Guest blogger: Adam Langley is a full-time dweeb and part-time writer, specializing in mental health, disability, and why Jessica Jones is the best Defender.
Disabilities are often treated by popular culture as problems that need to be fixed, as something to overcome. Learning or developmental disabilities in particular are shown to be surmountable if the character in question just works hard enough. Look at Sheldon Cooper. Look at TV shows like Atypical or literally any “special” episode which tries to portray autism or dyslexia. There is an underlying message that, with hard work and perseverance, and the willingness to step outside your comfort zone and let people in, you too can be “normal” – or at least as normal as you can be until the narrative requires a quick gag and your condition is played for laughs.
Which leads us to Rick and Morty, the popular, Adult Swim animated sitcom. It chronicles the adventures of a nihilistic, alcoholic super-scientist and his grandson having incredible adventures throughout the multiverse. It’s not without its problems. For every meditation on the meaning of existence and inter-dimensional Cable episode, there is a rape joke or smug fan using the show as an excuse to harass women writers online, and generally be unpleasant, while thinking they are intellectually justified in doing so.
It does, however, have Morty.
Early on (the pilot episode, in fact), we discover that Morty has, in his father Jerry’s words, “some kind of disability or something.” This disability, while never named or diagnosed on the show, means that he is “not as fast as the other kids and…will have to work twice as hard.” Rick frequently notes that his grandson is ”slow” or “stupid”; he even goes so far as using his grandson’s irregular brain waves as a kind of camouflage to hide his own from the Galactic Federation. And on plenty of other shows, that would be Morty forever. He would always be the “slow” one under the thrall of his Grandfather. He might even become less intelligent as time went on – step forward, Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, etc.
But Morty is different. Over the course of the series, he has slowly evolved into the voice of reason. He develops his own morality separate from Rick’s. And while he might not be right all the time (for example, saving the life of Fart, a genocidal gas cloud), Morty learns from these mistakes; as a consequence, he grows as a person. As he grows and learns, he becomes more confident, standing up to Rick and his family and finding the courage to develop a somewhat friendly relationship with his longtime crush, Jessica. He is no longer the quivering milquetoast who still follows instructions despite his misgivings. He is not oblivious to the faults of the more dominant people in his life. In a series where the characters are either elemental forces or caricatures or just one-note, Morty is a person.
He is not a saint – it would be impossible to be that in a show like Rick and Morty. Over the course of a hundred years of adventure with his Grandpa, Morty has been partially responsible for destroying an entire reality with a pheromone spray, stealing a Portal Gun, and running away when he thought Earth was going to be destroyed. One of his alternate versions has cut a bloody swathe across the galaxy and seized control of the Citadel of Ricks. However, the very fact that he is treated as being capable of doing bad things sets him apart from other disabled characters on television, many of whom have little or no grasp of morality outside the other protagonists, and would not have the capacity to understand that they are wrong and learn from it the way Morty does.
Rick and Morty is problematic. It can be good. It can be funny. This does not change the fact that it is an incredibly bleak portrait of the human condition that is used in much the same way South Park – to bolster a seriously messed-up world view. Morty Smith is an example of what Rick and Morty can do right – a well-developed character still trying to understand his place in the universe, and growing into it slowly and organically. All that needs to happen now is for his disability to be properly addressed without it turning into a butt joke; then, he might truly be the Mortiest Morty.
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