With all the laudatory reviews surrounding the recent release of
Star Wars Part 4 Million and 2 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, I notice a distinct lack of discussion [at least in published reviews] about Chirrut Imwe [Donnie Yen], one of the dudes who joins protagonist Jyn Erso [Felicity Jones] in her attempt to steal plans for the Death Star. Namely, Chirrut is a horrible mishmash of stereotypes.
Chirrut Imwe, according to Lucasfilm President and Rogue One producer Kathleen Kennedy, is a classic “warrior monk.” This in itself is a trite beginning, but it worsens because Chirrut’s not just any warrior monk. He’s a blind warrior monk. The fact that he has no functional vision apparently forms an integral part of his character, as Entertainment Weekly summarizes him as someone who “has used his spirituality to overcome his blindness and become a formidable warrior.” We’ll return to that nasty term overcome later…
I don’t need to see the movie to know that Chirrut Imwe embodies a crapload of romanticized bullshit tropes associated with so many fictional depictions of blind/visually impaired people. Let’s count them, shall we?
1. Visually impaired people can’t see at all. Statistically speaking, this is not true. People who are visually impaired have wide ranges of vision capability and loss; in fact, a WHO stat sheet estimates that 285 million people worldwide have visual impairments, with about 14% of them being blind, or completely without vision. Thus the vast majority of visually impaired people can see to some extent. Vision isn’t a binary trait, though popular culture portrays it as such, and visually impaired people don’t just have their eyeballs switched to OFF.
2. Blind and visually impaired people look weird. Though played by a Hong Kong Chinese person, member of a group in which blue eyes are very uncommon, Chirrut has blue eyes. His blindness is literally written in his eyes, but this is actually not the case for all blind or visually impaired people. Surprisingly, you can’t always tell by looking at someone if they are blind or visually impaired! It’s also noteworthy that Chirrut apparently has no pupils. With lack of pupils commonly used in pop visual media as a visual shorthand for Something is really wrong with this character!, Chirrut’s pupillessness thus makes him seem strange and inhuman.
3. Blind and visually impaired people are, like, so deep, man. The trope of visually impaired person with great spirituality goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece, in which Tiresias, prophet of Apollo, was blinded by Hera when he said that women enjoyed sex more than men. He’s a seer, but he had too much insight, so she took away his vision — get it? People have a longstanding tendency to turn people with visual impairments into figures of speech. Sight is equated with intelligence and competence, while visual impairment and blindness are equated with ignorance and poor judgment. And yet a character’s lack of physical vision is almost always an opportunity to develop some metaphorical [religious, spiritual, prophetic] vision. This trope turns characters with blindness or visual impairments into Important Thematic Symbols, depriving them of opportunities for robust representation.
4. Blind and visually impaired people need to get over their disabilities. Entertainment Weekly, clearly picking up on the messages in the promo materials, describes Chirrut as “us[ing] his spirituality to overcome his blindness,” whatever that means. His disability is shown as a problem, but fortunately he has “spirituality” to cancel out this little obstacle. The world doesn’t work like that, though. People have disabilities and live with disabilities. They don’t do things despite their disabilities; they do things while being disabled. Their disabilities affect their lives, and a blind character who cancels out his disability with his “spirituality” isn’t really a character with a disability at all. He’s a stereotypical superhero whose romanticized depiction of blindness does a dehumanizing disservice to actual blind and visually impaired people.