Netflix's Bodies doesn't need to "fix" its disabled characters
Bodies goes further with its disability representation - and is better for it.
DS Hasan (Amaka Okafor) stumbles upon the body of a mysterious victim, naked and featureless but for an unfamiliar tattoo and an evident gunshot wound to the eye.
Then, an on-screen clock rewinds us to 1941 and 1890, before cutting ahead to a half-dystopian 2053.
As roughly identical findings occur, DI Hillinghead (Kyle Soller) in 1890, DS Whiteman (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) in 1941 and DC Maplewood (Shira Haas) in 2053 discover the same body.
It’s a Doctor Who, Goodnight Sweetheart and Glass Onion hybrid — with more autopsies. It’s pretty, gritty, stylised, squalor.
In these surroundings and through the forlorn and semi-bionic DC Maplewood, the show considers something deeper about disability representation and the reality of being a disabled person - the strain of it, which will resonate with many disabled viewers.
As Maplewood visits her half-brother Alby’s (Edwin Thomas) rundown home to ask for his assistance in secretly identifying the body, we see he is a wheelchair user.
The tension is palpable as she spits, "We were born with this condition, Alby, but we don’t have to live with it." Alby responds with a fierce, "F**k you!" But Maplewood presses, "The grass is greener."
He states plainly, significantly, "I’m not okay with giving up my freedom, just so I can f**king walk!"
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After all, sci-fi and fantasy have a long history of "fixing" disabled people without effort, sanitising the experience.
Here, we see the human reaction up close: Alby’s revulsion and the tension on Maplewood’s face. As disabled people, we’re often told we need to be fixed, to focus all our efforts on that ambition — to destroy ourselves in the process if we must.
One famous example of this urge to "fix" disability in the media is the character of Barbara Gordon, also known as Batgirl, who was paralysed in Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke.
Though unable to walk, Barbara’s character was not defined solely by her disability. Rather, she was given a new identity as Oracle, an adept hacker who assisted superheroes in their missions. She was an influential early example for many disabled readers, including myself – until she was cured.
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Another example from TV is Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who was born blind but later uses devices that allow him to see - a VISOR in the series and the first film, and then, later, ocular prosthetic implants in the last three films and on Picard.
This scene, this fight, and these visceral human reactions are essential to show because there are no effortless solutions, no quick fix and no straightforward resolutions; both characters have skin in the game, but there is no right way to be a disabled person, to respond to the physical and mental stress it puts on our bodies and minds.
Often, TV shows don’t want to explore the darker inner workings of the disabled mind — the conflict, the murkiness, the areas of moral grey.
Through these characters, we see a head-on, honest, bitter, unvarnished back-and-forth.
As a disabled person, do you want to be "fixed"? Does it feel morally right? What parts of yourself are you willing to sacrifice to achieve it?
Alby’s parting shot echoes in the billboards, buzzwords and propaganda surrounding this world, "Where are you walking to, Iris?"
In later scenes, she is questioned by the cult leader of the regime, Commander Mannix (Stephen Graham), about her honest motivation for entering his new world. She seems to work to push it up her throat: "I wanted... to walk."
As disabled individuals, we face a complex dilemma, an internal conflict. Society expects us to aspire to find a cure or solution.
Yet, we are often shamed for expressing this desire — Maplewood isn’t selfish for clinging onto a system that she believes can repair her supposed physical shortcomings. Her desire to be "fixed" is a natural response to feeling broken and incomplete, so she uses the available technology to mend herself.
Later, we see the technology, a SPYNE, as it rattles and whirs away and the marks on her back that connect it to her body. Professor Gabriel Defoe (Tom Mothersdale) asks her when she received her "augmentation" and questions whether the state should offer all its citizens such treatment even if they don’t believe in a "better world". She responds, "I think they choose to be left behind."
After, she is slowly persuaded that they are living in Mannix’s flawed utopia, his "fix". A brittle tension takes over her body as she realises that the new world was built on mass murder and that going back in time to change that means she must sacrifice her tech and ability to walk.
Despite being understandably weary of her personal loss, she returns to 1890 to offer a warning. While there, unable to walk, she is forced to drag herself across dirty ground, imprisoned and repeatedly called a "cr*pple".
That is the abrasive, abusive reality for many disabled people even now — living in a disabled body wears you out and down. We need this honesty on our screens.
The representation of disabilities in Bodies is crucial because it goes beyond the often-sanitised world of science-fiction and technology to recognise that disabled people are not one-dimensional, surface characters to be cured without thought — they are people with their own experiences, desires, hard choices, reactions and limits. People who need to process, understand and define what "fixed" means to them.
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