Tag Archives: disabled women

Book Review: Lasting Treasures by Julie Ellis

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.

Creative Work: Circle Stories, by Riva Lehrer

Riva Lehrer is a disabled painter who produces, among many other things, depictions of disabled bodies:

For Lehrer, the disabled body is intensely beautiful—memorable, unexpected, and lived in with great self-awareness. These are not bodies that are taken for granted or left unexplored. This beauty has often stayed unseen despite the constant, invasive public stare. Disability is complex; it demands images that combine hard facts with unexpected gifts. (source)

Her collection ‘Circle Stories’ consists of a series of portraits of prominent people with disabilities:

The term “Circle Stories” refers to multiple aspects of the project. The portraiture method is a circular one, involving extensive interviews with each participant, in which we talk about their lives, work, and understanding of disability. Through this collaborative process, we seek imagery that is a truthful representation of their experience.

In addition, the circle of the wheelchair is the nearly universal symbol of disability, a wheel that transforms the ordinary object of the chair into the mark of physical and social difference.

Some images from ‘Circle Stories’:

Susan Nussbaum, a woman seated on a balcony outdoors with a distant view of the ocean. She is gazing intently at the painter and a blanket is draped over her right shoulder.

Susan Nussbaum, an active member of the theatre community as well as a disability rights activist.

Rebecca Maskos, a woman with disabilities seated on a snowy stone wall with a blue bird hovering above her.

Rebecca Maskos is a German disability rights activist and artist.

“The body is the first story; our text of first meeting. I see you, you see me, skin, bone, eyes, hair: assumptions pour forth like a rip in a dam. See the thousand imprints of sex, nation, money, clues to the familiar and exotic. We read and decide in eyeblink time. When bone and blood show an unfamiliar shape, the judgments freeze into a first, rigid wall between you and I. So paint the story of surface and bone explicit, unavoidable, and ask what did you fear then and what do you think now.” (source)

This piece isn’t from ‘Circle Stories’ but I love it too much not to share:

A woman with disabilities in the woods in autumn. She is surrounded by bones and a paintbox lies next to her.

‘Into the Yellow Woods.’ I’m in a rather dark mood right now and this painting speaks to me.

You can see more of Lehrer’s work at her website!

Lines in the Sand: Daly, Showalter and Tactics of Exclusion

The second-wave radical feminist theologian and professor Mary Daly died earlier this month, and there has been a veritable outpouring of eulogies from various feminist blogs.

Few of these eulogies have acknowledged Daly’s transphobia and racism.

I do not deny that Daly was an important figure in second-wave feminism, but to mourn her passing without a nod to her work’s more problematic aspects, or explorations of these aspects, are, to put it mildly, not good. In particular, the intense, hateful transphobia found in some of her writing, and her issues with unexamined white privilege and racism — which both QueenEmily at Questioning Transphobia and Sungold at Kittywampus cover very well in recent posts — strikes many as both deeply disturbing and an old pattern that has, and continues to, rear its grotesque head in certain segments of contemporary feminism. I include myself among those who are deeply troubled by Daly’s transphobic sentiments and her questionable record when it came to examining the entrenched racism and issues surrounding white privilege in the second-wave feminist movement.

I should probably mention at this point that I do not mean to appropriate or co-opt the struggles of trans* folks in any way, although my cis privilege will most likely be unintentionally reflected at points in this piece. Though the struggles of trans* people, trans feminists and PWDs and disabled feminists are not the exact same, some exclusionary tactics of certain cisgendered feminists and those of abled feminists sometimes take similar forms, especially within the mainstream feminist movement. The oppression of trans* folks and PWDs in cis, abled culture intersect in a number of ways; this post, however, barely scratches that surface. I believe that the many issues present in Daly’s work–as well as the reaction to her death around the blogosphere–can serve as just one entry point to discussions of the similarities in oppression(s) that trans* people and PWDs face. There are also clear differences, among them the fact Daly used language that can only be called genocidal, while many other feminists of her generation did not advocate such an extreme path when it came to keeping certain individuals out of feminism. I will be focusing on feminism’s exclusion of trans* and PWDs as reflected in the work of two very influential second-wave feminists here, but there is, of course, much more to these stories.

Daly’s penchant for exclusion and outright hatred (particularly of trans* individuals) couched in oddly phrased academic rhetoric unfortunately brings to mind another famous second-waver’s similar issues with people (particularly women) with disabilities. Princeton scholar Elaine Showalter — best known for bringing feminist literary theory to the fore in the academy at a time when such a discipline was, for the most part, inconceivable — dismissed disabling conditions like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome and mental health issues such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (referred to in the text as Multiple Personality Disorder) in her 1997 book Hystories.

In Hystories, Showalter attempted to debunk “modern media epidemics” such as the aforementioned disabilities as well as more traditionally disproven phenomena such as alien abduction and satanic ritual abuse. In the book’s chapter on Chronic Fatigue, Showalter rather disingenuously declared that she did not want to “disparage the suffering” of people with such conditions only a few pages before she called CFS an extension of Western “fin de siecle [end of the century] anxiety.” She followed this stunning assertion with the claim that the Western news media was primarily responsible for making CFS into an escalating “psychogenic epidemic” (117, 131).

Like Daly’s severe opinion of trans* people as dupes of the medical industry (which Kittywampus cites in her post), Showalter also seemed to be taken with the idea that people with CFS are somehow being duped into thinking that they are ill because of the media focus on their condition. She wrote that many CFS patients and their defenders are “hostile to psychiatric or social explanations” of the condition, and that many of them react in a way that is not friendly to the labeling of CFS as “psychiatric” (128). However, the reactions of these same patients make sense if considered from a non-abled perspective. Showalter also seemed completely mystified by these “hostile” reactions. If CFS is just a manifestation of “fin seicle anxiety,” as she contended (adding that “emotions have tremendous power over the body”) she seemed to push the conclusion — without any scientific or medical proof — that many people with CFS have somehow been brainwashed into believing they have it; thus, the media-driven “hysterical epidemic” has worked.

Nowhere are feminists with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or related conditions consulted; the not-so-feminist implication here is that feminists with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome either do not exist or are just victims of a “hysterical” media-led epidemic and therefore cannot be “real” feminists. This is similar to how trans* feminists were erased, excluded and castigated by Daly as somehow not “real” women or feminists, and as benefiting from patriarchy in a way that “real” women and feminists could not. To put it crudely: This is exclusionary bullcrap, and it does not do trans* people, people with disabilities, feminists who fit either (or both) of these categories, or the feminist movement as a whole any favors whatsoever.

Exclusion is not radical. It has never been radical. It is, in fact, extraordinarily status-quo. No one should be able to arbitrarily pick and choose who “belongs” in the feminist movement and who does not, especially if those who are being excluded because of their gender identity, sexual identity or disability actively identify as feminist. Feminism should be for a wide variety of people; exclusion, however, is something that is not — and has never been — very  feminist.

Author’s note: I will be moderating this thread with an iron fist; please have the courtesy to not try to tell me how Daly really was an ally to trans* folks, or how Showalter didn’t mean what she said about CFS *that* way, or that either author’s influence on the feminist movement somehow excuses their hatred and bigotry. Thank you.

[Cross-posted to Ham.Blog]

Glee: The Halfway Point: Women and Race on Glee

This is post two of four in a multipart series on Glee. The previous post was the introduction.

Glee‘s core message about women seems to be that they are all manipulative, evil, lying sneaks. The show includes not one but two deceptive pregnancy plots, interspersed with numerous depictions of women as nags, from Quinn pressuring Finn to get a job to pay for the baby to Terri trying to force Will into buying a house they cannot afford. The women of Glee are so troped that they almost seem like caricatures of themselves.

Among the teens in the show, we have Rachel, who takes care to mention her “two gay dads” and her Jewishness as often as possible, and who wants to be the star of everything. She gets her way most of the time, and when she doesn’t, she manipulates and maneuvers until she does. Rachel, of course, is in love with Finn; an ongoing theme in the show is that all of the men are awesome, with multiple male characters having multiple female characters pursuing them, despite the fact that they really aren’t very great catches.

We also have Quinn, one of the central characters of the piece. A young white Christian and member of the Cheerios cheerleading squad, Quinn is pregnant. For the first half of the season, we watch her lie and tell Finn he’s the father, because she’s decided that he would be a better parent, while indulging in a flirtation with Puck, the real father, who is depicted as boorish and irresponsible. The show even brings up a common sex and pregnancy myth about ejaculating in hot tubs, meant to be a dig at Finn for being too stupid to realize that Quinn is conning him. In the midseason finale, the truth is revealed, courtesy of Rachel, who tells Finn because she’s hoping to win his affections by unmasking his pregnant girlfriend.

Quinn had the potential to be a sympathetic character. We saw her standing up for herself and insisting that she be let back on the cheerleading squad after being booted for her pregnancy. We saw her being kicked out of her home by her conservative parents. We saw her struggling with the pregnancy and the decisions she had to make. But, in the end, Quinn feels like all the other female characters. She’s shown as manipulative, one dimensional, man-hungry, and catty, even if she has a softer side which comes out now and then.

Two of the teens are women of colour; Tina, who is Asian, and Mercedes, who is Black. Tina, whom we will discuss in detail a bit further on, is rarely seen, let alone allowed to speak. Mercedes is the caricature of the fat, sassy Black woman. Although she’s a very talented singer, we rarely get to see it. Both Tina and Mercedes turn solos over to Rachel on multiple occasions, underscoring the idea that women of colour should step aside for their white sisters. Both got a few Special Moments, but they haven’t been given nearly as much attention as the white women on the show. They are, in many ways, props, a theme which comes up with people in marginalized bodies on Glee over and over again.

The other people of colour we see on the show are Mike Chang, who is literally called the “Other Asian,” Ken Tanaka, Principal Figgins, and Matt Rutherford. These characters are kept primarily in the background, almost like set dressing; it’s interesting to note that we probably know more about the minor white characters, such as Brittany and Santana, than we do about the minor characters of colour. In all of the depictions of people of colour we see on Glee, there isn’t much that is new and original, that takes stereotypes on their head and turns them upside down, that really says much of anything at all. They are kept firmly in the background and to the side, with the show’s focus remaining fixed on the white characters.

Our Stories” is an excellent post by thedeadparrot which discusses the role of race on Glee from the perspective of a woman of colour; I would highly recommend reading it.

The adult women on Glee whom we see most often are Terri, Will’s wife; Emma, the school counselor; Sue Sylvester, Will’s archenemy; and Terri’s sister, Kendra. Kendra is seen primarily in the form of Terri’s accomplice, helping Terri fake a pregnancy, giving her tips on how to keep her man, and struggling with her obstreperous children.

Terri, Will’s wife, is introduced to us as manipulative, controlling, and schemey. We see scenes, for example, in which she buys a car to keep Will “occupied” so he won’t stray, nags at Will to get an extra job because she doesn’t want to pick up more hours at work, and gets a job at the school in order to keep an eye on Will.

Until shortly before the midseason finale, I thought the most egregious thing about Terri was that she was depicted as a stereotypical controlling harridan, and that she was faking a pregnancy. (I totally called “false pregnancy” from the pilot, incidentally.) But then, in “Mattress,” we saw a very disturbing scene in which Will finally learned that Terri was faking, and we had an abusive and frightening scene in the kitchen. I read it as domestic violence (trigger warning, link goes to a post discussing, graphically, the domestic violence scene in “Mattress”), as did a lot of social justice folks, and it explained a lot about her character.

Terri was the way she was because she was in an abusive relationship; I recognized a lot of her actions from previous episodes as outgrowths of coping mechanisms once I realized what was going on. If I had more faith in the Glee writers, I’d be going “her characterization is amazing and deep and complex,” but I don’t think that . I don’t think they meant for that scene to be read as abusive, and in fact I suspect that they want us to think of Terri as abusive. I believe that they want us to read her and her sister as conniving women who will stop at nothing to control Will. The nuance and ambiguity feel accidental to me.

Terri’s also fairly clearly mentally ill, although she has the TV sort of mental illness which is vague and unclear. Most heartbreaking moment in “Sectionals”? When Terri said she was getting counseling and trying to do some important work, and Will just shut her down and said “I hope that works out for you” while he walked out the door to capture the woman of his dreams. Ouch.

Emma’s another character with TV disability; she appears to have some sort of mental illness which involves “bizarre” habits. We as viewers are, I believe, supposed to think this is funny and possibly endearing. Anna noted that as the relationship between Will and Emma has deepened, her disordered behaviour has lessened, almost as though she’s being “cured” by the greatness of Will. And Emma troubles me, a lot, as a feminist. She has an unrequited love for Will which she subverts into a decision to marry Ken, but it’s clear that the marriage would be doomed if it happened, and she’s depicted as a vacillating, uncertain woman who only really blooms around the object of her affections.

In the midseason finale, we had Ken leaving her at the altar, and for a moment, Emma almost had her shining moment of glory. Will arrived after walking out on his wife, and basically said “ok, I’m ready, let’s do this,” and she struck out on her own and said “nope.” Choirs sang (not really). But then, scenes later, we have her and Will making out in the hallway. So…I guess that was shortlived resistance.

The depiction of mental illness on Glee with both Terri and Emma really upset me, and I know it troubled some other people as well. It played on a lot of stereotypes about mental illness and people with mental illness, and it also seemed to carry a subtle implication that most women are “crazy.”

Sue Sylvester, of course, is one of the most polarizing characters on Glee. She’s the one everyone keeps coming back to, the model bigot who is so outrageous that she’s obviously meant to be a satire and commentary on society. I mean, right? How could anyone really think that way? Well, newsflash, Glee writers, people do, and there are people who like her character because they agree with what she has to say, and what she does. There are also people who find her character comfortable because she allows them to engage in a little hipster -ism, laughing at bigotry and prejudice instead of being horrified by it.

Even the Glee writers seemed to feel like they were going too far, because they inserted the execrable “humanizing” plot with Sue and her institutionalized sister in “Wheels,” which was the Very Special Inspiration for Able People Episode. Amazingly, a lot of people lapped that entire episode up, including the scene with Sue, saying that it totally changed their perspective on her “tough, but fair” character.

Only, as I pointed out, being a bigot and having a disabled sister doesn’t excuse anything. It just means that you are a bigot with a disabled sister. I didn’t find that scene humanizing as much as I found it frustrating; we are now supposed to think better of Sue because she’s had it hard as the family member of someone with disabilities? Where have we heard that logic before?

Coming up next: “Disability and Sexuality on Glee.

The Cautionary Tale of the Kehoe Twins: Is This About Surrogacy, or Whether or Not Disabled Women Can Parent?

Note: This post has been edited to include Amy Kehoe’s correct diagnosis, which was erroneously stated as schizophrenia in an earlier version. I apologize for the error and for not fact checking more thoroughly before publishing. -meloukhia

A story is brewing in Michigan.

Amy and Scott Kehoe wanted babies, but couldn’t have them on their own. So they selected egg and sperm from donors and made arrangements for a surrogate. In Michigan, paid surrogacy is not legal, and the law on surrogacy contracts is slippery, with details primarily being handled by doctors. However, the Kehoes and their surrogate, Laschell Baker, worked out an agreeable arrangement within the framework of existing law.

All went well until Laschell was supposed to surrender the resulting twins to the Kehoes.

Amy Kehoe has a psychotic disorder not otherwise specified (NOS).

Laschell Baker has a problem with that. Or, she decided that she wanted to keep the children, and felt that using mental illness as the fulcrum for the case would be the best way to win, which brings up an entirely new set of issues about surrogacy and the public perception of mental illness.

Because Michigan tends to support surrogates rather than the people who contract with them in custody disputes, Laschell Baker won custody of the twins. The Kehoes decided not to fight it, giving up the opportunity to raise the children they thought they would be adopting and had prepared for because they felt that they could not win the case.

Surrogacy itself is a very complicated issue with a lot of feminist implications; I’m not discussing it here because I don’t want this post to balloon into an epic pile of words, not because I don’t think it’s important. There are a lot of things going on with this case, many of which merit discussion in a feminist environment, I’m just focusing on one particular angle today, which is one disability issue: Whether or not women with disabilities are competent parents, according to society. There’s also another disability issue here, of course, embedded in the use of donor eggs and sperm selected for “intelligence.”

In this case, when mental illness was brought up, Kehoe’s doctor wrote a letter in her support, arguing that she would be an excellent parent. Social services freely said that mental illness is not a barrier to adoption when it’s clear that a parent is making regular doctor’s appointments, taking medication, and demonstrating that the mental illness is clearly being managed. As far as child services is concerned, Amy and Scott would make great parents. They would be allowed, for example, to adopt or foster.

Yet, custody still went to Laschell Baker.

This case is being framed in the media as an example of the complicated issues surrounding surrogacy and the fact that it is largely unregulated. “Painful implications if surrogacy goes awry,” says the Seattle Times. “Surrogacy: Testing the Boundaries of Third-Party Reproduction,” reads the title of a slide show in the New York Times featuring the Kehoe case (related story, for those interested in reading it, is “Building a Baby, With Few Ground Rules“). These are definitely issues which need to be discussed.

But what also needs to be discussed is the inherent ableism in this case. In this instance, Laschell appears to have decided that mental illness made Amy Kehoe unable to parent, if we are to believe the media reports. And talked in quite graphic terms about being worried about “what might happen” if Amy didn’t take her medication. This was clearly a wedge which helped to cinch the case.

In the media reporting, the reporters mention the fact that mental illness is not a barrier to adoption, but seem almost suspicious of this, and don’t discuss the obvious implications of this situation, in which the spectre of mental illness was used to argue that Amy Kehoe should not be allowed to parent.

There’s a widespread belief that people with disabilities cannot be parents. This is especially true in the case of mental illness, which is viewed as a barrier to parenting by many able people (and, often, by the government, which throws up plenty of barriers to parenting while disabled). Many of the articles I found seemed almost sympathetic to Baker, making sure to emphasize that she was “tricked” when Kehoe didn’t undergo psychological screening or disclose her mental illness. Kehoe, the implication goes, was under an obligation to prove her psychological fitness to be a parent, because she is disabled and therefore suspect when it comes to parenting skills. Presumably Baker did not undergo similar screening.

Is this case really about the murky waters of surrogacy law? Sure it is, in part. It highlights a lot of serious problems with a process which is not tightly regulated, or which is regulated with a very coarse framework which disserves more than it serves. And it brings up a whole host of ethical issues related to surrogacy, egg and sperm donation, and assisted reproductive technology.

But to my eye, the social implication of this case are about whether or not disabled parents should (continue to) be put on trial to prove that they can be parents. Whether or not disability should be evoked as a barrier to being a good parent. Whether disabled women, in particular, should be barred from parenthood. This case evokes forced sterilization and a host of other unpleasantries which have been perpetrated on disabled women to prevent them from having a chance to parent.

And that’s what troubles me about the case of these twins, who have been treated like pawns and objects in a very large and dangerous game.