Category Archives: representations
There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good Supercrip narrative, which is why I settled down with a bowl of Chex Mix to enjoy this delicious piece, ‘Provo woman finds blessing in hardship,’ originally published at Mormon Times. This delightful local profile of a woman with disabilities who doesn’t let her disability stop her! has got it all.
Tragedy struck! She’s inspirational! She refused to give in! Miracles! Determination! You can do anything if you try! Seriously, I think this article managed to hit every single square on the disability bingo card. I’d like to commend Doug Robinson for coming up with a tough act to follow. I’m sure I couldn’t possibly find another article even close to the amazingness of this one. It is just not possible. The world would collapse if there were two, you know what I’m sayin’?
Writing about the Supercrip stereotype at Bitch, Annaham said:
The myth of the Level Playing Field holds that American society gives everyone—no matter what their background or present circumstances—equal chances to succeed, and that most of the problems that marginalized groups have traditionally faced have already been solved. All folks have to do is work hard, have a good attitude, and their success will be imminent! Therefore, if there’s a Level Playing Field, there is no reason that people with disabilities can’t do superhuman things and succeed. Of course, the Level Playing Field is not real (hence its mythic status). Yet, many people who are effectively not marginalized regularly tell those who are that they, too, can “make it” if they just work hard and/or visualize their success. And so Supercrip remains the exception that many abled folks like to bring up; using similar logic, non-fictional Supercrips throughout the ages—along with many other people from marginalized groups who have “made it”–supposedly “prove” the existence of the Level Playing Field.
This profile of a woman with disabilities hits all of these issues right on the nose. Readers are reminded again and again that she refused to give up, refused to listen to doctors, insisted on doing things ‘the hard way.’ She used a manual chair instead of an electric one. She pursued a degree in singing even though her mean voice teacher said her voice was ugly. She won’t sit back and live high on the hog of government benefits, nosiree, she’s not the handout-taking type.
If you just try hard enough, you can accomplish anything. You just have to want it enough. These narratives are particularly pervasive in US society, where we are trained from a young age to believe in the American Dream and Bootstraps and other cultural myths so internalised, we often don’t even recognise them when we express them. Many of us believe, on some level, that people who work hard get what they deserve, and people in trouble got there because they didn’t work hard enough. These attitudes contribute directly to resistance when it comes to combating discrimination, because apparently if we just tried harder, ableism and discrimination would go away.
Curiously enough, she doesn’t mind handouts from G-d, just things like antidiscrimination laws and government benefits. This emphasis on spirituality is not a terribly surprising thing to see in a Mormon publication, but the piece is rife with references about how ‘blessed’ she feels, and it sets up a classic and unbeatable narrative: Why can’t you be more like her? She’s not angry and bitter like you! Why can’t you just get a job already? She did it!
“I was told a long time ago by a friend that feeling angry will stop your progress,” she says, “that if you feel sorry for yourself, if you’re going to feel bad, just give yourself 10 minutes, and then it’s over and you go on. Some things you can’t change.”
Quotes like that never get used to beat us up and remind us we’re being bad people, of course. They never are weaponised in the form of demanding questions asking why we can’t be more like that nice, inspirational lady who doesn’t let her disability get her down. Women like this are never pointed to as role models and are never used to abuse the rest of us for not just being better good cripples.
Depictions like this are actively harmful. As Annaham pointed out, Supercrip narratives are also extremely common. The media loves stories like this and eats them up, presenting them to readers and viewers with a pre-packaged narrative that everyone knows and understands because they have seen it before. When nondisabled people encounter the same story over and over again, they expect all people with disabilities to be like this, and they find the reality, that we are unique individuals with different types of attitudes and bodies and approaches to disability, highly unsettling.
These narratives hinder conversations about disability discrimination, and for many disabled readers and viewers, they are highly alienating.
Ingrid Voorendt is a choreographer and director as well as the former Artistic Director of Restless Dance Theatre. Restless is an integrated dance company based in Adelaide, Australia, featuring young disabled and abled dancers. Their latest show, Beauty, has just finished its run at the Adelaide Festival Centre. You can visit the Restless Dance website for more.
I spoke to Ingrid about her thoughts on disability and dance, creativity and the nature of beauty.
Please tell our readers about what you do and about Beauty. Can you tell us about your creative process in dreaming up and putting the show together, working with the dancers and those behind the scenes?
Ingrid: It’s a collaborative process, so I come up with questions and tasks to get the dancers creating movement material. I don’t choreograph ‘on’ them, we work together to devise the movement that’s in the show. In Beauty some of the movement came from interpreting the shapes, postures and gestures we found in images of women in classical visual art. The dancers responded to the images, creating movement material. We also developed material through improvisation. My job is to initiate the process and then edit, shape and compose the developing material to create a show, and to work in collaboration with the set and costume designer, sound designer and lighting designer through dialogue and decision making.
Why was it important for you to explore the notion of beauty? What do you think it is, and how to explore it in a world in which disabled people aren’t often thought of as beautiful?
Ingrid: I was interested in exploring the notion of beauty for a range of reasons, one being simply that I’d rebelled against ‘the beautiful’ in a couple of previous Restless shows I’d directed, in terms of content and aesthetic. Beauty was inspired by some of the dancers themselves, in particular Dana Nance, who is a stunning young woman with physical and intellectual impairments. I was interested in the oscillation audience may perceive or experience between Dana’s beauty and her impairment. With Beauty, I wanted to make a work in which the disabled performers would be viewed as beautiful first and foremost. My favourite moment in the show was when Dana stepped into a projection of the Venus de Milo (a classic image of beauty), in which she fits perfectly.
I think beauty is much more than surface, as I believe we all do, but we live in a culture increasingly driven by the visual, by a world of images. It’s true that in our society disabled people aren’t often thought of as beautiful, and I hope Beauty questions this in a subtle way. Beauty is also linked to sexuality, which is also often denied in disabled people.
How do representations of women’s bodies tie in with disability in Beauty?
Ingrid: I found it interesting to discover during our research that (unsurprisingly) many of the poses found in images of women in classical visual art are echoed in contemporary fashion photography and advertising. So in a subtle way in the show we were playing with these images which reference both the past and the present, but disabled women were the ‘bodies’ being looked at, and on their own terms. The opening of the show was a solo by Jianna Georgiou, a gorgeous young woman with Down Syndrome, who is a beautiful, quite voluptuous dancer. I loved watching this solo, because the movement within it is so evocative of classic images of ‘beautiful’ women – and Jianna is very beautiful, and is also a proud disabled woman. I liked the fact that Jianna was representing herself, yet referencing the bodies of others. I hoped that the audience would question their perceptions around who is/whose bodies are beautiful.
Now that the run is over, do you have any thoughts you’d care to share looking back on the experience?
Ingrid: It’s always such a fast and intense process making a show, and there’s so much I’d like to change and develop further. I think Beauty could have gone a lot further and deeper than it did. Hopefully there’ll be a chance to revisit it in the future.
A number of people have drawn my attention to the USA show Covert Affairs that recently started airing in the United States, and a few days ago I sat down with the pilot and gave it a whirl. The show centres around Annie Walker (Piper Perabo), a woman who has just joined the Central Intelligence Agency, and almost immediately we are introduced to Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham), the tech expert, who also happens to be blind.
Like a lot of shows focusing on work for intelligence agencies, Covert Affairs wants to impress us with neat technological tricks, so they provide a shot of Auggie and Annie walking down a corridor with Auggie using what I guess I would describe as a ‘laser cane.’ It’s a handheld device that projects a grid which I think feeds back either to his hand or to the earpiece we rarely see Auggie without. Auggie makes some self deprecating jokes about being blind, flirts with Annie, and establishes that he has a very sensitive sense of smell. The ‘blind character with heightened senses’ smells of disability superpower (warning, link goes to TV Tropes) to me, but, ok. It was a reasonably strong scene; Auggie wasn’t desexualised and he also wasn’t depicted as helpless.
There were a lot of things I liked about Auggie’s characterisation in the pilot. He’s a professional, with skills that are respected. Other characters don’t make a huge production out of his blindness when they interact with him. I particularly liked the scene where the characters are out at a restaurant and he started flirting with some women at the next table and instead of a ‘he’s blind! HORRORS!’ scene, it was treated like any other television interaction between young, attractive people flirting with each other.
There were also some things I did not like. I am inherently grumpy with the disabled character as sidekick trope; it looks like Gorham and Perabo are getting equal billing, though, so I’m hoping that he is going to break out of the sidekick position and have an opportunity to be his own character, rather than just support/backup/comic relief for Perabo.
And then we got to the scene where Annie and Auggie are breaking into a morgue. Annie creatively comes up with a way to spoof the biometric scanner at the door, the door opens, she whisks in, and Auggie…is left standing outside, looking confused and disoriented. Apparently we are to believe that the character with heightened sensitivity didn’t hear Annie accessing the biometric lock and opening the door, and despite his keen sense of smell, he couldn’t follow Annie’s perfume as she moved away1.
So, here’s Auggie, looking forlorn, and then he shouts ‘Annie!’ and she looks guilty, darts back, grabs his arm, and pulls him along inside with her. Keep in mind, again, that we have seen Auggie, in numerous scenes, navigating a wide variety of environments without having to be guided anywhere.
Now, this show is using consultants, and Gorham specifically worked with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to get advice from actual blind people when he was preparing to do this role. This puts Covert Affairs a rung above a lot of other shows that depict disability and apparently think they can do so without doing any research because, you know, how hard can be it be, right? So, what did Gorham learn about the experience of being blind?
“I can’t just pick up my cup of coffee, have a drink, grab my pen and get up and walk across the room. I mean there’s literally nothing that I can physically do that doesn’t require me thinking it through, asking, ‘How am I going to do that’?”
“We had our first ‘walk and talk’ through the hallways. Well, the hallways turn. Which is fine if you’re sighted and you’re walking with three people and then all three of you can turn down the same hallway in the middle of the conversation and talk. But if you’re walking with a blind guy and if he’s not physically touching you, and you two turn, he’s not going to know that you’ve turned,” recounted the actor. “We did it for four takes, and I kept thinking, ‘something’s wrong.’ And then it suddenly occurred to me: ‘We have to start over.’ I have to be holding on to her the entire time otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. So things like that happen occasionally. But again, it’s kind of fun, because it’s really new.”
Ah. So this is where talking to consultants gets you.
Now, this was only the pilot, and as a general rule, I do not judge shows on their pilots alone. I’m going to watch a few episodes to see how the characters develop before I weigh in on any final way on how I feel about Covert Affairs. The show is still shooting, so I will be curious to see if Auggie’s characterisation shifts in later episodes in response to viewer discussions of the show.
Did you watch the Covert Affairs pilot? What did you think of it? I focused on Auggie’s characterisation in this piece, but there were a lot of other things going on in the pilot that are also worthy of some discussion!
- I really wish I was kidding about the perfume/sense of smell thing, but it came up multiple times during the episode, like in the scene where he follows her into the bathroom by tracking her perfume. ↩
- Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
- Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
- Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
- You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
- Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.
A month and a half ago I wrote a fairly angry email to Ms Magazine blog [which you can read here – yes, I sent it to them, no, I never got a response]. While part of my ire was raised by the subject matter and the treatment of people with disabilities as unthinking pawns of the “religious right”, a significant portion was because of the casual use of “the disabled”.
The short form of why this is a problem: People with disabilities/the disabled are not a collective group that all agree on anything. Asking what “the disabled” want or “the disabled” are doing is exactly like asking what “women” want and what “women” are doing. Women are individuals. Some of them are women with disabilities! We don’t all want the same things, but grouping everyone under the same umbrella, as though we are a Collective rather than Individuals With Opinions and Needs is… well, it’s pretty damned ableist, as well as being arrogant, ignorant, and irritating.
We’re still living in a society that makes a lot of casual assumptions about people with disabilities and their experiences. When people start talking about “the disabled” they are generally about to launch into some sort of stereotype – “the disabled are the pawns of the religious right”, for example. This boils down a lot of complicated people – people who have a wide variety of needs, wants, opinions, thoughts, and experiences – into one homogeneous group.
This contributes to the de-humanization of disabled people. “The disabled” aren’t people, they’re a big collective noun who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be talked to, can’t be considered – they’re just to be placated, and dealt with, and put out of our minds as quickly as possible in case they sue us.
Saying “people with disabilities” or “disabled people” may seem like a pretty minor thing. It is, so it shouldn’t be that difficult. The reason for it, though, is that it can be that small reminder: that people with disabilities are people. That disabled people have opinions and thoughts and experiences and needs that are not universal to all people with disabilities. That we are, in fact, people, and it would be nice if we could be treated as such.
Language doesn’t change everything. It isn’t an end in and of itself. But it can be the first step in combating the sort of ableism that makes it okay for many people – including editors and writers for major and minor news sources – to dismiss us as pawns without thought.
See Also: Disability Terminology: A Starter Kit for Nondisabled People and the Media by meloukhia at Feministe.
Image Description: A banner that has an image of Helen Keller in the center. On on side it reads: Political Activist. Radical Thinker. Suffragist. Pacifist. Journalist. Socialist. Who was she? On the other side it reads: Helen Keller Mythbusting Day 2010″
Helen Keller Day is a day set aside for information acquisition, education, exploration of employment opportunities, social engagement, and enjoyment of arts and entertainment. There will be vendors, employers, presentations, and pure, unbridled fun.
I think this is awesome. If I played Second Life, I would be all over this.
A few years ago someone on a feminist site posted a list of the top 100 historic women in the US, and the list included Helen Keller. A commenter mentioned being surprised to find that out, because… well, what did Helen Keller actually do?
The answer to that question is what this Blogswam is all about.
What’s a blogswarm?
On the appointed day (or there abouts) – in this case, June 19 – people post about Helen Keller. Ideally, they’ll link back to a master post (which I will be hosting here on FWD) and leave a link indicating their participation on the master post. Then, people will be able to see lots of posts about Helen Keller in a variety of places from a variety of points of view.
Okay, but I don’t know much about Helen Keller. Are there some resources so I can learn?
- Her wikipedia page is surprisingly good, at least as of today.
- The Helen Keller Kids Museum has interesting facts presented in an engaging way.
- The Encyclopedia of Alabama has a good write up.
- The National Women’s Hall of Fame has a short summary.
This is just a very short list. Your local library may have many books. I never resist the chance to push Lies My Teacher Told Me by James A Loewen, which talks about Keller in the first chapter. The American Foundation for the Blind has a selected Bibliography of books by and about Keller, but I have not read them so I have no personal opinion on them.
But there are other women with disabilities connected to Helen Keller’s life, and I don’t think they get enough attention either. Can I write about them as well as or instead of Keller and still participate?
Yes! In fact, I think it’s an important part of the mythbusting about Keller to talk about Anne Sullivan, who was blind for parts of her life, Polly Thomson, who was a companion and aid to both Sullivan and Keller in later years, and Laura Bridgman, who was also deaf & blind and was “famous” before Keller. And this list is pretty US-centric, and entirely white. Bust the myth that the only women with disabilities doing anything of interest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were white women from the US! A very short list: Frida Kahlo, Jhamak Ghimire, Ragnhild Kåta, Theresa Ducharme…
I also think that it’s relevant to talk about Keller’s legacy, and how the treatment of her story – in productions like The Miracle Worker and the oft-repeated story of “the hand in the water” – affect perceptions of people with disabilities, especially blind and d/Deaf people, today. Brownfemipower linked to this discussion of Blind Rage and the Legacy of Helen Keller on TheGimpParade, as an example.
I’m really not up to participating, but I want to be supportive. What can I do?
Spread the word! Tell a friend! Read posts! Link others to posts! Bust your own myths, so that the next time someone says something ignorant about Keller or the work she did, you can gently (or not!) correct them.
I want to participate! But I don’t know if I can on June 19th.
Then write something on another day. The reason I suggest doing it all on the same day is because blogswarms will push across the blogosphere and people will notice them all at once. But please don’t feel obligated or that you’ve “failed” if you don’t write something about Mythbusting on the day.
Also, don’t feel you have to write something new. If you’ve previously written something about this and would like it to get some more attention, feel free to link it as well.
So, now what?
Well, on June 19th I’ll post up an open post about Helen Keller Mythbusting Day here on FWD. Folks can drop their links in right away – my goal is to have it open as early on the 19th as possible. Check back throughout the day to see what posts people have written!
I hope to see lots of awesome posts on June 19th!
Redstone Science Fiction is running a contest!
Redstone Science Fiction is calling for contest submissions that incorporate the values discussed in the essay The Future Imperfect by Sarah Einstein.
What does a world, or space station, or whatever look like when it has been designed to be accessible to everyone and how would people live together there?
The submissions should portray disability as a simple fact, not as something to be overcome or something to explain why a character is evil. The submissions should also incorporate the portrayal of disability in a world where universal access is a shared cultural value.
Romance novel or western, detective serial or horror film, the genre of a text affects how we “read” it, including our understanding of disabled characters. Genre forms may impose constraints upon the creators of texts, such as a particular setting or narrative structure, but they may equally open up new possibilities for representation. In science fiction, for example, new technologies, alien bodies, and alternative environments can challenge understandings of what constitutes disability or impairment. Michael Bérubé speculates that the genre is “as obsessed with disability as it is with space travel and alien contact.” What opportunities (and what constraints) might science fiction present, then, with regards to disability representation? More generally, how do the structures and conventions of genre forms, such as the need for heroine and hero to be united in romance, affect the representation of disability?
This special issue of JLCDS will explore the interplay of genre and disability with a focus on popular genre texts, whether in fiction, film, television, or other media. Submissions might consider representations of disability in particular texts or authors, in specific genres, or in mainstream texts that enter into dialogue with genre; alternatively, they might examine disability theory in relation to genre theory, or the role of fan communities. This list is not exhaustive, so submissions on other topics related to disability and genre are very welcome.