Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2009 | Features

Everyday Heroes

By Shelbi Thomas
A literature course explores the incredible adventures of characters with disabilities—and how their stories help shape our ideas about the good, the bad, and the normal.

As one of the first beautiful days of spring blooms over Iowa City, Lindsey Row-Heyveld's students can think of no better place to be than her classroom. Everyone's present and eager to weigh in on the question currently captivating their hearts and minds: Who's better—Batman or Superman?

As in other literature courses at Iowa, students in "Heroes and Villains: Superpowers and Disabilities" pore over classics ranging from Homer's Iliad to Shakespeare's Richard III. But this class also talks comics. Not critically acclaimed graphic novels such as Maus or Persepolis, but the mainstream superhero adventures that fly off the shelves of the neighborhood comic book store.

A required reading list that includes Ultimate X-Men may seem odd for a class that focuses on disabilities in literature, but Helen Keller and Wolverine have more in common than you think. Both The Miracle Worker and Marvel Comics tell the stories of people who test and stretch their limits, even as they struggle to cope with physical differences that set them apart from the average person.

In The Miracle Worker, a young Keller has to learn to communicate in a world where being blind and deaf isn't the norm. The X-Men, misfit teenagers led by a powerful paraplegic, wield their superpowers for the good of a hostile society. Beast uses his superhuman strength and agility to fight the bad guys—but endures teasing for being "different." Storm, who commands the forces of nature, can't calm a growing public sentiment that people with superpowers need to be "cured."

In Row-Heyveld's class, students look beyond the word balloons, bright colors, and "Bam! Kapow!" action scenes to discover that comic books have led the way in tackling issues about physical impairments that society seems otherwise reluctant to address. Even though the 2005 U.S. Census reports that disabilities affect one out of every five Americans, most elements of mainstream culture have only just begun to give the disabled a multifaceted, authentic voice.

Students in "Heroes and Villains" are ready to listen. The elective, which satisfies the literature general education requirement for non-English majors, filled up nearly as fast as it opened. "The comic book kids came out of the woodwork," jokes graduate teaching assistant Row-Heyveld, 08MA, who describes her students as "enthusiastic" and "bright."

Other undergrads were drawn to the course not by comic books, but by their love of literature. "As a psychology major, [I don't have] a lot of time for reading for pleasure," says Gina Imperial, a senior from Buffalo Grove, Illinois. "This class introduces me to books I enjoy but would never think to read."

That's exactly what Row-Heyveld had in mind for the course, which was designed to encourage critical reading skills. The syllabus covers a wide variety of ground—from medieval werewolf legends to detective stories, from a 17th century John Milton poem to Mark Haddon's 2003 novel about an autistic boy, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Students also recall the fairy tales of their childhood, pondering whether classics such as Snow White, where a handsome prince rescues the title character from a decrepit witch, unwittingly train children to judge a person's character on appearance. They're shocked to learn that of the American Film Institute's Top 100 Villains—a list that includes Darth Vader and Hannibal Lector—nearly half have disabilities. Row-Heyveld suspects this tendency to make villains disabled springs from a deep-seated cultural fear of the unknown that equates different with evil.

"We don't want to teach our children [to be afraid of people who may look different from us], yet we rehearse it as a culture over and over again," she says. "Voldemort [from Harry Potter] can kill you with his mind, which is scary enough. Why does he also have to have a deformed face with no nose that makes him look like a snake?"

The reason may be rooted in physiognomy—the ancient practice of judging a person's character and personality from outward appearance. Students see this theory at work in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Mr. Hyde's unusual looks foreshadow the wickedness in his soul.

That tale is so embedded in our culture that students aren't shocked when the book reveals the two characters are actually one. Still, they are surprised by Mr. Hyde's understated appearance in the original novel compared to the grotesque monster of movie adaptations. Says Imperial, "We want to make the villain different and easy to pick out [by tying morality to appearance], but is that really okay?"

As stories of heroes and villains are told and retold—whether orally, in literature, or through movies—they create a cultural narrative that reinforces how we view the world. Often, these plotlines unfairly define people by their disabilities, limiting their stories to the heroic or tragic. "I want students to learn that disability is something culturally constructed," says Row-Heyveld. "We all have physical impairments, but only certain ones are treated differently and called disabilities."

When a community accepts these differences in ability, some distinctions between the disabled and non-disabled disappear. Large-print books provide sight-impaired readers with the same opportunities as people with perfect vision. Sidewalk curbs create difficulties for people using wheelchairs, but become easier for everyone to maneuver when they are replaced with ramps. Such examples challenge students to think about whether people are impaired not necessarily by their disabilities, but by society's narrow perceptions.

Take Lucy Grealey, 88MFA [deceased], an Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate who suffered agonizing social rejection when jaw cancer distorted her face. "I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I've spent 15 years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else," she writes in Autobiography of a Face, from which the class reads an excerpt. "It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy in my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison."

To explore the idea of what it means to be accepted as normal, the class reads Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, a sci-fi novel that imagines a world where mandatory plastic surgery forces everyone to look the same. Though at first the characters find security in conformity, they soon realize the heavy cost of eliminating diversity from their lives.

Uglies serves as a warning to our culture, which obsesses over making heroes out of the guys or girls next door to the exclusion of those who don't fit that image. Starting with The Iliad and working up to more modern texts, the class witnesses the transformation of heroes from demi-gods into average Joes. Today, Spiderman's appeal lies as much in his all-American alter ego, Peter Parker, as in his heroism.

Spiderman's crime-fighting colleagues, Batman and Superman, arose out of the Great Depression, when Americans turned to superhero adventures to escape from a bleak reality. Fans enjoyed seeing their heroes administer vigilante justice and stand up for what's right, but perhaps the greatest draw was picturing themselves in the shoes of everyday people like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent.

For better or for worse, says Row-Heyveld, we are shaped by such stories. We use them again and again to help understand the world and our place in it. The Lion King—about a hunchbacked uncle who murders his way to the throne—has become this generation's Richard III.

Though Batman, Superman, and other classic characters live in a fantasy world, their extraordinary adventures are packed with real-life lessons. By looking at our heroes and villains' strengths and weaknesses, Row-Heyveld says, we gain "a useful lens for examining and complicating our ideas about life as we experience it—in our bodies."