Flying faster than a speeding bullet, becoming invisible, and shooting fireballs out of one’s palms. The nature of super heroes is that they do supernatural things. But what really makes for a good super hero and heroines is a healthy dollop of mortality. Which is why the recent re-launch of the comic book series Batgirl was so contentious.
For the past 23 years, Batgirl (the alias of Barbara Gordon), has been paraplegic. But with the recent overhaul of DC Comics—also home to the Superman, Justice League, Watchmen, and Batman franchises—Gordon was miraculously cured of her spinal disability, able to walk around, fight evil, and otherwise kick tail like a conventional comic book heroine.
“Adding insult to injury,” writes Aaron Broverman for New Mobility, a publication serving active wheelchair users, “Gordon had become a beacon of pride for readers with disabilities, thanks to her post-injury identity—Oracle—an enterprising super-hacker relied on by all DC heroes for her intelligence-gathering skills.”
The Batgirl recovery, argues Broverman, is just the latest manifestation of the “miracle cure narrative,” a plot device that ensures a happy ending, but also stigmatizes people with disabilities. Other examples include Colin Craven in The Secret Garden, Clara in Heidi, and, oh, you know, all those folks that Jesus healed. Broverman explains the problematic of this narrative device: “Like these characters, if you’d worked a little harder or gotten a little more fresh air, you’d be cured, too.”
To be fair, DC claims that the company-wide re-launch set the clock back to five years after the inception of the DC comic universe—a convenient bit of timeline rewriting and rejiggering. “[I]n a universe where dead superheroes can come back to life,” cedes Broverman, “[where] aliens are real, time travel is possible and artificial intelligence has advanced past the singularity, it’s actually more unbelievable that this woman has had something so comparatively minor as a spinal cord injury for so long.”