Illness, Infantilization, and Where Fan Creators Get It Wrong

Thought Catalog / Unsplash

While earning my MFA, and in my 10+ years in fandom spaces as a fanfiction writer, I’ve seen many writers and creators infantilize chronically ill characters – typically women. It’s a trend that has long bothered me, but that has been difficult to articulate in a way that doesn’t warrant some kind of example. But, luckily for me (and maybe for you), this column is all about spec fic and chronic illness, and so referencing fiction isn’t just expected but encouraged. Hooray for me!

So, in an effort to talk about infantilization, characterization, and where I see storytellers going wrong, I’m choosing to reference a character I know well: Dulcinea Septimus from Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth. I did touch on her character a bit in last month’s column if you’d like to get the backstory.

A brief disclaimer: As you read this breakdown, please do keep in mind that these are just my opinions about Dulcinea’s characterization and that your mileage and read of her may vary – and that’s okay!. It is my responsibility to share my thoughts and perspective in a respectful way, and that is my intention here.

The Infantilization of Passion

Dulcinea is intelligent, charming, and personable. She takes open and visible delight in the lives of the people around her, makes a lot of clever jokes, and openly displays affection toward those she loves. She does all of this while managing symptoms probably too familiar to chronically ill people: fatigue, a consistent and annoying cough, and the ever-present need of people around her to baby her when she is fully capable of taking care of herself.

I’ve seen there are some people who feel that Dulcinea’s effusive, passionate personality is unnecessarily childlike – and that’s a conversation for another day. I can’t help but wonder if Muir was making a point with this element of Dulcinea’s character as well; there’s something about female characters and their passions that are typically labeled as “childish” in popular culture, but in a stark departure from how that behavior is typically displayed, that’s how Dulcinea asserts her agency. She is loud and assertive about these elements of her personality because, without that, she would only ever be seen as an ill and dying woman.

Harrow the Ninth / Tor.com

This, as I’m sure you can tell, is a great example of solid characterization – Dulcinea is characterized by how she interfaces with her world, and it is made clear to us in the text that is how she prefers to be known, and that the fact that she is known for her illness is thanks to those around her and despite her own objections. This is the first reason why I’m holding her character up as an example of the difference between infantilization and characterization; the second rests within the way fandom engages with her…and what that signals to me about some larger issues.

Fandom and Illness

Ironically, fans of Muir’s books often do to Dulcinea the very thing she would hate ­– in fanworks, they reduce her to her physical limitations as a reason for why she “can’t” or “wouldn’t” do anything from engaging with her loved ones to getting a bit spicy in the bedroom. While I’m sure some of this stems from the all-too-familiar ableist mindsets that many people carry with them when it comes to disabled and chronically ill folks, when it comes to fan writers approaching her character, there’s something else that troubles me.

In the first column I wrote for LSQ, I touched on how I was told at a young age that my desire to see chronic illness represented in speculative fiction was “unrealistic” because scientific developments would make such afflictions obsolete. Obviously, that assessment is reductive and incorrect, but it does hint at what I’m trying to get at here: I believe many fan writers use Dulcinea’s illness – and really, I think this could apply to any chronically ill or disabled character – as an excuse or a reason to not explore her character any further.

Throughout my time in fandom, I’ve seen this happen many times; fanfiction writers tend to go to one extreme or another, either failing to acknowledge that a chronically ill or disabled character is chronically ill or disabled or acknowledging it to the extent that it gives them an “excuse” to sideline a character from their narratives entirely. And while there could be an argument for how it’s the author’s right to choose which characters they want in their stories, I ask this: Why include a chronically ill character like Dulcinea at all if you don’t intend to give her the due you give her able-bodied counterparts?

Inclusion or Infantilization?

Is a chronically ill character providing representation through their characterization, or are they being reduced to only that illness? And is their personality taking center stage because they are a whole, complete person – same as their able-bodied counterparts – or is their illness being used as a smokescreen that renders the character two-dimensional?

This is a multifaceted conversation, for sure, and one that can hardly begin and end with a single column. My aim, ultimately, is to encourage anyone reading this who engages with fanworks or original content that includes chronically ill characters to think critically about how you are engaging with said representation – and how you choose to work it into your own lexicon as you tell the stories that matter to you.

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