A few weeks ago, I was clicking through a few links and reading about the latest additions to DC comics' spectacular racefail that they're calling Brightest Day
. I'm not reading that, and whatever I'd have to say has been said much better by other people. What did strike me, though, was when the conversation turned to characters with learning impairments and someone brought up Cassandra Cain as possibly maybe autistic. It was a week old comment even then, so I refrained from reviving the comment thread, but it, and other such comments I've seen in the past. is still bugging me, so let's get it out here.
Cassandra Cain is not disabled.
She does not have learning difficulties. She is not autistic. She is a linguistic minority, and that's how her character has been written from the start.
Quick fill-in for those not DC nerds: Cass Cain was the 2nd
* person to call herself Batgirl, and is the nearest thing the Batfamily comes to having a metahuman among their ranks. Cass was raised by her father, the assassin David Cain, in complete social isolation, with no education other than martial arts and no language other than body language – as Batman put it once: "the language of violence", which left Cass fluent in the physical communication the rest of us are only peripherally aware of, able to predict her opponents' moves before they made them, a fighter of near psychic abilities. [For Firefly
fans; she was River Tam three years before Firefly
Cass is a superlative fighter, and because her ability to read bodies gives her an insight into subconscious processes, she is nearly empathic. When she killed her first man at eight years old, she was able to read the pain and fear he went through as he died. Appalled at herself, Cass ran away and leaved by herself on the streets of Gotham until Barbara Gordon found her and she was recruited into the Bat family.
title of 2000-2006 was a fantastic showcase of storytelling, featuring as it did a nearly non-verbal title character and thus requiring the reader to read pictures more than the words. Cassandra and Barbara made an interesting contrast; Cass was friendly, caring, but illiterate and had very limited English vocabulary (and that only after a psychic messed with her head). Babs, on the other hand, is introverted, fiercely defensive of her feelings, and lives in a world of computers and information inaccessible to Cass. Occasionally this disparity led to frustration and conflict; Cass' inability to read, especially, once led Babs to call her 'stupid' out of exasperation, which devastated Batgirl and led her to ask her best friend Stephanie Brown for help.
But here's the thing. Oracle was wrong
. Cass isn't stupid, nor disabled, nor does she have learning difficulties. She couldn't read because English isn't her first language.
Now, I don't want anyone to misinterpret this as someone defending a favourite character from accusations of a stigma I don't wish to be attached to that character. I'm not claiming that associating Cass with any neurological condition is an insult in and of itself, but that it's inaccurate, and that inaccuracy is insulting. I'd freaking love to see a well written character who was not cognitively 'normal'. Aside from Gail Simone's character Savant (who I hope to see again in the new Birds of Prey) DC comics play far too heavily into the land of mental illness = Arkham villain, and I'd love to see that subverted.
But it's important to make this distinction because of what Cassandra Cain does represent. English is not her first language, and the difficulty she has in learning to speak and read it reflects nothing but that. She's not 'disabled' because she can't read English; I can't read Mandarin, because I have never learned to. But I can read a language, because my first language is a verbal language that's built around a vocabulary of words and their meanings and the visual symbols that recognise those words. I can recognise writing when I see it and I understand the concept because I was raised with it.
Which brings me to what Cassandra really represents, and why it's such a big mistake to confuse her experience with that of having a learning difficulty. Because Cassandra's experience – as a lone representative of a physical, non-verbal language in a world where everyone else communicates through speech and writing and words – isn't the sole domain of fiction and can, I think, be seen as analogous to the experience of many people in our, 'real' world.
Disclaimer though: I am not talking about my experience here. I'm not even talking about the experience of anyone who has spoken to me directly about this experience. I am, in effect, taking what I do know, expanding on it, and talking out of my privileged arse. So if anyone wants to tell me that I'm wrong in my interpretation, then please do. I don't speak for anyone..
I think the Cassandra Cain, the second Batgirl, represents someone who signs.
I don't know if anyone involved in her creation had this parallel in mind when they created her, but I don't think that matters, because it's there to be seen and maybe a future writer, if they sidestep the dreadful character assassination she's gone through since One Year Later, could explore.
Cassandra Cain couldn't read – this is the biggest direct analogy to deafness. She couldn't read for the same reasons deaf children find it difficult to read; because she didn't share the spoken language which the written words relate to, and didn't have the linguistic basis for grammar and syntax.
More then that though, is Cass' social development. She's a friendly, loving character (which written right), but often awkward and unsure. I'm assuming this is what prompted someone to compare her to the social aspects of autism, but when you're a linguistic minority in a world which depends on language to communicate, social interaction is hindered. It's not unheard of for deaf children in hearing environments (or hearing children with deaf parents, a whole other linguistic minority) to be misdiagnosed with social disorders because lack of communication delays their social development (Cassandra had an abusive childhood on top of linguistic separation, which also wouldn't help her development.)N.B.:
My lack of references here should be telling – I knew what I wanted to say but couldn't back myself up. Most of my knowledge comes from training sessions as an educator, and I'd rather it be taken as food for thought rather than as read. If you can contribute, comments are especially welcome. I may be completely wrong – the oral tidbits I've picked up may be falsifiable. I might actually be so off the mark as to be insulting, and for that I apologise. So as a sincere request – if you think I'm wrong, tell me
But let's have no more of this “Batgirl is learning impaired / has a mental condition” business, because it's just not backed up with her story.
*Second of three in the Babs-Cass-Steph lineation. I'm excluding Bette Kane (retconned), Helena Bertinelli (temporary, not Bat-sanctioned) and Charlie Gage-Radcliffe (even more temporary, even less Bat-sanctioned). In a comprehensive history, Cass is fourth of six.
This post is also posted at InnerBrat @ Dreamwidth. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.