Reflecting on the disappointing disability representation in ‘Wicked’

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by Kevin Schaefer |

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Note: This column contains spoilers for the musical “Wicked.” 

A few weeks ago, I saw the award-winning musical “Wicked” with my sister-in-law. I saw the show back in 2012 with my parents in New York City, and I jumped at the chance to buy tickets when I saw it was coming to my area. I can quote most of the soundtrack’s lyrics, and I couldn’t wait to experience the story of the witches of Oz once again.

“Wicked” is a phenomenal addition to “The Wizard of Oz” universe, as it subverts the notions of which characters are considered good and evil in the original tale. The young version of the villainous Wicked Witch of the West is the protagonist of this story, and her origin as an idealistic outcast named Elphaba adds layers of complexity to her character.

Likewise, she has a fascinating relationship and history with Glinda, the “good” witch. The black-and-white rivalry between these characters is reinvented as something more nuanced and rooted in sisterhood.

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What the musical gets wrong about disability

As much as I love this musical, there’s one element that could use not just an update, but a thorough reimagining. It’s something I wasn’t even cognizant of in 2012, as I immersed myself in the sheer spectacle of the Broadway experience.

This time around, I viewed the show from both an entertainment perspective and a reflective lens. Despite the show’s inclusive message and rich characterization, the disability portrayal suffers from many of the same tropes that audiences have seen time and time again.

Elphaba’s sister, Nessarose, is a less powerful witch and a wheelchair user. Like Elphaba, she struggles to fit in with others, and both sisters face social obstacles once they enter school. The first time that audiences see Nessarose, there’s hope for authentic representation. Seeing a physically disabled character in a show that features magic and diversity is great at first. That is, until we see how she’s portrayed.

It begins with other characters taking pity on her, with the song “Dancing Through Life” referring to her as “tragically beautiful.” However, this scene isn’t the most problematic. Nondisabled characters clinging to ableist mindsets are reflective of the real world, and Glinda is the one who utters this phrase.

It’s the second act that solidifies the ableist principles behind Nessarose’s story. After she experiences unrequited love and her sister leaves to start a revolution, she becomes a lonely and bitter bureaucrat. Then, when Elphaba returns to her, Nessarose uses magic and the iconic red slippers to “cure” herself of her disability. Whereas Elphaba’s arc is about coming to embrace the thing that makes her different (her green skin), Nessarose chooses to erase her abnormality.

We’ve seen the “cure mentality” depicted countless times in different forms of media, and it’s a shame that an otherwise brilliant musical weaves this trope into its narrative. Imagine if instead of curing herself, Nessarose used magic to give her wheelchair a massive upgrade. And though she doesn’t find love with the Munchkin Boq (who eventually transforms into the Tin Man), there are dozens of other characters she could have ended up with instead.

I’m disabled and I love stories. I also don’t have any desire to rid myself of my disability, as SMA is an intrinsic part of my identity. With a “Wicked” movie currently in development, perhaps the filmmakers could reexamine Nessarose’s story to reflect true inclusivity. A little authentic representation is not just important, it’s magical.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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