When I was 13, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. If you’re not in the know: it’s an offshoot of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). It’s messy and gross, and I’m not going to get into all the nitty-gritty symptoms right now, but what I will get into is how this illness has affected me and of course, how that relates to Doom Patrol.
As of right now, I’m 20 and haven’t shaken the symptoms at all. I still have constant stomach pain in some form or another and feel sick and nauseous frequently. I’ve had surgery twice, more blood tests and MRI scans than I could count, and have tried a bunch of different diets and medicines. I’ve had infusions for medication every 2 months for a few years now that thankfully put my Crohn’s in remission. However, I still retain the symptoms. It’s been years, and we don’t really know why or how to fix it. So yeah, it can be tough. It’s certainly manageable, and I’ve learned to live with it. There are obviously much worse illnesses, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t suck. But what often makes it tougher is the way this illness is depicted in media, how people like me are represented in art. Look, I’m a straight white dude. I’m as represented as they come, but the real lack of stories and characters going through the same struggles I go through is rare.
Often characters with chronic illnesses like me are cause for mockery. I love the Metal Gear games, but there’s a character in that called Johnny. He’s been in most of the games in some form and always as a punchline. See, Johnny has IBS, very similar to IBD. It means he shares pretty much the exact same symptoms as I do. But he’s not really a character in pain. He’s a joke and a loser. His constant need to find a bathroom, growling stomach, and toiletry issues are comedic. You aren’t meant to sympathize with him. You’re meant to think he’s funny and pathetic. I love Kojima, but every time he uses that character, it feels like he’s just laughing at me and anyone with IBD and IBS.
I can’t exactly blame him. IBS and IBD are often just seen as diseases that just make you poo a lot. But that’s ignoring the very real pain and struggle that comes with it. I wish I could say there are other characters I can turn to and see my struggles in, but I can’t. At least not until Doom Patrol and Rita Farr.
See, I’ve been a Doom Patrol fan since I was a little kid. They’re my favorite superhero team. They helped me embrace my weird side, and they are incredibly important to me. So I was crazy excited for their own TV show. When it finally premiered I LOVED it. Just adored it. As of right now, it’s my favourite live-action adaptation of a comic book. It was everything I wanted out of a Doom Patrol show but surprisingly it had even more than that. Because what I was really blown away by was Rita. Rita was like me.
I never found comic Rita that relatable, what with her being a former glamorous movie star and all. But this Rita was like me. She doesn’t have Crohn’s, or IBD, or any specific chronic illness. But she goes through the same struggles I do. There’s a degree of powerlessness she has, and that made me connect with her in a really powerful way.
If you weren’t aware, Rita Farr is Elasti-Woman. A former movie star who inhales some toxic gas and gains extraordinary powers. Except they aren’t extraordinary in the way you would think. She can stretch and change her body’s shape and form, but not usually at will. Her powers leave her droopy in almost Cronenbergian way. Because of that people consider her monstrous and disgusting. Rita struggles to collect herself every day; she struggles to form the massive blob she is into something manageable, something presentable. Any moment she fears she could lose her composure and become that blob again. That’s obviously not what I go through, but it sometimes feels like it. Every day I have to push through the pain and get it done. Every day I feel like sinking back into myself but force some composure and normalcy.
But it doesn’t stop there. Rita works through it. She works to be better, learning to push through the pain and use her illness for good. She uses it to help people, to be a hero. It’s genuinely inspiring to see a character take the pain they struggle with daily and turn it into a force for good.
Rita may be melted down and reduced to a blubbering mess, but she picks herself back up. In the episode ”Therapy Patrol”, Rita is reduced to that blob once again. As she pulls herself back together, she recites the words over and over “the person who is breathing is me.” That’s what it’s like for me. Sometimes I just have to focus and slow myself to push through the pain. But moments after this is something that makes me emotional every time I watch it. As Rita almost loses faith and begins to get frustrated, she tries again. She forces her way up the stairs into the light. She strives to be the best ball of slime she can be. She perseveres and comes out victorious and all the stronger for it.
What’s also great is how the other members of the Doom Patrol don’t bemoan Rita for her struggles. They accept and love her. Rita’s pain is never a joke. There are no jokes at the expense of someone suffering from an illness here, just a genuine, supportive family. It’s so refreshing to have a character like this, a family like this. She’s not disgusting or laughable. She’s a valued friend and a powerful ally. They love her and support her. They lift her up when she asks for it and leaves her to herself when she needs space. When Larry Trainor (Negative Man) first meets Rita, he is, at first, disturbed by her symptoms, but he later apologizes. He says that Rita shouldn’t have to get used to reactions like that and that this is her home and she should feel comfortable. Rita says she’s a lost cause, but Larry disagrees and supports her. It’s another moment that gets me really emotional every single time I watch it. Rita’s illness doesn’t define her, just like how it doesn’t define me or anyone like me.
It is an excellent representation of chronic illness and points to what superheroes are made for. They’re great allegorical figures. Rita doesn’t have Crohn’s, but what she does have is something universal. Her symptoms are so crazy and wacky yet so focused and pointed that people with many different illnesses can relate. We can identify with their struggles, and they can show us how to overcome them. Rita means a lot to me, and I just want to say thank you to the writers and directors, the crew and VFX artists who help bring her to life. Thanks especially to April Bowlby for portraying a character who makes do with what she can and shows us that we aren’t broken. Rita Farr shows us our pains can be triumphs, and our illness can be our superpower.
“Lost causes aren’t lost if you have someone to fight for them” – Rita Farr.