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disability Pop Culture

Disability & Star Wars

The Bad Batch and Beyond

Yesterday was Star Wars day (and also my father’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Dadison!) Along with May the Fourth came the premier episode of the new animated series The Bad Batch. Outside of the fact that I misread the title every time, I gave the series next to no attention before yesterday. Then, I saw an announcement poster, and was immediately amazed. I scrambled to Disney+ to watch the first episode right away:

The Bad Batch is about disability.

It isn’t even veiled. The name The Bad Batch” is meant to allude to the general bad-assery of this troop of renegade clone troopers, but is most directly referring to the fact that these clones are “genetically defective.”

For those less familiar with the Star Wars universe–or perhaps you, like my Dad, often joke that the last time you saw a Star Wars movie was when the original premiered in theaters–let’s talk clones.

In the decades before the original trilogy, we generally follow the story of Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker’s father who eventually becomes Darth Vader.

Do I even NEED to say *SPOILER ALERT* for that one?? For what it’s worth, this piece will be riddled with small Bad Batch and Clone Wars spoilers. But, only the first episode has been released as of me writing this, so I truly cannot spoil all too much.

During the time in which Anakin Skywalker is developing his Jedi skills, and struggling to navigate emotions he is told are ill-suited to the life of a Jedi, the Republic is locked in an ongoing war with a group of Separatists. The Republic consists of representatives from a variety of planets, with Emperor Sheev Palpatine at the helm. The Separatists consist of a variety of generally sketchy individuals, with a number of various sketchier “bosses” leading various charges, and with the exceedingly ugly Darth Sidious at the helm. The Republic is using an army of genetically cloned soldiers. The Separatists are using an army of droids. The Jedi fight as knights on behalf of the Republic. This is the period known as The Clone Wars.

Again, is it even a spoiler to remind us that Sidious and Palpatine are the same person? He’s footing the bill of both sides of The Clone Wars to destabilize the Republic, that he might more easily take control and establish a Galactic Empire in their wake. This is exactly what happens, and is exactly where The Bad Batch picks up.

The show’s protagonists are a group of genetically defective clones. Clones are meant to be genetically identical to the original clone candidate: Jango Fett. They all generally look alike, speak alike, and bear the same militaristic aptitude of Fett, if only generally differentiated by various colored uniforms and sick hairstyles. Except… not these clones, Clone Force 99, “The Bad Batch.” Each clone in Force 99 has some sort of physical or cognitive divergence from the original clone model.

Hunter: The leader. His only variation appears to be a marking that covers half of his face. It seems to be a tattoo of half a skull, the symbol of Clone Force 99, though it may be functioning to hide some sort of burn or birthmark.

Wrecker: The “gentle giant.” He is physically larger and appears to be blind in one eye, with a large spiderweb scar across the same side of his bald head. It is unclear if these physical differences were sustained from birth or whether they were the result of an injury. He is uncharacteristically strong and inclined towards physical brutality. He maintains some sort of cognitive disability. He is the Lennie to Hunter’s George (and the likeness to Of Mice and Men is clearly intentional: Wrecker’s most prized possession is a stuffed plush bunny named Lula. If you’ll recall, Steinbeck’s Lennie was led to imagine being on a bunny farm, as he was calmed down by the thought of stroking something small and soft.)

Crosshair: The sniper. He is significantly more gaunt than a standard clone, with a tattoo of a crosshair over his dominant eye. He is rigid, obedient, and cold.

Tech: The nerd. He is more gaunt than a typical clone as well, wears glasses, and functions as a sort of human C3PO for the group. It will be interesting to see whether, in future episodes, the narrative leans into the typical trope of “has lots of knowledge but misses major social clues,” often used in film to suggest an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Echo: The “reg.” Echo is a cyborg clone. Having sustained a number of injuries in battle, Echo displays signs of albinism and is an amputee. He is called a “reg” because, unlike the other four, he was born a genetically normate clone. He has become disabled, rather than having been born that way. It would seem that his disabilities are relatively new, as the audience sees Echo deal begrudgingly with his limitations, apparently traumatized and sometimes embarrassed. Echo is important, and we’ll return to him very shortly.

So wait, are the clones (with Echo being the exception) of Clone Force 99 really disabled? Judging by the language used to describe them, it would certainly seem this way. They are described as genetically abnormal, and they maintain numerous physical differences that ostracize them from their “reg” peers and leave them struggling to engage according to normalized social cues.

However, returning to the double meaning of the show’s title, the other thing that distinguishes them from their peers is their effectiveness. They are outliers with a unique skill set, sent on unique missions and operating under a different set of rules, some externally imposed and others self-imposed. Their genetic differences give them exceptional utility despite social exclusion.

And that’s because they were designed that way.

Clone Force 99 were intentionally bred to be genetically abnormal. They didn’t happen to be disabled when they were born. They were genetically manipulated with an intentional, utilitarian outcome.

The stakes are raised when Admiral Tarkin arrives and observes the performance of Clone Force 99. He makes his opinions on clones very clear: The Empire no longer needs them, and in any case, they are by virtue of being clones, genetically inferior to other humans. “Reg” clones have all been “programmed” to some degree with decreased decision-making, to enhance their ability to follow orders. However, Clone Force 99’s unique skill set and supposed immunity from the cognitive programming strikes Tarkin as unexpectedly useful in their divergence from traditional clone tactics. Tarkin inquires whether or not these sorts of intentional genetic manipulations can be replicated, but with order-following forcibly enhanced as well to increase aggression.

So I could have started this blog post a different way:

The Bad Batch is about eugenics.

As such, it is still unclear to me whether or not we should consider Clone Force 99 disabled, even if the show is about genetic disability. Which makes the title of the show a bit misleading, yeah? A “bad batch” calls to mind a situationally defective batch of product. Something to be tossed out or ignored, like data or eggs.

This is not the reality of Clone Force 99. According to the performance standards of clone troopers and the Kaminoans who produced them, Clone Force 99 are not “bad” at all! They are very, very good. They are designer clones.

If we want to truly engage with a “defective clone product,” that was accidentally, congenitally disabled, then we must step back into The Bad Batch‘s series’ predecessor: The Clone Wars animated series.

I have been sitting on a post about The Clone Wars for quite some time, but haven’t been able to bring myself to write it. Which is part of the reason that my stomach leapt into my throat when I saw yesterday’s ads for The Bad Batch, and why I was on the edge of my seat for my entire viewing of the first episode.

Clone Force 99 is not the first introduction we have to genetically abnormal clones.

Clone 99 is.

In Episode 1 of Season 3 of The Clone Wars, “Clone Cadets,” the audience follows the training of a new squad of clones called Domino. Echo (member #5 of “the bad batch”) is a member of this earlier squad. As Domino trains and struggles to work together as a team, they engage with a clone called 99. 99 is described as genetically “malformed” and “defective.” He appears and speaks in a way reminiscent of the physically and cognitively disabled. His skin is wrinkled and discolored, with one droopy eye. He has a hunched back and walks with a limp. He is deemed unfit for combat. He works as a janitor.

He is characterized as wise, hopeful, interested, interpersonal, and ultimately, inspiring. As Domino pushes back against teamwork and relationship, 99 teaches them how to care for and work with each other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he becomes the linchpin to the final battle at the end of Episode 2, “ARC Troopers”, saving the day, and sacrificing his life. He is made an honorary member of Domino Squad, receiving accolades in death. “We lost a true soldier. He really was one of us.”

I am teary as I type it, for the same reason I avoided writing the post I’d wanted to write about 99 for almost a full year. It was deeply triggering to watch. I haven’t watched The Clone Wars since.

99’s story follows the arc so many pieces of fiction do: The cognitively disabled person is underestimated, neglected, ostracized, but tugs at the heartstrings of the audience as he or she proves themselves both thoughtful and worthy. These sorts of characters almost always end up dying at the conclusion of their narrative, a “necessary sacrifice” that is meant to call to our minds the senselessness of war. And yet, it is also a “reasonable” death meant to keep us placated. None of the main, non-disabled characters would ever die in such a way. Disabled side characters exist to invoke the gravity of the situation, without causing any “real” harm to the core of the story. It all hinges on the suspicion that they probably would’ve died anyway, are somehow closer to death than non-disabled persons, and somehow more suitable to it. It is “inspiration porn” in the clearest sense.

So lest any viewers of The Bad Batch come away thinking Star Wars is veering into new territory, know this: The Star Wars universe already has a disabled clone in 99. It is after him that Clone Troop 99, “the bad batch” itself, is named.

In fact: the title of the whole show, The Bad Batch, comes from a line of dialogue in “Clone Cadets.” One of Domino’s members, Hevy, tells 99 that the reason the team cannot seem to work together is that they are a “bad batch” of “failures.” Here, what defines a “bad batch” is an inability to work together. In this episode, the “real” defective clones are those who do not see themselves as brothers in relationship to one another, contrasted with the “apparent” defective clone 99 who is literally genetically deviant but has a better sense of the brotherhood relationship than any of them. This is, again, very different from the sense of a “bad batch” that we get from the show of the same name.

It is interesting then that of all the Clone Force 99 members, Echo is the most clearly physically disabled. That he, who knew 99 in-person, is the one who carries on that legacy of truly readable disability in his body. However, in my mind, it is Wrecker who appears most akin to 99 narratively. I am already bracing for him to die.

Star Wars has dealt with explicit disability before in two instances that I can recall:

First, Luke’s amputated arm at the end of Episode V. His injury is immediately rectified by a sleek prosthetic limb. No harm, no foul.

Second, the blind Force-believer (and, arguably, user) Chirrut Imwe from Rogue One. While his blindness contributes to a number of humorous interactions and scenes, he is ultimately uninhibited by his disability. In fact, in the conclusion of the film, with the again arguable assistance of the Force, he is able to miraculously achieve a feat that turns the tides of the battle before succumbing to his death. It is, again, a death that is used to deeply move the audience towards sadness. I knew the moment he appeared onscreen that he would not survive. Perhaps fortunately, the story of Rogue One does not single him out like The Clone Wars does 99.

It is important to note here the connection between a disabled person and a heightened sense of spirituality. This is also a very common trope in media depicting disabled persons, as well as in religious communities in our own real world. It is how we in Christian spaces have been taught to interpret Jesus Christ’s healing miracles against the backdrop of the Gospel of John 9: 1-3…

“Now as Jesus passed by He saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.'” (NASB)

Now to be sure, associating disabled persons with unique spiritual abilities or favor with God is certainly better than associating disabled persons with sin. And, to be sure, Christ does indeed favor the marginalized, including the disabled, in particular ways (namely, in the attention he gives, to use the brilliant theological proffering of my friend and classmate Rebecca MacMaster.) As such, we can indeed learn something about community and Christlike, reciprocal relationship by spending time among people on the margins.

However, these views can also easily slip into inspiration porn again. We can start viewing the purpose of disabled people as being to teach us something about God, love, relationship, holiness, etc. (Sound like 99, anyone?) Disabled persons are human individuals in their own right, with their own desires, goals, skills, dislikes, and relationships with both other persons and God.

This is, again, why narratives like 99’s are so harmful: His character clearly served the sole purpose of teaching the main characters something about love. We must start to see disabled persons as main characters in their own right.

Views about spiritual and religious favor or power also encourage the opinion that the disability is “special,” when in reality, disability is supremely normal. All societies contain disabled persons, even if the responses to disability is different. All people will experience disabling conditions at some point in their lives, even if its the privileged disabling experience of old age. I shudder to think of what became of other genetically malformed clones; the Kaminoans admit of Clone Force 99 in episode one: “Five are all that remain.”

We should see that, across these Star Wars installments, disability is viewed as an ultimately useful impediment narratively. However, it is those who experience cognitive disabilities who fall prey to the most harmful of tropes. This is consistent with various other kinds of media, as well as various narratives in our society writ-large. Physical disabilities are generally viewed as more acceptable than cognitive ones. During one hospital scene, Clone Force 99 are informed by a medical droid that they are “genetically defective.” Tech is quick to reassure them, “we’re more deviant than defective.” Oh phew, crisis averted. In other words: “we’re not as bad as 99 was, because we are obviously more normative and useful.”

In the very next breath of the same scene, Clone Force 99 is made aware of Admiral Tarkin’s presence, to the chagrin of Echo, whose wartime injuries and mechanical enhancements had something to do with Tarkin. The “bad batch” is encouraged to do everything they can to appease the Admiral, lest they wind up “turned into that,” pointing back at Echo. Even though they are all on the same team, and Echo himself is not genetically deviant like the rest of them are, his teammates still treat his disabilities as markedly worse than theirs because their physical bodies are intact.

Above all, clones assert that they are far superior to droids. This is, in part, why Echo is singled out: Tech explicitly says “you are more machine than man, at this point.” We know how machines are treated by clones. We also know that droids are given personalities, memories, and feelings in the Star Wars universe. They’re not quite human, but they’re just animalistic enough to tug at our heartstrings when they die. I hope you see the similarities between these narrative functions and the narratives of cognitively disabled characters. This is not to speak to beliefs about human relationship to animals, but to call out the ways the cognitively disabled are often described in wild, animalistic, non-rational, even non-human terms. (*nods directly and aggressively to Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals*)

Because of the very same discriminate preferences–physical disabilities are better than cognitive ones, invisible ones more manageable than visible ones, persons with aids and prosthesis are proportionally less human than those with full use of all their limbs and organs– various laws and medical protections in our own country were written first in terms of physical accessibility. We still, today, see “access” as the leading call-to-arms for disability advocacy movements. It is vital that we see that “access” does very little to…

1). Meet the needs of cognitively disabled persons

2). Address the stigma faced by all disabled persons

In other words: a ramp, a lift, or a hearing aid won’t make people talk to you more respectfully. Access only goes so far.

In many cases, access is really just a tool for assimilation. The goal of many physical aids is to enable the body to operate normatively, that a person might come to participate more fully in social positions. Now, many disabled persons may desire aids. But some may not. Regardless, as consumers of media and participants in a society that contains disabled individuals, we must come to see that we continue to orient disabled persons towards utility. Getting and keeping jobs, participating “normally” in school, family, and Church, etc. These circumstances contain inherent dignity, and they are deeply worth protecting. However, they continue to trick us into viewing the disabled along a spectrum of usefulness and productivity. How much can that person do or understand? How old are they mentally, that I might appropriately label their behaviors for my own comfort? How could they be of use in “their own special way”?

Having this knowledge or demanding these skills of disabled persons should change absolutely nothing about the way they are viewed and treated.

It strikes me that this is the statement The Bad Batch has made thus far: These clones are genetically imperfect, BUT they are exceedingly useful.

This is not to say that exploring genetically divergent clones should be avoided. On the contrary: This is so, so important.

For one thing, it is vital that we see genetic divergence in every world we construct, fictional or real. Period.

I have felt such unrectified anger since watching 99’s The Clone Wars episodes. How dare Star Wars, a completely fictitious universe full of every imaginable type of creature, handle *literal* human genetic variants so stereotypically? I view The Bad Batch as an opportunity to expand this absolutely essential exploration, with the full knowledge that they might not do it perfectly. At least they’re doing it more.

For another, exploring genetically divergent clones makes way for examination into the ethics of cloning, questions of where in a person one’s personality and identity lies, and the bounds of science. Since meeting 99, I have long wondered about the bounds of genetic defectiveness of clones. Most interestingly: Could the clones’ sex chromosomes be genetically divergent? Could we ever see an intersex or female clone? (I’m thrilled to *spoil* that The Bad Batch gives us an answer: Yes!)

Depending on where the story goes from here, this could have amazing implications for the representation of intersex folks. Especially for those who believe transgender identities and the existence of a spectrum of gender all violate natural laws, increased discussion and representation of the genetically intersex can show that this is scientifically untrue. People are in fact born with divergent–in some cases, both!–sets of sex chromosomes and characteristics.

However, Star Wars is walking a very dangerous line on topics of eugenics and survival of the fittest. In one scene of The Bad Batch, the audience gets a glimpse of young Saw Gerrera, who is still reeling from Order 66 and the transition from Republic to Empire. In response to Clone Force 99 questioning their own allegiance to the Empire, Gerrera asserts that everyone must “adapt and survive, or die…” While this can certainly be interpreted as a realistic, political call to managing one’s expectations in order to stay alive, it is also explicitly reminiscent of arguments for natural selection and survival of the fittest, topics that explicitly implicate genetic variance.

In short: The Bad Batch will need to be careful not to implicitly or explicitly make the argument that only through intentional genetic manipulation can a clone survive. With the Jedi gone, clones are some of the only humans the audience can see themselves in and follow narratively. What are we being told about our own genetics if this is the case? It is certainly worth considering.

Like I said, there has only been one episode thus far. I greatly look forward to seeing where the show goes from here. I am hopeful that this might be the beginning of greater, more explicit exploration of disabled protagonists in Disney’s media.

It is worth considering how superhero stories are often implicitly about topics of disability and bodily variance (I think the X-Men stories handle these topics most explicitly), but that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has largely avoided these conversations. Perhaps a topic for another post?

I hope you watch The Bad Batch. But I implore you to watch Season 3 Episodes 1 and 2 of The Clone Wars first. It seems profoundly unjust not to include 99 himself in the story of Clone Force 99. Luckily, you can find both in the same place, as they’re both on Disney+.

May the Force be With You, Always– Madison

(Okay…say it back: “And with your Spirit.”)

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