From a galaxy far, far away to blood-stained Westeros in “Game of Thrones” to the star-studded Grammy Awards, blindness played a surprisingly high-profile role in pop culture over the last year.
In fact, characters with visual impairments appeared almost everywhere in 2016 – from blockbuster movies to hit streaming series. They were superheroes and villains, animated fish and confused teens, vigilantes and martial arts masters. They found a welcome in nearly every genre – fantasy, horror, comedy and drama.
And while blind characters are frequently portrayed as either victims or inspirational lessons for sighted people, that wasn’t the case last year. Some high-profile characters with blindness were morally ambiguous and at least one was flat-out obnoxious. Looking back, 2016 might be remembered as the year that many blind characters were simply…characters who were blind.
Here are 10 highlights of blindness in pop culture, 2016:
1. The blind warrior-monk in Star Wars: Rogue One
A blind character is one of the stars of the Star Wars film “Rogue One.” He’s Chirrut Imwe – a blind warrior-monk who helps the Rebel Alliance steal plans for the Death Star. The Force is strong with this one, so blindness is no barrier when it comes to thumping Imperial troopers with his quarterstaff. Chirrut also gets one of the movie’s best lines. After he’s captured, the bad guys put a bag over his head to lead him to a hidden location. “Are you kidding me?” he says. “I’m blind.”
2. Short-sighted Destiny saves the day in Finding Dory
Visual impairment plays a big role in the hit animated film “Finding Dory.” The movie, a sequel to “Finding Nemo,” features Destiny, a whale shark who is very short-sighted. While Destiny’s disability is sometimes played for laughs, she turns out to be a plucky friend who helps orchestrate an escape from a marine institute. The movie has another interesting blindness connection: Disney’s iPhone app, Disney Movies Anywhere, provides an audio description of “Finding Dory” for moviegoers who are blind.
3. The blind hero (or villain?) in Don't Breathe
In the popular horror thriller “Don’t Breathe,” a character who is blind must defend himself against three thieves who break into his home. It turns out they really shouldn’t have messed with this particular blind guy, who’s a military veteran. He grabs a gun and stalks the robbers through his dark and barricaded house. Three cheers for the blind Rambo? Not so fast. A shocking plot twist late in the movie forces viewers to reconsider who the real villains and victims are.
4. Blindness empowers Ayra Stark in Game of Thrones
Nothing is ever simple in HBO’s popular “Game of Thrones,” including how Ayra Stark, a daughter of House Stark in Westeros, became blind in Season 5. It’s like this: She disobeyed a command in the House of Black and White, so the Many-Faced God struck her blind as punishment. Got that? In last year’s Season 6, she showed courage and determination (and learned to fight while blind), so her vision was restored. Later, using skills she learned while blind, she struck back at a powerful adversary and discovered that revenge is a dish best served hot. In the end, blindness made her stronger.
5. Stevie Wonder's challenge at the Grammy Awards
Stevie Wonder, one of America’s best known musicians who is blind, made an unexpected pitch for accessibility at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards in February. While announcing the Song of the Year award, the R&B superstar opened an envelope with the winner’s name printed in braille. He used his moment in the spotlight to declare, “We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability.” The audience, full of music’s biggest stars, cheered enthusiastically.
6. Blindness is one of many mysteries in The OA
Blindness is part of the mystery of “The OA,” a series that debuted on Netflix in December. Quick synopsis of the Mobius-strip plot: Prairie Johnson, who is blind, turns up seven years after she disappeared – but now she can see. She won’t tell her parents or the police what happened, but, instead, gathers five random people in an abandoned house at midnight to tell her story. What happens next depends on each viewer’s perspective, but may involve secret experiments, near-death experiences, angels, time travel, insanity and interdimensional space-yoga.
7. Battling retinitis pigmentosa in Borealis
“Borealis,” an independent Canadian film released in the U.S. in June, tackles big themes – grief, addiction and disabilities. Fifteen-year-old Aurora has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative condition that causes blindness. (The movie even shows some scenes from her perspective, so viewers can experience the reality of declining vision.) Every Aurora needs a borealis, so her father, a gambler on the run because of his poker debts, takes her to see the Northern Lights before her vision vanishes. Amidst the poor life decisions and family dysfunction, it’s a sensitive portrayal of vision loss.
8. Hundred Eyes in Marco Polo
Hundred Eyes isn’t your typical blind warrior. In Netflix’s “Marco Polo” series, he’s a blind Taoist monk who sports the impressive title of Khanate Minister of Martial Affairs. Hundred Eyes (so named because of his ability to sense what’s around him) trains Marco Polo in the Wu Tang fighting style for Kublai Khan. He’s brave and fierce, as demonstrated in terrifically choreographed fight scenes. Sadly, Hundred Eyes fights no more. “Marco Polo” was canceled by Netflix in 2016 after its second season.
9. The obnoxious sibling in My Blind Brother
The blind guy as a jerk – that’s the premise of the offbeat independent film “My Blind Brother.” In this comedy-drama, blind brother Robbie is obnoxious and egotistical, but no one notices because they only see the “saintly” disabled guy who runs marathons for charity. His sighted brother Bill is content to live in his shadow until they both start dating the same women. In its unafraid-to-be-offensive way, the movie makes the point that people with blindness are just people – sometimes they’re nice and sometimes they’re jerks. That’s progress, right?
10. Daredevil, pop culture’s truest hero
TV’s most popular blind hero was back in 2016. He’s Daredevil – Matt Murdock, idealistic lawyer by day, superhero crime-fighter by night. In the gritty second season of the popular Netflix series, Daredevil faced myriad new challenges. Using his superhumanly sharp senses and epic fighting skills, he battles ruthless vigilante The Punisher, down-but-not-out crime kingpin Wilson Fisk, and the Hand, a mysterious and ruthless ninja clan. Fans will next see Daredevil in 2017, when he joins forces with Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Jessica Jones in “The Defenders” on Netflix. Portrayed with moral depth and athletic grace by actor Charlie Cox, Daredevil may be pop culture’s truest hero – one who just happens to be blind.
Photos and trailers courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures Pixar Animation Studios, Ghost House Pictures, HBO, the Grammy Awards, Netflix, Archstone Distribution, Orion Pictures and Starz Digital.