Tag Archives: crip drag

Why I Am Not Riled About Every Instance of Crip Drag

This post has been percolating for a while.

A question that I (and other FWD contributors, and other social justice activists in general) get asked a lot in the context of discussions about pop culture is “why aren’t you upset about [this]?” “Why are you focusing on XYZ when someone else did ABC over here?” And I’m really tired of this. I’m tired of it because, well, for one thing, I do find many things problematic and I write about them; you can see some examples of discussions about harmful representations of disability in pop culture right here in the FWD archives written by myself and other FWD contributors. For another thing, I am not actually up on every single aspect of pop culture, and thus sometimes I am not aware of things which I would probably write about if I knew about them, but I don’t.

But let’s set this aside for a moment.

Let’s examine the premise there. This argument comes up in response to critiques of disability in pop culture. It’s often accompanied with the assumption that the writer doesn’t think that it’s ok to portray disability in pop culture ever, or that the writer thinks that only disabled actors should be in disabled roles. This line of thinking, which focuses on which representations of disability people happen to be critiquing at a given time, ignores the structural nature of the critique. It is also accompanied by the implication that it is necessary to do everything at once when it comes to critiquing pop culture.

It also, of course, assumes that the writer is not already writing about the issue which is supposedly not being covered. Which, you know, I find it deeply amusing when people get up in arms because people are “not talking about” something which they DID talk about, often quite recently. FWD contributors have written here and elsewhere about harmful depictions of disability in Lady Gaga’s music, on Glee and 90210, in the currently trendy repurposings of Jane Austen novels, and in the Twilight Saga. That’s just for starters.

And it ignores the fact that not every instance of depiction of disability, including depictions done by able people, pisses disabled activists off, in addition to assuming that all people with disabilities respond in the same way to depictions of disability. In fact, I happen to think that some depictions of disability are great. It’s not the depiction of disability which is offensive, it is the way in which the disability is depicted which can be offensive, and that includes the framing which surrounds it.

Let me repeat this for emphasis: I am not inherently upset by the depiction of disability in pop culture. I am upset about bad depictions of disability which I think are harmful. What bothers me are bad tropes; one dimensional, stereotyped characterizations. These characterizations are unimaginative, not transgressive, illuminating, exploratory, or revealing; showing the same thing on endless repeat does not do anything to enrich the larger discussion.

For example, with Glee, I would be annoyed by Artie’s characterization no matter what. But I am furious with the way his character is handled because the creators are framing the show as brave and courageous and breaking down stereotypes and really saying something about disability. Thus, I am holding them to a  higher standard. The creators are making a claim which they are not living up to, and that is a big part of what bothers me about Glee. What bothers me isn’t that there is a disabled character played by an able actor. It’s that there is a troped disabled character played by an able actor in a show which makes sure to pat itself on the back constantly for being progressive. If you don’t consistently subvert a cliche? It’s still just a cliche, people.

Someone recently got on my case for not being up in arms about a theatrical casting decision in which an able actress was cast in a role which is (sometimes) performed in a wheelchair. Note: This is a role which is often played in a wheelchair, but does not need to be. The argument was “well, if you’re opposed to crip drag, you should be angry about this.” This despite the fact that I didn’t even know about it until it was mentioned, but apparently if I am going to critique pop culture, I am required to  know about everything which is going on at all times ever anywhere in the world.

But I wasn’t angry after I did a bit of research to learn more about the actress, the role, and the production. I wasn’t angry because the creators of the production were not making any bold claims about the depiction of disability. I also wasn’t angry because I know casting for live shows is tricky and there are a lot of constraints. Given the limitations of the character and the demands of the role, it would have been very difficult to find a wheelchair user who met the specs for the role. Furthermore, finding a person with disabilities who could deal with the grueling rehearsal and performance schedule while also being suitable for the part? Would have been VERY challenging. So, no, I wasn’t upset at all by the decision to use an able actress.

To return to Glee, I am angry about Artie and about the crip drag because there’s no reason not to use a disabled actor; there are disabled actors who do meet the specs for that role. And I am grumpy because of the claims being made about the show; if Glee wants to congratulate itself for making social commentary, than it actually needs to make that commentary. One really good way to do that would have been to cast a disabled actor in that role. It is the discourse and framing which surround Glee which concern me.

There are lots of instances of crip drag on television right now. Terry O’Quinn, playing John Locke on Lost, is not a wheelchair user. Locke uses a wheelchair at times. Am I angry that they didn’t use a disabled actor? No, I am not, because, again, there are some particular limitations on that role. John Locke is also depicted as extremely physically active in scenes which I think would be very challenging for a part time wheelchair user to do, especially for six years. Not at all unreasonable for the Lost casting crew to make the decision to hire a (presumably) able actor for the role.

I can probably think of other instances of crip drag which are not pissing me off right now, just as I can think of a number of instances in which disabled actors are playing disabled characters whom I think are problematic. See what I did there? This issue is not just about crip drag, it’s about the depiction of disability. If there’s a show in which a disabled actor plays a disabled character and I think that the characterization is troped and harmful, I am not afraid to say so. One instance floats to mind immediately: Lauren Potter playing Becky Jackson on Glee.

Oh, and also, before you tell me I have something “more important to do” than critiquing pop culture: Critiquing pop culture is no more or less important than any of the many things I do, most of which you do not know about. It’s important and valuable to talk about problematic depictions of disability in pop culture because, among many other things, it gets at the origins of some very harmful ideas about disability which are perpetuated in our society. These ideas? Have real world impacts. The same goes for discussions about harmful depictions of women, of people of colour, of trans* people.

I’m also curious to know why it is that social justice activists are constantly being asked why they aren’t critiquing something while at the same time they are informed that they are “just looking for a reason to be offended.”

One further note: I am deeply disturbed by the implication that people critique things because they don’t like them. For the most part, I only write about the things I do like and am interested in. My critiques, and those of many activists? They come from fellow fans of the work under discussion.

“Saying conjoined twins are disabled is insulting!”: Evelyn Evelyn, redux

[Cross-posted to Hoyden About Town]

Something that has really struck me about the conversations around Evelyn Evelyn is the reaction that “Conjoined twins don’t have a disability! To say they do is insulting!”

Not all commenters make the link between the two statements – some stop at the first – so I’ll take these two separately.

A little background: Evelyn Evelyn is Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley’s new ‘art project’, presented as fact but understood as fiction, in which they “discover” poor struggling musically-gifted conjoined twin orphan women, save them from their child porn and circus-exploitation past, and help them – in a long drawn-out process, due to the women’s traumatic fallout and difficulty relating – produce their first record. Palmer and Webley dress up as the twins to perform on stage, co-operating to play accordion, ukelele, and sing. They can barely restrain their sniggers while they interview about this oh-so-hilarious and edgy topic. More in the Further Reading.

“Conjoined twins don’t have a disability!”

So, a note on normalcy. The idea that some people would shout in defence “But conjoined twins don’t have a disability!” took me by surprise. I wonder how these people are defining “disability” in their heads, if they’ve ever thought about the subject – do they picture a hunched figure, withdrawn, unable to work, self-care or socialise? Do they picture someone undergoing huge medical procedures, someone with prostheses or other visible aids? What is the image in their heads?

Because disability can be all of these things, and none of these things. Disability isn’t a checklist, or a fixed point. Disability – and normalcy – are socially constructed. Disability is the interaction between a characteristic or a group of characteristics often called “impairments”, and a world that recognises people with these characteristics as abnormal.

Disability is considered a tragedy, a fate to be avoided at all costs. Disabled people are those that society defines as “abnormal”. Disabled bodies are the ones that don’t fit in typical boxes. Disabled people are people that the physical and social environment doesn’t accommodate. Disabled people are considered defective, deformed, faulty, frightening, feeble, freakish, dangerous, fascinating. Disabled people are stigmatised, laughed at, looked down upon, marginalised, Othered. Disabled people are medicalised. Disabled people are defined in terms of how currently-nondisabled people view them.

Disabled bodies are those that are subject to the able-bodied stare.

It is obvious with the most cursory of glances that in our society, conjoined twins are disabled. Society does not accommodate them. They are medicalised from fetushood. They are spectacle. Their operations are videoed and broadcast across the world. They are displayed, tested, stared at, discussed, and mocked, purely because of the shape and layout of their bodies. They are the subject of comedy fiction and “inspiring” tragedy nonfiction.

How can people simultaneously look at this project as funny and edgy and worth paying money to stare at, while considering conjoined twins to be “not disabled”? Why are their bodies so hilarious, then? Why is it so funny when Palmer and Webley cripdrag-up in that modified dress? Why do they snigger and smirk as they talk about “the twins” and their tragic tale? They do this – you do this – because you do see these bodies as Other. Fascinating, bizarre, freakish. Fodder.

People with disabilities resist these definitions, resist being marginalised, Othered, stared at, compulsorily medicalised. (Just as we try to resist, where possible, being beaten, abused, raped, exploited, exhibited, forcibly sterilised.) We laugh at ourselves plenty. We reclaim terms like “crip” and “gimp” and “crazy”. This does not grant able-bodied people free rein to mock us, to play schoolyard imitative games, to use child porn survivors as a little bit of “colour” for their projects.

There is a lot more to be said on the social construction of normalcy. I strongly recommend Lennard Davis’ Enforcing Normalcy . For more reading, check out this booklist at Hoyden About Town, our booklist here at Disabled Feminists, and our blogroll.

“To say that conjoined twins have a disability is insulting!”

This one’s quicker and easier to debunk. No, it’s not insulting. It’s as simple as that. It’s not an insult because being disabled is not an inferior state. Saying that someone is disabled is no more insulting than saying “Lauredhel’s a woman” or “Barack Obama is black”.

Being disabled just is.


Further reading on the Evelyn Evelyn conversation:

Annaham’s post here at FWD, Evelyn Evelyn: Ableism Ableism?

Amanda Palmer’s blog: The Whole Story Behind “Evelyn Evelyn” [WARNING: invented story about child sexual abuse and exploitation; the other links discuss this also]

Amanda Palmer’s blog: Evelyn Evelyn Drama Drama

Jason Webley: Blog #1 – Evelyn

Amanda Palmer’s twitter, in which she remarks “setting aside 846 emails and removing the disabled feminists from her mental periphery, @amandapalmer sat down to plan her next record.”, and follows up “pain is inevitable. suffering is optional.”

SPIN magazine: Meet Amanda Palmer Proteges Evelyn Evelyn

Sady at Tiger Beatdown: AMANDA PALMER WANTS TO SHOCK YOU. Just Don’t Get Upset About It, ‘Kay?

TVTropes: Rape Is The New Dead Parents

The linkspam roundups: First, Second, Third (and possibly more as time goes on)

And if this keeps up, there won’t be any

My pet hate: “Crip Drag”.

Crip Drag is when a character has a disability, but the actor playing that character doesn’t have whatever disability they are portraying. Recent examples that come to mind are Kevin McHale, who plays Artie on Glee, any wheelchair-using villain you see in Doctor Who, and whoever got the role of Eleanor Perry in the Stargate: Universe episode “Sabotage”.

(And those are, of course, just shows that have wheelchair users. How many movies have you seen with a blind character who is played by an actress who isn’t?)

When pushed on issues of Crip Drag, the creators of these shows and movies often respond in one of two ways.

First, the character has the Miracle Cure Plotline, and thus they can’t have an actor with an actual disability play that role.

At first I didn’t question this much, beyond my general irritation with the Miracle Cure Plotline (Hey, television and movie producers: We have more stories than that, thanks), but I’m beginning to be very irritated with that idea the more I think about it. Amongst other things, there are wheelchair users who can (gasp!) walk. They may walk with a cane, or some other assistive device, but as long as you’re not asking them to climb several flights of stairs and then go for a run, they’ll probably be able to manage enough to satisfy the “It’s a miracle, he can walk!” plotline. I suspect blind actresses could act like they could see for the sake of a storyline, too.* It’s almost like they can learn to act like they can see, the way another actress can learn to act “blind”.

The second reason, the one that’s got me all irritated today, is the wonderful excuse that all minority groups get when they point out casting disparities: There aren’t any Big Names that will Bring In The Money who have disabilities, and Do You Know How Hard It Is To Find An Actor Who Could Do This Role At All?

The latest in a long line of insults of this nature is the casting of Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller in the upcoming Broadway production of The Miracle Worker.

For his part, the show’s producer, David Richenthal, claims that the production was unable to find a blind or deaf child actor with the star power to bring in enough of an audience to justify the show’s large budget, saying “It’s simply naïve to think that in this day and age, you’ll be able to sell tickets to a play revival solely on the potential of the production to be a great show or on the potential for an unknown actress to give a breakthrough performance,” he said. “I would consider it financially irresponsible to approach a major revival without making a serious effort to get a star.” The show will, however, be making an effort to find a blind or deaf actress to play Breslin’s understudy — but they won’t make any promises.

Gosh, I wonder why there aren’t any Big Name Child Actresses who are d/Deaf or blind (or both) and can thus play Helen Keller. Do you think it’s because there aren’t enough roles that are given to such actresses so they can develop a name for themselves? Do you think it’s because any roles that could be given to a d/Deaf or blind actress are given to non-disabled actresses? Do you think there might be some sort of bias going on in casting decisions that might be impacting this at all?

I sympathise a bit with the situation Richenthal is in. All he’s trying to do is make sure that an expensive production makes money, and Breslin has the star-draw. Apparently there are no other roles in The Miracle Worker that one could cast a name-drawing star in, and of course it’s foolish for anyone to think that the role of Helen Keller would go to an actress with a disability! What nonsense!

This is, of course, a self-perpetuating system. Disabled people are not cast in roles that would demonstrate their acting talent. They do not get the experience and the face time that the currently non-disabled do, so they can’t increase their name recognition. Then, when a role comes up that is perfect for a person with a disability, the role goes to someone else, because people don’t have a clue who this disabled person is.

The biggest actress, of course, who disproves this rule is Marlee Matlin. However, as much as I respect Marlee Matlin she is not the only actress in all of North America who is deaf. Honestly, I promise, lots of d/Deaf people do act. So do lots of blind people. My husband, who is a full-time wheelchair user, used to do Shakespeare. We are out here, and we are looking for paying gigs just as much as the next person.

Stop the Crip Drag. Stop the Miracle Cure Plotlines. And stop acting like it’s just a wild coincidence that you don’t know of any disabled actresses with the star power to bring in the money for the role of Helen Keller. It irritates me.

Please note: As with all of my posts, my schedule is such that I won’t be able to see comments for hours after you make them. My co-moderators will be approving most comments as they become aware of them, and will try and respond to any and all of them when I’m free.

* I’ve described wheelchair users as male and blind people as female because this is how they are typically cast in North American shows.