Empathy and Megan Wallaby: Exploring One of Welcome to Night Vale’s Greatest Strengths
After nearly 50 episodes, the podcast Welcome to Night Vale released the second part of its two year anniversary episode this week. With rich supernatural, sci-fi, and horror elements, the comedy series is a fictional community radio program with radio host Cecil Palmer (played by the highly expressive and velvet-voiced Cecil Baldwin) reporting on local news in the eerie, Delphic town of Night Vale, located somewhere vaguely in the American Southwest. Cecil describes for his listeners the town’s so-called “everyday events” like time traveling deer popping up, bands of rogue children battling monster librarians, and prehistoric portals disrupting PTA meetings.
While series creators and main writers Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink have built a world that draws from the weirder elements of The Twilight Zone, the sinister elements of Lovecraft, and the dark humor of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, there are also oddly progressive aspects to the town that we don’t always get to see in the real world. It’s hard sometimes to tell how much of Cecil’s reporting is subjective, but there does seem to be less tolerance of racism — heck, there’s a man called “The Apache Tracker” whose warnings of doom fall on deaf ears purely because he’s a white guy dressed as a Native American and the citizens shun such awful racial appropriation. The community also hasn’t seemed to bat an eye at Cecil’s relationship with his boyfriend Carlos, treating it as completely normal — Carlos is a gay man of color voiced by a gay man of color, by the way, so plus one for real world representation. The listeners also just found out in this newest episode that Cecil’s niece is unable to walk on her own. And then there’s Megan Wallaby.
So, Megan Wallaby is a hand, which as far as Night Vale characters go isn’t exactly the oddest description. Her entire body is a grown man’s hand, with hairy knuckles and both a pinky ring and a metal-banded wristwatch that has presumably been on her person since she was born… which was only a year and some months ago. She’s introduced very briefly by name in March 2013’s episode 18, “The Traveler” (co-written by guest collaborator Zack Parsons), when Cecil reads the recent community birth announcements and mentions a healthy adult human hand that parents Tak and Herschel brought into the world. It seemed like a one-off joke—the series has many of those. Cut to several months and 16 episodes later in “A Beautiful Dream” (also co-written by Parsons) where Megan is already in school but struggling to keep up because she lives in a world that is distinctly not designed for her. Plans are made to get her a computer that will help her communicate, but that doesn’t go as anticipated (think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey). It takes another three months before we hear of her again in the episode “The Deft Bowman,” which ends with them finding a perfect body donor for her.
Welcome to Night Vale has a tendency to use weird imagery and characters as allegories for aspects of our own world—the evil corporation Stexcorp taking over the town as a mirror of modern corporate corruption, the “no free death” law as a jab at apathy in the health care debate, etc. Listening to Megan’s episodes a few times, it was easy to see parallels of her journey (the small amount of it we see) to two different often disenfranchised groups. First and probably more obvious is her connection to people with disabilities, especially physical ones. Given the term “congenital hand-bodiness” in-story, her condition means that even the simplest activities like opening doors and reaching for things can be a challenge. Most of all, she wants to better communicate with kids her own age and feel accepted. Cecil even compares her mobility issue to the lack of ramps at the school for those students in wheelchairs (which I’ve just realized is setting up what we’ve learned about his niece in the new episode). But this is where Welcome to Night Vale shines. It’s not just about what Megan is, but how the town of Night Vale treats her.
After all, our own world is one where empathy and support of people with disabilities and chronic illness isn’t always strong. I’ve had friends be treated as the “other” and even met with contempt because they had a disability or suffered from chronic pain. But when her mother pleads with the PTA to help Megan get the computer system she needs to communicate at school and home alike, even the menacing Glow Cloud (the School Board President best known for rejecting citizen requests by raining down dead animals on them) decides to help the little girl who wants so badly for things to be better.
But Cecil is the voice of the town, and you hear how much it means to him that he supports her. He says, “There is a girl who only has a grown man’s detached hand as a body. I cannot relate to her experience. I doubt you can either, listeners, but we can all empathize.” When the computer that nearly destroys the town trying to make Megan happy gets turned off, Cecil says he personally wouldn’t mind so much if the malicious computer broke down their infrastructure if it meant Megan felt like a part of their community. He’s even very cautious about how he speaks of Megan—when describing the procedure the ultimately gives her the new body, he almost says, “Megan has been surgically attached to the wrist stump of the unidentified man,” but corrects himself and instead reports, “The unidentified man has been surgically attached to the single hand body of Megan Wallaby,” a small way to acknowledge her humanity and autonomy.
Besides her connection to people with disabilities, Megan also has interesting parallels to the trans community. Namely, that she’s physically a man’s hand but still a girl in mind and spirit. In our (super flawed) world, there would be major debate over whether this kid was “really” a little girl. Heck, one look at interviewers talking to Laverne Cox shows that our overarching culture can be downright ignorant about gender identification. And yet every time Cecil mentions Megan on the show, he always, always, uses feminine pronouns. He always describes her as a little girl. Not once is it even suggested that Megan could be a boy or is actually a man. She sees herself as a little girl, so that’s who she is inside. And Cecil, being the kind of person that he is, wouldn’t dare stomp on her spirit. Yes, even when she has her body surgery and takes over the body of a nearly seven foot tall grown man, Cecil still refers to her as “she” and “a little girl.” He’s the kind of ally you want to see.
I realize that I’m in danger of over-thinking this. After all, it’s a comedy podcast—the characters found in the bimonthly series are weird and goofy and nearly always satirical. But for a series best known for five headed reptilian mayoral candidates and musical weather, Welcome to Night Vale also has these profound lines and monologues that sneak up on you and bring with them moments of thoughtfulness and insight.
After the surgery is confirmed to be a success, Cecil can’t help but rejoice in Megan’s own joy. He declares, “Megan has a long road of therapy ahead of her, learning how to… everything. But we believe in her, don’t we, Night Vale?” And then he says my favorite line of the whole episode, the one that made me tear up: “But Megan’s truth is… she is finally happy. Happy in the body she was born without.” He ends the episode imagining a time to come when he can see Megan’s hulking body skipping down the street. He pictures himself waving hello and the little girl smiling and waving back. You can almost see Cecil smile as you hear him say, “Yes, Night Vale, that sounds just about right.”
Often when marginalized people are portrayed in movies and television and novels, they’re put into an atmosphere of hostility and intolerance. There is a place for those stories—showing the harsh reality of bigotry in real life through another setting or time can be very effective. What worries me about this being the majority of diverse representation is that the macro message of all these stories can become “this is just how these kinds of people are treated.” In Welcome to Night Vale, I’m just glad that we have one more voice of empathy added to the cultural landscape.
Katie Schenkel (@JustPlainTweets) is a copywriter by day, pop culture writer by night. Her loves include cartoons, superheroes, feminism, and any combination of the three. Her reviews can be found at CliqueClack and her own website Just Plain Something, where she hosts the JPS podcast and her webseries Driving Home the Movie. She’s also a frequent The Mary Sue commenter as JustPlainSomething.