Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Disability and Comics: How Questionable Content's Faye and Hannelore normalize disability



Spoiler alert, and trigger warning for discussion of trauma and OCD.

Questionable Content is a necessary part of my morning routine. It’s a long-running comic that I’ve taken in with my morning coffee on a daily basis for almost four years now. One of the strongest points of the ongoing, 1600+ installment 7+ year story is author and artist Jeph Jacques’ consistently thoughtful, moving, multifaceted portrayal of people with disabilities. Hannelore’s obsessive-compulsive disorder and Faye’s response to trauma are shown with sensitivity and nuance. It is not a coincidence that these two characters are fan favorites; their disabilities are realistic, present challenges, and act as a single facet of their whole character.

While Marten Reed is the protagonist of QC, assertive, full-figured Faye is probably a better-known and more crucial character to the script. Faye’s depression and treatment (professional or otherwise) are as frequent a part of the story’s twists and turns, and her character as her snark to customers and romantic entanglements. Faye’s depression stems from some really horrible teenage trauma (her father killed herself in front of her) which is developed in one of the comic’s most emotionally charged arcs.

Faye’s trauma has caused her real and ongoing mental pain and trust issues that are validated as real and worthy of attention, care, and consideration. Her need to take time off for treatment is necessary, not some kind of special consideration. She seeks treatment without shame, and she and her friends discuss and make considerations for her needs in a normalized, matter-of-fact way.

She is not the model of self-care at all times: she struggles with alcoholism, though her choices regarding what and how often she drinks are up to her and usually not a matter on which she is judged (except by the other PWD in the cast, Hannelore).

However, Faye was and always has been more than her mental disability: she was the strip’s main female character for three years before her disability was introduced. Her depression influences and emphasizes her snarky, assertive, prickly nature without defining it; it’s a part of her life without being all of it.

Another character that’s become the face, so to speak, of QC, is Hannelore Ellicot-Chatham. Hanners (as she’s called by other characters) is funny, well-developed, and encouraging. She has OCD, and it’s a big part of her life, but it does not stop her from being happy or doing what she wants to do: baking, drumming. Her disability is evident without being tragic or marginalizing. She is a chipper and determined woman with lots of energy; she is a loyal friend (the most highly valued characteristic in the QC universe). She is neither a stereotype nor an inspiration but a woman with disabilities.

Hannelore’s OCD is a visible characteristic from soon after her introduction. Her focus on cleanliness is a little clichéd, but the portrayal is much deeper than “HAY GERMS". She exhibits symptoms of social anxiety and not just obsessive behavior but also intrusive thoughts. Hannelore makes reference to unwanted violent thoughts towards herself and her friends on more than one occasion. But it’s accurately framed as a non-threat, and turned into a joke of which Hannelore is the butt: in one instance, Hannelore makes reference to an intrusive thought in which she pushes her friends into ongoing traffic. While Dora reacts poorly, Marten takes it and runs with it, coming up with funny ways to attack and counter-attack using the context of the Coffee of Doom. She’s a little creepy. But the creepiness is not framed as dangerous or necessarily negative; it’s simply a feature of her personality.

Her OCD is sometimes disabling. There are times when she is unable to function, when she is severely disturbed by a friend’s hygiene or when she looks up the wrong thing on Wikipedia. But it’s also something that she’s shown challenging, fighting, and treating. She offhandedly mentions taking an anxiety reliever after she helps a sick friend. She actively challenges and contradicts her disability by confronting and participating in situations involving potential germs and infection.

Without getting into any superpower crap, Hannelore’s OCD is often positioned as an asset. Her lucrative, fulfilling job involves counting. She learns drums very quickly, describing it as “counting using [her] whole body". Her attention to cleanliness is something she enjoys rather than suffers. It’s also an asset on the social level most crucial to QC. Her cleaning leads to a great friendship with the less-than-clean Marigold, and she helps Faye by referring her to Dr. Corrine.

One commonality between these two characters that I’m slightly troubled by is their shared inability to get romantically involved. Hannelore is not asexual, but she has no desire to get involved in a physical relationship – a bit of a cliché for an OCD character. As mentioned above, Faye’s depression was revealed and given as a reason for her to not date Marten, and she subsequently avoided both Sven and Angus because of it. This is a little troubling because the idea that women with mental disabilities are not suited to relationships is a common and harmful one.

Though this is slightly problematic, it is not monolithic and is, in some ways, constructive. Romantic challenges or lack thereof are a very common theme in QC, mostly recently with the frustrated Marigold. Hannelore’s lack of romantic interest doesn’t define her as an essentially lacking person; she’s just not into lovin’ right now. Avoiding emotional entanglement is framed as self-care for Faye and potential partners; her romantic activity is characterized, basically, by a desire to be as honest and open with her partners as possible: about her feelings from them, her boundaries, and her interests. She is not someone who plays games: she stated right off the batthat she didn't want anything romantic from Marten, and reiterated it, honestly, as a sign of respect and love, when she realized he was in love with her so that he could move on (to one of her best friends, a development she reacted to honestly and maturely). She’s been honest with Angus about her issues and her interest in him. Her upfront, no-bullshit attitude is in many ways a powerful rebuttal to the very commonly enforced assumption that women with mental disabilities are inherently manipulative, inconsiderate, and self-centered in relationships.

Both Faye and Hannelore exhibit some internalized ableism. Hannelore at one point expresses a wish to be “normal", while I find this depiction of a charcter who is by all accounts quite charming and lovely to be problematic, it’s also realistic – people with mental disabilities do have these feelings. But she does this while wearing a shirt saying “I’m OCDelightful!" (a shirt I wish Jacques would make, come on man!) which makes the depiction a little more complex.

My major issue with Questionable Content’s depiction of PWD – and it is a major issue – is the complete lack of folks with physical or evident disabilities. No one uses any kind of mobility aid or has any kind of accessibility issues. This is erasure of a sort, and I’d like to see Jacques expand his portrayal of PWD to those with immediately obvious disabilities.

It would also be nice to see characters in the comic not use ableist language like lame and crazy. I don’t really expect this - it’s about twentysomethings, and that’s how they talk. Still, though, it’d be nice. It would also be nice if Jacques made the site more accessible by linking to transcripts of the comics on Oh No Robot, as he used to. And there are other issues, here and there, and I am sure that other folks will have different and equally valid readings of Jacques’ work. But, speaking as a reader with mental disabilities, the positive and complex framing of disabilities overrides these small objections.

Problems asides, Questionable Content is an excellent example of how writers with disabilities create meaningful and resonant characters with disabilities. Jacques has said in the past of Hannelore:
Hannelore, man, I don't know what the deal with her is. Well, I guess I do, it's just very wordy and complicated. For one thing, she's extremely fun to write. I can get away with just being incredibly cruel to her, but she's got this inner core of hope and resiliency that allows her to bounce back into shape -- she's the Wile E. Coyote of emotional trauma, I guess. I've got obsessive-compulsive disorder myself (nowhere near as bad as her, but enough that it is sometimes a problem) and so I can use some of my own tics and experiences to flesh out her problems.
Hannelore and Faye’s openness about their disability show a lack of shame and normalization that is rarely seen in the portrayal of folks with OCD and depression. Usually, we are just others, just weirdos, just crazy. The acceptance of Hannelore’s aneurotypicality and Faye’s response to trauma contribute to an environment in which disability is not othered, but just another variance in the makeup of personality.

*Note on language: While Hannelore explicitly has OCD, I don’t know if Faye actively identifies herself as a PWMD. But she’s a fictional character, and that is how I, a PWMD, sees her, and I think it’s a valid interpretation. If Jacques does not identify as such, I will change the description of him.

15 comments:

  1. It's funny, but I had never given much thought to QC's having 2 major characters with disabilities. You're right, though--both Faye and Hannelore are likeable, complex characters, who engage actively and openly with their respective mental health issues.
    I haven't kept up with QC lately, but I've had some concerns in the past about Jacques' portrayal of the female characters' interactions with each other. The exchanges of body snark between Dora and Faye really bothered me, although I realize that there's affection between them (and some attraction on Dora's part, at least). Anyway, that's a little off-topic, but thank you for pointing out something that Jacques has done well--I may start reading it again.

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  2. I'm working on subsequent pieces about ladies in QC and bodies in QC, and later race in QC, so I hope you'll check back and tell me what you think! (And pick a moniker - there are a lot of anons out there :)). I think Jacques is a little overpraised for his body diversity - Faye and Marigold are probably overweight (by BMI standards), but not really read as fat. The body snark was problematic, but Faye did reject weight-loss pressure.

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  3. This is a really good post. I've linked to it in a review of Questionable Content on one of my blogs - review not written by me,, I haven't actually read QC - as we didn't really delve into the disability stuff in the post.

    So, you write about feminism, mental health AND comics? 3 of my favourite things, I'm sold! Looking forward to reading more posts.

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  4. Thanks so much, Saranga! I appreciate the kind words and support :)

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  5. oh, i'd thought that maybe a 'links to this post' would display.. in that case may i go into shameless self promotion mode - the review where your link is is here:
    http://paipicks.blogspot.com/2010/02/questionable-content-as-part-of-lgbt.html

    the site is comics reviews for people who don't read comics, with an emphasis on featuring stuff that is progressive and doesn't treat white/cis/able bodied/straight men as the default. sometimes this is easier than others..
    anyway, that's why I thought your post would sit really well with it.

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  6. "This is a little troubling because the idea that women with mental disabilities are not suited to relationships is a common and harmful one."

    That sentence made me sit up and take notice. Because I have never, ever, ever gotten any messages aside from "Be happy (cure all depression and self-esteem issues), THEN get a relationship (no one can love you until you love yourself and/or you cannot love anyone else unless you love yourself first)" because otherwise the relationship is doomed anyway, so I feel like I am a terrible, terrible person for wanting to be loved (allowing someone to enter into a relationship with such a messed up person as myself would be a great disservice to them). This is the first time I have read or heard anything to contradict that, so far as I can recall.

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  7. A fellow Questionable Content fan! Yay! It's one of my favorite webcomics and this is a great post. One of the reasons I like QC is the variance in the cast, which is something pretty rare in anything centered around twenty-somethings and relationships although I think maybe webcomics have a lot more room to do that than traditional media because they don't have to worry about being "picked up".

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  8. Saranga - thanks so much for the link :)

    meerkat - I'm not sure what you're saying. Is it that society doesn't discourage women with mental disabilities from getting into relationships? Or are you saying that of QC?

    Trina - Thanks for stopping by :) Hope you'll be around for my follow-up on how women often fuel the plot in QC!

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  9. Excuse me, but I have a problem with the phrase "he has OCD, and it’s a big part of her life, but it does stop her from being happy or doing what she wants to do: baking, drumming."

    Shouldn't it read "[...]but it does NOT stop her[...]"?

    Save for that, this is a well written article. I like a lot how you write, even if I don't entirely share your point of view sometimes. Keep up the good work.

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  10. This piece begins as a well-reasoned, insightful piece of criticism that I enjoyed reading. You make several interesting points, especially about Hannelore, that, while I do not entirely agree with them, certainly give me something to contemplate.

    That's the good partof the piece. The bad part is your 'wishlist' for Jacques to further (what I presume is) your own agenda by presenting physically disabled characters. A) that is not criticism nor, B) even particularly realistic. I have been on this planet for more than forty years, and I have only had regular contact with a physically disabled person for about two of them. I find it absurd to think a comic which, so far as we know, has covered little more than two years of these characters' lives would have more than the two persons with disabling conditions that it already does. That they are both mental, not physical, can likely be ascribed to simply the roll of the dice (and, possibly, Jacques writing what he knows).

    Probably petty of me, but I was distressed to see what is otherwise very excellent work befuddled in that manner.

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  11. I don't think that, as you put it, 'otherwise excellent work' is being befuddled by RMJ wishing aloud that Jacques included more disabled characters to present some diversity. There's no agenda present, simply a wish for a more diverse reality. Similarly, her first wish was that their language not be so ablist, and considering the location and political background of many of the characters, this being brought up in the comic by at least one character isn't improbable. (For that matter, it would be realistic and perhaps an interesting background joke to portray people acknowledging certain language as ablist while still habitually USING such language.)

    For example, the backstory of Questionable Content is that most if not all of them (it's been a while since I was a regular reader, not for any particular reason) work at the same coffee shop.

    As someone who works retail, regular patrons with physical disabilities are pretty common, and I suspect this is true in food service as well. Similarly, many of my friends with physical disabilities were people I met in school. It wouldn't be difficult to have some recurring characters who are simultaneously not the butt of jokes but not necessarily main cast, either -- just fleshed out real people who aren't just their disability.

    I understand what you're saying about it not being so common to have obviously visually evident disabilities that a group of friends would necessarily hang out with someone who did, but it's also not so uncommon that they should be completely invisible from a strip.

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  12. But nobody says they SHOULD be completely invisible. It's just that, apparently, many of us do not have someone with evident physical disabilities in their circle of friends.

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  13. Peter, see Faye's point about the coffee shop. It's partially that there has not ever been, to my knowledge, a character with disabilities - even just a customer or something.

    I'm not saying that Jacques is doing this purposefully or that I hate his depiction of disability - I really, really, like his depiction of disability. I just think there are areas in which it could get better.

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  14. I've been reading steadily for six years now (oh lord, has it been that long?), and this is one of the best analyses I've read on the disabilities in the comic. Very well thought out and well reasoned! I'm heading over to read your other two articles on QC now. Thanks so much for these!

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  15. Well, you encouraged blogwhoring.....

    Just written my first blog, inspired by this article and the character Hannalore.

    Anyway, here it is:

    http://obsessionscompulsionsandoptimism.blogspot.com/2010/10/questionable-content-my-brightened-mood.html

    Please take a look and feel free to comment and pick it apart. I'd welcome a bit of critisism and discussion.

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