Disabled Representation in the How To Train Your Dragon Film Trilogy

By: Stevie Paige Martin, FCLC ’23

Throughout the history of television and film, the disabled community has been continuously portrayed in accordance with a selection of stereotypes. These stereotypes demonstrate both to the general non-disabled public and to the disabled community that only certain types of disabilities and certain types of people who have disabilities are socially acceptable. The Fries Test, introduced by author and disability rights activist Kenny Fries, poses a series of questions to measure the accuracy of representation of people with disabilities in fiction and film. The How to Train Your Dragon film trilogy follows the life of a Viking, Hiccup, as he campaigns first for the acceptance of dragons into his own Viking community, and later for the protection of the dragons from outside forces. Though the disabled community has been historically marginalized and stereotyped in its representation in the mainstream media, the How to Train Your Dragon film trilogy has demonstrated a significant improvement in the representation of disabilities in popular media.

Treatment of disability within the presentation of mainstream media has historically operated on a dichotomy, with two distinct archetypes that nearly all disabled characters can be categorized within. According to Alison Harnett, these categorizations are the “Evil Avenger” and the “Supercrip.” While the disabled community has been largely underrepresented within popular media, “when it is portrayed on-screen, the images are often inaccurate or unfair” (Harnett, 2000, p. 21). By creating all characters with disabilities in media to fit within one of the two above categories, there is an elimination of the potential for accurate representation. In realistic films, the character traits that belong to either category cement the existence of the stereotypes, as “persons with disabilities are most often portrayed negatively as deviant, exotic, comical, pitiable, asexual, feminized, Otherly, metaphoric, powerless, dependent, tragic, and less than human” (Church, 2006). These stereotypes oversimplify the disabled community, present a limited and inaccurate view of what it means to have a disability, and deny the presence of the disabled community in an ordinary setting. This is evident through the scarcity of films “in which disabled characters play secondary roles as incidental people in society. . . . it is rare for disabled people to appear in an ‘ordinary’ capacity, as part of the general social context” (Harnett, 2000, p. 22). The stereotypes exist in films that revolve around the idea of disability in some way, preventing the disabled characters from being presented as incidental or as commonplace in the background of a film.

The characterization of the disabled character as the Evil Avenger is one that portrays the character as bitter or angry. This “irredeemable villain” has turned to the dark side as a means of “seeking revenge for the bad deal they have been dealt in life” (Harnett, 2000, p. 21). These characters are examples of writers “using disability to embody, or personify evil” (Harnett, 2000, p. 21). Disabled characters who fit this stereotype can be found in a multitude of films, such as the character of Harvey Dent, also known as Two Face, present in Batman films such as Batman (1989) and The Dark Knight (2008). Harvey Dent has a disfigurement, resulting from severe acid burns in Batman (1989) and from a building explosion in The Dark Knight (2008). In both of these films, the disfigurement that Harvey Dent sustains leads to the development of an evil alternative personality, known as Two Face. Therefore “the immorality of the villain is linked with his . . . physical deformity as a dramatic technique” (Harnett, 2000, p. 21). Dent is dealt an unfortunate hand, suffering severe injuries in both films, and this leads his character to become evil as a means to seek vengeance for the suffering he has endured. This is a clear example of the Evil Avenger stereotype, in which disabled characters are portrayed as angry at life for their situation and look to exact revenge.

The use of this stereotype is an issue, as it affects the perceptions of both disabled and non-disabled people who absorb this media. “When disabled children see close screen connections between evil and their physical condition it cannot contribute to a positive self-image” (Harnett, 2000, p. 23). The portrayal of disabilities in media overwhelmingly in conformity with the Evil Avenger stereotype leads to negative associations among both disabled and non-disabled people. This damages the overall perceived reputation of the disabled community, as it insinuates that the existence of a disability is a potential marker that the person themself is evil or looking to cause harm.

“The portrayal of disabilities in media overwhelmingly in conformity with the Evil Avenger stereotype leads to negative associations among both disabled and non-disabled people.”

The opposite side of this dichotomy is the idea of the Supercrip. This is the portrayal of the disabled character as one who works hard in order to conquer their disability. The Supercrip is the character who “through astounding personal endeavor overcomes their disability — a cripple who learns to walk, a dyslexic person who becomes a writer” (Harnett, 2000, p. 22). This stereotype posits that the disabled character faces a tragedy solely on the basis of their disability. Their efforts to surmount their disability are portrayed as highly inspirational, as they are able to overcome that which has seemingly been holding them back from a “normal” life. The stereotype of the Supercrip is equally detrimental to the disabled community and societal perception of the community as the idea of the Evil Avenger, as the Supercrip stereotype maintains an unrealistic image of the ideal person with a disability. As a result, those within the disabled community are then pressured to conform to the stereotype by attempting to “overcome” their own disabilities. As a result, “positive imagery, on the other hand, becomes a further threat to disabled people by making clear that to be accepted and valued by society one must be like this or that (that is, normalised and educated)” (Drake, 2004, p. 102). By establishing such a rigid structure for what disabilities are acceptable within society, popular media and its stereotypes disservice the disabled community. When the Supercrip stereotype is presented as the only acceptable kind of disability, “[disabled children] are not affirmed as valuable people for who they are or what they achieve, but rather defined in terms of their limitations, their achievements defined in terms of overcoming these physical limitations” (Harnett, 2000, p. 23). The Supercrip stereotype presents an inaccurate portrayal of disability within a non-disabled society, leading to a different kind of misconception about disability than the Evil Avenger, but one that nonetheless can be harmful.

“Those within the disabled community are then pressured to conform to the stereotype by attempting to ‘overcome’ their own disabilities.”

In the Fries Test, Kenny Fries establishes a series of questions that judge the quality of disabled representation within a work of fiction. This test was developed due to the fact that, according to Fries, “in most popular culture disability continues to be defined by the nondisabled gaze. Movies, which have the most cultural visibility and impact, continue to spread stereotypical, and harmful, depictions of disability” (Fries, 2017). Fries defines the test through a series of three questions: “Does a work have more than one disabled character? Do the disabled characters have their own narrative purpose other than the education and profit of a nondisabled character? Is the character’s disability not eradicated by either curing or killing?” (Fries, 2017). The test, modeled after the Bechdel test for representation of women in fiction, can be applied to any fictional work, including literature and film. The questions posed by Fries serve to determine the quality of representation present in a given work. If there is only one disabled character whose sole purpose is to teach the non-disabled characters a lesson before dying, then the representation would be of poor quality according to the Fries Test. However, if there are a variety of characters with disabilities, who interact with one another and each maintain their own narrative purpose, then according to the Fries Test the representation within the film would be of a positive quality. The Fries Test also inherently rejects the harmful stereotypes of the Evil Avenger and the Supercrip, as they do not provide accurate representations of disability or the disabled community. One series of films that both rejects the aforementioned stereotypes and passes the Fries Test in this positive way is the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy.

Within the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, there are several characters who are living with disabilities. The first film introduces four of these characters, Gothi, Gobber, Toothless, and Hiccup. Gothi, Gobber, and Hiccup are all Vikings living on the island of Berk, and Toothless is a Nightfury dragon who is injured during an attack. All four of these characters are individually developed, with their own narrative purposes and character arcs. This allows the trilogy to both overcome traditional disability cliches and pass the Fries Test.

Gothi is an elderly woman who lives in Berk. Throughout the trilogy, she serves as a spiritual elder to all of the Vikings in the village. She is also non-verbal. However, this fact is not heavily dwelled upon or overexaggerated in the films, as she finds her own ways of communicating in a way that normalizes non-verbal communication. For example, in the first film, How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Gothi, as the spiritual leader, is the one who selects which Viking will be granted the honor of killing their first dragon in public. Astrid and Hiccup show the most promise, and when Gothi has made her decision she taps her staff to gain the attention of Gobber, the dragon instructor. He holds out one hand over Astrid, and Gothi shakes her head. Then, Gobber holds his prosthetic hook above Hiccup and Gothi smiles and points her finger, nodding in affirmation. In the second film, How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014), Gothi again appears as the elder, crowning Hiccup chief after his father passes away. In this scene, Gothi pokes Hiccup with her staff to get his attention and makes a small gesture which indicates that she wants him to kneel before her. He does, and she draws a symbol on his forehead, ceremonially crowning him chief of Berk. She then bows and he nods back in thanks. In the third film, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019), Gothi appears only briefly. In one scene, Snotlout comments to Hiccup, “Who died and made you chief?” after Hiccup’s father has just passed away. In this scene, Gothi’s dragons lower her in a basket to hit Snotlout upside the head and shake her head at him in disapproval of his lack of tact. She appears later in the film, marrying Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid, and bestowing upon Astrid the title of Chieftess of Berk. In her final scene, she is enveloped by her small herd of dragons in an emotional hug before they leave Berk. These interactions demonstrate the normalization of disability within the series. Though Gothi is disabled in that she is non-verbal, it does not cost her any respect from the other characters, as she serves as a spiritual elder and is respected by all of the Vikings of Berk. Her disability also does not impede her ability to communicate, as the other Vikings learn to interpret her gestures.

Another character who normalizes disability throughout the series is Gobber. Gobber is the close confidant and friend of Chief Stoick the Vast at the beginning of the film trilogy. In the first film, How to Train Your Dragon (2010), he is introduced by Hiccup as “the meathead with attitude and interchangeable hands”. Gobber is a double amputee, missing his left hand and right leg. As a replacement for his leg, Gobber has a simple wooden peg prosthetic. In place of his hand, a series of prosthetics are used throughout the films. These include a hammer and a prosthetic modeled after blacksmith’s tongs, both of which he uses while working in his forge. At Viking meals, he is shown with a beer cup or a skewer prosthetic which holds an entire roasted chicken. Throughout dragon training, he uses a hook hand; in the final fight, his prosthetic contains a spiked cube. In the final film, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019), a spoon prosthetic is introduced. The use of interchangeable prosthetics throughout the films has comedic effect, but also serves to normalize the concept of amputees and prosthetic limbs within Viking society. Gobber is not looked at as lesser than due to his disability. On the contrary, he is a well-respected blacksmith and one of the chief’s closest friends, earning him additional trust among his fellow Vikings. The stories Gobber tells also portray his amputations in a comedic light, but in a way that demonstrates that he is making light of his situation in life. He tells the story of how a dragon bit off his arm and leg to the Viking teens in the first film as a suspenseful tale meant to spook them as they sit around a campfire. In the third film, he calls back to this experience again, remarking that “evidence would suggest I’m tasty”. These representations serve to normalize disability, as Gobber acts as any other character in the film trilogy does, serving his duties to the village. His making light of his amputations through his storytelling is also positive, as it dispels the concept of the disabled person who is feeble or in need of pity. Gobber sustained a disability, then he adapted and continued to live his life, demonstrating that this is a positive, non-tragic portrayal of disability.

Toothless and Hiccup, the two main characters within the film trilogy, also sustain disabilities. In the first film, How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Hiccup shoots Toothless down with a net, leading to him losing a tail fin and rendering him unable to fly. Toothless’s disability is demonstrated in a scene where he attempts to leave a deep cliff face by running up, but he cannot reach the top and can no longer direct himself when he tries to fly. This disability is what allows for the development of the relationship between Toothless and Hiccup, as Hiccup develops a prosthetic fin for Toothless that allows him to fly while Hiccup is riding him. It is not until the end of the first film that Hiccup sustains a disability. In the final fight, Hiccup is tossed from his saddle atop Toothless and plummets into an explosion, with Toothless diving to save him. When it is revealed that Toothless managed to save Hiccup, his father Stoick thanks Toothless, and Gobber adds on, “Well, you know, most of him”, gesturing to Hiccup’s lower body. In the next scene, Hiccup wakes up back at home to find Toothless in his house, and goes to get out of bed. It is then that he realizes his lower leg has been fitted with a prosthetic. He sighs and braces himself to stand on it for the first time, managing one step before his prosthetic gives out under him and Toothless catches him. This scene demonstrates a positive portrayal of disability. Though Hiccup is newly disabled and unsure of himself and his prosthetic, he takes the first step in adapting by getting out of bed and doing his best to walk. When he stumbles, he has a friend to pick him up and help him keep going, one who understands the adjustment process of being fitted with a prosthetic and learning to use it.

Toothless and Hiccup’s disabilities are touched upon less obviously in the second and third films, as they are portrayed simply as part of their daily lives. In the second film, How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014), Hiccup has engineered a new prosthetic for himself which allows him to use a center hinge to change between a prosthetic for walking and one for flying with Toothless. Hiccup has also upgraded Toothless’s prosthetic fin, allowing him to begin gliding on his own for the first time since becoming disabled. In the third film, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019), Hiccup allows Toothless and another dragon to play fetch with his prosthetic, laughing at their enthusiasm and demonstrating genuine happiness to be spending time with them and his girlfriend. He taunts Toothless, saying “You do know it’s not a chew toy, don’t you? Is this what you want? Do you want this leg? Oh, do you want my leg? Go get it!”, using the high-pitched voice one would use when playing fetch with a puppy. In another scene, a friend of Hiccup’s tells him that if he wants to get married, he needs to “lose the limp”. Hiccup quickly remarks, “I have a prosthetic leg!” in exasperation, and Gobber chimes in, “so do I!”, outnumbering the non-disabled person and providing comedic effect in that the non-disabled person would make such a ridiculous suggestion. This also serves to normalize disability, as Gobber and Hiccup establish what is possible and those who are unable to respect or refuse to understand are eventually embarrassed by the lack of knowledge or thought behind their comments.

“Portraying representation of characters with disabilities who do not fit into either of these categories and who are not defined entirely by their disability or their ability to educate a non-disabled person is important in mass media, as it affects how disabled and non-disabled people view disabled people within society.”

The How to Train Your Dragon film trilogy demonstrates positive representation of disabilities in popular media. There are multiple characters who are disabled, all of whom function within society as any other Viking would. The characters interact with one another and each has their own narrative purpose, indicating that the films pass the Fries Test for representation as well. This positive representation in media is important, as historically the representation of disabilities in media has followed a dichotomy of stereotypes, demonstrating either the Evil Avenger or the Supercrip. Portraying representation of characters with disabilities who do not fit into either of these categories and who are not defined entirely by their disability or their ability to educate a non-disabled person is important in mass media, as it affects how disabled and non-disabled people view disabled people within society. This is especially important within the target demographic of the How to Train Your Dragon film trilogy, as it demonstrates to children and young adults that disabilities are not defined by common stereotypes.

References

Arnold, B. (Producer), Sanders, C. (Director), & DeBlois, D. (Director). (2010). How To Train Your Dragon [Motion picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.

Arnold, B. (Producer), & DeBlois, D. (Director). (2014). How to Train Your Dragon 2 [Motion picture]. United States: 20th Century Fox.

Arnold, B. (Producer), Lewis, B. (Producer), & DeBlois, D. (Director). (2019). How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

Church, D. (2006). Fantastic films, fantastic bodies: Speculations on the fantastic and disability representation. Off Screen, 10(10). 

Drake, P. A. (2004). The changing face of representations of disability in the media. Essay. In J. Swain (Ed.), Disabling Barriers—Enabling Environments (pp. 100–105). Sage Publications. 

Fries, K. (2017, November 1). The Fries test: On disability representation in our culture. Medium. medium.com/@kennyfries/the-fries-test-on-disability-representation-in-our-culture-9d1bad72cc00. 

Harnett, A. (2000). Escaping the ‘evil avenger’ and the ‘supercrip’: Images of disability in popular television. Irish Communications Review, 8

Peters, J. (Producer), Guber, P. (Producer), & Burton, T. (Director). (1989). Batman [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures.Thomas, E. (Producer), Roven, C. (Producer), & Nolan, C. (Producer and Director). (2008). The Dark Knight [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures.


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