Looking Back at Notable Characters with a Conspicuous Disability

This here blog ain’t been the home of listicles and rankings for quite some time (okay yes I listed my top ten films of the 2010s but the point still stands (and I have to amend that list because Parasite and maybe Portrait of a Lady on Fire should both be on there now that I’ve seen them but I don’t know what to kick (but this blog is still the home of annoying multi-layered parentheses))), which sports blogging lends itself to more than writing about a dying dog, Charles Dickens, racism, or, like, smoking pipes and thinking about the meaning of life.

But I’m going to dive back into that genre after a fashion today by rating/ranking the very standard topic of *checks notes* one-handed science-fiction and fantasy characters on the page and the screen.

Certain physical features become essential to the depiction of many iconic characters, perhaps especially when that feature fundamentally affects what that character does or is capable of doing. Oftentimes, this feature comes in the form of a missing/prosthetic hand or arm. It’s not surprising that these characters would leave their mark on viewers and readers; you do a lot of life with hands, and having less than a pair makes some of the most basic tasks exponentially more challenging. We absent-mindedly wave them at people we don’t know, assuming they have a hand to wave back, which can be very dangerous. In short, we know losing a hand would be a major bummer, and so seeing a character contend with that – and even conquer it – is inspiring on a level that is basic but no less affecting.

One-handed characters are worth talking about together beyond basic criteria for putting together a ranking or list. Representation matters, and while gender, race, and sexual orientation are discussed with some frequency, ableism is easy to overlook and characters with disabilities are grossly underrepresented. And, too often, the representations that do exist are not positive. Joe Parlock reviewed last decade’s mixed bag of disability representation in video games for Polygon, if you’re interested. This rating/ranking is not an assessment of how positive each character is, but the extent to which the disability makes some sort of meaningful impact on the character will be taken into account.

So, each character will be given a score of 1-10 based on five questions, some of which are slightly problematic so I’ll hope you’ll let me preface them:

  1. Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?
    Oh boy, off to a rocky start. Let’s not minimize the trauma of losing a hand, but let’s acknowledge that if it’s going to happen, some ways are better than others. Getting your hand chopped off in an honor-bound duel is way cooler than putting a cleaver through your wrist while you’re out here dicing meats[1].
  2. Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?
    Let’s not fetishize or objectify or criticize a character because their replacement limb wasn’t infused with vibranium, but we’re dealing with sci-fi and fantasy, so if the prosthetic is merely a prosethetic, well, dream a little bigger darling.
  3. How did the loss of the hand change the character?
    Everyone responds to trauma in their own way, but it’s worth more points to come out on the other side better[2].
  4. Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?
    In other words, is the choice to maim a character doing something worthwhile, and thus depicting the disability in a thoughtful, useful way?
  5. How great is this character?
    Let’s just give some points for how overall great this character is. Just gotta make sure some punk character doesn’t win just because they lost their hand in a cool way, have a chic prosthetic, and became super powerful.

Alright, let’s begin! (SPOILERS)

Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)

Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?

The duel between Luke and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back is, to many, the best lightsaber fight in the Star Wars films, and Vader is arguably the best movie villain ever, so from a meta sense, yes this is a very cool way. But even in-universe, it’s not bad, even though it meant Luke lost by TKO. He’d been holding his own, having just scored a hit on Vader’s arm, when Vader, like dads playing hoops in the driveway with their kids all across the wolrd, decides play-time’s over and uses some fencing finesse to get the opening he needs, and Luke’s weapon (and hand) go flipping off screen and into the chasm below. Score: 7

Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?

Luke’s prosthetic hand is lame. It looks and works just like a regular old human hand. Now, that’s kinda the ideal for a prosthetic in our world, but this is a galaxy far far away. True, the medical droids have been known to use weird space diapers and shrugged off medically undiagnosable deaths, but come on Luke, ask for something a little better. Score: 2

How did the loss of the hand change the character?

He comes back more mature, wise, and powerful. The loss of his hand is a physical reminder of his fateful encounter with his father, so much so that when he cuts off Vader’s own mechanical hand in the rematch, the sight moves him to let go of his anger and refuse the Emperor. Score: 7

Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?

The loss of the hand is a reminder for Luke, but in a practical sense it doesn’t change his life much going forward because the prosthetic is so effective. Maybe this is just me, but I sometimes “forget” Luke has one hand, even though the scene in which he loses the hand basically formed the baseline for me as a child for what someone in agony looks like. Score: 3

How great is this character?

His depiction in Last Jedi complicated the perception of the character who was once the Jedi, and that perception is already complicated because in the films he is sometimes whiny and is overshadowed by Han and so much of the cool stuff he does is outside the films. But he’s the hero of arguably one of the most important mythologies ever, so he’s going to score well. Score: 7

Total: 26

Anakin Skywalker (Star Wars)

Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?

For the purposes of this list, we’re focusing on Anakin until he becomes a quadruple amputee[3]. He loses his first hand dueling Count Dooku, and the answer to this questions is no. No it was not cool how he rushed in and got force lightning’d, then got back into the fight and eventually got his arm chopped off by a really basic move. This happens a few minutes after Jango Fett gets decapitated. This a movie for children rated PG. Score: 2

Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?

Anakin’s prosthetic is a visibly bionic appendage, as revealed in what is I guess a nice little moment in the secret wedding. He wears a glove over it most of the time and it doesn’t appear to help or hinder him. Score: 3

How did the loss of the hand change the character?

It didn’t. He holds off on mass-murders for a little while, but returns to his old ways and eventually betrays and destroys the Jedi Order. Score: 1

Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?

Again, I kind of forget that there was a good long while when Anakin Skywalker had one hand. Probably has something to do with the longer while he had no hands or feet. Score: 1

How great is this character?

I’m not taking Darth Vader into account, and the Anakin of the prequel films just never quite gets it across the goal line. Compelling ingredients are there, and Clone Wars Anakin is pretty great, but it’s tough to buy him as a hero because, again, he’s a mass murderer. Score: 5

Total: 12

Kreia (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II)

Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?

Kreia is notable for being exiled from both the Jedi and Sith orders. She loses her hand when her former Sith apprentice, Darth Sion, cuts it off in a duel. Near the end of her life, her other hand is cut off, and she responds by just wielding three lightsabers at once using Force telekinesis. Pretty solid overall. Score: 7

Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?

She did not, but, again, she can wield three lightsabers at once using Force telekinesis. Tell me which you prefer. Score: 8

How did the loss of the hand change the character?

Kreia’s character goes through some major changes, but these are not linked to her loss of a hand. Points for remaining a deadly adversary anyway. Score: 6

Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?

She is significant for being a female character with this disability, and that is worth something, as is the extent to which her depiction as a one-handed, blind old woman lulls the player of KOTOR II into underestimating her. Score: 8

How great is this character?

Kreia is one of the best Star Wars video game characters. KOTOR is possibly the best Star Wars game with many of the best characters, and while KOTOR II is not quite as well written, Kreia belongs right with any of the game franchise’s best characters. Score: 8

Score: 37

Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?

George Miller revealed that Furiosa lost her hand in a “hardcore battle.” That’s a pretty cool way for a warrior to lose a hand, but we’re missing a lot of information. Score: 4

Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?

She does, and her metal arm is perfect. You could sit around all day trying to come up with a better prosthetic for the Mad Max universe and not come up with one. Score: 9

How did the loss of the hand change the character?

It’s tough to say, not knowing what Furiosa was like before the film, but in this case I’m giving points for a lack of change; she has a metal arm in a world where you gotta be shooting guns and driving cars and blowing stuff up and doesn’t miss a beat. Score: 8

Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?

Furiosa became instantly iconic as a female action hero and in joining that select group, she is also one of the very few examples of a female character in sci-fi and fantasy with a disability. It makes some sense that various creators would shy away from maiming a female character, but the result is a lack of representation. And, in this case, the violence done to Furiosa’s body doesn’t reinforce women as subjugated or the objects of male violence. She has, of course, been the object of male violence, but she competes in the arena of violent men and asserts her agency. Score: 9

How great is this character?

Again, Furiosa became an instant icon. She might be the best part of what is probably the best action film of the last decade. She is as great as any female action hero since Ripley in Alien[4]. She’s great. Score: 9

Total: 39

Jaime Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones)

Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?

Jaime tells a convincing lie to stop the Bolton hunters from raping Brienne, and then he talks a little too much like a rich kid to Locke, who then chops his hand off like it’s a beef shank. He stares at it in shock and screams, and then it cuts to credits played over by a rock cover of “Bear and the Maiden Fair.” I think it all evens out to a fine score. Score: 8

Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?

Jaime’s gold hand is very stylish, and, considering it’s worth more than most people in Westeros will ever own, quite a flex. But it’s not – as he acknowledges – practical, and Bronn even smacks him in the face with it during a training session. It doesn’t exactly instill fear so much as it reminds everyone he’s not the fighter he used to be. Score: 5

How did the loss of the hand change the character?

In the first episode of Game of Thrones, Jaime has sex with his sister and pushes a child out a window. By the late seasons, Jaime is a character we’re legitimately rooting for who does a lot of brave and noble things. So he changed a lot, you could say, and losing his hand is the key turn in his journey. It also fundamentally changes his role in the world and the way people see him, as he goes from being arguably the best fighter in Westeros to a legitimate liability in combat. The showrunners really made a mess of his character in the second half of the final season that undermined much of his development, but I’m hoping George has something better in mind. The only reason he doesn’t get a perfect score here is that the next character on this list actually gets better at fighting after losing their sword hand. Score: 9

Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?

See the above answer. Score: 10

How great is this character?

Again, Jaime is one of the greatest achievements in character-building history. I knock him down one point because what we have for the time being as canon ended in a mess. Score: 9

Total: 41

Maedhros (The Silmarillion)

Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?

After being captured by Morgoth, Maedhros is chained by the wrist high up on a cliff face. His cousin and close friend, Fingon, faces the danger to save him, having to cut Maedhros’ hand at the wrist to free him, and the two are flown to safety by the eagle Thorondor. This is a famous story from the Elder Days, and while Fingon is the hero of it, it’s a good story for Maedhros, too. Score: 7

Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?

No. There aren’t prosthetics in the Tolkien legendarium. But Maedhros learns to wield his sword with his other hand and becomes even more deadly. I’m not going to penalize him for that. Score: 7

How did the loss of the hand change the character?

On top of the increased skill with a sword and an enhanced personal feud with the enemy of the world, Maedhros distinguishes himself as the best of the sons of Fëanor. He had already showed signs of being more temperate and compassionate than his father and brothers, but after losing his hand he cedes kingship of the Noldor to Fingolfin in recognition of Fingon’s rescue and he serves his people tirelessly as a valiant general and a skilled diplomat. His rash oath eventually leads him to commit violent, unjust acts even as he maintains a good heart, making him one of the most complex characters from the Elder Days. Score: 8

Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?

It’s a significant part of his character, but ultimately after he loses his hand Maedhros’ character would essentially operate the same way as if he had both his hands. Score: 3

How great is this character?

Just another shout-out to the people who think all of Tolkien’s characters are either good or bad. You’ve obviously not read him. Maedhros is one of the great tragic figures in mythology. Score: 9

Score: 34

Beren (The Silmarillion)

Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?

Beren and Lúthien are escaping Thangorodrim after the greatest deed of the Elder Days (stealing back a Silmaril) when they run into Carcharoth, a wolf bred by Morgoth for the specific purpose of being the most terrifying wolf in creation. Beren steps to defend Lúthien, bearing the Silmaril aloft, and Carcharoth bites off his hand, Silmaril and all. The pain of the burning jewel sends Carcharoth on an anguished rampage. I’m not sure it gets cooler than that. Score: 10

Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?

Again, no prosthetics in this universe. However, he does take on the moniker “Erchamion,” which means “One-Hand,” which is cool. He also makes his dramatic reveal to Thingol about the fate of the Silmaril when he holds up his arm to show his missing (but not empty) hand. When the Silmaril is retrieved from the carcass of Carcharoth, Beren’s hand is intact, still holding the jewel. Score: 8

How did the loss of the hand change the character?

It gave Beren a new name, but he’s much the same before and after. He still goes with the elite squad to hunt down Carcharoth, and there’s much to be said for that. Points for steadfastness. Score: 7

Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?

Similar to Maedhros. Score: 3

How great is this character?

Beren is great, and if anything he’s too great. He’s a paragon of virtue and bravery and is at the heart of one of the great tales of the Elder Days. And, all that being said, I think Lúthien is still out of his league? Score: 8

Total: 36

Bucky Barnes (Marvel Cinematic Universe)[5]

Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?

Bucky falls from a train into a river during a mission. He loses his arm in the fall but survives until HYDRA picks him up. Not that cool. Score: 2

Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?

Oh did he ever. The Winter Soldier’s arm is pretty dope. It looks cool and is a useful weapon. Later, he gets one made of vibranium in Wakanda designed by Shuri. Rocket even asks if he can buy the arm from him. Score: 9

How did the loss of the hand change the character?

Wellllllll Bucky wasn’t an assassin for an evil organization before he lost his arm…but we can blame that on the amnesia. He regains his memories and becomes a good guy. So does the arm change him? In some respects, but I think a middling score is appropriate. Score: 5

Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?

Losing an arm and becoming superhuman through advanced technology is sort of the most basic level for what to do with a physically disabled character. Score: 2

How great is this character?

Pretty great? I guess it depends on what canon you’re going with since in the comics he becomes Captain America. We’ll see (well, you might, I won’t) where he goes in his coming television series. Some suspect the MCU version will become White Wolf. Your opinion of Bucky also depends on how you feel about the kinda regular heroes in the MCU (Black Widow, Hawkeye, etc.). They’re cool and all but the power balancing in these movies is so frustrating. Like what are they doing on the same field as literal-god Thor? Score: 6

Total Score: 24

Ulysses Klaue (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?

He makes the mistake of mentioning Tony Stark to Ultron, and Ultron cuts half his arm off. This is seconds after Ultron makes Klaue a billionaire. This is not a cool way. Score: 1

Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?

On the one hand[6], the prosthetic just looks like an arm, which is lame (see Luke). However, it’s also infused with vibranium and it’s a sonic arm cannon. I can respect that. Score: 7

How did the loss of the hand change the character?

Before losing his arm, Klaue was an arms dealer. After losing his arm, Klaue is an arms dealer. Points for releasing a mixtape though. Score: 3

Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?

No. That’s all I have to say about that. Score: 1

How great is this character?

Somehow Klaue leaves an impression on Black Panther even though he’s about the one hundredth most interesting thing about that film. I think that has to do with having a few good lines and Andy Serkis is just a compelling actor. But Klaue is not great. Score: 2

Total: 14

Captain Hook (Peter Pan)

Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?

A boy who never grows up cuts it off in battle and feeds it to a crocodile. So no. Score: 2

Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?

The hook is, well, iconic. Captain Hook and Long John Silver are probably the two most important characters in shaping what pirates look like in the popular imagination. And in Shrek 2 he can still play the piano with it so how do you like that? Score: 9

How did the loss of the hand change the character?

It makes him forever afraid of being eaten by a crocodile, which is understandable. Score: 7

Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?

I don’t think J.M. Barrie was really thinking about disabled representation. Score: 2

How great is this character?

You can’t really argue with how iconic the character is, whether or not he’s actually interesting. Score: 7

Score: 27

Peter Pettigrew (Harry Potter)

Did the character lose their hand in a cool way?

“Flesh, Blood, and Bone,” is one of the most absolutely haunting chapters in all of Harry Potter. Pettigrew chops off his own hand in a blood magic ritual to reincorporate Lord Voldemort. Look…if you chop off your own hand and throw it into a cauldron and the most powerful dark wizard emerges from it…I’m going to respect that. Score: 9

Did the character take on a prosthetic? If so, how stylish or effective was that prosthetic? If not, is there something to be said for that?

Voldemort begrudgingly grants Pettigrew a new silver hand, which is stylish obv. But when Pettigrew doesn’t kill Harry in Malfoy Manor, the Dark Lord’s gift turns on Pettigrew and he is STRANGLED BY HIS OWN HAND. That’s really cool magic, but there’s no points for being killed by your own replacement hand. Score: 1

How did the loss of the hand change the character?

Wormtail is an evil, sycophantic, groveling punk before and after. Score: 3

Is this representation of disability thoughtful, meaningful, or consequential?

It’s mostly a symbol of his commitment to Voldemort, and I gotta say Voldy is just mad unappreciative. Pettigrew is a punk but his allies don’t give him enough credit. Score: 2

How great is this character?

He’s nice as a literary creation, but he can get the FOH. He betrays Lily and James, blows up a bunch of Muggles, brings the Dark Lord back from the dead, and MURDERS CEDRIC DIGGORY DO NOT FORGET. He sets Peters back so far. A disgrace to Rocks everywhere. Score: 1

Total Score: 16

Total Scores

  1. Jaime Lannister (41)
  2. Imperator Furiosa (39)
  3. Kreia (37)
  4. Beren (36)
  5. Maehdros (34)
  6. Captain Hook (27)
  7. Luke Skywalker (26)
  8. Bucky Barnes (24)
  9. Peter Pettigrew (16)
  10. Ulysses Klaue (14)
  11. Anakin Skywalker (12)

Honorable Exclusions: Detective Del Spooner (I, Robot) and Davos Seaworth (A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones). Spooner loses his arm in a car accident and it felt weird writing about that in this way. Davos only loses his fingers at the knuckle. And if we let in people with missing fingers from ASoIaF we’d have way too many to manage. Both would add something to this discussion.

So, there you have it. Jaime Lannister is the “greatest” one-handed character in science fiction and fantasy, with Imperator Furiosa close behind. Here’s hoping that individuals with disabilities become more common in film, television, gaming, and literature, and that these representations are positive, thoughtful, and embodied by compelling characters.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

~click the number to return to the text~

1 When I think of chopping meat, I think of one of the early scenes in the Chinese film Wrath of Silence, which is a pretty gnarly film, not even so much for the violence as much as the threat of it. Compelling movie, and you can watch the entire thing on YouTube. I watched it on Kanopy, which is the best (free) streaming service you’ve never heard of and one of my new favorite things.

2 We do not endorse the problematic choice that was GoT having Sansa say she wouldn’t have ever grown up if it wasn’t for being manipulated and raped.

3 It would basically be Vader, the travelling orator from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and the peasant girl from 13 Assassins. Not fun.

4 Seems like a lot of people measure back to Ripley, but I think one needs only go back so far as Shu Lien (played by Michelle Yeoh) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She is one of my all-time favorite characters, and one of the very best female action stars ever.

5 I’m just going with the film versions of Bucky and Klaue. There’s just too much stuff in the comics I don’t even know how to get my arms around it. Maybe that makes me ignorant.

6 DAMN I made it all this way without any bad hand puns and I honestly did this one on accident.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s