[Guest Post] How The Owl House Portrays Disability

Spoiler note: this piece has spoilers for The Owl House through the parts of season 2 available on Disney+

The Owl House, two seasons in, has a well-earned reputation for inclusion. The show has made it clear from early on that its themes of not punishing divergence aren’t just glib platitudes intended to make normies feel saintly for letting the weird kid sit at their table. Instead, it treats all of us to a narrative that centers characters who navigate a strange world that doesn’t always suit them in the ways that make the best sense for them. There is a lot of good to be said about the show’s cast: the Latina main character, the queer and nonbinary rep, the older woman mentor, and a truly beloved fat character whose weight is never once remarked on, among others.

It is a breath of fresh air to see that, along with all the rest, there are some solid disability and chronic illness narratives and metaphors in the series as well.

The most prominent is Eda’s curse. When she first talks to Luz and King about being cursed (Episode 4: The Intruder) she openly uses language that can relate to a variety of difficult chronic conditions. She says that, “No one likes having a curse, but if you take the right steps, it’s manageable.” It’s interesting at this point that the curse is stated as the reason for Eda’s identification as The Owl Lady. However,she avoided talking openly about it with either of her charges until they found out during a flare up she couldn’t hide. She openly accepts being The Owl Lady, living in the titular Owl House, and with an owl palisman of her own design and craft. But the curse is still a vulnerability that she doesn’t bring up if she doesn’t have to.

We see how the curse affects Eda’s life in various ways as the story progresses, from tough situations that arise from running out of her elixir medication, to a flashback where it interferes with a potential relationship. It’s very clear that her life is shaped by it, and the way that she identifies with the curse, and with being The Owl Lady, takes a turn towards integration in season two. She never says that she’s not defined by her curse. The idea of not letting oneself be defined by a disability is a common platitude and praise, so it’s a notable omission where Eda’s curse is narratively treated as a disability. She is, in part, defined by it. That definition itself isn’t shown to be a problem at all, it’s just part of the reality of who she is.

In season two, the metaphor of chronic illness around Eda’s curse becomes even more explicit.

Season 2, Episode 4: Keeping up A-fear-ances, is very much a chronic illness episode, and one that focuses on the potential for misguided caretakers to do more harm than good. This episode introduces Eda’s mother Gwendolyn, a figure that many people who grew up with a chronic illness, (or even just interact with chronic illness communities,) may recognize. Like many parents who discover their children are ill or disabled, Gwendolyn reacts to Eda’s curse by taking on a warrior role-that is, she chooses to show her care and dedication for her child by treating the condition as a separate enemy to be vanquished by any means necessary in order to save Eda, or get her normal child back.

In the establishing flashback, we see the strain this puts on her relationship with Eda immediately. Eda overhears the way her mother speaks about her curse, is frightened by it, and runs away. We aren’t told a lot about their relationship in the intervening years, except that Gwendolyn tries to visit frequently, and always with some new and useless cure that Eda avoids. Gwendolyn makes her whole identity and her entire relationship with Eda about being a  hero parent who will find a cure, even going so far as to join a specific coven—a serious commitment in this world—in search of answers.

Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that Gwendolyn is being scammed and manipulated by a quack healer who has been taking advantage of her concern for her child, and promising secret knowledge beyond what she’s been able to find in the witches’ version of a standard medical system. It takes a cartoon’s standard of wacky events for her to realize that the source she should have been listening to the whole time was her own daughter, the one who actually experiences and lives with the condition.

We see Eda’s relationship with her mother contrasted with her sister Lilith’s. While Gwendolyn defines her entire relationship with Eda around fighting the curse, her relationship with Lilith seems to be largely negligent. Lilith was the child who didn’t need a warrior mom’s attention, and so she seems to have gotten no attention at all, to the point that Gwendolyn didn’t realize that Lilith was the one who placed the curse in the first place, or that she was now affected by it as well. Gwendolyn didn’t know how to interact with either of her daughters outside of the context of fighting the curse, and never had a relationship with the whole people that they were. At the end of the episode, we are offered some hope that her relationship with each of her daughters can heal, and become more genuine and personal, once she stops trying to fight against a part of who Eda is.

Taking on this narrative was a bold choice for The Owl House. The presence and influence of illness-warrior parents and “cure” industries that rely and prey on them is a sticky topic to tackle. The show does a good job of portraying Gwendolyn as a strong and sympathetic character without shying away from the serious and harmful mistakes in her approach that hurt Eda, distanced Gwendolyn from having a real relationship with either of her daughters, and made her a mark for quack scammers. Hopefully, the more people are aware of this potential dynamic, the fewer will fall into that trap in real life.

Another disability parallel we get in the Owl House regards Luz herself. The show talks a lot about how she sees the world and does things differently, even back home, which lends itself to interpreting the character as neurodivergent in some way, but that’s not the only place where disability comes into Luz’s narratives. Because her body is different from those of the witchlings, lacking a magical bile sack, she lacks the ability to access the magic of the islands the same way they do. She has to develop and practice her own way, using different tools, and with different kinds of study and preparation.

This strongly parallels the way that a variety of real disabilities work and affect people’s lives. Sometimes a disability isn’t known or recognized until the person is put in a context where it suddenly matters. Luz isn’t disabled this way among humans, where no one does magic. Sometimes disabilities are relative, and are only really disabilities when it’s expected that everyone operates on a standard that doesn’t work for an individual. Some disabilities are literally less disabling when the person figures out or is given or allowed accommodations for the ways they do things. (It is not the only model that is useful or necessary to understand disability, but the social model of disability describes these aspects.)

When someone has the space and the support to do things their own way, they can help others, too. In season two, when Eda and Lilith both have their powers stripped away by the curse—a further disabling event—Luz is able to share what she’s learned with them so they still have access to magic. She even shares some of her glyphs with her fully-magical friend Gus in one episode, to expand what he could do.

If you’ve ever heard of the curb cut effect, it’s pretty common that accommodations made for disabled people end up benefiting a lot more people than just them. It’s also fairly true to life that disabled people can be each other’s best resources for finding support and methods of accommodation.

The show never outright names anything it addresses as disability, but it does seem like the writers have been mindful about that aspect of human diversity. With all of the various creatures and body differences in the world of The Boiling Isles, it makes sense that disability would look a bit different there too. It’s a surprise to the viewer to learn that the creature on Principal Bump’s head is not just his palisman, but also functions as an aid for an unspecified vision disability.

With that said, it would be nice to see more explicit and recognizable examples of real life disabilities and body and mobility differences represented. If any show can do it well, this one has a good chance. Hopefully, the mindful writing of The Owl House continues to expand its picture of all the different ways that people can be.

Bio: Rune is a bi, nonbinary, disabled autistic who enjoys a wide variety of media and loves seeing when kids’ fare does better than what we got in the 80’s and 90’s. Manages to be a queer weirdo in spite of being happily married with children. (With love to my queer weirdo spouse!) Passionate about the narratives that shape us and introduce us to each other, and seeking positive justice for all people. On Twitter @runicrhyme


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