By: Emma Flint
When we think of the Star Wars franchise, disabilities don’t typically come to mind. This isn’t because the series has been entirely devoid of disabled representation, but rather because it’s been somewhat limited. Frankly, in a universe that’s rich in lore, disabilities have played a small role.
But Star Wars: The Bad Batch looks set to change this, focusing on a group of disabled characters – and not just associating disabilities with villains and/or as a result of villainous acts.
When we were first introduced to The Bad Batch in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, it was a small storyline that provoked curiosity in discovering more about these characters. Different in behaviour, appearance, and personality, they were regarded as “imperfect” by their clone peers – a commentary that bears a remarkable resemblance to the way in which some beliefs of disabilities still persist today. Yet what makes them different to their peers is part of their strength. It’s what makes them capable of going places the other clones can’t go, as well as carrying out missions others where others would fail.
It would have been easy for their story to end in The Clone Wars, restricted to a limited understanding of disabilities, both in the Star Wars universe and the real world. But instead, this group of characters have been given their own spin-off series. A show which, in a rare move for the franchise, is putting disabled characters at the front and centre of the story.
Although some may argue that disabilities have been included before, it’s been in a capacity that lacks diversity. This doesn’t just refer to the way in which characters are disabled or how they’ve become disabled, but in how they’re perceived. The Bad Batch aren’t inherently bad or good, they’re ambiguous and multifaceted beings rather than being purely good or bad. It’s a change of pace that challenges the common representation seen in many sci-fi universes, in which if you’re good you’re non-disabled and if you’re bad you are.
If we use the examples of Darth Vader and Darth Maul to explore this ideology, it becomes clear that disabilities have often been associated with negativity. Vader lost both his legs and remaining arm in a literal baptism of fire that made him one of the main franchise villains. Then there’s Maul, a villain who was seemingly killed by Obi-Wan, only to reemerge in The Clone Wars disabled, having lost his legs and his mental stability because of that experience. Once again, certain bad guys are given physical markers to show how they’re different from the heroes.
The same kind of negative connotations often continue even when the heroes in a series are disabled. When Kanan Jarrus was attacked by Maul in Star Wars: Rebels, he was permanently blinded. An act of aggression and “evil” resulted in him becoming disabled. The same can be said of Luke Skywalker, who lost his hand while fighting with his father, in a similar way to how Anakin lost one of his hands in the prequels. Time and again, this all too common trope perpetuates the idea that disabled characters are tainted in some way, either because they are the villain or because they’ve been marked by them.
This is where The Bad Batch greatly differs from previous representation: they were “born” disabled. They’re neither good or bad, they’re not a result of abuse, they simply are who they are. Granted, you have the exception of Echo, whose PTSD and cybernetics are a result of Separatist abuse, but for the most part the representation is free of binary good vs evil connotations. Although, it must be said that Echo is an interesting example even within the binary context. He isn’t portrayed as being limited, or that his life has ended because of his disabilities, beliefs which heavily factored into other story arcs, such as Kanan’s.
As someone who’s part of the disabled community, living with mental illness that impacts my daily life, to see a series finally move away from stereotypical tropes towards diverse representation is incredible.
The way in which disabled bodies are deemed “bad” in some way is fuelled and emphasised in negative representations across the media. This is why so many passionately challenge its inaccuracies; such portrayals breed misunderstanding and ignorance. The recent film version of The Witches, for example, faced a backlash in its decision to give the witches limb differences. Not only was this at odds with author Roald Dahl’s description in his original novel, but it also relied upon depicting physical differences as bad.
Of course, to claim Star Wars: The Bad Batch is without any faults would be inaccurate. Media often includes elements that need to be addressed and/or challenged, even when good intentions drive them. Nevertheless, this series still gives us hope that Star Wars is finally diversifying in a way we’ve not previously seen. My hope is that it continues to do this, ensuring that overused tropes are reinvented to better reflect the diversity of society.