Disability, Representation, and the X-Men

My favorite thing about the X-Men is that many of them are disabled.

Professor Xavier is one of the first characters most people think of when it comes to disability representation in comics and media, but what draws me to the X-Men is that disability rep doesn’t end with Xavier. The X-Men have a ton of disabled members, including many of the ‘core’ heroes. Xavier, Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, and Jean all have some form of disability. Many of the common team configurations give us a superhero squad where more than half of the heroes are disabled in some way.

Unfortunately, the way these characters and their disabilities are portrayed is often frustrating. Disabilities are handled inconsistently, and the logical coping mechanisms and assistive devices the characters should be using are absent or ignored. The various creative teams behind X-Men comics, movies, and TV shows pass up a lot of opportunities to represent the team’s wide range of disabilities with accuracy and empathy.

Much of the disability rep in X-Men could be improved with only minor adjustments to the characters and storylines, which makes it an excellent case study for how writers in general can improve disability representation in their work. I want to take some time to go through a few of the disabilities X-Men characters have and talk about how they’re portrayed, and how those portrayals could be improved to provide better representation and add depth and detail to the X-Men universe.

Xavier’s Paraplegia

Professor Xavier has “TV Paraplegia,” which is a form of nerve damage that completely paralyzes the legs of people on television without causing chronic pain, muscle spasms, or incontinence. Depending on the version of the X-Men universe he’s in, Xavier either has a spinal cord injury or his legs were crushed. Neither injury is portrayed realistically.

Realism aside, the big problem with Xavier’s TV paraplegia is that while it’s the leading cause of wheelchair use in popular media, the overwhelming majority of people who drive wheelchairs in the real world are not paralysed at all. Those who do have some form of paralysis exist along a broad spectrum of motor function.

The overrepresentation (and misrepresentation) of paraplegia in popular media contributes to the narrative that disability is a binary state: people are either completely paralyzed or they’re not really disabled at all and must be ‘faking.’

Xavier being pushed down a flight of stairs.
In this oft-memed shot from Ultimate X-Men #49, Mesmero throws Xavier down the stairs in a flimsy hospital wheelchair.

The other big issue with how Xavier is portrayed is that as soon as he’s separated from his chair, he’s treated like a rag doll. Villains routinely render him completely helpless by tipping him out of his chair, people pick him up by his collar and shake him, and even his friends will pick him up and carry him without his permission.

This man is one of the most powerful mutants in the world. Even without his powers, he’s still a grown man who can enforce his own boundaries. Thanks to stereotypes about pacifists and disabled people both being helpless, Xavier is occasionally misrepresented as a pacifist. But pacifists don’t fund and train their own paramilitary strike teams, and boxing is a popular form of cardio among wheelchair drivers.

One minor change that would have a big impact on Xavier’s disability rep is to show him enforcing personal boundaries. The X-Men and their students should have excellent manners around interacting with wheelchair drivers and other disabled people, because Xavier would have taught them not to touch or ‘help’ him without asking. And when people do grab him, he should react the way any other X-Man would: by using his words, his powers, or his fists to enforce his personal space.

It would also be nice to see Xavier doing things like dressing and driving himself and transferring into and out of his chair. X-Men stories rarely portray the day-to-day realities of his disability, even as ‘stage business’ in the background of his interactions with others.

If X-Men creators wanted to make a larger change, they could give Xavier an incomplete spinal cord injury rather than complete paralysis, and show him dealing with issues like chronic pain, muscle spasms, and rude strangers glaring at him because if his leg occasionally twitches he must be ‘faking’ his need for a wheelchair.

Wolverine’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Wolverine’s PTSD is conspicuous in the X-Men universe for the lack of acknowledgement that it’s a serious disability. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark deals with PTSD in the aftermath of the Battle of New York. He experiences nightmares, panic attacks, angry outbursts, and hypervigilance, and it’s clear both to other characters and the audience that he’s struggling with mental illness. In the X-Men Cinematic Universe, everyone acts as if Wolverine’s PTSD symptoms are just juvenile personality quirks, even when he startles awake and stabs a student.

Portraying Wolverine’s PTSD primarily through anti-social behavior and violent outbursts is problematic, because it contributes to stigma around PTSD and mental illness more broadly. We rarely see the negative impact his condition has on him personally–instead, he’s the hypermasculine Cool Dude for whom sarcasm and alcohol cure all ills, while the people around him are left to pick up the pieces of his destructive behavior.

Wolverine is a badass and a fan favorite. He presents a huge opportunity to portray PTSD in a nuanced and well-rounded way that humanizes mental illness, without doing any kind of ‘very special episode’ about PTSD. If nothing else, Xavier and other characters should recognize that Wolverine’s outbursts and destruction of property are a problem, especially in a school full of at-risk youth who are trauma survivors themselves.

Storm’s Claustrophobia

Storm’s claustrophobia is another example of a mental illness on the team handled inconsistently. It’s treated more as a plot device than an anxiety disorder, cropping up only when convenient to the storyline and otherwise vanishing. Her panic attacks are immediate and often completely debilitating, and end suddenly when she leaves the confined space, with no lingering effects.

Because anxiety disorders ‘flare up’ and fade for a lot of people in the real world, it can be hard to get past the ‘plot contrivance’ feeling when portraying them in fiction. But having ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ is a regular experience for many disabled people. Our disabilities still affect us on our ‘good days,’ because we’re still aware that a ‘bad day’ could be just around the corner.

It would be nice to have X-Men stories that show Storm managing her anxiety even when she’s not in the middle of a panic attack. Show her recognizing her own stress levels and explicitly using her stress relief activities like meditation and tending her greenhouse to manage her anxiety. X-Men creators could further improve representation here by boning up on the full life cycle of a panic attack, and portraying the wide range of effects panic attacks can have, rather than showing only the most acute symptoms.

Lastly, it’d be nice to see Storm using using anxiety medication and cognitive behavioral therapy to manage her condition, because she could help normalize both.

Cyclops’s Colorblindness

A red-scale view of Jean Grey.
A glimpse of Scott’s monochromatic vision from X-Men: Evolution.

When we see the X-Men universe through Cyclops’s ruby-quartz glasses, everything is in shades of red. Because his powers (and his adaptation to them) cause his colorblindness, his particular condition doesn’t match up to types of colorblindness in the real world. But it’s closest to monochromacy, or ‘complete’ colorblindness.

X-Men stories rarely acknowledge Cyclops’s eyesight, aside from him claiming to have an ‘eye condition’ to excuse wearing sunglasses all the time. As long as he’s not shown actively distinguishing between colors, this is a perfectly serviceable approach. But they could improve disability rep here by showing Cyclops contending with colorblindness in his day-to-day life.

Cyclops’s adaptations to being unable to distinguish different colors would mostly be pretty subtle. He’d rely on high-contrast text and browser extensions when reading. He’d need some kind of system for making sure his clothes didn’t clash. In most versions of X-Men, Scott is a prodigy at billiards, but he’d need to look at the numbers to distinguish the different balls. It’d be nice to see a colorblind-friendly billiards set (with numbers all over the balls) at the X-Mansion, though it may be hard to draw at comic-frame size.

In addition to being unable to distinguish color, however, Cyclops’s glasses should reduce his low-light vision, which gives X-Men stories an opportunity to portray their team leader as a character with low vision. This version of Scott would rely on accessibility features like large print, and would keep the brightness on his screens cranked up. He might still be able to drive and fly the blackbird–because some low vision folks can drive–but he might rely on ‘self-driving’ tech and assistive technology to improve contrast, especially at night.

Cyclops is a particularly good opportunity to improve low-vision rep. Because of the narrative that disability is binary, most blind characters in popular media have no vision at all. Blind characters in heroic roles, like Daredevil, have superpowers that completely compensate for their blindness. Blind people without these compensations are usually stereotyped as helpless. Cyclops, a team leader and a superhero, is in a perfect position to include people who are normally left out of heroic narratives.

Sexual Assault and Trauma Survival

The X-Men run a school for at-risk youth. Many of the kids who come through their doors are orphans or runaways, or are otherwise fleeing abusive situations. Cyclops and Storm both lived on the street before Professor Xavier found them.

In the real world, close to 100% of teenagers who’ve experienced this kind of homelessness are survivors of some form of sexual exploitation or assault. On top of that, many of Xavier’s students have experienced some kind of trauma around their powers manifesting. In many versions of X-Men, Jean’s debilitating fear of her rapidly-expanding phoenix powers closely resemble a panic disorder.

Jean, wrestling with psychic manifestations of her fears.
Jean wrestles with her inner demons on the cover of Ultimate X-Men #71.

Jean’s and Rogue’s fear of their powers is a popular theme in X-Men stories, but we don’t often get stories that show what life would be like in a whole school full of kids who are terrified of accidentally hurting somebody with their powers. It’s likely that mutants would have their very own form of agoraphobia: a fear of panic attacks and loss of control of their powers.

Improving representation around this would involve giving the school the kind of youth safety policy that exists in real schools, and thinking through the logistics of how this kind of policy would be implemented at a school like Xavier’s. All of the school faculty would be trained in mental health first aid, and there would be established practices in place for dealing with student panic attacks and power meltdowns. Everyone in the building would know how to calmly and compassionately respond to a student in distress.

Cyclops and Storm, in particular, would be hyper aware of the traumas their students have experienced, and of behaviors and situations that might trigger stress reactions in child trauma survivors. In addition to following the school’s common-sense youth safety policies about not being alone behind closed doors with students, they’d take extra steps to reassure students who have every reason to distrust adults.

They’d announce themselves when approaching students from behind, maintain wide personal space bubbles, and refrain from initiating physical contact like hugs or touching students without asking. They wouldn’t raise their voice to their kids. Rape jokes aren’t funny and heroes shouldn’t make them, but students would be extra aware of not making rape jokes around Cyclops, because you know that guy keeps a book of detention slips on him at all times and he is not afraid to use it.

Representation Matters

It’s easy to dismiss these issues because the X-Men are superheroes. If we can believe Xavier can read minds, why get hung up on how paralyzed he is? But telling stories that realistically reflect the experiences of disabled people is important–especially in a story that’s rooted in a civil rights allegory.

For fans with disabilities, heroes who reflect our own experiences invite us to the table. It’s a way for X-Men creators to say “these heroes are for you, too.” Even when the characters don’t reflect our experiences exactly (and often they won’t, because disabled people are not a monolith, and the ways we exist in the world are highly varied), researching and portraying disabilities realistically is a way of validating us, and acknowledging the ways that being disabled affects how we live in the world.

Portraying disabilities realistically will benefit X-Men fans without disabilities, too. Disabled people don’t exist to educate the public about disability and disabled characters shouldn’t, either. But just as the sliding doors on Star Trek made sliding doors in the real world feel safe and familiar, disabled characters in media can humanize disability and normalize assistive devices so that people in the real world know how to behave around disabled friends, colleagues, and strangers without needing disabled people to explain it to them directly.

As writers, we don’t have to center our entire stories around disability to fully include disabled people in the narrative. But we should do what many X-Men stories do not: rely on primary sources instead of preconceived notions of how various disabilities work, think through the impact disabilities would have on our characters’ lives, and write disabled characters with the same humanity and empathy we should be bringing to all our characters.

This post was made possible by a donation from Rick Altherr. You can find Rick on twitter at @kc8apf.