a nice nondisabled person will help you. Blind and visually impaired folks are incapable of being independent, cannot navigate the world on their own, cannot have jobs. And, of course, could never commit violent crimes because they’re just so helpless.
The blind assassin thing is…well, it’s been done before. I did a search on TV Tropes (I am nobly not linking so that you don’t fall into the black hole like I did), and I found a lot of examples of blind assassins. It’s clearly something that film and television creators find compelling. And I think they find it compelling in the same way that they are mesmerized by things like lady superheroes: Because it’s viewed as a complete reversal of the accepted norm. The blind assassin is an interesting character because she’s blind, yet it’s a superpower! She’s blind, but she’s actually totally badass! And we all know that real blind and visually impaired folks can never, ever, be badass, right?
Is the blind assassin in Angel problematic? Well, it’s certainly not new to use disability as a superpower, and specifically to use blindness as a superpower. Her depiction is not realistic (I don’t see her struggling with trucks parked in front of curb cuts, say, or being frustrated by lack of tactile buttons in elevators, or listening to a book on tape while waiting for a bus), but this is a fantasy television show. Nothing is realistic. For Pete’s sake, the show revolves around a vampire with a soul and I’m complaining about a depiction of disability?
I think that the difference between the unrealism of Vanessa and, say, Angel himself is that Angel is a remarkably human character. He is complex and he has depth and yes, he is unrealistic, but at the same time, he’s very real. He has a personality. Vanessa is reduced to a bit part as a character defined by her disability, her disability is used as a superpower, and we don’t get an impression of what it might be like to be blind from her. Sure, she’s a one off, but they are able to create depth for other one off characters, so it is clearly not impossible. From Angel, we learn about what being human means. About what it means to struggle with love and loss.
Vanessa teaches us that being blind or visually impaired means that you are helpless. And, well, I’m not sure that’s something I want to see reinforced, even in unrealistic fantasy television shows. Perhaps especially in a show like Angel, actually, because Angel really pushes readers to confront their own beliefs, to refute stereotypes, and to explore the very nature of what it means to be alive in this world.