In mid-June, fans of Supergirl received some great news: a Luthor is coming to National City. Specifically, Lena Luthor, younger sister of the infamous Lex Luthor, enters the regular cast in the upcoming Season 2.
“Lena Luthor, who will be in the 25-35 year old range, arrives in town to get out from under the shadow of her infamous brother. She’s described as sexy and smart and determined to get what she wants. But what does she want? That remains unclear.”
That’s how TV Line described the character, presently in casting for the second season of Supergirl. What will she do to shake up Kara’s world? Well, we’re going to find out.
However, here’s something Lena definitely should be: A job opportunity for a paraplegic actress.
Lena’s casting as paraplegic remains faithful to the comics. According to the DC Wikia, she got sick when her brother was 17. Lex tried to fix her illness, but failed, and his treatment rendered her paraplegic.
Lena Luthor endures many fates over the various DC continuities. In the Silver Age, she didn’t even know she had a brother when she first met Supergirl. In another timeline, their abusive stepfather beat her to death. But New 52 Lena is the most recent iteration of the character, and I think that makes her the most logical source to draw from.
A paraplegic actress should play Lena, however, for more than just comics fidelity. The other major reason for it comes straight from the character description: Lena is sexy, smart, and determined, and her motives are unclear, and that’s how you describe a potential femme fatale.
Paraplegic audiences almost never see themselves depicted as sexy, or as the femme fatale. Media and culture desexualize of people with visible disabilities, and wheelchair users get it particularly badly. This can wreck the self-esteem of disabled people, who wind up seeing themselves as undesirable based on never having seen themselves otherwise depicted. Seeing Lena Luthor, sexy and mysterious, using a wheelchair, could be an absolutely phenomenal first step in changing that narrative of visible disability rendering people undesirable.
Consider that disability representation has not been good in superhero media. The only visibly disabled Marvel hero brought to the big or small screen by Marvel Studios, disability intact, is Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil. Hawkeye’s hearing aids don’t feature in the Avengers franchise, and the only disabilities given any narrative weight are Tony Stark and Bucky Barnes’s PTSD cases.
Charles Xavier, in the Fox X-Men franchise, only uses his chair intermittently. That reflects the comics’ tendency to go with whatever works better for whatever story they’re telling. But it doesn’t make for good physical disability representation, especially when the intermittent nature of his disability is intentional.
In DC TV, things don’t really fare better. All the visible disabilities depicted are temporary, such as Felicity Smoak’s time using a wheelchair. Meanwhile, Hartley Rathaway’s Deafness is erased and replaced with super-hearing. In terms of representation, this doesn’t make DC a bastion of progressive storytelling.
DC has, however, committed itself to an image of progress, at least in other areas. The DCEU consistently casts for characters of color, and there are more women with speaking roles and narrative relevance in the much maligned Batman V Superman than there are in the MCU’s Civil War. The Flarrowverse (including Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow) contains no less than 7 LGB characters. Supergirl itself tries to be a feminist show, with characters like Cat Grant and Lucy Lane in positions of power. It also cast the traditionally white role of Jimmy Olsen as a black actor, and will be introducing lesbian Maggie Sawyer next season.
If Lena Luthor uses a wheelchair, as an established part of her character from the beginning, it creates representation that up to now just hasn’t existed, and that the disabled community deserves. Paraplegic people should see themselves as heroes and larger than life characters, the same as anyone else.