Category Archives: sexuality
This piece contains lots of spoilers.
I wanted to love this book, I really did. I have enjoyed the couple of Julie Ellis novels I’ve read, but this one just tipped the charming/not happening scale a bit far. It has a really strong heroine in Vicky, who escapes the Russian pogroms to build a new life in America, trying to negotiate a difficult family situation and life as a prominent businesswoman. But there are lots of issues in this book that really grated, for example, every time a black servant is given an order, Ellis always points out how they were delighted to do it.
I’d just like to focus on the disability issues for now, though. There are many, not least with the disability-as-punishment trope cropping up at the end when the antagonist of the piece, Vicky’s son, has a stroke and is paralysed. He’s then housed in the cottage in which his mentally ill father shot himself. The very same cottage in which he kept Vicky while pretending she had a mental illness because he didn’t like the direction in which his mother was taking the company. Yep, it’s a bit of an intense novel.
But what I really want to talk about is the characterisation of Anita Roberts. Anita is married to Mark, a man Vicky falls in love with. So, naturally, she has to be a deceptive, evil shrew because that is the way “the other woman” gets sympathy in romance fiction. Except, she’s a wheelchair user, so it gets a lot more… interesting.
At first, Anita is set up as a martyr, the victim of a tragic accident who is doted on by her charming husband. They are a ‘special couple,’ Vicky is given to understand, and Anita is the darling of their social circle. As it turns out, she’s shrewd and conniving. She uses the excuse of the accident to deny her husband sex, even though the doctors said that they could have an ‘almost normal sex life’! It turns out that Anita never really wanted sex before the accident either, and now her horrible cruelty of not wanting sex has been unleashed! How terrible! It couldn’t possibly be the case that Anita doesn’t owe Marc sex, and she has become confident enough in herself to not engage with a sexual life she doesn’t really want. No, indeed. It is all about Marc’s pain and setting up his affair with Vicky. Anita’s not wanting sex gets to be the strange part, gets to be part of her evil scheme against poor Marc.
So, we’ve got the good crip who turns out to be hiding a deeply bitter and nasty nature. That’s old hat. But it was quite something to see that set up with a gendered aspect, too. Anita’s out to disparage Marc’s achievements and interests constantly, and she forces him to do ‘whatever she asks’ because otherwise he’s a terrible husband to his tragically beautiful and “damaged” wife. I suggest we identify a new trope, the Bad Shrewish Crip. The perfect mix of misogyny and ableism, out now at a bookstore near you.
But I really start to grit my teeth when we bring Anita’s Jewishness into it, because she perfectly fits the JAP stereotype. The Jewish American Princess is held to be a nagging, high maintenance woman with expensive taste and no sense of how irritating she is. And Anita is a JAP all over: she pokes fun at Vicky for having been a maid, loves designer clothing, and ends up forcing her husband to move to London as it is the only ‘civilised’ city on Earth. She’s simply set up as the most horrible conglomeration of disability, gender and racial/ethnic/cultural/religion stereotyping I have encountered in quite some time. The Bad Shrewish Jewish Crip, maybe?
So, in short: wanted to like it, feel kind of bad saying this because I like the author, but for goodness’ sake, this was one of the more frustrating reads of my year, and that is really saying something.
People with disabilities, especially women, have all the same pressures currently non-disabled people do to look “good enough”, with added bonus of being either non-sexualised or hyper-sexualised, as well as having people infantize them to an incredible degree.
Talking about disability and self-esteem and body image is very difficult for me. People look at me and see a woman without a disability (or a woman with a non-evident one), and I pass. I don’t get the odd looks that a woman of my age (or younger, or older) using a cane or crutches would. I don’t get the pats on the head that women who use wheelchairs report, and I don’t have people leaping out of the way when I’m using a motorized scooter.
But at the same time, women like me are often used as stand-ins for “horrible”. Whether that’s the simple of “she took off her glasses and suddenly she was beautiful!”, or the more complicated of “oh my gosh! the woman I had sex with is actually a crazy person! Quick, let us make many movies about crazy = bunny-boiler = grotesque!”, I’m well aware that women like me are bad, ugly inside, and unacceptable.
These things add a whole other layer to the conversations that many women, feminist and non, have about self esteem and body image. We are all inundated with the constant barrage of White, Long-Haired, Slender (But Not Too Slender), Tall (But Not Too Tall), Unblemished, Healthy-looking, Young women in most advertising and fashion spreads, television shows, movies, and even on our book covers.1
At the same time, though, poster children and the pity parade are a fairly common image of disabled children – whether with visible or non-evident disabilities – that present people with disabilities as weak, as undesirable, as needing of pity – and always, always, always, as children. Very rarely are images of self-possessed, happy, disabled adults shown, unless they are in one of the “he’s so brave” “look at what she’s overcome” news stories.
I don’t know how this affects other people, or how they deal with it. I know that when Don first got his cane, and then his wheelchair, his self-esteem and image of himself took a hit, and it took a while for me to convince him that yes, I still found him attractive (and I can’t tell you how much I love that wheelchair, since my sexy sexy husband now has energy!). I know for me it would be nice to see images of Actual Crazy Women who aren’t mockeries of women like me, but treated like actual people. It would be nice to see casual fashion spreads with people with evident disabilities in them, rather than only seeing “diversity matters!” posters that include maybe one (male) wheelchair user, usually white.
As I said, I find these things very hard to talk about, because in many ways I don’t even know where to start. While to some extent discussing pop culture and representations there is important, how do we, as individuals, deal with our own self-esteem issues? How do we, as a group, tackle the constant attacks on people with visible disabilities to hide parts of themselves? Make yourself more approachable by putting sparkles on your cane! Soup up your wheelchair and maybe someone will ask you a question! Hide your obvious aid-devices so that they don’t offend people! Cake on make-up so no one can see your scars!
I think there’s so much here to talk about. Please, tell me your thoughts.
- The last one is so ubiquitous that until just now I didn’t realise that of all the non-fiction books on my desk about disability, only one has an actual image of visibly disabled people on it. Most of them have very plain covers, or abstract-type art on them. ↩
Content note: This post includes discussions of sexual and physical violence committed against women and children with disabilities.
Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a report, ‘As if We Weren’t Human,’ on the violence, isolation, and discrimination experienced by women and children with disabilities in Uganda. Northern Uganda is emerging from decades of conflict, and as the country works on rebuilding itself, disability rights advocates are very concerned about the role of people with disabilities in Ugandan society. The report documents the conditions for many people with disabilities living in Uganda, and challenges the government to take a more active role in protecting its disabled citizens.
It’s worth noting that several other African nations are in positions similar to Uganda’s, and the findings of the report may be more widely applicable. The report highlights the consequences of leaving the most vulnerable members of society to fend for themselves.
It is estimated that around 20% of the population in Uganda is disabled. Many of those disabilities are acquired as a direct result of the nation’s conflict; women have lost limbs to landmines, been paralysed by bullets, and have developed disabilities in the wake of things like polio infections caused by a complete breakdown in vaccination programmes. Some women have injuries inflicted during the conflict as punishment, such as having their noses and ears cut off for ‘collusion.’ War tends to be brutal, and it tends to leave distinctive disabilities behind, both increasing the number of people with disabilities in society and making it easy for people to identify people who have lived through the war, an issue that can come with its own set of problems.
Women with disabilities trying to integrate into society are facing an uphill battle as they attempt to leave refugee camps and return to their communities, find ways to support themselves, and struggle with the fact that many communities have been shattered and the extensive social support networks that once existed are gone now. Poverty is a chronic problem for many disabled women that makes it even harder for them to access services they need. Disconnection and fragmentation of society has very serious consequences for people who need networks of people to survive, including both people who are attempting to establish full autonomy for themselves, and people who need full time care and assistance.
The report also documents that women and girls with disabilities are more likely to experience sexual violence, sometimes repeatedly, and that they lack access to reproductive health services. People with disabilities cannot even get HIV testing to determine if they’ve been infected after being raped. Other gender-based violence and abuse has also been widely documented; as in the rest of the world, people with disabilities are more at risk of experiencing physical violence as well as emotional abuse. Psychological issues often nip at the heels of people subjected repeatedly to sexual and physical violence, creating the risk of a mental health crisis in Uganda.
Discrimination against people with disabilities is also widespread; for example, a woman with HIV named Candace says “I cannot bathe near others. My neighbors think that the water that comes off me has HIV in it. They say I will get the community sick if they touch the water.” Some of the discrimination stems from ignorance, the result of inadequate education and outreach, two common problems in communities torn by war that don’t have the time or personnel to be providing these kinds of services. Other discrimination is the result of unchallenged social attitudes, made harder to challenge by the isolation of people with disabilities. When people aren’t interacting with the subjects of their discrimination on a daily basis, it’s much harder to break down the beliefs and attitudes that contribute to the perpetuation of that discrimination.
The report concludes that the government and NGOs working in Uganda need to take a more active role in ensuring that people with disabilities are not left behind during recovery efforts. This includes actively working on accessibility issues in Uganda, educating government representatives and health care providers about disability issues, and fighting discriminatory attitudes with education and outreach. As it is, people with disabilities are already being left out, and there’s a lot of catching up to do to address the situation before it gets even worse.
Social attitudes like those highlighted in the Human Rights Watch report are not unique to Uganda, nor are they unique to war-torn nations or nations in the developing world. Some of the same problems seen in Uganda can be seen in the United States, for example, where people with disabilities are more at risk of sexual and physical violence than nondisabled people, and where we lack access to reproductive health services and sexual education because of social attitudes about our sexuality. These are global issues, and the globe as a whole needs to fight them. Personally, I would love to see Human Rights Watch generate similar reports for every nation on Earth.