Disability on Angel: Electric Boogaloo

We are introduced to her in a schoolyard scene, a young girl wrapped up in bundles of clothing. She is isolated and alone. A small boy drifts over and extends a welcoming hand with a toy. She touches him, longing for human contact, and accidentally kills him with a burst of electricity.

Meet Gwen Raiden, a relatively minor Angel character with a lot to say about disability. When Gwen is initially introduced, she’s a lot like Bethany, another woman who plays a brief but memorable role in the series. Bethany is telekinetic, while Gwen has the ability to manipulate electricity. Both acquire their powers at a young age and don’t know how to control them. Their powers spin out of control and injure or kill people. Both are conventionally attractive. Both are frightened of their powers and aware that their powers frighten others. Both are isolated because of who they are.

In the case of Bethany, it’s Angel who rescues her, showing her how her powers can be harnessed and used; how this acquired and initially unwanted trait is actually a tremendous advantage. Good old Angel, teachin’ the ladies how to use their superpowers for good! Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t intervened, right?

Gwen finds her own way, and along the way, she manages to reinforce a lot of disability stereotypes.

The ability to manipulate electricity is not a disability, but it’s treated a lot like one on Angel, the show that makes disability into a superpower, and superpowers into disabilities. I frame both Gwen and Bethany as disabled because they are, under the social model; they experience barriers to full integration into society because of inherent aspects of their beings that they cannot simply turn off or erase. Gwen is ostracised and feared because of something about her that she didn’t choose and can’t control, an experience that rings true for at least some disabled viewers, as well. This creates isolation, and it leads her to harness her powers for evil; she’s a mercenary for hire and that’s how Angel meets her.

Disability-gone-bad is a trope that comes up a lot. Disabled villains are always villains because of their disabilities, not villains who happen to be disabled. This framing suggests that disability is isolating and enraging (sure, it can be) and that this makes people turn evil (uhm, no). It’s interesting that while this particular narrative about disability suggests that disability can be enraging, it asserts that disability itself is the problem, not, say, obstacles created by society. Wheelchair users are angry because they’re just so bitter about their disabilities! Not because they live in an ableist world where they are routinely prevented from going about their daily tasks.

We only see Gwen achieve happiness when she steals a device that allows her greater control over her superpower and facilitates human contact by allowing her to touch people without accidentally stopping their hearts. What does she do when she obtains this item? Has sex, of course. Because before, she wasn’t able to.

This to me stinks of a cure narrative. Gwen was isolated and broken and angry, and then she found a cure! So now she can have sex and stuff, because we all know that people with disabilities never have sex and live alone, consumed in bitterness and rage. Conveniently, Gwen can take her ‘cure’ on and off as it suits her, living in a dual world where she enjoys all of the advantages and none of the costs. There’s no discussion of the cure itself being a cost and it’s regarded as a bit of neat technology, instead of an object of fear.

Assistive devices in the real world are sometimes treated like ‘cures.’ ‘Well, now that you have a cane, you can walk for days, right?’ Assistive devices don’t cancel out disability. Adaptive technology doesn’t erase disability. Gwen’s simplistic narrative speaks to all kinds of beliefs about disabilities and people with disabilities; that we are all lonely and angry, that we are isolated and don’t have sex, that we would all jump at cures, that cures exist at all, that we are used by the people around us because of our helplessness.

Gwen herself at least breaks out of the norms that happen with a lot of female characters on Angel, where Angel rescues them, they feel all better, and they start fighting for good. She’s a wild card, and she doesn’t allow herself to be confined to any particular end of the good/evil spectrum. Sometimes she helps Angel and the crew, especially when she needs something from them, and sometimes she betrays them.

It’s nice to see a woman with a bit of independent spirit on the show for once, but I dislike the idea that all of Gwen’s evil is rooted in her superpower and the experiences she’s had with it. Angel explores a lot of topics around the idea of redemption and the possibility of making good, and with Gwen, I feel like the show lets us down. She’s ‘too far gone’ to ever be able to be fully good and trustworthy, because she was first isolated, and then used like a tool, because of her abilities.

Why should Gwen trust people? She’s been given no reason to do so. When she was a child, everyone including her own parents avoided and obviously feared her. She was excluded from social spaces and was never given an opportunity to interact with people. When she learned to harness and control her powers (overcoming disability!) as a young adult, she was promptly taken advantage of and used by people who planned to literally discard her when she was done. Gwen, a considerably powerful person who can hold her own against a vampire, is sometimes treated as helpless because of her lack of experience. These are not really things that lend themselves well to trust building.

Why, indeed, should people with disabilities be trusting of the people and the world around us? What evidence have we been given that this trust would be warranted?