Disability In Star Wars

I am disabled, and I love Star Wars. It’s a series that’s captivated me since childhood, with its space magic, plucky rebels, massive spaceships, tough-as-nails princesses, and striking costumes. Star Wars left an impression that still influences me as a reader and writer today. But loving something this much is no reason not to analyze it. When I first encountered Star Wars, I was too young to know I was disabled. I didn’t have any particular personal reaction to its disabled characters, because I didn’t think of that content as being about me. Coming back to the series as a disabled adult, my perspective is different.

The Star Wars films have quite a few disabled characters, and what’s most interesting is that the films use disability symbolically in very consistent ways. Different disabilities, and different degrees of disability, are coherently used to imply different things about a character’s moral status.

Unfortunately, when it comes to their implications for disabled viewers, most of these things are not great. Losing limbs in Star Wars makes a character less human; disfigurements can mean that the character is not morally human at all. Functional disabilities can be present in heroic characters – but many of those characters are only there to help the abled heroes, and if their disabilities prevent them from fighting, they can be left to die. Finally, mental illness has a clear presence, but is almost never labeled or discussed. Let’s take a deeper look at each of these.

Darth Vader: More machine than man

I adored Darth Vader as a child. Darth Vader is cool. He’s a space wizard, expert pilot, ex-Chosen One, wielder of a fearsome red lightsaber, and one of the most powerful people in the Empire. His costume – the black mask and flared helmet, the blinking lights, the billowing cloak – makes him one of the most recognizable characters in cinema. Even the sound of his breath is iconic.

Darth Vader is cool – and Darth Vader is severely disabled. He’s a quadruple amputee and burn survivor. The limbs underneath those gloves and boots are prosthetics; the suit with its blinking lights includes a complex life-support system. His breath sounds that way because he needs an air pump to breathe.

In a list of famous disabled characters who are powerful, who are cool-looking, who have agency and aren’t afraid to use it, surely Darth Vader comes in near the top. But Vader’s disability is also intensely problematic. Like a long line of other disabled villains – Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Doctor Strangelove, Dr. No, the Phantom of the Opera – Vader’s disability is used in the films to suggest that he is missing some part of his humanity. His assistive devices make him look frightening, even to officers on his own side. When he isn’t wearing them, the camera lingers on his scarred skin, framing it as shameful and eerie. “He’s more machine now than man, twisted and evil,” Obi-Wan Kenobi laments about Vader in Return of the Jedi; he leaves out that he’s the one who cut off Vader’s limbs and left him for dead on a lava planet in the first place.

Vader’s level of disability directly correlates with his fall to the Dark Side, on a kind of sliding scale of amputations. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin Skywalker – Vader’s former self – is still mostly on the side of good. But he’s behaved recklessly, massacred a group of Sand People, and entered an illicit relationship. He loses an arm in the film’s final battle, and the prosthetic with which he embraces Padmé is visibly mechanical. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin falls fully to the Dark Side, becomes a Sith, murders children (among others), and assaults his wife. His fateful battle with Obi-Wan happens immediately afterwards; at its conclusion, he is horribly injured, loses all ties with the other heroes, and is given his mask and suit. His acquiring a disability and his fall to evil are functionally the same.

Luke Skywalker’s flirtation with the Dark Side follows the same sliding scale. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke rushes recklessly into a trap against his teachers’ orders and learns that Darth Vader is his father. He, too, loses an arm. But Luke’s heart was in the right place, and his prosthetic is visually indistinguishable from a human hand. In The Last Jedi, an older Luke betrays his nephew and retreats to the island world of Ahch-To; in this film, his hand has become visibly mechanical like Anakin’s. The hand is a signal that Luke has fallen further from his ideals than before.

At the other end of the sliding scale is General Grievous, a cyborg even more reliant on machine parts than Vader, with only a few biological organs remaining. Grievous is portrayed as wholly inhuman: simply a monster to defeat, without any of Vader’s potential for redemption.

The characters themselves appear to be aware of this sliding scale. In Return of the Jedi, as Palpatine goads Luke to strike his father down, Luke spends a long moment looking down at his gloved prosthetic hand, and at the smoking wires of Vader’s prosthetic arm. He then tosses his lightsaber aside.

“I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” says Luke. Sharing a disability with Vader is a part of what helps Luke remember empathy and mercy. But mainly, it serves as a reminder of how close he came to falling like his father.

Palpatine and Snoke: The disfigured face of evil

While Luke, Vader, and Grievous’s bodies represent loss of humanity, a different disability – facial disfigurement – represents a more insidious evil.

When we meet Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, his wrinkled face isn’t necessarily disfigured; it mostly looks like the face of a very old man. But in Revenge of the Sith, we learn that Palpatine’s face changed markedly during his battle with Mace Windu, when his own Force lightning was turned back against him. Like Vader, Palpatine incurs his disability at the precise moment when his evil is revealed to the heroes. Unlike Vader, Palpatine seems to revel in the change, shouting, “Unlimited power!”

In The Force Awakens, we meet Supreme Leader Snoke, a manipulative tyrant who sees himself as Palpatine’s successor. Snoke is significantly more disfigured than Palpatine, his whole head appearing to be misshapen from an old injury. Like Palpatine, but unlike Vader, he seems not to have any other lasting impairments.

The trope of disfigurement as evil is a problem for disfigured people, who are often treated as morally suspect in real life. And there is very little nuance in how Star Wars uses this one. Vader can be redeemed, but Palpatine and Snoke’s appearances mean only that they are rotten in their souls.

Minor facial scars are given to other shady characters: Anakin in the first half of Revenge of the Sith; Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi; Dryden Vos in Solo. These characters are more human than Palpatine or Snoke, but their scars indicate that they aren’t to be trusted. (Luke incurs facial scars after a fight with a Wampa in The Empire Strikes Back, as a result of the actor being injured in real life; but, while evil characters’ scars are emphasized and made clear, Luke’s are visually minimized.) DJ’s stutter in The Last Jedi serves a similar purpose, marking to viewers that something is off about this morally ambiguous character.

Yoda and Chirrut Imwe: Disabled and holy

Star Wars also has disabled characters on the side of good. Yoda, the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy, is nine hundred years old; he walks with a cane and occasionally rides a hover chair. Yoda heads the Jedi Council, instructs children, and teaches Luke Skywalker to use the Force. Rogue One’s Chirrut Imwe is blind, and is a member of the Guardians of the Whills, a small order of Force worshipers who don’t have the Jedi’s abilities. Imwe attaches himself to a ragtag group of heroes and forms their spiritual core.

This trope of wise disabled holy men is more flattering than disabled villains. It still places disabled characters firmly into a supporting role, centering their ability to help the abled heroes and not their own concerns. It’s an uncomfortable trope for real-life disabled people who are often expected to prioritize helping or inspiring abled people, to be innocent and childlike, or to have special talents that compensate somehow for their impairments.

In Star Wars, holy disability and evil disability are easily distinguished from each other, because they use two separate classes of disability. Yoda and Imwe aren’t amputees or disfigured: they have whole, organic bodies which happen to have lost some functionality. (Imwe’s eyes are visibly different from other characters’ eyes, but it’s a marker of his blindness rather than a disfigurement for disfigurement’s sake.)

This loss of functionality doesn’t stop them from participating in space battles. Imwe fights with a staff and bow, unerringly precise at sensing his opponents’ position. He has the unrealistically excellent hearing of many blind warriors in film, and although he is not a Jedi, he says things about the feel of the Force that suggest he may be Force sensitive. It’s not always clear what is his hearing and what is the Force, but in any case, Imwe’s blindness imposes no real limits on his fighting ability.

Yoda can also fight well. He performs incredible acrobatics in his fights with Count Dooku and Palpatine, flinging himself around the room like a rubber ball. Afterwards, he is exhausted, and his movement becomes effortful again. Although the wild leaping around can look comical, Yoda’s abilities are in some ways less unrealistic than Imwe’s. Like many real disabled people, he can use an emergency burst of energy – augmented by the Force – for physical tasks. But he can’t safely sustain that energy all the time.

Speaking of fighting ability, the other characters we’ve discussed so far have that, too. Despite the extent of Vader’s disability, he has a range of motion similar to that of most abled people; in areas where his motion is slightly limited, he’s adjusted his fighting style to compensate. Once he and Luke have their prosthetics attached, they can sword-fight and do stunts just fine. And it’s lucky for them that they can, because for characters in Star Wars who can’t, the outlook is grim.

Rogue One: Run or die

In our first introduction to Rogue One’s Cassian Andor, he meets a contact named Tivik with an injured arm. They are interrupted by two stormtroopers. Cassian shoots the troopers – raising an alarm – and then shoots Tivik, who cannot climb to safety, before making his escape. This is especially egregious because Tivik had already protested that he was about to leave. It was Cassian who made him stay in the alley where he could not quickly escape. So the first act we see from one of our heroes is to force a disabled ally to remain in an unsafe place, then to kill him because of how unsafe it is.

This is not to suggest that Rogue One’s writers think shooting disabled people is good. Cassian is portrayed as someone morally gray who does terrible things for his cause, and his face suggests that he feels guilty about the shooting. But in the end, he’s meant to be a sympathetic character. Shooting disabled allies is portrayed as unethical, but as the kind of unethical thing that just happens in a war, when warriors are under pressure. It’s also an action apparently without consequence, as no one ever mentions or asks after Tivik again.

The same logic comes into play for Saw Gerrera. Gerrera is a guerrilla leader who shares ideals with the Rebel Alliance, but is more violent in his methods. He is so ruthless and paranoid that his own fears of betrayal nearly end the heroes’ efforts before they begin. On the sliding scale of amputations, Gerrera is somewhere between Luke and Vader. His face is visible, but he has robotic legs and an awkward gait, walking with a heavy cane. He speaks in a wheezing voice and occasionally uses an oxygen mask. While interrogating Bodhi Rook, he reaches for his mask – and takes two breaths that, for a moment, exactly resemble Darth Vader’s. (When he uses the mask in front of Jyn Erso, on friendlier terms, it makes a different sound.) The symbolism is clumsy but clear: Gerrera is both physically and morally compromised, well on his way to becoming the thing he has fought.

Throughout his time onscreen, Gerrera seems willing to stop at nothing to defend his own cause and his Partisans. But when the Death Star is about to destroy Gerrera’s base, he suddenly declares, “I will run no longer.” There is no good reason why a character with Gerrera’s keen and ruthless concern for security would choose not to run from certain death – except, of course, that his legs make running difficult. “Save the Rebellion!” Gerrera calls to the heroes. “Save the dream!” Saving mobility disabled Black men is, apparently, optional.

Obviously, Rogue One is a movie where everyone dies. It’s famous for that. But most of the able-bodied characters – and Imwe, who can fight like one – die heroically, in the final third, fighting a desperate battle to beam the Death Star’s plans to the Rebels. Gerrera and Tivik are discarded as dead weight long before that battle begins.

Mental health: Hidden in plain sight

All the disabilities I’ve mentioned so far are physical. Without robot arms or other obvious visuals, mental illnesses in Star Wars are more difficult to discern. It doesn’t help that no one in this galaxy seems to have a useful vocabulary for mental illness – or, if they do, they don’t use it on-screen.

The least ambiguous depiction of mental illness in Star Wars is a sympathetic one – Rogue One’s Bodhi Rook. Rook encounters a telepathic tentacle creature called a Bor Gullet which, he’s warned, can cause victims to lose their minds. Afterwards, he experiences catatonia and depersonalization and has to be reminded who he is. Rook consistently appears anxious, before and after this incident: wide-eyed, twitchy, stammering. It’s not clear how much of this is an after-effect of the Bor Gullet, how much is an anxiety disorder Rook may have already had, and how much is a normal reaction to how stressful his life has become. Either way, Rook struggles with anxiety while remaining a sympathetic character capable of great courage and cleverness.

Rook’s encounter with the Bor Gullet is the only time when a Star Wars character clearly marks the possibility of mental illness with words. Other mental illnesses are strongly suggested among both heroes and villains, but to analyze them requires headcanon and conjecture.

Here are some of my conjectures: Saw Gerrera, terrified of betrayal even when presented with considerable evidence it isn’t there, is fairly clearly experiencing mental health symptoms. In The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, Finn’s abusive upbringing with the First Order leaves him with great fear and learned helplessness that affect his ability to help the Resistance. Kylo Ren’s uncontrollable outbursts strongly resemble the signs of a mental illness, which neither the heroes nor other villains know what to do with. Luke in The Last Jedi, sulking on Ach-To and waiting to die, seems unambiguously depressed. It’s commonly speculated in fandom that the fussy droid C3PO has an anxiety disorder, and that Obi-Wan has PTSD from the Clone Wars; certainly the Clone Wars series is grim enough to support the latter. Tie-in books indicate that The Last Jedi’s Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo is not neurotypical. I also read Padmé as having a suicidal breakdown at the end of Revenge of the Sith. She has “lost the will to live” as a result of immense and sudden emotional trauma, augmented by post-partum depression – a condition that totally baffles the medical droids, despite its prevalence in real life.

The lack of in-universe vocabulary makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the state of mental illness in Star Wars. It remains a state that isn’t clearly marked, and therefore a state that can be inferred or denied at viewers’ will. Whether you agree with my specific examples or not, mental illness in Star Wars is visible implicitly – hidden in plain sight.

That hiddenness even seems to contribute to some of the problems that Star Wars’ characters encounter. One wonders, for example, what would have happened if the Jedi Order of the prequels had a concept of mental illness or its treatment. Jedi are told to avoid strong emotions, but are never given healthy techniques for processing or regulating these emotions – leaving Force users in mental distress, including Anakin and Kylo, to struggle on their own.

Conclusions

Having to fit this into one essay means I’m only scratching the surface. Star Wars’ animated shows, tie-in books, and Legends canon have their own disabled characters, some of whom subvert the movies’ tropes. (Leia: Princess of Alderaan, for example, has Leia’s very sympathetic adoptive mother using assistive tech to breathe.) But the movies are Star Wars’ core, and are the only portrayal that most casual fans will ever see.

Star Wars gave us one of the most memorable disabled characters ever. But it also consistently uses disability in ways that cause problems. Missing limbs and prosthetics are a shorthand for moral dissolution; disfigurement is a sign of evil. Mental illness is ignored and left untreated. And disabled people on the side of good, if they can’t act able-bodied in an emergency, are left behind to die.

Star Wars can do better. The sequel trilogy and its spinoffs have already greatly improved the movies’ treatment of gender and race. Star Wars can and should improve on a disability axis, too. Its fans are already diverse and often disabled. By including disabled characters whose disabilities aren’t a moral shorthand, future movies could make these fans feel more welcome in this galaxy far, far away.

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