When Disability Representation Falls Short
Everyone knows that I’m a “Star Wars” buff.
Lately, I’ve been listening to “Star Wars” audiobooks, specifically the Old Republic series. I’d heard some not-so-great things about the first novel, “Revan,” but eventually, my curiosity won out. After all, if there’s one thing “Star Wars” audiobooks have going for them, it’s the performance — from sound effects to triumphant fanfares.
The second book in the series, “Deceived” by Paul S. Kemp, is fun in that it introduces characters and locations from the companion game, “Star Wars: The Old Republic.” I keep going, “Oh, I know this place! I know that person!” It has enriched my relationship with my favorite video game — no small feat, considering that I’ve been playing it on and off since 2013.
Of course, “Deceived” has its flaws. The book follows several characters, including a smuggler named Zeerid. A former trooper, Zeerid resorted to running spice — the “Star Wars” equivalent of narcotics — when his daughter, Arra, was injured in an accident that killed Zeerid’s wife. We learn over the course of the novel that Zeerid has spent the past couple of years working for the Exchange, a gang syndicate, all to buy a hoverchair — the “Star Wars” equivalent of a flying wheelchair — for his daughter.
I wanted to enjoy the disabled representation. I have a soft spot for father-daughter relationships, and I’ve been longing for a character like me — a character with faulty legs, a defective body — in the “Star Wars” universe. But the more I listened, the more uncomfortable I became. Zeerid often reflects on Arra’s situation, lamenting his daughter’s disability. He spends much of his time with Arra wishing she could walk — or, at the very least, have one of those expensive hoverchairs.
Meanwhile, Arra seems perfectly content with her body. We’re not privy to her internal dialogue, but the author suggests that, unlike Zeerid, Arra does not see her condition as tragic, or even something to fix. Her disability is simply a facet of life. In fact, more than anything, Arra wants to spend time with her father, Zeerid, who justifies his absence by putting his pay toward that elusive hoverchair.
At one point, Arra’s caregiver — Zeerid’s sister-in-law — takes him aside. Zeerid has been working tirelessly, and while his determination is commendable, the fact of the matter is that Arra misses her father. She doesn’t care about expensive technology or up-and-coming treatments. All she wants is to be with the person she loves during her formative years.
We eventually realize that Zeerid feels responsible for Arra’s accident. His desire to provide for Arra, while genuine, is tinged with guilt. He wants to buy a hoverchair so he can assuage his conscience. Arra’s disability is a plot point, but more than that, it is something to be fixed — and nothing more.
Zeerid agrees to deliver spice to a besieged world for a considerable amount of credits. He puts the advance toward a hoverchair, and surprises his daughter with it before setting out on the mission. She’s understandably excited, but we can tell that her joy stems from seeing her father for the first time in ages. Zeerid is so intent on “fixing” his daughter that, in so doing, he is slowly ruining their relationship (not to mention saddling Arra with a lifetime of abandonment issues).
This is the kind of representation that hurts more than helps. Disabled girls are seen as tragedies in real life; the last thing I want is for that sense of “worst-case scenario” to bleed into my choice of fiction. Arra can’t walk. Her accident was traumatic for all parties, and rightfully so. But Zeerid can’t see past his own prejudice, while Arra is busy living life to the fullest, hoverchair or no. It’s a narrative that plays out time and again, and frankly, I’m tired of it.
I waited 25 years for disability representation in “Star Wars,” and this is what I get? No thank you.
Here’s my pitch: Scrap Zeerid all together. Arra is grown-up and thriving. Her disability informs, but does not define, her character. While it doesn’t fix her condition, her hoverchair allows her to travel the galaxy. She falls in love, fights the Sith, and convinces her stuffy old dad that faulty legs aren’t actually the end of the world.
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