For my Disability and The Media Class, I wrote an essay critiquing The Fault In Our Stars after reading it in 2022. Please note: I am not a disabled writer. I am writing this based off of the materials and theories learned in the classroom. Please listen to disabled voices first and foremost when it comes to this story and all stories.
In 2012, critically acclaimed Young Adult author John Green published his fourth solo novel entitled The Fault in Our Stars. The novel follows sixteen-year-old protagonist Hazel Grace Lancaster. She has thyroid cancer which affects her lungs, and she uses an oxygen tank with a nasal cannula as a result. After attending a support group for cancer survivors, Hazel meets and falls in love with Augustus “Gus” Waters, a survivor of osteosarcoma and an amputee as a result of cancer. The novel immediately received praise from fans and critics alike and remained on The New York Times bestseller list for seven consecutive weeks. Internationally, The Fault in Our Stars became a fan favorite.
One of the common praises John Green received for his novel was the new, fresh perspective on dying and cancer. While John Green is not a cancer survivor himself, his inspiration for writing The Fault in Our Stars came after he had close encounters with the disease while working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital and when he lost a close friend– Esther Earl– to thyroid cancer (Griffinths, 2014). Similar to the protagonist Hazel Grace Lancaster, Esther Earl was sixteen years old. In a video eulogizing Esther shortly after her passing, John Green rejects the idea of Esther Earl serving as inspiration porn because of the way society views teenagers who have passed away from cancer. Green says, “She was astonishingly empathetic. She was very thoughtful. She was very funny. But she wasn’t an angel or a model of perfection or anything. She was a person. She was a teenager,” (Vlogbrothers, 2010). By Green expressing this, it shows that he abhorrently rejects the inspiration porn stereotype for all disabled teenagers. When writing The Fault in Our Stars, Green prioritized avoiding the inspiration porn stereotype in order to humanize teenagers with cancer. He wanted them to be complicated and messy to reflect their humanity. However, John Green still does not have the lived experience of what it is like to be a cancer survivor. By avoiding the inspiration porn stereotype, John Green leaned into other harmful stereotypes of disabled people, including viewing disabled people as inherently non-sexual and if they can’t be cured, then they would be better off dead.
Disabled People are Inherently Non-Sexual
It is important to note that The Fault in Our Stars is a novel created for young teenagers and the characters’ ages are under eighteen. In the context of this critique, I am referring to the idea of disabled people in long-term romantic relationships, not the inherent sexualization of characters under the age of eighteen. I will, however, be using the phrase “non-sexual” throughout this media critique to reflect that idea.
One of the ways that this novel plays around with this stereotype is with the witty wingman to Augustus Waters, Isaac. Isaac has retinoblastoma and uses an artificial glass eye. It is revealed early on that he will soon have to have his other eye removed because of retinoblastoma. Prior to his surgery, Isaac dates a non-disabled character named Monica. While he is dating Monica, Isaac is described to be very affectionate and ‘touchy’ with Monica. Hazel even describes him passionately making out with her outside of the support group center, wildly touching her breast through her shirt (Green, 2012, p. 19). However, Monica breaks up with him shortly before his surgery. The exact reason for the breakup is not explicitly given but he confirms she did it prior to the surgery because, “‘She didn’t want to dump a blind guy’” (Green, 2012, p. 60). Monica is not able to see him in a sexual context once he would be visually impaired.
Even the plot allows for this belief to permeate. Prior to the surgery, Isaac is perceived to the readers as a sexual being. However, once he is broken up with and visually impaired, Isaac does not pursue any other characters romantically. He does make jokes about his own sexuality, including one instance where he instructs his video game to “hump the moist cave wall” (Green, 2012, p. 280). These nods to him as a sexual being never manifests into another romantic relationship or interest. This portrays to the audience that it is nearly impossible to perceive someone within a romantic or sexual context once they become disabled, even if they do have attractions or desires.
The stereotype of disabled people as non-sexual individuals does not end with Isaac, however. The love interest himself, Augustus Waters, reflects the stereotype of disabled people as non-sexual people as well. Gus simultaneously leans into and breaks apart from this stereotype. Early on in the novel, Augustus tells Hazel that he is still a virgin and points to his prosthetic leg as the reason for his in-tact virginity. While this could be viewed Gus punching down at himself, he perpetuates the stereotype of disabled people being non-sexual. In fact, he even goes as far to say that having sex and having a prostetic leg are oxymorons. “‘…Draw a circle…Now draw a smaller circle within that circle…The larger circle is virgins. The smaller circle is seventeen-year-old guys with one leg” (Green 119).
Augustus’s joke is not just stereotypical, but it is also factually incorrect. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health examining the sexual behaviors of physically disabled teenagers proved that disabled adolescents are as sexually experienced as their non-disabled peers (Cheng, 2002). While Augustus and Hazel do break out of this stereotype by having sex while traveling in Amsterdam and pursuing a relationship prior to Augustus’s death, the “one-leg virgin” joke makes John Green’s young, impressionable audience assume that Augustus is not the norm but an exception. They will leave this book assuming that every teenager who is an amputee is also inherently a non-sexual person, further perpetuating the steryopte that disabled people can not be perceived sexually.
One of the most infamous scenes (for better or for worse) in The Fault in Our Stars is Augustus and Hazel’s kiss at the Anne Frank house. In this scene, Augustus and Hazel share their very first kiss after Hazel struggled to climb up the stairs due to her limited lung capacity. After Hazel breaks apart from the kiss, she notices that a crowd of people has formed around them. She narrates that she is worried that the visitors would be disgusted or even angry at this act within a place of international mourning. However, the non-disabled museum go-ers have quite the opposite reaction. “And then they started clapping. All of the people, all of these adults, just started clapping, and one shouted ‘Bravo’ in a European accent” (Green, 2012, p. 204).
While this scene is not only insensitive and fairly cringey, it also begs the question as to why the non-disabled visitors felt the need to cheer for the two visibly disabled teenagers sharing a brief kiss. How would the visitors have reacted if the two teenagers were not visibly disabled? Most likely, they would have scoffed or even been disgusted at the blatant disrespect for the Anne Frank house. However, because it was two visibly-disabled teenagers, their reaction was totally different. They have been socially conditioned to believe that this kiss between two disabled people is an anomaly so they need to applaud for this rare moment.
“Better Off Dead” and The Medical Model
Unfortunately, John Green’s love story does not only fall into the stereotype of perceiving disabled people as non-sexual. It also perpetuates the stereotype that if disabled people can not be cured then they are better off dead. Early on in The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel describes and pokes fun at the support group leader– Patrick– and his experience with testicular cancer. “…He had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is… divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless…waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life”. She then sarcastically addresses her audience that they too might be as lucky to live a miserable life as Patrick if they survive their cancer (Green, 2012, p. 5). With this tangent, Hazel seems to be assuming that because Patrick is now missing both of his testicles and his life is not “glamorous” that he was better off not living.
This anecdote could be interpreted as a reflection of Hazel’s pessimistic spirit at the beginning of the novel. However, this belief is a recurring concept throughout the rest of the novel. Prior to Hazel and Augustus’s trip to Amsterdam, Hazel expressed to Isaac how she was afraid to pursue a relationship with Gus without a given reason. He decides to fill it in for her. “‘You don’t want him to Monica you,’ he said….But it wasn’t that. The truth was, I didn’t want to Isaac him” (Green, 2012, p. 135). To recall the beginning of the novel, Monica broke up with Isaac prior to becoming disabled. Given Hazel’s late-stage thyroid cancer, Hazel “becoming an Isaac” would be dying. Hazel is implying here that her dying from thyroid cancer would be just as difficult and damaging as Isaac becoming visually impaired.
This is not just an odd message to send to a teenage readership, but it is also a nod to the medical model of disability. The medical model of disability sees disability as a result of a physical condition within one individual. The problem with this model, as described by Dan Goodley in Disability Studies is that the “human worth of disabled people is rendered highly questionable” and medical intervention makes disabled bodies “increasingly undesirable” (Goodley, 2011, p. 6). Hazel’s pessimistic outlook on her condition and others often leans towards the medical model. She looks at her body with disgust, even stripping herself of humanity by calling it a “cancer-ridden thing” (Green, 2012, p. 203). Without her romance with Augustus, Hazel deems her life worthless because of her illness. This is due to the morality surrounding the medical model.
Hazel is not the only person in The Fault in Our Stars who reflects the negative outcomes of the moral model. During the trip to Amsterdam, Augustus and Hazel sit down with the author of one of their favorite books named Peter Van Houten. The author, however, turns out to be a vindictive and cruel character. During their exchange, Peter expresses his discomfort and anger towards sick, cancerous children. He blames the evolutionary process for their cancer and even goes as far to call them a failed experiment in evolutionary mutation (Green, 2012, p. 193). Peter Van Houten is supposed to be an antagonist in The Fault in Our Stars, but this line reflects the belief the medical model of disability projects on society. Instead of believing cancer is a moral failing, the medical model believes that disabled people are a side effect of medical failing and their lives are deemed worthless.
While The Fault in Our Stars is far from the perfect disability representation, it is vital to say that this book served an important purpose for young disabled people when it was first released. In an article published by the BBC, a fan of the novel who was in remission for Leukemia expressed how much the book meant to her. “Although it is such a sad story, it’s helped me through so much as well” (Griffiths, 2014). The worldwide commercial success of The Fault in Our Stars also opened the door for disability narratives to be published and adapted into movies. John Green did not invent “sick lit”, but his love story did bring it into mainstream pop culture. One day we can hope that better cancer representation will come into the Young Adult zeitgeist. Until then, we can certainly learn a thing or two about disability representation from Augustus and Hazel.
Vlogbrothers. (2010). Rest in Awesome, Esther. YouTube. Retrieved February 17, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mj96HM9kDTQ.
Griffiths, S. J. (2014, June 18). The Fault in Our Stars: ‘It’s a real story’. BBC News. Retrieved February 17, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-27900741#:~:text=Author%20John%20Green%20was%20inspired,cancer%20in%202010%2C%20aged%2016
Green, J. (2012). The Fault in Our Stars. Dutton Books.
Cheng, M. M., & Udry, J. R. (2002). Sexual behaviors of physically disabled adolescents in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31(1), 48–58. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1054-139x(01)00400-1
Goodley, D. (2011). In Disability Studies (pp. 1–10). essay, SAGE Publications.