Tag Archives: media and pop culture

The Space Between…

Jennifer Hawkins, a white woman, poses nude with her arms purposefully placed, on the cover of Marie Claire magazine.This post originally posted at random babble… on 06 January 2010

The policing of other women’s bodies is never OK from a feminist standpoint. I can’t stress that point enough. It doesn’t serve any productive purpose in feminist discourse.

It is mostly an understood concept among people outside of the mainstream of feminism. Those who are able to work their theory around the concepts of white, straight, cis, upper-middle class, educated, able-bodied privilege.

Yet, a concept that still slips into the space between understanding is the difference between criticizing someone who comes from a place of thin privilege and tearing someone down for a body that is not like your own.

This article at Bitch, to me, was the latter.

It doesn’t seem like so long ago that I was a size 0. And yet, looking at myself now it feels so far away. That is something I am coming to grips with even today. But my mind remembers it all so well. How can nothing be something? And even at nothing I felt all my flaws. I covered in my towel so I didn’t have to glimpse myself in the mirror and be disgusted by what I saw. I still do that now! I refused to own a scale, afraid of what I would see (I still do that now!)…because it would send me into fits of fear and rage and crying…because no matter how much I threw up and refused to eat I could not weigh what all the charts said someone of my height and weight should…and my thighs jiggled and my belly bulged and my arms — while muscular from kitchen work — wiggled. Even though I was actually nothing. My clothing size was nothing.1

Jennifer Hawkins has thin privilege. Yes. She most certainly does. But when I was struggling I had two kinds of people to look at in magazines and on television: overly photoshopped women who were too perfect, and purposefully imperfect women meant to make me hate myself so that I would work to not be like them. There was no campaign of women of any size coming out to say “we are imperfect, but here we are“.

I will grant this: The Bitch piece does criticize the way that Jennifer Hawkins’ flaws have been the main focus of her nude cover. That is not the conversation that this cover should be invoking in feminist circles. But if she is talking about how hard this was for her, that is not something we should be criticizing. Dismissing her hesitancy, her own insecurities just because she is thin and has a different body type than someone else… that is not feminist either. When has it ever been OK for us to dismiss another woman’s experiences?

Why can’t we, as feminists, understand that?

She no longer has the protection of her Photoshop Deflector Shields, so she is in a vulnerable place, but her thin privilege doesn’t put her in the same place as all the fatties of the world who are crying in clothing stores because shirts are not made for their bodies. I get that. I think Kelsey Wallace at Bitch, for whom I just did a mostly lovely guest blogging stint w/ some of the FWD/Forward team, even gets that despite what I am garnering from her post.

Jennifer Hawkins is not the same as me. She does not know what it is like to walk into a doctor’s office and have hir assume that the pain or illness is caused by my weight before they know anything about me. She does not know the pain of the stares when I have trouble walking somewhere, as if it is definitely because I am a fattie. Or how clothes are made for people like her and not for me…or how society is made to make me feel like I am a big worthless pile of shit whose only chance at redemption is to adopt a “Lifestyle Change” for just sixty bucks a month or whatever.

But while we are throwing stones at Hawkins and scolding her for making us all feel like crap, let’s remember that she is entitled to feel like crap too. And other women who look like her, who aren’t models, who might feel like crap about themselves, they are allowed to feel that way too if they want too. Because some of them might be trying to recover or hold on or what the fuck ever. Maybe they are healthy, and have been told to Eat a Sandwich2, as if it funny or hip, but they can’t gain weight or can’t eat that much for whatever reason.

Or, maybe we, women of any size, are allowed to love our bodies and just be fucking happy, no matter what, and these women on these covers should show us that at any size we can all be beautiful (and maybe we will see more variance soon…but I am a silly, idealistic girl3).

We can criticize thin privilege without policing other women’s bodies.

Just sayin’…

  1. Why are women’s sizes arbitrary numbers? Why can’t they be waist measurements? That would be more consistent?
  2. Yes. I linked to them. I want people to see how awful that thread is, and how flippantly and dismissively that is defended, even when it is pointed out to the mod to be harmful. As in, she doesn’t care that some people find it harmful.
  3. I can’t back this up. I am not.

Film Review: Beyond Words

Beyond Words is an Australian short thriller directed by Armand De Saint-Salvy, one of 16 finalists for Tropfest 2009. (Tropfest is the world’s largest short film festival, involving more than 600 filmmakers each year!)

The two main, unnamed characters in the film are a deaf woman1 (Charlotte Gregg) and a blind man (Gyton Grantley). The film alternates between their perspectives, which makes for interesting (and probably not absolutely fantastic, but I’ll get to that) viewing/listening. During the deaf character’s parts, the sound adjusts to fit her perspective, and during the blind character’s parts, the visuals adjust to his.

Before we even get to the tension/conflict of the piece, there’s some really well done setting up of PWD perspective. We begin in a gym, in a yoga class that doesn’t really accommodate either of the main characters, so they follow the instructions as best they can. It’s a really lovely centring of PWD without a sledgehammer. As the class finishes up, he tries to talk to her but of course she doesn’t hear him: the motif of communication difficulties has expanded to fit the conflicting communication styles between PWD themselves. He tries to go after her, and the cutting between perspectives is such that we only learn later that this is because she has left her car keys. I quite like that the source of the drama at this stage isn’t a result of the usual dynamic of “brave PWD tries to cope! in an abled world on abled terms! the brave little soul!” Instead, we’ve got a difference in the needs, communication methods and experiences between PWD. We proceed entirely without reference to abled experience, which is pretty novel.

On the way to her car, the woman is grabbed by a man who wants to steal the car. As she scrabbles in her bag to find the keys that aren’t there, our friend from yoga comes by, hearing noises that sound like sounds of struggle. During the struggle, there’s rapid switching between their two perspectives. For me, as a sighted and hearing viewer/listener, it was a fabulous way to heighten tension, a very good climax. Doubtless for some people that would be very confusing or disorientating, which I guess goes to show a limit of the film’s translatability to, you know, actual disabled people. The attacker runs off soon after our main male character makes a noise (so to speak!). It never quite gets the feel of vulnerable woman saved by a man – for me personally, at any rate – maybe because her assailant runs off of his own accord, after the protests of both main characters.

After the attacker runs off, the sound and visuals change again: we’ve got a gelling of the two perspectives, with sound and vision both coming on in a conventional film sort of way. Which is all good with the inter-disability harmony in a way and more accessible for sure. I’m also feeling slightly disappointed about this stage of the film because resolution and harmony seem to equal moving beyond a disabled perspective. That is, resolution comes with film techniques more aligned with an abled perspective. So: here the two find a way to communicate, with the woman speaking verbally, asking the man to show her his lips so she can lip read. They walk back to the gym to get her car keys, the end.

I must admit that I am wanting a yay!disability message here. There are messages other than “we have different experiences of the world, and now we are banding together” to be gained from this film. I am bothered, for example, by the idea that it is entirely possible to read this as “man tries to get attention of woman, who is then punished for not paying attention”.

And then. I know Gyton Grantley isn’t blind, and I’m pretty sure Charlotte Gregg isn’t deaf. (Not because I’ve got any particular evidence of her being hearing, more because I can’t find references to her deafness, which I think would have been emphasized in most references to her I could find!) I think they both do a pretty good job, but it would of course be nice if more disabled people featured in films. On the upside, they actually had consultants on the film, the deaf consultants being Caroline Conlon and Richard Aarden and the blind consultant Zak Nikolic.

I’d also be interested as to how accessible this film is. I myself have a promotional/freebie version from the paper which isn’t very. I’m sure it’d be quite disorienting to some PWD, and I’m wondering about subtitling and such in any official DVD releases and how the film was displayed at Tropfest itself. After all, positive messages about disability oughtn’t to just be for the reassurance of the abled folk!

It’s quite a good film, so do give it a go if you can.

  1. The film doesn’t make it clear whether the character prefers deaf or Deaf; I’m thinking deaf is the most appropriate usage for the purposes of this review and within context, which is why I’ve used it.

Does Outright Speculation Make This Disabled Feminist Angry?

Answer: Yes.

Let’s talk about this piece-of-crap article recently published on that oh-so-“liberal” news n’ culture site, Salon.com. I’m prefacing this post with a warning for ableist language and concepts on the part of the article’s author, Rahul K. Parikh, M.D. The article begins as follows:

There was a time when a celebrity’s sudden death almost invariably meant illegal drugs…[a]nd so it seems with Brittany Murphy, the bubbly and bright actress who died of cardiac arrest at 32.

Yes, it seems. Point is, we don’t know much yet. There are other health-related issues or conditions that can lead to cardiac arrest, but is this acknowledged? Of course not! Parikh continues:

The coroner’s notes allegedly claim a pharmacopia in Murphy’s bathroom cabinet: Topamax (for seizures or migraines), methylprednisolone (a steroid), fluoxetine (an antidepressant), Klonopin (for anxiety), carbamazepine (for seizures or bipolar disorder), Ativan (for anxiety), Vicoprofen (pain reliever), propranolol (for hypertension, migraines or anxiety), Biaxin (an antibiotic), and hydrocodone (a narcotic pain reliever). Gone are the days of shameful crack pipes and empty gin bottles.

OH MY GOD, EVERYBODY PANIC.

Murphy’s medications, like those of [Heath] Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith, are on the shelves of your local drugstore, available with a simple trip to the doctor — or doctors — whom you merely need to convince that you need the stuff. Did one doctor prescribe her those meds? Did 10? We don’t yet know. But as a doctor myself, I just kept wondering (and not for the first time): What if doctors were more like librarians? Would Brittany Murphy still be alive?

Cue scary music! THE DANGER IS ON THE SHELVES OF YOUR LOCAL DRUGSTORE. Nevermind that people with chronic pain conditions and disabilities have to jump through numerous, often ridiculous hoops just to get, say, a month’s supply of medications that help them function and/or live life to the fullest extent possible. As one of these people, I am of the opinion that Parikh is being rather disingenuous here; these drugs, at least for us “average” folk with chronic pain issues, are usually not easy to obtain.

After nattering about how the medical field should follow the example of public libraries when it comes to monitoring people and their books meds, he continues:

One of the many negative consequences of such fragmentation is how ridiculously easy it can be to get drugs. Most doctors know patients who have desperately angled to get a prescription they don’t need, usually highly addictive pain medicines like Percocet or OxyContin. This is what we call “doctor shopping,” hopping from one physician to the next until they find someone willing to write a script. When the supply dries up, they go to another doctor, and then another. One 53-year-old man in California visited 183 doctors and 47 pharmacies in one year to support his addiction to painkillers.

Hey, nice use of anecdata there! What on earth does one 53 year-old guy in California have to do with Brittany Murphy’s situation? As for “most doctors” knowing a patient who has “angled” for meds they “don’t need” (who makes that judgement, I wonder?): cry me a goddamn river. The endless Helen Lovejoy-gasping about ADDICTION!!1 in fact makes it incredibly hard for some of us who need these medications to obtain them, and no amount of 1984-esque War is Peace anecdata–from someone, no less, who is supposed to help people in pain as part of his chosen occupation–is going to change that.

In short, the experiences of people with chronic pain are going be different than those of an able-bodied doctor, but nowhere is this acknowledged in this article–nor is it mentioned in many larger conversations about  painkillers and (possible) ADDICTION!!11.

Most of us who need these medications do not have the energy to doctor-shop. I do not wish to deny that painkiller addiction is a serious problem; it is, for some. Sadly, these sorts of “conversations” on the specter of supposedly widespread PAINKILLER ADDICTION!!!1–much like those focusing on the OBESITY CRISIS!!11–tend to focus entirely too much attention on extreme cases and anecdata, leaving out those who need these medications for legitimate medical reasons, and, I might add, some of whom spend a great portion of time proving said legitimacy in order to show that they are not addicts or doctor-shoppers.

But if “preventing” ADDICTION!11 in able-bodied people via endless hand-wringing about who “really” needs these drugs versus who doesn’t is the number one priority here, that is a problem. Yet again, the needs of those who are judged by society as most “important” or productive or fitting into able-bodied society are taken seriously, and the needs of those who do not fit this mold–because they need painkillers for actual pain and are therefore bad/unproductive/just a bunch of whiners–are ignored, or worse, actively shamed and castigated for things or circumstances that they cannot control.

And, as OuyangDan pointed out so eloquently on this very blog, there are a lot of things that we don’t know about Brittany Murphy’s death. Using her death as a poorly-researched, almost totally speculative “example” of the dangers of painkiller ADDICTION!!11 is not only tasteless, but it distracts from how ridiculously the concerns about painkillers, “legitimacy” and the specter of addiction are often framed by (mostly privileged) people who do not deal with these things in their daily lives.

Less infuriating: Many of the commenters seem to agree that this article and its “speculation” went too far, which is unusual for Salon commenters, as most of them tend to exemplify the worst of privileged white “liberalism” on a regular basis (as you would expect, this includes loads of abled privilege and the anecdata to back up their uninformed opinions).

Subtitles in Assassin’s Creed II and Ubisoft’s Pledge

I am somewhat of a gamer. I am not by any means an avid gamer or someone you should call up with questions. If you want a review of how easy a game is to play or how not confusing your controls are, I am your girl*.

I am mostly a computer gamer. I like my World of Warcraft just fine, thank-you. It has a lot of room for critique, and I have some letter writing campaigns to Blizzard in progress. But I like it. I have no love for Warhammer Online, having never played it after being promised by multiple reliable sources that I would be able to play it on my Mac, and after purchasing the Special Edition in order to get into the Beta, was most unpleasantly surprised. Whatthefuckever, I turned that store credit into a Wii Fit, something I actually used. And, no, I don’t care that you can now get it for Mac, they already shat in my Cinnamon Life. I am digressing when I just wanted to say that I prefer computer over console because I tend to find console controls too confusing for me —  all the button combinations are too much to keep track of. I like to set up my buttons in a row and get my “Pew Pew Moar” on. If it is more complicated than original Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros., I don’t really enjoy it. I just don’t have the reaction times or memory to figure out all of those buttons (and I don’t need an evo psych lecture on how girls just don’t have those skills, because I have many gamer skills that translate well into the PvP aspects of WoW…I just don’t have it for console gaming).

One thing that endeared me to WoW, however, is that all the dialogue is subtitled. I am not deaf, but I do sometimes have trouble sorting dialogue out from ambient noise, both in game and out. I don’t want to have to miss something in an otherwise mostly enjoyable game because I can’t understand what the NPCs are saying. It doesn’t matter how high you turn the volume, you just can’t get everything. WoW even lets me know when someone is yelling.

Back to console games…

One console game that I did pick up was Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed. There was a lot of excitement over this game, it was anxiously awaited — one of the most anticipated games of the year of its release. There was also a huge deal surrounding one of its lead developers that I will leave you to read up on,I just am too tired to rehash it — I was thrilled that it didn’t stop Jade Raymond from being a part of ASII’s team (no transcript at the link). Just for a fun exercise, Google “Jade Raymond + Assassin’s Creed II” and see how many search results come up with anything that has to do with how good she is at being a video game developer or producer, and then tell me why more women don’t go into that industry. The team at Ubisoft put in the beginning of the game that it was developed by a team of multi-cultural and religiously sensitive people from many diverse backgrounds. I found the game fantastic. The Guy beat it in just a couple of days (he eats games for breakfast like that), even if the ending did make him want to put it in the freezer, and even though I have only recently tried it, I have really enjoyed it. To me, the controls are really simple, the game play is methodical (note: things that really piss some gamers off appeal to me, as in part of my OC nature really likes the repetitive storyline, and the different things to complete. I *love* that, because it allows me to zone out, clearing my mind.), and the game itself is Really Fucking Beautiful. I love going to all the checkpoints and using the “eagle vision”, just viewing the cities.

One aspect that was missing from this design team, it seems, was someone who had input on accessibility, because one complaint I had, even before I was invested in disability activism to the degree I am now, is that it had no subtitles. Like I said, I often miss dialogue during cut scenes, and even if that does not affect my game play, it affects my gaming experience.

When Assassin’s Creed II came out I read in The Guys Game Informer that they made a lot of changes based on what fans wrote to Ubisoft asking for. Before I was willing to get this for The Guy for X-mas this year, I needed to see two things: 1) That the playable character could not drown in a two fucking inches of water, and 2) subtitles. Well what do you know, this iteration’s assassin can fucking swim, and Assassin’s Creed II includes subtitles for all of the game play.

Rawk.

We have it, and it both translates the Italian and has decent subtitles, although it doesn’t describe non-spoken sounds.

There’s more.

Ubisoft, apparently has made a commitment that they will always include the considerations of deaf and hard-of-hearing gamers in the development phases of their gaming creation. This is exciting news for me, coming from a company that I have come to really like. By like, I mean, has made the first non-Nintendo based console game that I can actually play (this is also because I find the new black controller included w/ the X-Box Elite military appreciation smaller than the original, and fits comfortably in my hands, even on a moderate pain day).

I am looking forward to finishing Assassin’s Creed so that I can move on to ASII, if for no other reason than for the subtitles. I wish they had made this pledge long ago. It is worth noting that I read on a gamer message board somewhere (I can’t find it now) that someone had written them, and they responded, saying they took that complaint very seriously, and now, here they have. This has raised Ubisoft in my mind.

Like it was hard to do at this point.

*I do sometimes call myself girl. I don’t have a problem with this.

More articles on subtitles in video games: Subtitles: Increasing Game Accessibility, Comprehension (Gamasutra)

Talking down disability while talking down to young people

Contains spoilers for A Darkling Plain, so be warned!

I’ve just finished up Philip Reeve’s Hungry Cities books. They’re really good, and I’d recommend them to any young adults reading, or anyone else who is into YA. Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain are full of complex female characters in a well-realised world, engaging with lots of ethical meatiness. The story is essentially about a future time in which there are mobile cities that move around finding smaller cities to “eat” for resources. Anti-Tractionists, meanwhile, live in static settlements and fight against the Municipal Darwinists. I have a few problems with the books, but I’ll keep it brief and address the rather irritating disability fail that starts off in Infernal Devices and runs through A Darkling Plain.

General Naga is the head of the Green Storm, which is the dominant Anti-Tractionist force for a good portion of the series. He has sustained war injuries and now an exoskeleton-type device allows him to move around. It’s emphasised that he’s a good and honourable man, gracious to all and working for peace. Well, up until he thinks Lady Naga has been working for the other side, at which point he is violent towards her, imprisons her and turns back to war. Almost inevitably, there is disability fail. To focus on the last book, (because that contains most of the references to General Naga, and because that’s the only one I have to hand!) alarm bells were ringing for me on page 35. Here is what goes through the mind of young Anti-Tractionist Theo Ngoni as he converses with General Naga’s wife, Lady Naga (aka Dr Oenone Zero):

‘He had seen Naga; a fierce warrior who clanked around inside a motorized metal exoskeleton to compensate for his lost right arm and crippled legs. He could not imagine that Dr Zero had been in love with him. It must have been fear, or lust for power, that had made her say yes.’

At this point, I thought, of course not. It’s going to turn out that she really loves him and married him for who he is, and this is just to set up breaking down that perception of unlovableness, right? Wrong. ‘She did not love him. She was just grateful for his protection, and glad that the leadership of the Great Storm had passed into the hands of a decent man. That was why she had been unable to say no when he asked her to be his wife.’ Naturally, a woman marrying for security. Part of my mind says that plays into the complexity of the relationships in these books, and it’s good to read something written for young people in which the happily ever afters aren’t really. Another part is thinking about how this sort of thing happens over and over again in popular culture, you know, where a disabled character isn’t being loved despite their being disabled or something.

And it goes on much like that, really, with lots of references to the crippled man! with his unrequited love! and he’s ‘half a man, wrapped up in clanking armour,’ according to one character, did we mention?

General Naga sacrifices himself in the end for the greater good, which frees young, unblemished Lady Naga from her horrid situation (tripping the sarcasm detector there). This “the cripple must die” dynamic that comes up so much in popular culture is really troubling, because its prevalence is just another betrayal of the societal view that disability is totes the worst thing ever and how can you live like that and why won’t you die and stop messing up my pretty world?! At the same time, he dies a hero, saving the people of London, following an illustrious career. Which is not exactly nice, but something.

What stories like this do is assume an abled readership. At least, I hope so, because consciously putting all this stuff onto young disabled people is a bit much. If a good part of writing fantasy/SF/spec for young people is to assist them in escaping and building up their imaginations and experiences, where are disabled youth to live out fantasy lives? Disabled youth are quite as deserving of an imaginative playground in which to develop their minds and thought as anyone else. In fact, I think it’s particularly vital that people so marginalised in the world be given opportunities to work at rich internal lives. What stories like this do is present full worlds and characters, contrasted with a bundle of cliches making up the one stock disabled character, and in doing so put disabled readers in their place: not deserving of anything more than that, and aren’t you glad you got represented at all? (Hello Doctor Who!) Which is not to mention that one dimensional characters represent another way of talking down to younger people. Younger people are quite capable of relating to characters outside of tired stock character types.

And at the end of the day, I find that these representations take me out of a story and just distract me. It’s poor storytelling, often inconsistent with the quality of the writing otherwise. It’s insulting to the audience, disabled and abled, young and old and in between.

[Cross-posted at Zero at the Bone]

Guest Post: Future of Portrayals of Disability in Movies? Cameron’s Avatar

Esté Yarmosh has Cerebral Palsy. She holds a B.A. in English from Eastern Connecticut State University and is currently studying for her Master of Arts degree in English at Simmons College. Her previous guest posts are Cerebral Palsy Humor? Not so much and Disability Dismissed

I’m something of a Sci-fi fan, especially when it comes to the literary genre of science fiction. And when I first heard about James Cameron’s new Sci-fi movie Avatar, I was fascinated, and I watched the trailer(s) right away. In some ways, I was blown away by the visuals, particularly the images of the alien planet “Pandora” and the image of the incubation tank of sorts that holds the main character’s alien body. Even the idea of placing your mind in an alien body to do space exploration initially intrigued me. Also, when I read that the protagonist was a wheelchair user, I was interested.

My doubts started forming, however, when I looked more closely at two sources: the movie’s dialogue and the movie’s synopsis. I want to start with the synopsis. Through about the film’s box office numbers, I understand that Avatar is quite popular with audiences. This synopsis contains profoundly ableist language in the way it describes the protagonist Jake as “confined to a wheelchair.” I don’t use a wheelchair; nevertheless, I was very offended when I read that. We’ve been trying to eradicate terms like “confined to a wheelchair” for a while now, and to see this demonstration of ignorance on such a large scale, since it is mainstream, is distressing.

I wonder if the producers or whoever wrote the official synopsis thought that they were being more politically correct by saying “confined to a wheelchair” instead of, say, wheelchair-bound. The fact is they aren’t being PC by declaring Jake is “confined to a wheelchair.” Actually, wheelchair-bound and “confined to a wheelchair” are synonyms and the writer(s) of the synopsis aren’t helping either people with disabilities or the non-disabled population by using that term. I worry a bit because non-disabled people may think through reading this synopsis that referring to someone who uses a wheelchair as “confined to a wheelchair” is okay – but of course, it’s really not — wheelchair user, for instance, is more acceptable. I’ve checked –I know that this synopsis has flooded the Internet and it is most likely people’s main source of information about Avatar.

I also want to take the sentence (from the plot synopsis of Avatar) “Bitter and disillusioned, he’s [Jake] still a warrior at heart” to task. To me, it smacks of disability stereotypes. First, I think the sentence inspires pity in the reader, which is regressive and entrapping for people with disabilities because it signals the endurance of a vicious cycle of stereotyping – in this case, the pitiable cripple. Another stereotype that can be inferred from the sentence is that of the wounded/disabled veteran. I’ve read in one of the (few, alas) analyses of portrayals of disability in film and TV that a component of the disabled veteran is his jaded and cynical attitude towards life and people – he becomes a bit of a misanthrope.

Now, about Avatar’s dialogue – in one of the theatrical trailers, Commander Quaritch (leader of the mission says to Jake), “you’re going to get your real legs back” or something to that effect. [opens with sound] Yet this piece of dialogue overlooks a fact that’s glaringly obvious: Jake still has his legs! Yes, he has a disability, but what’s the problem with his legs and/or wheelchair? The commander is implying that there is something not just physically, but morally, wrong with Jake’s disabled legs and wheelchair use: it is unacceptable in the military for a soldier to be disabled and, moreover, to show it.

And there is another issue I have with the way Quaritch uses the word “real.” The legs Jake has while in his wheelchair are the ones he was born with, and therefore, are true and natural, albeit he is now in a wheelchair. The commander is being terribly ableist and in denial of disability issues when he makes this statement. It’s a long-held stereotype (and still exists today) that disability is unnatural in people and so must be fixed or cured (an issue brought up by Meloukhia in ou article on Avatar). The thing is, disabilities have always been with us (for both non-disabled and disabled people) and according to Paul Jaeger and Cynthia Ann Bowman, 550 million people all over the world have disabilities, so disabilities are, in fact, quite natural.1

Avatar does not even confront disability in an honest and upfront way. The film, in my opinion, takes the easy way out by putting Jake in a completely different body (the alien) and thus, it completely bypasses any meaningful efforts for dealing with Jake’s disability and the issues that arise from it. I suppose that the film’s whole plot hinges on the fact that Jake enters an alien body to explore the planet “Pandora,” but still, the film seems to willingly ignore the regular experience of Jake as a disabled person in favor of an instance of “how cool is this alien creature!” The aliens really remind me of tigers in their ferocity, tails and stripes (!). The aliens also sort of remind me of elf-like creatures I’ve seen in certain illustrations and I’ve read about in fantasy novels: the Drow. Anyway, Jake is seduced into believing that an alien body is better for him than his real, disabled one and he gleefully decides to participate in the military’s little experiment.

The word experiment brings me to another point: the so-called medical model of disability. This version of the medical model in Avatar is glossed over with fancy and distracting features: advanced technology, a futuristic setting, alien life-forms and magic. Yet when these features are all stripped away, we can see that Jake is still being worked on physically, tampered with, if you will, by scientists—the medical model. In much the same way in real life, people with disabilities are prodded, observed and examined (sometimes exploited) by doctors, who claim they know what’s best for us.

That’s how I got a snapped tendon which is currently floating around somewhere in the vicinity of my knee. It’s the result of a semi-botched leg operation, in which “we overcompensated,” my orthopedic doctor (so helpfully –*sarcasm*) let me know years later. Yeah, you really know what’s best for me. I dislocated my knee twice during the years following the operation, and sometimes I think the snapped tendon was a contributing factor, although I probably will never really know.

Also, why are fictional characters with disabilities often put in films (and TV shows) with Sci-fi plots/concepts? To me, it perpetuates the stereotype that people with disabilities are ‘freaks’ and like I said earlier in this article, somehow unnatural. The instances of disabled characters showing up in Sci-fi movies seem to lump them together with strange Sci-fi creatures like aliens, androids and robots, to name a few; yet, as we all know, people with disabilities are human! However, I think that unfortunately, the writers, producers and directors of these types of films believe that disabled people are interchangeable with said aliens and androids. The creative decision to make Jake into an (albeit artificial) alien displays this belief; it further shows that Jake doesn’t deserve to be human because he isn’t ‘whole’ or ‘normal.’ Why can’t there be films and TV shows about people with disabilities that have a contemporary setting and that take a realistic approach to their subject matter (not counting Glee, which has representation problems of its own)?

Meloukhia’s earlier post about Avatar mentioned the film’s aspects of crip drag, so I won’t go into that, but I’d like to say something about how non-disabled film-makers seem to think that a wheelchair stands for all people with impairments, whether these are physical, sensory, mental, cognitive, learning, etc. This is of course wrong: disabilities are way more diverse in nature than simply having a wheelchair, and not all physical disabilities even require use of wheelchair (such as in my experience). Although if you think about it, we can take issue with the international accessibility symbol, too – it shows a figure in a wheelchair. This is the second (male, by the way) character in a wheelchair featured in a mass media production in the past six months (Glee’s the other). When will film-makers (and TV producers) create a character that has a disability which doesn’t involve a wheelchair – perhaps Epilepsy, or Asperger’s — to replicate the vast range of disabilities in real-life?

Furthermore, it seems to me that there are few, if any, films and TV shows which center around a disabled character that is also female. I’d like to see that, and not in the distant future either. Another thing I’d like to see out of a film or TV show is a female character with a disability that has a significant sex (and/or romantic) life; I guess I’ll have to keep hoping we’ll get that someday. Avatar doesn’t deliver on these fronts (and neither does Glee), because as usual in films and TV shows, the man, disabled or not, gets the girl in the end.

I know I’ve written a really long post, but one last thing. Has anyone seen this [toy of Sully] yet?

  1. Bowman, Cynthia Ann and Jaeger, Paul T. Understanding Disability: Inclusion, Access, Diversity, and Civil Rights. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT: 2005. 165 pp.

On Speculation and Boundaries…

Brittany Murphy died today.

It took exactly five seconds for the speculation to start up about why she would die of cardiac arrest at the tender age of 32, and not quite double that for the snarky comments to seep out of the woodwork. Because certainly if she had an existing heart condition we all would have known about it, since we have that right to her privacy.

What we have, much like the public consumption we have of celebrities, especially women, is a perceived right to make snap judgments about their lives and their health.

Brittany Murphy’s death is tragic on its own merits. She was talented and only 32.

And if there is any truth to the speculation, then she was sick. If she was indeed sick, then we, despite what we think, do not have a right to flaunt that illness about. She was ill, and she lost. And to me, that means something, on a human, and mortal level. There but for the grace and all of that. When I read the comments that speculate about what illnesses she certainly had or what addictions would be necessary to cause this premature death it is like nails on a chalkboard while chewing tinfoil whilst walking on broken glass but not the fun Annie Lennox version with adorably mistreated Hugh Laurie. If there is any truth to it then she was one of us. She was possibly like me and she lost. That scares me at my core. That was one of us in there and instead of having a moment to appreciate the gravity of that we are ripping her apart and we don’t even know. We Don’t Fucking Know.

Also, last I checked it is bad form to speak ill of the dead. But I suppose I am still an idealistic, silly girl to expect people to treat other people with human dignity. I have spent too much time in social justice for that.

If not, then her death was simply a tragic and random happenstance.

If any information is released, we have to wait for it and presume that it is the truth, and if not, we have to go on with what we have.

And either way, it isn’t our business, really.

She died, and that itself is enough. It should be. She gave us entertainment and amusement. She did what she loved with her life.

We should give her a modicum of respect in death.

May she rest in peace.

Recommended Reading for December 7

Disability & Poverty

People with disabilities, the report says, account for a larger share of those experiencing poverty than people in all other minority, ethnic and racial groups combined and are even a larger group than single parents.

The extra costs associated with living with a disability such as purchasing expensive equipment like wheelchairs and catheters or obtaining specialized medical attention keep many disabled people and their families in poverty, the report notes.

Autism Speaks Hits A New Low

Before I explain what they’ve done to make me say that, I have to provide a bit of background information. You see, back in early August, Autism Speaks sent out this press release encouraging people to submit videos of autistic individuals for use in an upcoming film project. This project had huge names behind it— most notably, award-winning movie director Alfonso Cuarón, the man behind both Children of Men and the third Harry Potter movie— and was to be titled “I Am Autism.” According to Autism Speaks co-founder Suzanne Wright, this project was intended to “shine a bright spotlight on autism,” and was to be unveiled at the United Nations World focus on Autism on September 22.

Seems pretty harmless, right? “I Am Autism.” Sounds like it might be some sort of “We Are The World”-type production, about how we’re all affected by autism in some way. And “shining a bright spotlight”? I actually had a small gleam of hope that Autism Speaks was finally shedding their doom-and-gloom message for something more positive.

Well…

Diagnosis of a Faun

Determined outsider triumphs over mainstream medical, using a disabled artist as her protege/experiment. If not dance as therapy, the therapeutic effects of dance. Those are the storylines here; not Mr. Mozgala or even the piece itself — which, btw, I hope to see in June if not in December. So, here, we go.

Mozgala does not gain much space in the article except as a medical project with a weird gait: his CP has “caused him to walk for most of his life like ‘a human velociraptor,’ as he put it: up on his toes, lower extremities turned in, seesawing from side to side to maintain balance.” In fact, we don’t hear much about his acting career; he’s more of a specimen. Once, we’ve got the details of an enslaving CP out the way; the whole thing starts out with an outside: a choreographer who has done with with nontraditional dancers (my phrase) — the article’s author, Neil Genzlinger says “outside normal dance parameters. She sees Mozgala and is “inspired.” Yeah. That thing.

My Experiences with Vulvodynia

On the other hand, I found the medicalisation of my sex life difficult to deal with – in the end, I was dreading trying to have sex, and tried to only do so the weekend before an appointment because I knew that a doctor was about to ask how it was. I dread to think what the reaction would have been if I had admitted to seeking treatment for this condition while single; there was no opening for the possibility of non-straightness or non-monogamy. It wasn’t until I saw the final doctor, a sex counsellor, that anyone asked whether my relationship was good; even then, the focus was on returning me to a fit state to have penetrative sex and babies. (When I finally took a deep breath and said, “I don’t think I want to go on with this, I have no motivation to cause myself pain every day,” the counsellor replied that other women often went through with it because they were trying to have children. Fair play to them, but she didn’t ask whether I wanted children.)

In the news:
Ambulance Unable to find place for suicidal girl

A mentally ill, suicidal teenager was ferried around for hours by an ambulance crew because no NHS unit would accept her, the BBC has learnt .

The girl eventually had to be taken to a police cell, documents revealed under the Freedom of Information Act show.

Guest Post: Book Review: Everything Beautiful

Karen Healey is an able-bodied author of young adult literature and a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. You can read more of her musings on reading, baking, and social justice at her blog, Attention Rebellious Jezebels.

Everything Beautiful, Simmone Howell. Pan.

I am the maniac behind the wheel of a stolen dune buggy. Dylan Luck is at my side. We are tearing up the desert, searching for proof of God.

Riley Rose’s mother died two years ago, when she was fourteen, and everything went to hell. Now her father and her new stepmother have sent her to a week-long camp at Sprit Ranch, AKA the Palace of Suckdom.

I decided I would pack only frivolous things: eyelash curlers and costume jewellery and little jars of antipasto. If I had to go to Christian camp then I would go as a plague. I would be more like Chloe: outrageous and obnoxious — call me a plus-size glass of sin! It wasn’t until Melbourne was wavering behind us like a bad watercolour that reality hit. As the kilometres ticked I sank into my seat and practiced holding my breath. On a silo just past Horsham someone had painted an escape button. ESC – ten feet high against a concrete sky. I almost asked Dad to stop the car so I could press it.

There, she meets Dylan, who used to be a bullying jackass before the accident that cost the use of his legs. Now he’s just sort of a jackass, and his old Bible Camp friends don’t seem to know how to act around him in the chair.

Craig came forward. “Here you go, dude.” He clamped a hand on Dylan’s shoulder and handed him a shiny bundle. Dylan was slow to unfold it, too slow for Craig, who moved across and shook it out, and held it up for display. It was a vest identical to his. Craig draped it over Dylan’s shoulders and announced: “So this year there’s two Youth Leaders!” … I whistled and threw my lavender sprigs at the stage. A flower landed on Dylan’s chest. He watched it fall to his lap and then he picked it up. I noticed his cross then: thick and silver, hanging on a thin leather string. As he held the sprig of lavender, his face changed and I had a sudden flash that he looked on the outside how I felt on the inside: Lost. Moody. Superior. Charged.

Dylan smelled the flower and stared straight at me. Then he put it in his mouth and ate it.

HIJINKS ENSUE. Hijinks include [minor spoilers!] (skip)
Daring Escapes, Heartfelt Confessions, makeovers, loveable doped-up friends, the theft of a shroud, Mean (Christian) Girls who turn out to be real girls, and one of the sweetest, hottest, most beautiful love scenes I’ve read anywhere

I LOVE this book. I love that the two main characters have bodies deemed unacceptable by Western standards – Dylan because he’s a wheelchair user, Riley because she’s fat – and yet are developed as a romantic and sexy pair. I love that Dylan is not a Ministering Angel Who Inspires Us All, but a complex person who’s a moody jerk a lot of the time, but charming and wickedly entertaining a lot of the rest. Howell manages to pack a good deal of wheelchair etiquette and disability awareness into the narrative, but not preachily; mostly it comes as Dylan sarcastically noting something that Riley’s never had to consider before.

In fact, every person in this book, however quickly drawn, comes across as a portrait, not a caricature. Characterisation is Howell’s great strength. No! It’s dialogue. No! It’s humour. No! It’s pace.

Wait, maybe it’s description:

The sun dipped. The sky became the near-night blue of shadows and stolen moments. Now the ground was firmer. The land had flattened out and Dylan’s tracks were no longer visible. Here and there, I found little reflecting pools, and then at last I saw one great big one. The lake was a giant mirror reflecting a crazy-paving of tree and sky. Up ahead I saw a monster gum tree with wandering roots that looked like they’d waded right into the water and thought, fuck it, let’s stop here. Dylan must have thought the same thing. He was in his chair, facing the water, a little way back from the edge.

Everything Beautiful is. Highly recommended. I don’t know where it’s available outside Australia, but the Book Depository has it here, although I have Thoughts on that particular cover.

Recommended Reading for December 2

“[L]ook at who they are and how many of them are saying it”

When you ask for help, and other people assume it’s motivated by your being lazy or just a smartass, pretty quickly you learn to stop asking. If you started out wanting to please, and people around you keep jumping to negative conclusions about your motives, you may come to believe that you’re really a lazy smartass who could really do things without help (or clarification) if you tried.* If you repeately get told that you’re more than smart enough to figure out and do things on your own, you might start thinking this is so. If you’re told that you’re obviously too stupid to do something properly, you might believe it.

I really identified with some of Dave Spicer’s descriptions of how he learned to cope and make sense of things, growing up as an undiagnosed autistic.

Guess what I want for Christmas!

Yesterday, I read an interesting post on FWD/Forward, called Cerebral Palsy Humour? Not so much, in which the author Esté Yarmosh writes about the offensive pity crap she found on Café Press and Zazzle when she was looking for humourous graphics about disability.

In the comments, Codeman points towards even worse examples, Animals 4 A Cause, which is by far the most godawful “awareness” merch I’ve ever seen. It features daft pictorial puns like cartoon dogs that “Piss on Autism”, bulls that “Bully Autism”, an “Autism Stinks” skunk, and so on.

Ugh.

Wheelchair Tourism covered at conference

Dr Stumbo said her presentation would cover leisure, health and disabilities and remind tourist operators and hospitality managers about the importance of accessibility.

She said there was a misconception among these operators and managers that people with a disability did not use leisure centres or visit tourist attractions.

“They say, ‘we don’t have anyone with a disability come to our program or facility so why should we bother to become accessible?’

“This is a chicken-egg dilemma. Of course they serve people with disabilities. They are just unaware of the extent of it.”

Awareness Days

Hey, Hey, Hey, it’s Disability Awareness Day! Everyone gets a chance to see what it’s really like to have a disability! Yank out those blindfolds, grab cotton to stuff in your ears, and plop yourself in a wheelchair to navigate around an obstacle course! To get the most out of Disability Awareness Day, it is important to try almost all the disabilities on for size.

No doubt about it, life with a disability is a tragedy! Why these poor gimps, blinks, and others would be better off dead! They are so courageous and yet pitiful as they go about their daily routines. Yep, I’m so glad it is their fate and not mine . . .

Sadly, these are the misconceptions that the public holds about those of us who live with disabilities. Disability simulations do nothing but reinforce these negative stereotypes about persons with disabilities.

To Everything There Is a Season

It is not the film makers fault they have tapped into “disability = scary = violent = bad” and helped promote that concept in public consciousness. It is the fault of the disabled person pointing it out; that they’re refusing to rise above it. {Strong Black Woman, Strong Black Man, You’re So Strong If I Had That I Would Kill Myself, Model Minority, So Hard Working} They are refusing to not change the world, starting with themselves; namely their outlook, attitude and tone to something more positive.

Which frankly I read as ‘you should be less confrontational’, even though the original post wasn’t. It was simply pointing out a trope.

But more than that, something I do not think the individuals debating with the OP seem able to recognize, the tropes about what behavior is abnormal and thus scary and potentially violent and bad are actually based on either exaggerated behaviors within minority stereotypes OR they are based on behaviors regarding human states medicine in the past had no answers for; Those behaviors of course representing a gambit of symptomatology within another minority.

And, just another reminder that I’m always looking for posts to include in this. Because I’m only sporadically able to get into comments due to my schedule, it’s best to email me. anna@disabledfeminists.com . Feel free to send me your own links – I’m all for self-promotion!