Where Are the Sick Characters in Pop Culture?

Cover art from The Mighty Thor.
As someone who struggles with a chronic illness, I can’t always relate to my fictional superheroes. Thor’s abs and Wonder Woman’s stamina never give up, after all. The heroes are almost always strong, beautiful, and not sick. If a character with an illness or chronic pain does show up, they’re often a weak link for the hero to save; their illness is mentioned once as the butt of a joke; they’re useless until they’re healed; or they’re only there to provide inspiration for the hero’s journey.

These tropes are frustrating for those of us who face sickness every day in a society that doesn’t know what to do with us. But sometimes I come across characters who represent accurate struggles of being chronically ill. Here are some of my favourites:

1. Remus Lupin, Harry Potter

Lupin doesn’t consider himself a worthwhile member of society because that’s what the world keeps telling him. For example, as soon as word gets out that he’s a werewolf, he has to vacate his position as a Hogwart’s professor in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because people don’t want him teaching their children, even though he is safe as long as he drinks his potions. J.K. Rowling has stated that Lupin’s condition is meant to mimic the stigma of blood-borne diseases. His fear of accepting love is a very real thing people with chronic conditions face daily.

“‘I am not being ridiculous,’ said Lupin steadily. ‘Tonks deserves somebody young and whole.’ . . . ‘But she wants you,’ said Mr. Weasley, with a small smile. ‘And after all, Remus, young and whole men do not necessarily remain so.'” —Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince

2. Izumi Curtis, Fullmetal Alchemist

Edward and Alphonse’s alchemy teacher, Izumi is a tough, stubborn,  and caring woman who fights for justice. She also randomly pukes up blood in the middle of a fight. After coming down with an illness and losing her child because of it, she had attempted human transmutation and it resulted in an internal, chronic injury. Izumi’s apology to her husband after her initial illness hits it on the nose, because sick people often feel guilty for inconveniencing others or in this case, causing intense grief, even though their illnesses are not their fault.

“She said ‘I’m sorry’ the whole night long… and it wasn’t even her fault. I think that’s when she started thinking about human transmutation. And you already know the result.” —Sig Curtis, Fullmetal Alchemist, Vol. 6

3. Raven Reyes, The 100

After getting shot in the back, Raven deals with intense, constant pain in her legs. The frustration she feels at being unable to do what she used to is so powerful, she’s willing to try anything to make it go away. She is angry and depressed—very familiar emotions for those who suffer from chronic pain or illness.

“Everyone thinks they have an idea of how to help me feel better—stay in camp, only do jobs where I can sit down. Ask every time I need something on a high shelf. But you know what? I’m not that person. People think I can just change and my pain will go away. But I can’t I can’t do that, and I can’t do this.” —Raven Reyes, The 100

4. Thane Krios, Mass Effect 2 and 3

Thane has Kepral’s Syndrome, a fictional disease that erodes the drell’s lungs until he is unable to take in oxygen. There is no cure, so Thane knows his time is limited. An indomitable assassin, facing death in a hospital bed is the only time he shows fear. Sickness, with or without the threat of death, is indeed a scary thing. When there’s no cure, it reminds us how frail humanity can be in a culture that’s constantly telling us we’re strong.

“I consider my body’s death, and a chill settles in my gut. I am afraid, and it shames me.” —Thane Krios, Mass Effect 3

5. Jane Foster, The Mighty Thor

A superhero who’s also battling cancer? Yes, please. Not only is Jane Foster my hero because she is fighting illness in addition to Earth’s enemies, I admire her because she battles her illness for the sake of others. If she stayed in Thor’s form all the time, the cancer would stop invading her body. However, she keeps reverting back to Jane Foster because both Thor and Jane Foster are needed within the society’s political landscape.

“I am Jane Foster. And believe it or not, I’m also The Mighty Thor. Though right now I’m not feeling particularly mighty. Right now I’m just trying not to die.” —Jane Foster, The Mighty Thor #1

6. Aza Ray, Magonia

Hilariously dry-humoured, Aza’s inner dialogue accurately relates frustrations about being misunderstood as a sick person, and what it’s like when we face an unrelenting barrage of advice every time we tell strangers that we’re sick. Her isolation from other children in her school is also poignant; people often don’t know how to behave around people in constant pain. But we’re not a problem to be fixed.

“Sometimes also what-about-faith-healers-what-about-herbs-what-about-crystals-what-about-yoga? Have you tried yoga, Aza, I mean have you, because it helped this friend of a friend who was supposedly dying but didn’t, due to downward dog?” —Aza Ray, Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

7. Amanda Brotzman, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Amanda has Pararibulitis, a fictional disease where she experiences hallucinations that feel real. In the first season of the show, she’s deathly afraid to leave the house because she might have an attack in public. I felt a kinship to her anxiety, because I hate getting an attack of stomach pain when I’m out and about—it’s embarrassing, it’s frightening, and it’s stressful. When she goes out to get her own groceries, she is so proud of herself for being brave enough to do it, and then my stomach plummets with hers as she has an attack in the parking lot, envisioning she is on fire and thus feeling like she is.

“It makes it hard to not be scared all the time.” —Amanda Brotzman, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Allison Alexander

Allison Alexander

Art Director at Geekdom House
Allison is like Galadriel, offering wisdom where needed but turning treacherous as the sea when competitive games are involved. She manages Geekdom House's arts initiatives, including their magazine and choir. She spends the rest of her time writing, playing D&D, and exploring Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.
Allison Alexander

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