This post is about the book version of Wicked, not the musical (they’re quite dissimilar). There’s one minor spoiler for the musical, and I’ve tried to minimise the spoilers about the book, though this is a book review so watch out!
Wicked is concerned with the story of the Wicked Witch of the West from Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, which is a fabulous premise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Well, having seen the musical previously, I was a little apprehensive about social justice concerns in the book. And we get off to a flying start with this section of the first scene:
‘[…]What a Witch. Psychologically warped; possessed by demons. Insane. Not a pretty picture.’
‘She was castrated at birth,’ replied the Tin Woodman calmly. She was born hermaphroditic, or maybe entirely male.’
And the ‘patronizing speculations,’ as the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, thinks of these remarks (she’s spying on them in this scene) don’t end there. So, naturally, I was wary from there on out. Look, there’s lots I could talk about in this review: what I found to be a half-baked treatment of race, the truly gorgeous worldbuilding, many “what the pancake” moments, some of the most rounded characters I’ve found in fiction. But I think the treatment of Elphaba’s sister, Nessarose, in terms of her being disabled, needs a whole review to itself.
Before I get to her, though, I should point out that Nessarose is not the only disabled character in Wicked. There’s one memorable paragraph in which Elphaba remembers the last time she sees her old school friend, Tibbett. She’s nursing him and it’s the first time she sees him since he became an “invalid”.
Then, a year ago, pale invalid Tibbett was carted to the Home for the Incurables. He wasn’t too far gone to recognise her even behind her veil and silences. Weak, unable to shit or piss without help, his skin falling in rags and parchment, he was better at life than she was. He selfishly required that she be an individual, and he addressed her by her name. He joked, he remembered stories, he criticized old friends for abandoning him, he noticed the differences in how she moved from day to day, how she thought. He reminded her that she did think. Under the scrutiny of his tired frame she was re-created, against her will, as an individual. Or nearly.
So he’s portrayed as one of the “Incurables,” far gone into hopelessness, an object of pity. Yet still with his inner strength – which, while it is conveyed with tenderness and some depth, is ultimately a vehicle for a Very Special Lesson for Elphaba. And we never get to hear his voice; he’s just here, briefly, portrayed through the voice and memory of his carer. Which is something we’ve all encountered before.
So, to Nessarose, who is described by her sister as having been ‘horribly disfigured from birth’ as she doesn’t have arms. Whose movement is described by the narrator in sinuous, snake-like terms, bizarrely fascinating to look at. Who is conveyed as so pretty and charming, but so helpless and unfortunate, poor dear. Who just can’t get a man because who wants to be with someone like her?
No. No no no no. No. And I thought the sickly sweetness of the character in the musical was bad. It’s like Maguire was trying to cram as many disability tropes in as possible.
But that’s not all there is to Nessarose. She’s a major political figure, which is pretty cool. However, she’s a tyrant, which is… on the one hand, a powerful disabled woman? That’s pretty cool. On the other, another disabled villain? Are you quite serious? What really ties the characterisation of Nessarose into a complex ball of flat out ableism and confusing hints of marvellousness is how her religiousness is treated. There is likewise a little more nuance here. All the way through reading, I was constantly wondering how it was going to play out: was she going to be the unfortunate disabled person of faith who gets manipulated into being a Very Special Lesson to one and all? Was she going to turn into a dangerous figure, driven by religious extremism and her rage about her unfortunate (unfortunates in this paragraph are sarcastic, by the by!) disability? I certainly wasn’t expecting either her faith or her disability to be treated respectfully. And you know something? I was right. She ends up being a theocratic tyrant who has some pretty nasty effects on her people. A thousand points if you too were betting on an evil disabled dictator.
I want to touch on some of the discrepancies between the book and the musical. Anyone who has seen the musical will remember the scene in which Nessarose arises from her chair in one of those “It’s a happy piece of popular culture and I can walk!” moments. Which is bad enough, but, hang on, she doesn’t use a wheela chair in the book! I’m just wondering why on earth the makers of the musical decided Nessarose should be changed to a four-limbed wheelchair user. It’s as though impairments are interchangeable and a wheelchair is a universally applicable marker of disability. I think it would have been great if they’d decided to be true to the book and employ actors who don’t have arms for the musical. I guess we can dream!
In conclusion: skip the book unless you are really into quality worldbuilding and some pretty beautiful characterisations.