I recently watched the musical Wicked, and one scene particularly stood out to me as problematic. It tied into a few other problematic representations of disability that I have encountered in literature, film, and television.
In Wicked: The Musical , the main character’s sister, Nessarose, is a wheelchair user. During the performance, she, at various times, sings about deserving sympathy (which is a problematic disability trope itself), but what stood out to me was the fact that the character Boq is convinced to be her boyfriend because he believes that she deserves sympathy and needs extra care. He is portrayed as being tricked into a relationship with him because he feels bad for her. This is a problematic (and frequent) portrayal in general, but the plot of Wicked: The Musical further expands this problematic “relationship by sympathy” narrative by making Nessarose a manipulative character who ends up literally enslaving her boyfriend, and the entire Munchkin kingdom to keep him as her personal servant and caregiver.
Boq is only able to escape his care-giving role when Nessarose is ‘cured’ by being given magical shoes that allow her to walk. At this point, Boq leaves her and tells her that she doesn’t need him now that she is ‘fixed.’
Disability is not only situated as a ‘problem’ to be cured in Wicked: The Musical, but also the disabled character is portrayed as manipulative, using sympathy to control others for her own selfish purposes. This portrayal is not unique, however, and disabled people are often portrayed as manipulating people through sympathy. The trope is exaggerated in the character of Nessarose, making it over-abundant.
There are a few different tropes entwined in the trope that I am calling “Manipulative Sympathy.” First is the trope of disabled people being fundamentally unlovable, which is portrayed through the frequent de-sexualization of disabled people. Second is the portrayal of disabled people only becoming part of a relationship because their partner is sympathetic and is willing to overlook their disability to care for another human being. This trope has played out in the real world where assumptions are frequently made about the partners of disabled people, and it is assumed that they are only in the relationship out of sympathy. I have encountered this in my own life, where my partner is frequently told that he is such a kind and caring person for being in a relationship with a disabled person. I think it is important to note that he is a kind person, but he is not in a relationship with me because of it. My contribution to our relationship is more than an ego boost. When people apply this trope to our relationship, they are assuming that I can’t contribute anything to our relationship—that disabled people can’t contribute anything to their partners. We are positioned exclusively as care-receivers, not as caregivers and our relationships are assumed to be one-sided with us receiving all of the benefits of the relationship and them having to take on all of the burdens.
Care relationships are always complicated and locating the position of caregiving roles and care-receiving roles always requires complex thought and negotiation. Portrayals of the “Manipulative Sympathy” trope lead to the social positioning of disabled people as burdens on society and lead to the assumption that care providers are not getting anything out of their role.
In the case of Wicked: The Musical, the “Manipulative Sympathy” trope meets the “Disabled Villain” trope and are intertwined in complex ways. Nessarose is portrayed as villainous because of her disability. She becomes a dictator over Munckinland because she fears the loss of Boq, who she has manipulated into a relationship. Furthermore, “The Cure” narrative is tied into this villainous role and “The Cure” is portrayed as an escape from the role of care-giver. “The Cure” is problematic for disabled people because it positions us as being not enough by simply being disabled and assumes that we can only live a fulfilling or worthwhile life if we become ‘cured’ and therefore able-bodied. “The Cure” is portrayed as freedom from disability, and in the case of Wicked: The Musical, “The Cure” is portrayed not only as freedom from disability for Nessarose, but also for Boq and all of Munchkinland. After Nessarose is cured, Boq tells her “Oh Nessa… this changes everything. Surely now I’ll matter less to you. You won’t mind my leaving here tonight.”, but Nessarose responds by casting a spell to cause Boq’s heart to shrink. This corresponds to the idea of Boq as being defined by his sympathy for a disabled person—literally his heart—and the loss of his heart through the agency of a disabled woman (Nessarose).
In her review of Wicked: The Musical, Beth Haller points out a further problematic trope “disability equals evil once again, and the ‘punishment’ for disability is death, as when the house falls on Nessaorse and kills her.” (In Disability Studies Quarterly, Vol 24, No 1). She observes that Nessarose embodies the association between disability and malevolence, assuming that the body’s disability represents a deformity of the soul and illustrating that the author decides that the only solution for being disabled is death. Nessarose is killed by a house falling on her. She is not embodying the “tragically crip” trope, but instead her death is portrayed as just punishment for evil that stemmed from her disability.
Tropes of this sort have social implications, and encountering these tropes shape the way that people view the disabled population. Obviously, the portrayal of disabled people as villains is problematic, but beyond that, the portrayal of disabled people as manipulative, and particularly as manipulative of care-givers is dangerous. I was able to see this assumption play out in a care home environment where care-giver PSWs referred to their disabled clients as manipulative in trying to get ‘more out of the system’ and get ‘disability perks’. Disabled people were assumed to be manipulative when they asked for services that met their needs. There are obviously implications of this trope in the portrayal of disabled people in relationships, and, particularly, the assumption that the care-giver is getting nothing out of their relationship and is ‘trapped’ in it. Tropes shape the way that society views disability and therefore the way that we respond to disability. Tropes like the “Manipulative Sympathy” one can lead to lack of access to care.
Derek Newman-Stille is the seven-time Prix Aurora Award winning creator of Speculating Canada. He is completing his PhD at Trent University, researching representations of disability in Canadian speculative fiction. Derek is the editor of the upcoming anthologies: Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From the Margins and We Shall Be Monsters: Frankenstein Two Centuries On. Derek has published in fora like Quill & Quire, The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Misfit Children: An Inquiry into Childhood Belongings, The Playground of Lost Toys, and Accessing the Future.