Tag Archives: representation

Disability Representation in Music (Video), You’re Doing It Right: Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope”

This recent music video from singer-songwriter Janelle Monae is a great example of how not to completely screw up representation(s) of disability. Lyrics are located here.

And a description, courtesy of FWD’s own S.E.:

A black title card reads: ‘The Palace of the Dogs Asylum: Dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.’

Two people in tuxedos are seen sitting against a white tiled wall. One is reading a book and the other is playing with a small ball, which eventually drifts up and floats in the air. The reader turns to see it and looks surprised.

Cut to an ominous-looking institution with a sign in front reading: ‘The Palace of the Dogs.’ Bright yellow text reading: ‘Monae and Left Foot: Tight Rope’ overlays the image as bouncy music plays.

Cut to a scene of a nurse pushing a cart full of medications. The scene starts with her feet, in sensible white shoes, and slowly pans up. She is moving down a hallway. As she proceeds, a woman (Janelle Monae) in a tuxedo without a jacket, with her hair in an elaborate sculpted pompadour, peers out the door of her room and then ducks back in. As she closes the door, we cut to her in her room, leaning against the door, and she starts singing.

The video cuts back and forth between the nurse moving down the hall, Monae singing and dancing in front of a mirror, and two ominous figures with mirrors for faces draped in black cloaks, seen from a distance. She eventually puts her jacket on and moves out of her room, softshoeing down the hallway, and other people, also in tuxedos, join
her. They storm into a cafeteria, where a band is playing, led by Big Boi, wearing a peacoat, a scarf, and a snappy hat. Monae jumps up onto a table and starts dancing, while people dance all around her.

As everyone dances, the nurse is seen peering around the corner with an angry expression. The scene cuts to the nurse gesticulating at the black-robed figures, who start to glide down the hallways and into the cafeteria. Monae dances right out of the wall, leaving an imprint of her clothes against the bricks, and ends up in a misty forest in what appears to be afternoon light, where she is pursued by the gliding black figures. Leaves cling to their cloaks. Evading them, she walks through a concrete wall, leaving another impression of her clothes behind, and she winds up in the hall again, where she is escorted by the robed figures. The video cuts back and forth between scenes of her
walking down the hall and the scene in the cafeteria, where music still plays and people still dance.

As she walks, a man in an impeccable suit and top hat walks by and tips his hat to her. She goes back into her room while people dance in the hall. The camera closes in on a table covered in papers and a piece of equipment which looks like a typewriter. She types a few keys, and then touches the papers, which turn out to be blueprints marked with ‘The Palace of the Dogs.’ She sits down on her bed,  rests her chin on her hand, and looks into the camera. The music fades and the scene cuts to black.

I really like what Cripchick has to say about this video: “i love the way that this video A.) critiques psychiatric institutions and B.) shows the ways that institutions/society/ableism polices our whole beautiful creative selves because if unleashed, we are powerful/uncontrollable.”

Additionally, I thought the cloaked figures were an interesting representation of the concept of the looking-glass self; another interpretation might be that they represent Bentham’s panopticon, or the sort of menacing, omipresent societal structure in which we must police ourselves constantly in order to be considered “normal.” Those are just two ways of looking at one aspect of this video, however.

What do you all think?

Yeah, what *about* your free speech “rights”?

Here at FWD, it is not unusual for us to get quite a few comments in mod that question, take issue with, or outright berate our fairly rigorous comments policy and iterations thereof in varying degrees. Many of these comments are some variation of “But what about my right to express my opinion?” or “But…free speech!”

Unsurprisingly, many of the comments that try to take us to task for “prohibiting” free speech are from non-regular (and, in some cases, first-time) commenters. I try to give people — on the internet and off — the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps these folks who try to direct the conversation to their supposed right to say whatever they want “because of the First Amendment” are just unaware that many social justice-focused blogs — especially those written by people who are members of various marginalized and/or traditionally underrepresented groups — have commenting policies, usually for very specific reasons. Perhaps they think that the First Amendment entitles them to say whatever they want without also getting called on it. Perhaps they think that bigoted or hateful speech is okay, since it’s “just” on the internet and therefore cannot be taken seriously or do any “real” damage. Perhaps they think that someone needs to pay Devil’s advocate when talking to (or about) disabled feminists and other people who do not represent (or are not represented by) the majority, and they are reasonable/intellectual enough to do the job!

Here’s the thing: This website is not  run by U.S. government or employees of the U.S. government who are representing their place of work. This is a privately-owned website.  Its contributors, commenters and readers are not all from or living in the U.S. The First Amendment applies, by and large, to the United States government’s attempts to contain and/or regulate things that people say or opinions that they want to express in myriad formats. In other words, “freedom of expression” does not automatically mean that you can bust out with some bigoted crap, and then whine or call foul when the blogger or author chooses not to publish or engage with said bigoted crap, or when someone else (perhaps another commenter) calls you on this crap. Free speech is not equivalent to some sort of magical blogular free-for-all. The “free speech!!11” defense (if you want to call it that) also has the unintentional side effect of privileging US-centric notions of being able to say certain things, apparently without consequence — something that some other countries do not appear to take so lightly (see, for example, British libel laws).

From a more anecdata-ish perspective, I have noticed that many of the people, at least on the internet, who cry “free speech!!1” in defense of their supposed right to say “un-PC” things/play Devil’s advocate/et cetera are people with various kinds of privilege (white, heterosexual, abled, cis, class–to name just a few) who simply do not seem to want to give up — or, sadly even so much as critically examine — one or more of the types of unearned privilege that they have. Put simply, they just want to shut people (who oftentimes aren’t just like them for one reason or another) up using the trump card of free speech. It seems to me that the thought process might go a little something like this: Who cares if there’s a person (or people) on the other side of that computer screen? I have the right to steamroll over their lived experiences, or tell them how wrong they are ’cause “normal” people don’t feel this way, or tell them to suck it up/grow a thicker skin, or that they’re just making things up so they can be angry about stuff, or looking for stuff to get mad about, or seeing things that “aren’t there” (because if I can’t see it, it must not be there!) or use any number of derailing tactics that are not pertinent to the actual discussion at hand, or direct the discussion to my experiences and feelings as a privileged/non-marginalized person and thus re-center my own (and the majority’s) importance in a discussion that is not even about me, because it’s within my FREE SPEECH!!1 rights to do all of this and more!

Boy, that must be really fun, getting to justify making things all about you and your “rights” all of the time in spaces that are run by people who are — gasp! — different than you, and who may not have much of a safe ‘net space anyway, since the entire web is full of people who probably share at least some of your oh-so-contrarian outlook on things (not to mention some of your privilege[s]).

The free-speechers also tend to miss one important thing: If they want to spew uninformed, privilege-encrusted opinions using this excuse, and their comment gets published publicly, it is perfectly within reason for bloggers, writers and other commenters to use their free speech “rights” to respond right back.

Guest Post: Cerebral Palsy Humor? Not so Much.

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 post, Disability Dismissed, was published in October.

I was surfing the Internet recently for (good-natured of course, not mean-spirited) humor about disabilities, particularly in the form of graphics and slogans. I found the website Café Press.com, which sells t-shirts, hats, and other items with funny and clever (I suppose) sayings and images on them. I was curious to see what would appear when I searched for “disabled” on the website. I found a lot of what I thought were amusing items, some with very suggestive slogans and pictures, but I laughed at them anyway. We’re aware that disability is a serious issue in our lives, but it can’t be too bad to sometimes laugh at certain things related to disability.

I wanted to get more specific in my website search, so I typed in “Cerebral Palsy,” which is the condition I have. When the results came up, I started reading through them and I was deeply offended. The graphics were very depressing in the way they perpetrated stereotypes about disability: the charity case; attempting to find a cure; let’s make friends with the different kid, etc. The funny thing is whoever designed these images and phrases (they were clearly able-bodied) got the facts about CP completely screwed up.

Cerebral Palsy is life-long, yes, but it’s a non-progressive condition, so a cure can’t be found for it – claiming you’re trying to do that is simply absurd. Also, I found a graphic which stated, “Cerebral Palsy Survivor,” which angered me because CP is not a chronic illness; and besides, people with disabilities are trying very hard (and have been for a long time) to reduce the importance and influence of the so-called medical model on able-bodied thinking and even more importantly, in our own lives. We are also trying to rid ourselves of the long-held stereotype of the charity/pity case, one of the most damaging stereotypes about us that has existed. It is all too obvious that it still exists about Cerebral Palsy through images such as those on Café Press.com: a teddy bear in a stocking, with words next to it which read, “all I want for Christmas is a cure.” The sentimentality and maudlin nature (which is such a component of the charity case stereotype) of the graphic made me cringe. It sets us back at least one-hundred years in terms of progress; and moreover, the slogan is completely wrong about CP, because as I said it is not an illness or a disease, so a cure will never be produced – knowledge of that is not supposed to leave somebody in despair; it is just the way it is. In other words, talk of cures for CP is irrelevant and ridiculous. I should know about Cerebral Palsy, because it is part of me.

It is very unsettling to me to think that items like this teddy bear shirt are continually created and then bought and worn by an ill-informed, naive and/or idealistic (most likely able-bodied) public who are wooed by a sentimental, repressive message which is totally fabricated and is based on thousands of years of disability stereotypes. I still want my Cerebral Palsy humor!

Guest Post: To Whom It May Concern

Avendya is a college student with a chronic illness.

To Whom It May Concern:

My life is not a fucking tragedy.

No, really. Yes, I’ve fought with GlaxoSmithKline today, and I’m not sure when I’ll get a medication I badly need. Yes, my knee keeps giving out, and I am barely able to keep up the stairs to my room. Yes, I’ve broken so many times in the last week I’ve last count. No, I’m not sure that I’m really well enough to manage my workload. But you know what? I’m sitting in a computer lab with my best friend, listening to trashy German pop music, and Nadia made me brownies.

These are the stories I want to hear about: not just the tragedy of suffering, not just pity and playing on able-bodied people’s fears, but my life – our lives. I want to see a fictional character who has mobility issues who isn’t a tragic figure, but is clever and beautiful and could probably kick your ass without breaking a sweat. I want to see a story where the love interest isn’t a nice (white) girl, but a woman who’s gone through hell, and is stronger for it. I want to hear stories of disabled men and women succeeding – and not “in spite of” their disability.

I choose to define my life on my terms – not just the bad days, the panic attacks, the times when no pain medication I try even cuts into the pain, but the days where I say “screw it” and explore cities on my own, take in the breeze off the Bay, buy more books than I should, and listen to Imogen Heap as loud as my iPod will go. I may have not chosen my illness, but I damn well chose the rest of my life. I don’t much care if it isn’t what you were expecting from a disabled person – this is my life, my future, and I am not your fucking cliche.

I want to see, hear, read about people like me, living their lives on their own terms. We’re not martyrs and we’re not saints – we are people. More than that, we are – we exist, and no matter how many times our needs are disregarded, our stories are erased, we refuse to let you define us.