Blind Heroics

Rachel: “It would be really weird to have sex with an invisible person.... I guess it wouldn’t be any different from a blind person having sex.”

Jon: “Yeah, Daredevil could date the Invisible Woman and he wouldn’t even notice she’s invisible.” 

In our last post, we talked about the power of invisibility in comics and movies, first touching on some common mechanisms which render a character invisible, and then discussing the obvious benefits of such a power as well as some potential negative consequences. When we initially had the invisibility conversation, we organically segued into the topic of blindness as it manifests with heightened other senses that offset the disadvantage to some degree. What’s more, an invisible opponent loses their relative advantage against a blind hero.

“That would be an interesting crossover - Daredevil vs. the Invisible Man.”

 - Rachel

Daredevil can hear, smell, taste and touch so much better than the average person that it handily makes up for his lack of sight. Being invisible does not give his adversary an advantage in a fight. He already can't see you, and so whatever fighting skill, armament or other physical advantage you have would not make you any more dangerous than a visible adversary with those same capabilities. 

Rachel: “If you were witnessing this altercation, it would look like Daredevil was shadowboxing.” 

Jon: “It would just be Daredevil against some dude...except everyone would think Daredevil was fighting himself.”

Daredevil is probably the most famous blind superhero, especially since the release of the Marvel's three-season series by the same name. Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer who lost his sight as a child in a chemical truck accident, but this loss is offset significantly by the fact that his other four senses are heightened tremendously. He can taste subtle chemical compositions, and even smell them from a distance, read normal print by feeling the ridges of the ink, and hear so well that his surroundings "light up" in a sonar view of the world around him. While he suffers the occasional disadvantage of not being able to identify colors or other features that would only be apparent from light, his other senses - combined with rigorous fitness and training over the years - make him a natural acrobat and superb fighter and lend to his super heroic feats.

Aside from Daredevil, there are a number of other comics and movies which feature blind characters. For an example from a post-apocalyptic action film, we look at The Book of Eli, which initially only hints at the fact that Denzel Washington's titular character might be blind: he constantly wears sunglasses - even indoors - makes little eye contact when speaking, and can read braille. Like Daredevil, Eli has the almost supernatural ability to navigate his hostile environment and fend off multiple attackers in skilled hand-to-hand combat. But, as the plot progresses, the realization that Eli is blind emphasizes the miraculous nature of the spiritual power behind what is driving his mission to bring the Word of God to the people of a dystopian wasteland.

Not every blind character has to be a superhero, even within the realm of comic books. For example, in The Fantastic Four, Ben Grimm - known as "The Thing" after being disfigured by cosmic radiation that gave him his super strength and durability - meets and falls in love with Alicia Masters, a blind woman who doesn't care what he looks like. In one issue of Fantastic Four, she is able to detect the presence of the Invisible Woman (Susan Storm) because she has honed her other senses to compensate for her lack of sight, thus proving to be an unexpected threat to the team of superheroes despite not possessing any superhuman capabilities herself.

As we see in the case of Alicia Masters, blind characters don't always have to be gifted with superpowers in order to contribute to a cause. A really fantastic example of this is the blind balloon seller in one of Rachel’s all-time favorite films, M (Fritz Lang, 1931). SPOILER ALERT!!!! If you haven’t seen this movie, DO NOT read the following paragraph! DROP EVERYTHING and watch it now!!

The particularly fascinating thing about this character’s role in the film is that the entire plot revolves around the whole city - police and criminals, beggars and politicians - mobilizing to find a serial killer who targets young children, and the only way they are able to finally corner him is through the intervention of the blind man, who early on in the film seems to be just a bystander or potentially even a suspect. When he’s ruled out as a suspect, the audience could easily dismiss him as a red herring or a non-player, but instead he ironically holds the key to the murderer’s identity. In addition to being more or less overlooked by the audience and the other characters, the blind man is not seen as a threat to the murderer, who, in the company of his latest victim, lets his guard down. Thinking his identity safe, he whistles his signature tune while winning the child’s trust by buying her a balloon. Ultimately, this will be the killer’s fatal error; the blind man navigates his world and bases his memories of people on his sense of hearing, and thus, when he hears the ominous Grieg melody again, he sets a chain of events in motion that not only leads to the killer’s capture but also saves a young girl’s life. Talk about a hero in disguise!

The examples so far have all dealt with fictional characters who have sensory advantages of some sort, whether they have enhanced senses like Daredevil or just a keener awareness of their normal senses like Alicia Masters or the balloon seller from M. However it is worth noting that there are real-life examples of individuals who compensate for lack of sight in extraordinary ways. According to Science Daily, "[r]esearch has shown that people who are born blind or become blind early in life often have a more nuanced sense of hearing, especially when it comes to musical abilities and tracking moving objects in space." One such example can be found in Daniel Kish, who can emit clicking sounds as he navigates his everyday life in order to learn basic facts about the size, shape and composition of his surroundings. He discusses this ability in a TED Talk, which you can view here.

What do Daredevil, Eli, Alicia, and the elderly balloon vendor have in common? They are all instances of a blind character who is included in a story in order to mislead the audience into discounting their worth. While we didn't begin this post with the intention of problematizing a trope, analyzing the examples led us to question to what extent these stories are empowering and to what extent they could be idealizing a circumstance that genuinely makes life more difficult for the people affected.   

While fictional stories can provide a context in which to introduce assumptions about characters who are blind, juxtaposed with an opportunity for those characters to overcome our expectations and perform heroic acts, when the credits roll, it is important to remember that people in the real world aren't being granted superhuman hearing when their sight is taken, and not everyone is gifted with a divine sixth sense in order to deliver the Word of God to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Superhero franchises these days are bloated, exaggerated and ubiquitous. While they can entertain us, it's often hard to know any more how to relate to them from the perspective of a human being existing in the real world. We can't begin to imagine what it's like to live with blindness in a world designed primarily by and for sighted individuals, and a fictional story isn't going to help us do that, no matter how positive the message is. We have to be mindful of the way in which we consume these narratives.