Over*Flow: Unlocking Disability: A Short Analysis of Representations of Disability in Netflix’s Locke & Key
Ryan Banfi / University of southern california

Locke & Key, a Netflix Original Series
Locke & Key, a Netflix Original Series

Numerous network and streaming companies failed to adapt Joe Hill’s six-book comic series, Locke & Key (2008-2013), for TV/film. The adaptation of Locke & Key for TV was first attempted by Fox in 2010. Universal Studios endeavored to produce a movie trilogy based on the graphic novels in 2014. IDW Entertainment tried to adapt Hill’s series for television in 2016. In 2017, Hulu ordered a pilot of Locke & Key, but the company later abandoned the project. In 2018, Netflix decided to produce a ten-part season of Hill’s comics. The show was available to stream on February 7th, 2020.

Adapting Locke & Key is cumbersome due to the graphic violence in the comics. The plot revolves around a demon attempting to murder the Locke family in order to obtain their magical keys. The Locke’s weapon of defense is their supernatural home, named Keyhouse, and the various enchanted keys that live there. It is axiomatic that the creators of the Netflix produced Locke & Key (2020-) show, Meredith Averill, Aron Eli Coleite, and Carlton Cuse, sacrificed the adult content of the source material for a “one size fits all” television version of the comics. On the back of volumes 2-6 of Locke & Key, a parental advisory warning near the bar code states that the comics are “Suggested for Mature Readers” (Vol. 1 is absent of this warning). The Netflix TV series is rated TV-14, a step down from what the show would have been rated, TV-MA, had the series stayed truer to the graphic novels. Any depiction of Nina Locke or Ellie Whedon being raped, or Dodge’s ruthless murders and harsh language had been scrubbed away for streaming.

Netflix’s omission of this explicit material marred the themes of disability in the show, whereas Joe Hill’s comics discussed the hardships of people with disabilities explicitly. This downplayed the importance of Rufus Whedon, a character with disabilities, in the TV program. In the comics, Rufus is the sole character who understands Dodge’s master plan to obtain the Omega Key. Because Rufus is cognitively delayed, the other characters overlook his intelligence. Rufus endures Dodge’s use of the epithet, “retard,” and Dodge’s various comments about having him locked away for his disability. All of this is proven to be “too real”[ (( For an analysis of soap operas avoiding the “reality” of having disabled characters in their shows please see Cumberbatch, Guy and Negrine, Ralph. Images of Disability on Television. New York: Routledge, 1992, 81-82.))] for a TV-14 show that is more interested in the soap opera aspect of the comics than it is with discussing the source of the horror in the graphic novels–violence towards minorities.

Netflix casted an actor with Autism named Coby Bird to play Rufus Whedon. Bird proudly displays his bio on his Instagram and his Twitter account–“I am a 17 year old actor with Autism. Rufus Whedon on Netflix’s Locke & Key. Guest Star: Speechless & The Good Doctor. Autism/Disability Advocate.” Before playing Rufus in Locke & Key, Bird guest starred as Liam West, a patient with Autism, in the show, The Good Doctor (2017-). In the episode, “22 Steps” (1.7), the hero of the show, Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), treats Liam West. Dr. Murphy is a young surgeon with Autism and Savant Syndrome. The casting of Highmore to play Dr. Murphy exhibits “crip face,” which is a term that is used to describe a nondisabled person playing a character with disabilities in a show or film.

Cody Bird Sharing an Image on Insta
Coby Bird shares a photo of himself on the set of Netflix’s Locke & Key via his Instagram

Albeit Netflix counteracts “crip face” by hiring Coby Bird for the role of Rufus, they also devalue Joe Hill’s version of the character.[ (( See Paul Longmore’s foundational essay on representations of disability in media, Longmore, Paul K. “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People.” In Screening Disability: Essays on Cinema and Disability edited by Smit, Christopher R., and Enns, Anthony, 1-17. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2001.))] The TV program deletes Rufus’ engagement with others who doubt his abilities. Rufus’ complex character arc–from shy guy to brave soldier–is nonexistent.

In the comic saga, Dodge imposes himself on his ex-high school girlfriend, Ellie Whedon (Rufus’ mother). While staying at the Whedon residence, Dodge continually rapes Ellie and uses magic in front of Rufus. Dodge states that he can commit sorcery while Rufus watches because Rufus “doesn’t understand” what he is seeing (Vol. 2, pg. 14). Dodge’s dismissal of Rufus is his downfall.

Gabriel Rodriguez's artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic
Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic, Locke & Key

Dodge consistently refers to Rufus as a “retard” (Vol. 2, pgs. 45; 97; 98; and Vol. 6, pg. 155). However, Rufus is the most capable character in the comic book series because he “understand[s] everything” (Vol. 6, pg. 137). Rufus’ innocence allows him to see the magical keys being used, whereas adults are unable to comprehend the sorcery of the keys. Rufus is also safeguarded by the effects of the keys. For example, Dodge is unable to use the Head Key to erase Rufus’ memory because Rufus’ neck does not contain a keyhole (Vol. 2, pg. 142). Moreover, Rufus is able to see Bodie’s specter after Bodie’s body has been possessed by Dodge via the Ghost Key (Vol. 6, pg. 34). Rufus’ purity shields him from the conniving adult world. This makes him all the wiser.

Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke's specter in the comic
Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke’s specter in the comic, Locke & Key

Although Rufus productively protects the Locke family, the town of Lovecraft punishes him for being too competent for his disposition. After Rufus attacks the Dodge-possessed-Bodie in Vol. 6 (pg. 35), he is placed in a mental ward (Vol. 6, pg. 36). Despite the town’s dismissal of Rufus, it is Rufus who escapes from the asylum and it is he who kills Dodge by carrying him back into the wellhouse where Dodge was previously kept (Vol. 6, pg. 156).

Netflix’s Rufus is used sparingly and problematically. We first see Rufus in the opening episode, “Welcome to Matheson” (1.1). Rufus does not speak. He waves his army doll at Bodie (Jackson Robert Scott) to show a gesture of affection. A reverse shot displays Bodie mirroring Rufus’ salute. In the segment “Keeper/Trapper” (1.2), Rufus hands a bear trap to Bodie to help him capture Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira; Felix Mallard). This confirms the trope of parents’ being overly concerned about people with disabilities interacting with their children. In the episode “Echoes” (1.9), Rufus’ mother (Sherri Saum) shows Kinsey and Tyler Locke (Emilia Jones and Connor Jessup) her memories via the Head Key. Ellie’s recollection of Matheson proves to be too brutal for Rufus to see. He is left behind with Bodie. Later in this episode Rufus is knocked unconscious by Dodge. The last time we see Rufus is when he is transported to the hospital in the season finale, “Crown of Shadows” (1.10). By the end of the first season, Rufus becomes dormant.

Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix's Locke & Key
Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix’s Locke & Key

Rufus’ TV trajectory may ring true to Coby Bird’s progression from a silent child to a fearless actor. In an interview with Yahoo News, Bird stated that as a kid he did “not have any language.” Later in the series Bird’s character becomes more verbal. Despite Rufus’ on-screen development in becoming a livelier person, his character does not prove to be as salient in assisting the Locke family defeat Dodge as he was in the comics.

The silver lining is that Netflix is hiring nonnormative actors to play characters who have disabilities. Moreover, the show does do what disability advocates such as Tom Shakespeare yearn for in TV shows: casting a person with a disability whose non-normativity is never explained.[ ((Tom Shakespeare calls for nonnormative bodied characters to star in shows that do not primarily address their disability. On the subject of Peter Dinklage starring as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, Shakespeare states, “I’d like to see restricted growth actors performing in roles, like Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, for which their height is incidental.”))]

Eric Graise, a double amputee, plays Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key. The character of Logan Calloway solely exists in the TV show. He is not in the comics. Logan is first seen keying Javi’s (Kevin Alves) car for parking in a handicap parking spot (1.2). In the segment, “Head Games” (1.3), Tyler Locke asks Logan why he is wearing shorts in the Winter. Logan responds by asking Tyler, “My legs look cold to you?”

Eric Graise showcases his dance moves
Eric Graise showcases his dance moves

The show never explains how Logan Calloway lost his legs. Logan’s disability never defines his character. What’s more is that Logan actively rebels against those who dismiss the struggles of people with disabilities; e.g. when he keys (an obvious pun on the show’s title) an inconsiderate asshole’s car. Logan’s humor diffuses Tyler’s anger and Logan is regarded by the other teens as a charismatic leader. While Netflix may have had issues with adapting Rufus for the screen, they succeeded in incorporating a character with a disability who maintains a productive role throughout the first season.

Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key
Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key

Coby Bird and Eric Graise are advocates for disability rights. Graise demands that the entertainment industry “hire diverse. Period. Not just in front of the camera, not just in the writer’s room, but period.” Graise never wants to be called an “inspiration.” He “struggle[s] with that.”

I am not calling Eric Graise an inspiration. But TV programs need more characters like Logan Calloway in Locke & Key for the reason that Logan’s disability is not central to his character. Logan has a real influence on the other characters. He helps them through his leadership. Whereas Rufus’ is not given the same autonomy in the show. The disability themes in the graphic novel should have been instilled in the TV adaptation of the comic series, regardless of the source material’s brutality towards nonnormative people. Netflix’s addition of Logan Calloway seems to work as Logan is not converted from one medium to another. He is a stand-alone character. Adapting characters with disabilities has proven to be problematic. Are their identities lost in the process?

Image Credits:

  1. Locke & Key, a Netflix original series
  2. Coby Bird shares a photo of himself on the set of Netflix’s Locke & Key via his Instagram
  3. Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic, Locke & Key
  4. Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke’s specter in the comic, Locke & Key
  5. Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix’s Locke & Key
  6. Eric Graise showcases his dance moves
  7. Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key


“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”: Christmas Classics Old and New
Kathleen Loock / University of Flensburg

Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel is a Christmas classic in Germany as well as in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, and Switzerland.

In Germany, Christmas is not Christmas unless one has watched Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel (Three Wishes for Cinderella), an East German/Czechoslovakian co-production from 1973 directed by Václav Vorlíček. Based on a variation of the familiar Grimm Brothers’ fairytale by Czech writer Božena Němcová, this movie delivers magic, memorable music (by Czech composer Karel Svoboda), and beautiful winter landscapes (filmed around Moritzburg Castle near Dresden) along with a surprisingly feminist female lead, who is not only smarter than the prince but also beats him at horse-riding and marksmanship. The popularity of Drei Haselnüsse remains unbroken. More than forty years after its first release, the movie has become an essential part of the German Christmas viewing ritual and a holiday staple in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, and Switzerland as well. Drei Haselnüsse is comparable to It’s a Wonderful Life in the United States. Jonathan Munby describes Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic as “a mythical text” that has assumed the status of “the Christmas movie, the Hollywood carol, the benchmark against which all other Christmas films are judged” (55, emphasis in original). If Munby argues that It’s a Wonderful Life provides “an ontological guarantee of Christmas itself” (56), the same is certainly true for Drei Haselnüsse in other parts of the world.

James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's A Wonderful Life and Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel
It’s a Wonderful Life and Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel are both considered to be definitive Christmas movies.

The enduring popularity of such movies raises questions about the ways in which popular culture shapes memories, experiences, and ideas of Christmas and about the desire to repeat and replay the same stories every year. Beyond the sense of comfort and reassurance that Christmas classics seem to provide, they also draw attention to a “deluge of new Christmas movies” (Rebecca Alter) that is not only cranked out by the usual suspects Lifetime and Hallmark during their seasonal programming of made-for-TV holiday romances but also by Netflix, which began to produce its own share of original Christmas fare in 2015. How do these new Christmas movies relate to the old classics? What are they offering viewers? And do they affect the cultural logic of Christmas as both a local and a global festival?

Graphs showing an increase in Netflix original Christmas films.
There has been an increase in Netflix Christmas Originals since 2015.

While the origins of Christmas can be traced back to Roman times, Christmas traditions as we know them (with tinseled trees, filled stockings, Christmas cards, and Santa Claus) only emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when the rambunctious, carnivalesque holiday was reimagined as a family-centered, domestic affair that took place in the home, no longer in the public sphere (cf. Miller, “A Theory” and “Christmas”; Nissenbaum; Sigler). Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) fueled this “invention of tradition” (Eric Hobsbawm), which “claims links with an ancient past but is really an almost entirely new festival” (Miller, “Christmas” 13), through an emphasis on the carnival tradition of the temporary inversion of established (social) hierarchies and visitations from the dead (Mundy 164). Literary texts were important for the construction of modern Christmas, but as John Mundy has pointed out, the reinvention of the holiday “relied as much, if not more, on visual imagery” (164) ranging from illustrations in books and magazines, advertisements and Christmas cards to holiday movies: “[S]ince the end of the Second World War, Hollywood films have increasingly dominated big-screen representations of Christmas and ensured that movies, including their soundtracks, have become an integral aspect of our contemporary experience of the Christmas festivities, whether at the cinema or on television and DVD” (Mundy 165).

Over the past decades, the list of Christmas classics has kept growing with movies such as Miracle on 34th Street (Seaton, 1947; remade in 1994 by director Les Mayfield), Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988), Home Alone (Columbus, 1990), The Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson, 1992), or the improbable Bad Santa (Zwigoff, 2003). Christmas movies attain their status as classics through regular repetition, which encourages and sustains ritualized consumption practices. Television plays a crucial role in canonizing these films after their theatrical releases and in endowing them with a timeless, festive quality. In Germany, the Christmastime programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse is published well in advance each year, creating excitement for the holiday and the prospect of ample opportunities to (re)watch the familiar movie on television. In addition, Drei Haselnüsse is also available on Netflix, along with the streaming service’s Christmas originals.

The 2019 programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel
The 2019 Christmastime programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel on German public television.

In recent years, Hollywood has grown reluctant to produce new Christmas movies due to “the constraints of release windows and limited marketing opportunities” (Snart). Netflix, the “catch-all disrupter” (Heritage), has occupied the niche with “a series of original films operating somewhere between the Hallmark channel and the multiplex in terms of production values” (Snart). Unlike Hallmark or Lifetime, however, Netflix produces Christmas movies for global audiences. A Christmas Prince (Zamm, 2017) and co. all contain essentially the same ingredients that made It’s a Wonderful Life or Drei Haselnüsse Christmas classics in their respective countries (from the carnivalesque de-stabilization or reversal of power structures, to miraculous interventions, and a festive winter atmosphere) without trying very hard to replace or compete with their precursors. If Christmas classics tend to have dark, serious, or sad undertones, Netflix’s original movies are their shallow, feel-good counterparts. They postulate postfeminist ideas of domesticity and family life, painting Christmas as a holiday which emphasizes “the continuity of home and tradition” (Miller, “Christmas” 437).

Netflix tweeted about users watching the movie A Christmas Prince 18 days in a row.
Netflix’s Twitter account makes creepy comment about repeat viewers of A Christmas Prince.

Netflix’s creepy tweet exposing repeat viewers of A Christmas Prince in 2017 seems to indicate that the streaming giant is not interested in the kind of repetition that would transform its originals into timeless Christmas classics. Instead, Netflix wants to create new, serialized content based on its most successful formulas, such as the annually released sequels A Christmas Prince: Royal Wedding (Schultz, 2018) and A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby (Schultz, 2019). In times of “peak TV,” Netflix employs Christmas as an algorithmic keyword that promises a global viewership both familiarity and novelty. The “deluge of new Christmas movies” (Rebecca Alter), which was recently ridiculed on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, generates an upbeat, sugary, harmless Christmas spirit. These films are all about getting viewers into a cozy, seasonal mood, and they stand out among the season’s timeless classics, which, like Drei Haselnüsse and It’s a Wonderful Life, always also contain critical comments about class, gender, and how we live together.

Stephen Colbert makes fun of the deluge of new Christmas movies on The Late Show.

Image Credits:

  1. Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel is a Christmas classic in Germany as well as in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, and Switzerland.
  2. It’s a Wonderful Life and Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel are both considered to be definitive Christmas movies.
  3. Table and graph by author.
  4. The 2019 Christmastime programming schedule for Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel on German public television.
  5. Netflix’s Twitter account makes creepy comment about repeat viewers of A Christmas Prince.
  6. Stephen Colbert makes fun of the deluge of new Christmas movies on The Late Show.


Alter, Rebecca. “The
Definitive Guide to 2019’s Deluge of New Christmas Movies.” Vulture 25
October 2019. Web. 29 October 2019. https://www.vulture.com/2019/10/81-christmas-movies-on-hallmark-lifetime-netflix-and-more.html

Heritage, Stuart. “Why Does netflix Keep Making So Many Cheap TV Movies?” The Guardian, 10 July 2019. Web. 29 October 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/10/netflix-secret-obsession-tv-movies

Hobsbawm, Eric. “Introduction: Inventing Traditions.” The Invention of Tradition. Ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. 1-14.

Miller, Daniel. “A Theory of Christmas. Unwrapping Christmas. Ed. Daniel Miller. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. 3-37.

Daniel. “Christmas: An Anthropological Lens.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7.3 (2017): 409-442.

Munby, Jonathan. “A
Hollywood Carol’s Wonderful Life.” Christmas at the Movies: Images of
Christmas in American, British and European Cinema.
Connelly. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000. 39–58.

Mundy, John. “Christmas
at the Movies: Frames of Mind.” Christmas,
Ideology and Popular Culture
. Ed. Sheila Whiteley. Edinburgh: EUP, 2008.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The
Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Christmas
. New York:
Knopf, 1996.

Snart, Stephen. “The Christmas Chronicles Review: Kurt Russell’s Santa Can’t Save Netflix Turkey.” The Guardian, 21 November 2018. Web. 29 October 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/nov/21/the-christmas-chronicles-review-kurt-russells-santa-cantsave-netflix-turkey

Sigler, Carolyn. “‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’: Misrule and the Paradox of Gender in World War II-Era Christmas Films.” The Journal of American Culture 28.4 (December 2005): 345-356.