Obligatory spoiler warning for The Dragon Prince. In case you haven’t watched it yet.
I like Netflix’s The Dragon Prince. However, like so many shows aimed at young people, the show has a heart, a moral message it’s trying to convey. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. And I even mostly agree with the points Dragon Prince is trying to get across. However, the trick to telling a moral story is making sure the story you tell conveys the message you intend. Good intentions don’t mean much if they don’t get through to your audience. And unfortunately, The Dragon Prince falls down on this count not once, but twice. These aren’t central to the story or its primary moral message, but they do stand out in contrast to an otherwise well done narrative and wholesome morals, so it bears mentioning.
Let me address a bit of an elephant in the room first. Both of these points revolve around characters who are disabled. In our world disabilities are hindrances that can be overcome with some work and understanding from the people around you. That’s good, and I am glad whenever I see people succeeding in spite of their disabilities. But unfortunately disabilities are just that – a lack of certain abilities. Those shortcomings are real, and need to be made up for. To pretend they don’t is to insult all those in the world who suffer from them and the work they must put in to overcome them.
I am aware that The Dragon Prince exists in a world of magic and the supernatural, and these factors could somehow make up for these physical disabilities. However, not only would that undercut the point of putting these characters in as an example of how disabilities do not prevent full and satisfying lives, the fact is one of these characters is clearly not compensating via magic and the other is using magic that explicitly does not compensate for her disability.
Now I’m not making the point that you can’t put disabled characters in your stories, even in swashbuckling adventure stories. But you can’t simply write those characters like their disabilities don’t exist some or all of the time. And I’m afraid that’s what The Dragon Prince does.
Let’s start with Amaya.
Amaya is the maternal aunt of Callum and Ezran, princes of a human kingdom on the border between humans and the magical races of Xadia. She spends most of her time at a fortress guarding a pass between the kingdom and Xadia. Amaya is also deaf.
Now immediately one might think that Amaya is never written like she’s not deaf. After all, she communicates in sign language and has an interpreter who has to pass on most of what she says, right?
Yes, she conforms to the most basic stereotypes of a deaf person in a world of hearing people. However, it’s the way that she relates to her job that is the sticking point here. Amaya is presented as a formidable fighter, and I suppose in some contexts that’s entirely possible for deaf people. But here’s a secret – hearing is the only human sense that allows us to assess a situation in all directions at once and through obstacles. For a soldier who expects to be in a melee on the battlefield going without hearing is almost worse than going without sight.
In fact, there’s one fight where Amaya is facing an enemy in front of her and a door bursts open behind her and she reacts to the sound. That’s a horrible breach in the established rules of the story, but Amaya can’t be presented as a formidable warrior without it – meaning the writers made a mistake somewhere along the line.
Worse than that is just how useless a battlefield leader who can’t hear is. In medieval times, which The Dragon Prince is clearly modeled on, almost all battlefield communication revolved around loud noises, beginning with yelling and moving up the line rapidly to horns and drums. Without her hearing Amaya cannot hear spoken updates from her troops or pick up on long distance signals via trumpet or drum. And sign language doesn’t seem to be universally understood in Xadia so there’s always the risk she’ll get stuck with soldiers who can’t understand her. Yes, she can read lips and understand reports from anyone that way, assuming they aren’t coming from someone in a full, face covering helmet. Yes, she has an aide who interprets for her and who can hear signals from other parts of the army that aren’t in line of sight. But the fact is, that still leaves her effectiveness dependent of the safety and health of a single soldier, or perhaps a small group of them, that can understand her.
Amaya commands the most important defensive structure in the kingdom. It makes no sense to have the entire chain of command there entirely dependent on a small handful of soldiers who can understand her, and who have to relay any signals from a distance to her. There are a lot of work arounds you could implement for this. Signal flags, for example. But they are all fragile (what if the fortress is attacked at night?) and this is the most important point in the kingdom. You don’t leave weak points in its defense.
I have a lot of thoughts on how the character of Amaya could have been tweaked to leave the essentials in place – deaf woman, aunt to the two children, fearsome fighter – without these problems in play. But that’s not the point I’m getting at. The point is, disabled people sometimes have to face the fact that, while they could do a thing they want to do, they may not fit that role as well as someone who does not have their particular disability. Or the work arounds necessary for them to fill that role will leave them inherently less suited to it than someone else. The Dragon Prince presents all possible considerations that would rightfully present obstacles to Amaya being a general as magically being ignored by the world around her, and that’s a very stupid expectation to offer.
However, while Amaya might set a disabled viewer up for a disappointment that pales in comparison to Ava.
Ava is a wolf who lost a leg to a bear trap. Ava was rescued by a young girl named Ellis who was told by her parents they couldn’t afford keep the animal and if returned to the wild the wolves would shun Ava because she couldn’t keep up with them. Ellis ran away with Ava and climbed the nearby mountain, braving many strange and frightening things to stumble across a “miracle healer” who returned Ava’s leg to normal. Only it turns out the miracle healer did no such thing.
In truth the “healer” was an illusionist who made it appear that Ava had a healthy leg, so people would be more “accepting”. Ava always had only three legs, she just needed the people around her to be comfortable with her in order to get by, so the illusionist obliged her.
This is colossally stupid. It doesn’t make any sense for Ellis’ parents to keep a healthy wolf but not a sickly one – if they couldn’t afford one they certainly couldn’t afford the other. It’s stupid, and worse, destructive, to create the illusion that when a child’s parents say “no” to something because the family cannot afford it it’s actually because the parents are uncomfortable with it. Children negotiate with this premise all the time (I know I did) but it only leads to tension in the family as parents get frustrated with their children’s pestering and the child builds distrust of parents. Not a good message.
Further, Ava carries two people on her back at times, as well as scrambling up rocks and ledges, as if she had two functioning front legs. Let me stress, the illusion created for Ava only looked and felt real – it wasn’t actually there. In which case, Ava acting like a normal wolf is stupid.
But the worst part of this is, it gives disabled children the impression that all they have to do to fit in is act like they aren’t disabled. No matter how much stress and pain this might cause them. Bottle it up. Pretend it’s not there.
Congratulations, Dragon Prince. You’ve contradicted your own point.
Again, disabled people are not less than healthy people, any more than someone with the flu is less than a healthy person. But their disabilities do have fundamental impacts on how they interact with the world. If you’re going to write fiction that includes these people you must. Must. Must. Be true to life in how these shortcomings will impact them, or you’re doing more harm than good. The Dragon Prince tried, but I’m not sure it managed. This time. Hopefully the writers can recover and do better in the future.