Panel Recap: The Disability Politics of Daredevil
With Daredevil returning for season two this week, let’s revisit our GeekGirlCon panel on the show! I attended a panel with Elsa S. Henry, a feminist scholar and disability rights activist. She also happens to be legally blind and, given that Daredevil is a show with a blind protagonist, she had several misconceptions about vision impairment to clear up.
“You can still like Daredevil, but here is a perspective you might not have had before,” Henry explained to a full room at the start of the session. She began by disproving several presumptions about what it was like to be blind. “Not all blind people use braille. So a lot of what you see isn’t accurate towards a blind person’s life,” she said, with reference to Matt Murdock’s constant use of a braille output device. “Most people use text-speak; you can hear it and don’t need to mess around with machines. When I watch the show, it’s very difficult not to notice things that don’t make any sense.”
One major issue that Henry had with the show is the context that the world and story of Daredevil took place in. “Matt Murdock graduates from Columbia and starts a law firm with his friend. It costs a lot of money to print in braille. How does he have money to print books in braille when he can’t afford to run his practice. Why is he not using new techs available to us?” she queried.
Henry also showed the audience the folding cane that she used, saying that it costs about $45-50 for one. Given how much they cost, she wondered about the state of Matt Murdock’s finances. “Matt Murdock chucks a cane on average twice per episode. So $800 of canes in 2 months, and you’re printing in braille, and you’ve got a super schmancy loft in SoHo?” She also found it puzzling that, given the construction of a cane, he wasn’t using it to his advantage in a way that would reflect how someone who was disabled would actually use it.
“A white cane is stretchy,” Henry said, demonstrating how it opened and folded together. “Here’s a weapon that’s effectively a nunchuck. Why not use your cane to fight people? Where was the adaptability? When you lead a life with a wheelchair or a white cane or as a deaf person, no matter what you do you have to adapt to situations. It doesn’t matter what your disability is. What I often saw in DD you were simply using it as a character trait.”
Therein I think lies the major issue that Henry has with Daredevil. “Disability is not something you can put on and take off like a character. It’s not a superhero mask. For every time Matt Murdock tossed his cane, I felt like he was tossing away part of his personality.”
For someone who has the same disability as Matt Murdock, Henry expressed frustration as to how the character was portrayed. “We don’t have any accurate representations (in the media),” she said. “So when these are the representations that we get, you get a lot of very confused people about what it is like to be disabled. I understand he has extra powers but if you want to have a disabled character you should have him use a cane in the way that disabled people use it.“
Henry did however point out that Daredevil did get some things right. “In one scene in his office the cane leaning against the wall; normally when I have a cane it is either next to me or folded up under the chair within easy reach… But I never throw it.”
One thing that I found out in this panel was that Daredevil actually had a blind consultant for the show, but that they were not brought in for the scriptwriting process. “And you can tell!” Henry says. “When you’re telling a story about people whose story you don’t live, you need to seek them out and ask questions and see what it’s like to live like that. You can have a teaching opportunity—you can have people learn what a blind person looks like and how they navigate the world.”
Finally, Henry brought it back to the convention experience. “Cosplaying as Daredevil takes away some of the reality of being disabled,” she said. “I get comments like, ‘Wow, you move so fast for a blind person’. The perception of disability influences how we see disability in the world around us. For that I feel that it’s important to represent people properly.”
“Because of the way that Daredevil’s powers are portrayed, we don’t get that sense of never taking off the disability. We don’t see him as having a permanent thing. We have some of the emotional response but not the “life lived” impact that I think matters,” she adds. “I want people like me to see themselves in the media that we consume. I don’t want to see myself as a half-formed version. “
Still, Henry holds hope for how Daredevil could develop into a teaching moment that was accurate to the experiences of the disabled. “Historically, Daredevil came out before the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and disability civil rights movement. The ADA turned 25 this year. This also means Matt Murdock would not have been in school while the system would have helped him.” Perhaps, then, he could use his lawyering skills to champion the rights of those who were like him.
“He’s not a great social justice character, but he could be.”