More Than A Villain: Ivar the Boneless and Disability
More Than A Villain: Ivar the Boneless and Disability
By Alice Wong
I watch a LOT of television–the good, the bad, the ugly, the ableist, the superficial, and everything in between. I discovered the History Channel‘s original series Vikings through a friend on Twitter, @CaperWheelLady. We first connected as disabled people and fans of the bloody beautiful NBC show Hannibal. Vikings is a historical drama centered on the legendary figure Ragnar Lothbrok. I became even more invested with the introduction of his son Ivar, also known as Ivar the Boneless.
As much as I appreciate disabled characters on television (e.g., Tyrion Lannister, Daredevil, Long John Silver from Black Sails, Emma Decody from Bates Motel), I acknowledge that some can be problematic faves. Every fan deals with this issue–love for a character or show runs strong and hard. For disabled people, there’s a lot to love and feel ambivalent about with Ivar, a character with a physical disability played by Danish actor Alex Høgh Andersen.
To complicate matters, people with disabilities are routinely excluded in the entertainment industry in front and behind the camera. Non-disabled actors playing disabled characters are the norm while critics of the practice are often deemed as complainers or overly demanding. As more disabled people speak out about this lack of visibility in media and entertainment, how does a disabled person balance their affinity for entertainment that does not represent their cultures or communities with authenticity? Does it even matter?
Historically, it is unclear exactly what kind of disability Ivar the Boneless had but there are theories that the Ivar had osteogenesis imperfecta (aka OI or brittle bone disease) among other disabilities. Here is an interview with two women with OI, Jan J. and Vilissa K. Thompson on the character Ivar, our review of season 4 of Vikings, show’s depiction of disability, and the politics of representation. Please note: major character and plot spoilers ahead from Vikings.
First, what was your reaction after watching the season finale of Vikings? How did you like season four overall?
Jan: Epic season finale and battle, and shocking exit for Sigurd by Ivar! Intrigued to see the next chapter continue with all of the characters, and how it will all play out, especially with the new Bishop Heahmund, who appears will be Ivar’s rival, can’t wait! Overall, would have to say season four was my absolute favourite so far, even though the death of Ragnar was truly devastating.
Vilissa: I am a new fan of the show, so I still have to catch up in the series. But watching the last couple of episodes, I was happy to see Ivar be such a strong character (despite the cripping up role). However, the ending of season finale episode was shocking, especially with him killing his brother. I saw traces of Ivar’s anger in the few episodes I have watched, but I was not expecting him to be so enraged to lash out. Seeing his reaction to his actions stunned me, and showed me that he did not expect to do harm at all.
Season four of Vikings follows Ivar through an amazing arc–you see him as a young man trying to find his place among four brothers and powerful parental figures. He gets a chance to reconnect with his father Ragnar when they finally confront their true feelings about their relationship. He comes into his own on the field of battle with his brothers. What did you think about the evolution of Ivar this season?
Vilissa: In the last couple of episodes, I really liked how Ivar stood up for himself when his brothers tried to belittle him because of his disability. Ivar’s passionate nature is mistaken as being rash and hotheaded, and not thinking clearly. At times, he is also infantilized because of his disability and his statements, whether rational or not, and are thus concerned less than. Ivar is most certainly an aggressive and competitive person, and I enjoyed watching that energy unfold before me.
Jan: Ivar is a very interesting and intriguing character, who happens to also have a disability and he has many sides to him. Ivar as a child, I was glad to see him being included in play with the other children, and that he wasn’t completely shut off and hidden away from everyone due to his disability. Ivar’s reconnection with his father Ragnar was crucial and was instrumental into making him the warrior and young man that he has become at the moment. Ragnar gave Ivar the recognition and confidence that his disability does not define him! Their scenes together as father and son were some of my favourites, and Travis and Alex had great chemistry.
As two women with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), what is your take on the portrayal of Ivar by the actor Alex Høgh Andersen? What are some details you think the show gets right about people with OI and things that are a bit off?
Jan: Going into season 5, Ivar is my favourite character! As for the portrayal of a person with OI, I would have to say it is not ideal. The show did get it right about Ivar having the symptom of blue sclera (yet, not all OIers do, including myself). It was also great to see Ivar as a child, the particular scene when the children were pushing him in the cart and he says “careful not to break my bones.” As for what I feel is a bit off regarding the OI portrayal: I would have to say would have really liked to see the show continue with, and visibly play out, the top OI symptom of the danger and experience of his bones fracturing as an adult. Would have been quite significant and authentic to see that play out. Another thing I felt was a bit off, is Ivar’s impotency. I have not heard or been made aware that having OI causes impotency in any way. Was also kind of surprising as well that the show would go that route, since history tells us that Ivar supposedly fathered children.
Vilissa: The cripping up role is hard for me to get over, especially since I think an actor with OI could have, and should have, been casted. Since OI is a rare condition, there are few roles where our disability is actually seen. When the few portrayals are casted by able-bodied/non-disabled actors and actresses, it comes off as inauthentic. Also, there are actors with OI who are better suited for these roles – why are not networks and directors doing the work needed to find and hire them, and thus, employing and supporting disabled actors? We need the proper representation as well, and we deserve it.
Honestly, it is hard for me to be objective in my viewing of Ivar because he does not have OI. He’s more of average height, but those who are that tend to be able to walk (particularly if they have Type I, which is the mildest type of OI). Because Ivar crawls, it seems that he has a more moderate form of OI, though his height is portrayed as that of average. As an adult with OI, my archnemesis is falling and breaking a bone, I would like to see more of Ivar display some of those sentiments as he becomes more physically involved in season 5. Fractures in adulthood is different than in childhood (as far as healing). Seeing how Ivar protects himself and his body is what I am looking to see more of, and how his need for safety is or is not reality (being the environment he lives in).
Michael Hirst, the creator of Vikings said this about Ivar and researching OI in a recent interview about the season 4 finale:
…we talked to people who had it and who had relatives who had it. And one of the things that it does is to make people very angry, of course. They can wake up one day and just break a bone by just doing something very simple. So they’re used to being very angry a lot of the time. So whatever terrible things Ivar does, you can somehow just about forgive him because you know where he’s come from and the struggles that he’s gone through and the terrible pain and suffering that he’s gone through.
Does that ring true to your lived experience? Does that take Ivar ‘off the hook’ for his indifference and mistreatment of others?
Vilissa: Oh gosh. I view this entire statement as problematic and that may be influenced by how OI plays out for me. I have Type IV OI, which is a moderate type. I have had less than 20 fractures in my life, and have had rodding surgeries that gave me the ability to walk. Due to these aspects, my OI does not impact my life as greatly as others. I do know people with OI who do fracture easily, and have written about their frustrations in being in constant pain due to fractures and the way OI has manifested. However, that anger does not give anyone the right to do horrible things to others – that is not a healthy way to handle yourself, even when it comes to your body. To believe that all of us with OI are angry is inaccurate, and to say that we get a “pass” to mistreat others is also horribly wrong.
If I am angry about OI, it is due to the ableism and discrimination I have endured because I live in an ableist society that disregards my human experience. To be frustrated with my body is one thing; it is quite another to be angry at the mistreatment, exclusion, and ignorance surrounding disability. In many ways, I feel that Ivar’s anger stems from how he is regarded and treated, which is something most disabled people can relate to.
Jan: Speaking as a person with OI who has had numerous fractures, I would have to say no not really as far as being very angry. When doing his research on OI, would also be interested to know if Mr. Hirst used the most reliable and accurate resource on OI that is out there: the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation.
I feel our/OIers frustration or anger is not so much only about our bones being brittle and having to endure numerous fractures, but in a sense perhaps more about being excluded, denied access, or being treated differently in society due to having a disability. I feel being excluded, treated differently, or not being valued as an equal, that perhaps THAT is more the case/reasoning behind a lot of Ivar’s anger. I must admit, it would be quite interesting if we could get to see Ivar meet or come upon another character that would have a disability, and to see how he would interact or treat them….would he relate or see himself in them, or would he discriminate or be indifferent towards them and feel that they deserve to be killed due to seeing them as weak or not worth living? Or would he perhaps surprise us, and have them join him to fight in The Heathen Army?!
There was a recent article that asked whether Ivar is a problematic character in terms of the stereotypes of the ‘angry, violent, bitter cripple’ as the villain. I totally disagreed with that perspective because the series shows many other facets to Ivar’s personality–he’s clever, observant, confident, funny, quick-witted, and has a deep sense of loyalty toward his parents Ragnar and Aslaug. Yes, Ivar is violent and cruel, but he’s more than that. Do you think he’s a one-dimensional negative character?
Jan: Don’t agree with that perspective either, and I wouldn’t say he is entirely a one-dimensional negative character. Yes, a big part of his personality is his anger and violence, but as you mentioned, he has so many more sides to him as well which I feel isen’t only about his anger or bitterness. To add to his personality traits, he also has a sensitivity that also shapes him as a person I feel, when it comes to his desire to having a relationship or pleasing a woman. Another side to him is also his belief and devotion to the gods.
Vilissa: I think that allowing Ivar to be a “nasty” character is good – I am so tired of seeing us portrayed as angelic, innocent, infantilized, unable to thrive as adults, and other disempowering depictions that are not true for us. I think some of the objection to Ivar is due to us not being seen as more than one-dimensional, and that goes back to the portrayals about us that are typically seen on the big and small screens. Though I have issues with the cripping up of Ivar, I do enjoy that he is very human and his humanness is well seen on the show.
One area where I think the writers of Vikings got ‘right’ is depicting the tensions between Ivar and his brothers. Sibling rivalry is natural, especially among royalty. Being the only disabled sibling adds a dynamic that can complicate relationships. Ivar and Björn, Hvitserk, Sigurd, and Ubbe, alternately support, mock, belittle, and hurt one another. What did you enjoy the most from the seasons this season with the Sons of Ragnar?
Vilissa: As an only child, I enjoy seeing sibling bondings that are realistic to how people actually are, and I think Vikings does a good job of that. If those interactions were not authentically displayed, I would not like it.
Jan: There were many sibling rivalries played out amongst the Sons of Ragnar, and enjoyed all of the different dynamics, and then adding a disabled sibling to the mix makes at times even more reason for resentment and tension. Ivar’s strongest sibling rivalry no doubt was with his brother Sigurd. Was also interesting to watch the rivalry Björn had with his brothers, in feeling that he was more of the superior Viking warrior and more experienced. But then also enjoyed the opposite side to the sibling rivalry, how especially Ubbe seemed to look out for Ivar at times, and seemed to go more out of his way to include him. I’m particularly referring to the time when Ubbe set up Ivar’s first time sleeping with a woman. I was glad to see that Ubbe and his brothers didn’t treat Ivar like it was a ridiculous request, or completely disregard his request, due to him having a disability.
When Aslaug was pregnant with Ivar, she had a prophecy that her child might become a monster. Born with a visible difference, Ragnar rejected Ivar and attempted to kill him. Being thought of as a curse or a monster exists today for many disabled people. How do you think this affected Ivar’s sense of self? Do you think toxic masculinity played a role as well?
Jan: It greatly affected Ivar’s sense of self and self esteem, especially knowing that his father wanted to kill him. No doubt in those days, that was the mindset if any child was born disabled or deformed. Ivar and Ragnar’s reconnection later, and Ragnar’s realization and acknowledgement when Ivar was older, that his father now saw Ivar’s disability wasn’t a sign of weakness, I think that greatly helped make up for Ivar feeling abandoned and not wanted. Yes I suppose you could say toxic masculinity could have played a role as well. In a sense especially Ivar being a son, and Ragnar perhaps not being able to accept that he didn’t have the perfect healthy son.
Vilissa: Ivar lives in a society where the strength of a man is prominent, and with him having a body that is considered “weak” or “less than,” I think it would be hard for him to not internalize toxic masculinity. I believe that Ivar’s behavior and emotions may be him overcompensating to prove his maleness, his virtue. In his own way, he is trying to combat the thoughts about his life and body, and I do have empathy for him. Ivar is just as much of a man as his brothers, and I see him demanding to be viewed in such a manner when he is vicious or angry.
Speaking of toxic masculinity, Ivar’s impotence and inability to fight the ‘typical’ Viking way seem to be two of his main vulnerabilities. How does that contribute to his rage and violence toward others? How does they impact his drive to prove to everyone that he’s the chosen son of Ragnar Lothbrok?
Vilissa: Ivar focuses a lot of his energy to “force” the men in his life to see him as their equal, and not an invalid. That circles back to my mentioning of him combatting those ideals about his abilities and masculinity – he has to work “harder” to be taken seriously and to have a “place” in his family and society. A man’s physicality is tied to how he is seemed in his identity – his impotence and disability definitely impacts how he seems himself and how he compares to those who are able to do the things he cannot physically do.
Jan: Very true, they are two of his main vulnerabilities, I feel perhaps even moreso his impotency. I feel he has made his own mark in brilliantly figuring out how to fight alongside his brothers and rivals despite his disability. I do agree that those two vulnerabilities do contribute a lot to his violence towards others. When Ragnar chose Ivar to go with him to Wessex, after that, that is what fueled Ivar’s desire to prove to everyone that he was the chosen son of Ragnar Lothbrok, and that he deserved to be included in fighting alongside his brothers and Viking warriors.
I love the relationship Floki has with Ivar. Floki is a fellow outcast, friend, mentor, and occupational therapist! Floki used a cart and took Ivar out to play with the kids so he can be included. Floki created custom leg braces that help Ivar keep his legs together so he can move around more easily. Later on, one of Ivar’s high points is seeing the chariot that Floki designed so he can go into battle with his brothers. It’s great to see a show that depicts how assistive devices can bring such joy, access, and liberation. What do you think about the importance of Floki on Ivar’s life?
Jan: Never thought of it that way but you’re so right regarding Floki playing the part of occupational therapist to Ivar. Absolutely agree that it’s great to see the show shining a spotlight and awareness on a disabled character and how beneficial assistive devices can be for those with physical disabilities. I must say though, I would have liked to see Ivar use his crutches more than just the one time. Floki was a mentor and gave Ivar a sense of freedom by providing him with these assistive devices. Now that it appears in season 5, that Floki may go on his own journey or path, it will be sad if we don’t get to see Floki and Ivar’s relationship continue. Their relationship was significant I felt, because Floki also played a big part in teaching Ivar the Viking ways and about the gods, moreso than his own father Ragnar did.
Vilissa: I remember the people in my life who ensured that I had the resources and supports needed so that I could thrive and grow, especially in my childhood years. Ivar having Floki act as a mentor and advocate for him to be included was definitely powerful. Like Jan, I do wish that their close interaction was more visible, but I believe it shows accurately that when we have such supports, we can do more. I am certain Ivar felt more empowered by Floki’s presence in his life and in the assistive devices that allowed him to be more independent as he innately was.
Many non-disabled actors struggle playing disabled characters, finding them physically limiting or challenging. Alex Høgh Andersen said in an interview:
The most frustrating thing actually was not being able to choreograph your own scenes. That’s so frustrating that as an actor you want to do something but you just can’t do it. A lot of the time we’ve just been settling down with, ‘Where’s Alex going to sit?’ I’ll try to act clever and find a good spot to sit. Usually the toughest challenge is actually just crawling around, physically, that’s the biggest challenge, really.
What are your thoughts about non-disabled actors playing disabled characters, especially one that actually existed in real life? Actors Atticus Shaffer on the ABC show The Middle and Kerry Ingram was in Game of Thrones both have OI. In that sense, Ivar the Boneless is a slightly problematic fave because he’s played by a non-disabled character, although I think Alex Høgh Andersen does a fantastic job expressing the rage, frustration, and hurt that many disabled people experience. What would you like to see in the future when it comes to accurate portrayals of disabled characters played by disabled actors?
Vilissa: I think some of Alex’s frustration lies in the fact that he does not have OI, and thus, do not know what it’s like to have to “crawl” around and be used to that physically. I think his inability to cope with some of the physical demands is most likely typical for actors/actresses who portray characters with physical disabilities. Though Alex is able to display the emotions disabled people experience, for me, it is still inauthentic.
His understanding comes from informed knowledge (meaning any research and insight he has done to prepare for the role) and not from expert knowledge (actually having OI and being disabled). Even with actors that have OI, they are not casted in the roles that they are better suited for, and their disabilities are not in the storylines of the roles they are seen. It a Catch-22 of sorts – you are not considered to play disabled characters, and depending on how “able-bodied” you appear, the audience may not even realize you are a disabled actor/actress. The latter may cause for disability representation to go under the radar for many, particularly for disabled viewers who are constantly looking for visibility on the big and small screens.
Jan: For more authenticity and accuracy in portraying the disabled, I must admit I do prefer to see a real life disabled actor/actress being casted if at all possible. But at the same time, I’m open and accepting particularly like in this instance, when a non-disabled actor gives a watchable and devoted portrayal of a disabled character like Alex has done with Ivar.
Sadly, the disabled community is often forgotten and passed over it seems, when casting and writing disabled characters. We are a big part of society as well, and this needs to change so that we, the disabled community, can see ourselves on television and film! In the future I would like to see more real life disabled actors/actresses be given the opportunity to audition (along with wheelchair access) when it calls for a disabled character. Also, more disabled writers are needed for more accurate portrayals, and to hire disabled consultants during times a non-disabled actor is casted. It has become quite apparent to me that the US and UK are doing a much better job at casting disabled actors and writing disabled characters, much more than my own native Canada. Disability representation in TV and film here in Canada truly sucks!
In the season 4 finale, Ivar, after being humiliated and taunted by Sigurd in public, lashes out and kills him. How did you react when it happened? What do you think this will mean for Ivar’s future as a leader in season 5? How will it change his relationships with Ubbe, Bjorn, and Hvitserk?
Jan: It was indeed shocking, and yet I must admit, I was not surprised. You always had the sense that sooner or later, Ivar would not be able to control his anger towards Sigurd especially, and that Sigurd’s days were perhaps numbered. Ivar I feel is also a bit of a narcissist, and even though we saw for a second or so a sadness/regret show in his face after killing Sigurd, but then later it seemed that the narcissist in him felt that Sigurd probably deserved it! It’s hard to say how it will effect Ivar coming into season 5 as a leader, will he perhaps have to fight even more now to become a leader ahead of his remaining brothers? It could change his relationships with his remaining brothers in the sense that they maybe will no longer underestimate Ivar, and perhaps Ubbe especially will become somewhat indifferent to him.
Vilissa: That scene shocked me tremendously, and it definitely shifts the dynamics of everything. I think the killing, in a way, solidified that he is out for what he feels he deserves – being a leader and having respect. Ivar probably surprised himself that he actually had killed Sigurd, but the tension between the two was going to come to a head at some point. Ivar proved that he is to not be dismissed as a threat, and I hope his brothers take the fate of Sigurd to be an example of this.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with me about your love of Vikings and feelings toward Ivar the Boneless?
Vilissa: Watching the few episodes I was able to catch really made me see why so many in our community love this series and Ivar (despite the problematic cripping up). I will definitely go and catch up on the previous seasons and am eager to see what awaits Ivar in season 5. Though I have some qualms about who plays Ivar, I am proud to see OI be represented. As I have shared, there are not many characters with this disability for our viewing experience, and this kind of representation matters to me as an OIer.
If Ivar is going to be more savagely fierce in season 5, I need him to bring it full-force – go big or not at all.
Jan: I’m intrigued to see how things will play out in season 5 with the new bishop character, his interaction and supposed rivalry with Ivar. Also looking forward to seeing how things will play out with Aethelwulf, now that he is king. Lastly, glad to see the show create a disabled character like Ivar the Boneless, and to shed a spotlight and awareness on such a rare disease of which we both share, Osteogenesis Imperfecta. We’ve been told and led to believe that most of Ivar’s anger is due to his suffering with OI, here’s hoping in upcoming season 5 and/or beyond, we will get to see that play out a bit on our TV screens, and that he will experience a broken bone(s).
Jan J. is from Nova Scotia, Canada, a proud disability advocate, wheelchair user, Vikings/Ivar the Boneless fan, and a big supporter of more disability representation in TV and film.
Vilissa Thompson is a macro-minded social worker from South Carolina. Ramp Your Voice! is her organization where she discusses the issues that matters to her as a Black disabled woman, including intersectionality, racism, politics, and why she unapologetically makes good trouble.
Twitter: @VilissaThompson & @RampYourVoice
Alice Wong is the Founder of the Disability Visibility Project, an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability stories and culture.
Twitter: @SFdirewolf @DisVisibility
Image description of header image: Black and white image of the character Ivar the Boneless. His left arm is outstretched holding a bow and arrow while his right hand is close to his face holding the bow.
Thanks for this article. As a speech language pathologist and mother of a child with disability, my first response when seeing disabled characters on screen is to immediately look up the actor to see if they are really disabled. I’m generally dissapointed. Like you I feel there are many people with disabilities who would love a chance to act. The amount of time and energy put into teaching an actor to pretend to be disabled could just as well be put into finding a person with disability who is talented and could take up the role. I enjoyed this series too but feel they glossed over the issues of OI by just having Ivar crawl everywhere (contrary to the limited historical references). The average viewer wouldn’t have any idea that his bones were more fragile. I did love the scene in the end where Ragnar tells him his disability is his strength. Thanks again for this great discussion. Hope you sent the link to the writer & director.
Thanks for the response and I Tweeted it to the actor who plays Ivar and he said he would share it! I hope the creator of the show gets to read it but who knows?
I enjoyed your article and enjoy the show Vikings. However there is some evidence that the name Ivar the Boneless is actually mistranslated from Old English and his name, at least among his enemies, was Ivar the Terrible (or Horrible) and his unspecified physical deformity was made up when the Sagas were written later
Thanks for reading!