Kody Keplinger is the author of three books for teens: The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), Shut Out, and A Midsummer’s Nightmare. Her first middle grade novel, The Swift Boys & Me, was released by Scholastic on May 27. Currently, Kody lives in New York City with her guide dog, a very upbeat German Shepherd named Corey. When she isn’t writing, Kody teaches writing workshops and spends a lot of time eating Thai food, marathoning Joss Whedon’s TV shows, and vlogging. You can find her on Twitter, YouTube, and her website.
Recently I was talking to a guy online when I mentioned being legally blind. He replied in what he thought was kind – something along the lines of, “I’m just trying to wrap my head around the idea that someone with such beautiful eyes can’t see out of them. Seems like such a waste.”
To be fair to this gentleman, I think he thought he was being flirtatious or sweet or something. But, in reality, the “beautiful tragedy” is a complex and frustrating trope in disability culture. The guy’s comment is not the first I’ve heard, and I’m not the first person it’s been directed to.
So what’s so wrong with this trope? Why is it wrong to emphasize the supposed irony of a person with beautiful eyes who can’t see or a good-looking person “confined to a wheelchair” (another horrible, tragedy evoking phrase) or the like? First off, because it seriously implies that disabilities affecting those without beauty are a lesser issue.
The person I was corresponding with implied that it was a “waste” that I couldn’t see when I, according to him, have pretty eyes. So would blindness then be better suited to someone with less appealing eyes? Are unattractive people somehow more deserving of disabilities than attractive people?
I’ve also seen this applied to mental illness in fiction and film – someone who is incredibly smart or a brilliant artist struggles with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, manic depression – you name it – and we’re lead to believe this is somehow even more of a tragedy because the person is otherwise brilliant. As if it would be better if less intelligent or talented people had to deal with mental illness.
Obviously, this is a horrible thing to imply on many levels. A beautiful person’s disability is in no way better or worse than any other person’s disability.
However, that brings me to the second half of the trope – the tragedy.
In many ways, I am less bothered by the implications about beauty that this trope demonstrates and more frustrated with the implied tragedy of disability. By proposing that it is a “waste” for me to have pretty eyes and also be blind, it is suggesting that I am some tragic figure. That the beauty I have is diminished by this awful disability. That I am somehow broken. I don’t like the idea that any part of me is a “waste.”
By suggesting that it is a tragedy for a genius (either intellectual or creative) to have a mental illness, it lessens the work of that person. It turns them into this sad, ironic figure for society to marvel at. When, in reality, their mental illness is no different from that of the Average Joe who has a mental illness. Is Average Joe considered a tragedy on this scale?
I am no one’s tragedy. I can be smart or beautiful or talented and still deal with my disability, and it doesn’t compromise any of those things.
As writers, it’s important that we avoid the beautiful tragedy trope when creating disabled characters. While it might serve to heighten tension or add layers to a character, it ultimately sends really damaging messages about beauty or talent and disability. It implies that average people are more deserving of disabilities while attractive or talented people are forced to be seen as tragic figures. Neither of these things are true.
I never wrote back to that guy, but if I had, I would have told him thank you for saying my eyes are pretty, but I’m perfectly fine with how much (or little, really) I can see out of them. I am not broken. I am not tragic. And nothing about my situation is “a waste.”
Nola Sutton has been best friends and neighbors with the Swift boys for practically her whole life. There’s the youngest, Kevin, who never stops talking; the oldest, Brian, who’s always kind and calm; and then there’s Canaan, the ringleader and Nola’s best-best friend. Nola can’t imagine her life without the Swift boys — they’ll always be like this, always be friends.
But then everything changes overnight.
When the Swifts’ daddy leaves without even saying good-bye, it completely destroys the boys, and all Nola can do is watch. Kevin stops talking and Brian is never around. Even Canaan is drifting away from Nola — hanging out with the neighborhood bullies instead of her.
Nola just wants things to go back to the way they were — the way they’ve always been. She tries to pull the boys back to her, only the harder she pulls, the further away they seem. But it’s not just the Swifts whose family is changing, so is Nola’s, and she needs her best friends now more than ever. Can Nola and the Swift boys survive this summer with their friendships intact, or has everything fallen apart for good?
Nola’s struggle to save her friends, her unwavering hope, and her belief in the power of friendship make Kody Keplinger’s middle-grade debut a poignant story of loss and redemption.