X-Men and the “Canon Disabled Character” Tag

Rewriting the Media in Our Own Image (Part One)

Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman in Marvel’s X-Men: Days of Future Past

I don’t think I’m alone in this when I say that one of the major reasons I was first drawn to the fandom community was that I just couldn’t find people like me in the books, movies, and TV shows I loved (at least, not without a pretty fast and loose approach to canon). That’s still the case, by and large. Things are improving, certainly, and I don’t mean to knock that. We now have mainstream story lines featuring queer characters who are more than just a coming out story or a two-dimensional portrayal of their sexuality.

And that’s great. Truly. But can we get some g-dang intersectionality, please?

As of this writing, there are almost 1,200 works filed under the “Canon Disabled Character” tag on AO3, of which about half are in the X-Men fandom. Additionally, there are close to 1,000 works under “Ableism” and just under 5,000 in “Disabled Character” and over 7,000 in “Disability.” On top of all that, there are close to 30,000 fics in the “Mental Health Issues” tag.

These stats may seem arbitrary, irrelevant even, but they are hugely important to me. They mean people are invested in these types of stories, that people want to make room for disabled characters to live the rest of their lives. It means there are people like me out there in the vast anonymous sea of the internet, people who are facing down their disabilities every day. And maybe it seems odd to start a series about rewriting media with a discussion of canonically disabled characters, but it’s really not. Like I said in the intro, a lot of progress has been made. I can think of at least four superheroes with disabilities off the top of my head (and that doesn’t even include pre-serum Steve or all the vets in the Avengers who you just know have PTSD).

But “disabled character in a nationally distributed movie” is still a long way off from “disabled character who is portrayed as a whole person living a complete and satisfying life.”

So let’s talk about Doctor Charles Xavier.

In the bulk of the X-Men canon, he’s paralyzed from the waist down. It doesn’t seem to hold him up much and for that, I have to commend the writers at Marvel. But he doesn’t have much of a life outside his school, either; he’s portrayed as essentially sexless and without a lot of meaningful relationships beyond his students. It’s a stark contrast to pre-paralyzation Charles, who flirts terribly, who loves his sister, who cares deeply and obviously for Erik.

What I love most about fanon Charles—after his torrid love affair with Erik, of course—is watching him navigate life with this very prominent disability. Canon compliant, canon divergent, AU, powered, non-powered, I don’t care. I love them all. I cannot get enough of Charles learning to accept himself, his body, Charles giving up his telepathy to walk only to give up his legs for his powers. I want Charles learning to have sex without the use of his legs or even, for the most part, his genitals. I want Charles ashamed of his atrophied leg muscles and Charles flaunting his incredibly fit arms and shoulders. I want Charles angry and depressed and alcoholic; I want Charles perky and chipper and drowning in tea. I want every Charles you can write, because every single facet of Charles is a facet of living with a disability.

Charles gives me hope, and not in the inspiration porn way (ew). I’m a scrawny little cuss and despite everything I’ve done to make my spine function, there are still mornings when my hips and back hurt too much to hold my weight, days when I try to stand and collapse instead.

So, yeah, give me Charles hating his legs and Charles loving his whole body. Give me Erik lecturing Charles about self-acceptance and the utter foolishness of trading the powers of his mind for the powers of his legs. Give me Charles doing everything he can to save the world without once standing up. Give me Charles with friends, with family, with lovers who work with him but don’t condescend or patronize. Give me deaf Clint Barton teaching his friends to sign, post-Valkyrie Steve Rogers having a panic attack because the pool is colder than he’d expected, anorexic Bucky Barnes obstinately working through the food issues stemming from seven decades of protein shakes and nasogastric tubes.

Give me all of these characters dealing with the smallest, most inane details of their lives, because that’s reality. I can’t walk today? Charles can’t walk any day. Just the thought of eating makes me nauseous today? Bucky can’t hardly open the fridge without puking. We all have to make breakfast regardless, and if they can do it, so can I.

About Tobias Alexander (1 Article)
Tobias Alexander came of age during the golden age of Harry Potter slash. His life goals include learning to do one-arm pushups to tide him over until vibranium prosthetics become available. His claim to fame is writing the filthiest Strunk/White slash on all the internet (thanks, xkcd!).

6 Comments on X-Men and the “Canon Disabled Character” Tag

  1. he’s portrayed as essentially sexless and without a lot of meaningful relationships beyond his students. It’s a stark contrast to pre-paralyzation Charles, who flirts terribly, who loves his sister, who cares deeply and obviously for Erik.

    I’m sorry, this just shows a massive lack of canon information about the good prof. There is no other excuse but extremely ageist fan goggles to explain how someone can look at Patrick Stewart’s Xavier and say he doesn’t care deeply and obviously for Erik – their regard and love for each other is without a doubt deeper than anything that comparatively minimally seasoned actors like McAvoy and Fassbender can deliver. Ditto to calling Patrick!Xavier sexless.

    As for meaningful relationships beyond his students – pre-paralysis!Charles’ relationship with Raven is still a relationship with another mutant. It’s simply that as an adult running an extremely successful safe haven for mutants, he tends to absorb any people he starts to build a relationship with, who are inevitably as always, generally mutants, into the school itself, as teachers if he happens to run across them as adults. See: Logan.

  2. Rachel Smith Cobleigh // October 31, 2015 at 5:01 am // Reply

    This is a great article! Yes! Fanfiction can explore so much that mainstream media does not, and do it in ways that are so original and mind-blowing. And I 100% agree with the frustration about disabled characters being treated as sexless. Disabled people are not sexless! In Downton Abbey, the main male romantic lead was paraplegic after an injury he received during WWI, and I was so excited to see how the show would play this very unusual and interesting plot line out…and then, two episodes later, he was magically saved by a falling tea tray and promptly stood up. I was so irritated.

    So for this and many other reasons, I wrote an AU version of Downton Abbey where that same character marries the main female romantic lead before WWI and when he comes back from the war paraplegic, they deal with it together, I explore the topic of his/their sexuality without flinching away in the slightest, and when he does recover (because I do try to stay in line with canon), the recovery is much more medically plausible and takes time and effort.

    The story is here:

  3. I really wish the reason Scott Summers can’t turn off his eye beams was still that he had brain damage from falling out of a plane instead of it just being a mental block.

  4. Tobias Alexander // October 28, 2015 at 11:40 am // Reply

    It’s not hypothetical! Well, there are a whole bunch of excellent Bucky-deals-with-food-issues fics I’ve read, but I was thinking of one in particular when I wrote this. I didn’t want to link it in the article because, uh, it’s a hydratrashmeme fill but it can be found here https://hydratrashmeme.dreamwidth.org/1504.html?thread=1399264 if you don’t mind venturing into the dumpster (this particular story is recovery focused with some non-explicit flashbacks that nevertheless make the extent and horror of the WS’s sexual abuse extremely clear).

  5. This is a great piece and I am behind every word of it. Fandom has so much scope for being a great place for the representation that doesn’t happen in mainstream media and there could *always* be more of it.

    I really want that hypothetical Bucky fic now. I could really use it.

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