Seven reactions to reviews of Rachel Axler’s “Smudge”

On-stage scene from the play. A man and woman stand looking into a pram, the woman with a many-limbed plush toy. The pram has a wild series of tubes and wires snaking out of it.

I’ve been shaking my head over the press for Rachel Axler’s new hipster-ableist play, Smudge. Here’s a lightning tour, with my response

s at the end. Emphases are mine.

In ‘Smudge,’ Baby’s disabled, and mom’s not much better, from Newsday:

Most couples look at the sonogram of their impending baby to see whether it’s a boy or a girl. But when Colby and her husband, Nick, scrutinize the picture of the life in her womb for an answer to the “what is it?” question, they are appalled to realize that they mean it. Literally.

Rachel Axler’s “Smudge,” the very dark 90-minute comedy at the Women’s Project, aims to be part horror movie, part domestic relationship drama. Their baby, a girl, arrives unbearably deformed, with no limbs and one big eye. Nick (Greg Keller) bonds with the unseen character in the pram encircled with tubes, and names her Cassandra. Colby (Cassie Beck, in another of her achingly honest performances) attempts to protect herself from the agony through brutal humor, maniacally snipping the arms off baby clothes and taunting the “smudge” until “it” miraculously responds. Or does it? […]

BOTTOM LINE The unthinkable, faced with wit but not enough depth

More, from Variety:

Title comes from the first word that comes to mind when Colby (Cassie Beck) gets a glimpse of her infant daughter, grotesquely described as having no arms or legs, an undeveloped skeletal structure and only one (beautiful, luminous blue-green) eye in her misshapen head.

More, from Time Out New York:

She is nearly indescribably deformed: a purple-grey mass of flesh and hair, with a single, disconcertingly beautiful Caribbean Sea–colored eye. Her horrified mother, Colby (Beck), describes the child as looking “Sort of like a jellyfish. Sort of like something that’s been erased.”

More, from SF Examiner:

The subject matter isn’t for the fainthearted: A young couple has an extremely deformed baby[…]

The baby, whose name, “Cassandra,” was chosen before she was born, is described somewhat, but never seen by the audience. She lives in a softly beeping superpram that is laden with lights and colorful tubes containing various IV drips that sustain her. […]

[Colby] cuts the sleeves and legs off all the pink and white onesies, saying, “It doesn’t have limbs, it doesn’t need sleeves,” and secretly uses the fabric to make a stuffed toy she calls “Mister Limbs.” When she finally approaches the pram, she waves Mister Limbs and seemingly taunts Cassie with it, saying, “He has everything you don’t.”

More, from NY Theatre:

[…] And she has an appendage that Colby calls a tail at one point and a possible penis at another. The “smudge” has no limbs and can only live by being hooked up to a bunch of feeding tubes.

More, from NY Daily News:

[Nick] hovers, consumed by “Cassio” even at work as a census taker. “Living is binary,” he says. “Zero or one. Black or white. You’ve got two choices — alive or dead. This is my daughter. She’s the gray area. Which would you choose? Zero or one?”[…]

How parents cope under these nightmarish circumstances is a provocative topic.

More, from NY Post:

Baby, you’re the beast

Colby and Nick’s new baby girl isn’t very nice — or very normal, either.

“There’s jealousy in its eye as it counts my hands, finds itself lacking,” Colby (Cassie Beck) says with a mix of fear and anger. No wonder: The deformed Cassandra is more of a blob than a baby. […] [Colby] refers to Cassandra as an “it” rather than a “she,” and when she finally deigns to use that pronoun, it’s with contemptuous air quotes.

More, from the New York Times:

And One-Eyed Offspring Makes Three

Parenthood never looked weirder or more terrifying than it does in “Smudge,” a new play by Rachel Axler at the Julia Miles Theater. Here are some of the things that Colby, a new mother, calls the thing she gave birth to: it, creature, hot dog, freak, smudge, a bunch of entrails in casing.

Her husband, Nick (Greg Keller), prefers to use a name, Cassandra, and to wax poetic about her one eye. But Colby (Cassie Beck) isn’t convinced the thing is even a girl. How, she wonders, can “something with a penis” be a girl? Nick: “That’s her leg.” […]

What gives the play its charge is how Ms. Axler taps into a primal fear — giving birth to a monster — and then calmly considers it from all angles.

How does Axler explain her motivation for this play?

She explained to New York Mag’s Vulture column:

Inspired by the most horrible thought she ever had, the play follows a young couple that gives birth to, well, a smudge. […]

And then a year or two later, it was my final year of grad school, and the shuttle that took me to UCSD was right by the ambulatory center. And a woman in a wheelchair was coming toward me and I thought it was a child. And as she got closer, I realized this was actually a grown woman, sort of a half-formed woman, like very little of a body that I could see, and her face was very blank and she looked straight at me. And that horrible thought was, Oh my god, nobody’s ever going to love that person. Which was immediately overwritten by, God, no, this person probably has a family. She might have a boyfriend. She might have a girlfriend. She probably has a perfectly functioning life. And I thought about that article, and I thought, Oh my God, I just sort of nonchalantly took the very privileged and callous point of view. And I was like, “Wait a second, that’s what I have to write about.”

The smudge is really this abstract concept. How did you figure out how to translate that to the stage with lights and sounds?

It’s funny, when I write, I hear it way more than I see it. So in the script there’s a lot of parentheticals, like “beeps, flickering,” and then sometimes it was “violent beeps,” “angry beeps,” “the tubes glow,” or “the tubes glow ominously” or “the tubes glow faintly.” So I’m working with designers to create this thing that can be anthropomorphized.

You see what she did there? She had a half-glimmer of recognition that maybe thinking about fellow humans as “half-formed” and “blank” and unlovable was, perhaps, a little bit wrong. A little bit privileged. An oopsie slip-o’-t’-brain.

So she wrote about a person with a disability as completely non-human. She depicted a person with a disability as an unseen, grotesque, unthinkably defective creature, unsuited for the eyes of the real humans. She painted a picture of a person with a disability as something out of view, only interacting with the real humans via tubes and wires. She resolved that parents who have children with disabilities must be going through the worst imaginable human experience. Horrific. Gruesome. Inconceivable.

She released this play on the world as her supposedly ground-breaking way of “examining” the issue, her journey to self-discovery and personal thinkythoughts. As if the idea of people with disabilities as being monsters is something new. As if the idea of people with disabilities as being non-human is fresh. And she slipped in a whole pile of hipster-ableist yuks, just to pretend that oh, no, she doesn’t really think that way. And nor do others, do they? They’re just all laughing at the idea that actual 21st-century people would ever think that way! Hahaha! And critics can handily be slapped down with “Can’t you take a joke?” “It’s DARK comedy.” Well, ain’t that just convenient?

My response to this steaming pile of hate has largely been nothing more than “……WUT.”

So here’s a go at bullet points:

1. People with disabilities are people.

2. Children with disabilities aren’t your go-to for horror metaphors. No, not as metaphors for postpartum depression either. See point one.

3. Having a child with a disability isn’t an “unthinkable” “nightmarish” experience with a “monster”. See point one.

4. Playing with degenderisation and total dehumanisation isn’t the path to disability rights acceptance. See point one.

5. No, not even if you call it “black comedy”.

6. Wannabe allies should sit down, shut the fuck up, and listen, if this is the shit going through their heads while they figure out whether or not PWD are people. See point one. Read it again.

If this is all you can come up with when confronted with the concept of disability, keep it to your own self while you work on it. Not every hateful, disgusting thought that goes through your head needs to be said out loud.

7. This is why our people are killed. This is how our people are killed. Stop it.


33 thoughts on “Seven reactions to reviews of Rachel Axler’s “Smudge”

  1. how did she read something as awesome as Harriet McBryde Johnson’s New York Times Magazine piece and come out with something as revolting as this?

    The thing is, I actually think that if you took this whole horror/absurdist trope (which Axler did not think of, duh, so I don’t know why anyone thinks this is creative) and developed it and made the baby a real character–which is especially easy with this premise since the baby is telekinetic/telepathic and can communicate despite being severely disabled and a baby–it would be kind of neat. I like when people take offensive stereotypes/tropes and develop them enough that they stop being stereotypes. But that sure isn’t the case here. It sounds like the mom’s disgust with and meanness to her daughter is portrayed as normal and understandable and the daughter never gets a chance to respond to it.

    I’m almost more creeped out because she was actually thinking about real disabled people when she wrote the play. If she wrote it out of ignorance and didn’t think of it as a disability-related play, that would be really messed up–but the fact that she actually thinks it’s some sort of disability rights statement? Oh boy.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I’ve just started following your blog and I absolutely love it. I’ve linked to the article and will be writing my own response to it soon. Your writing is brilliant. I can’t thank you enough. – G

  3. Whaaat? I had not heard of this play, and I am *glad* I hadn’t heard of this play, because it sounds utterly horrible. Uggghhh.

  4. WTF’nFityF!?!??????

    That’s just wrong all over. And I bet it’s how lots of people really think of us too (and if they don’t now, they will after seeing this). Gah. It’s not the baby that’s disgusting, it’s the fact that anyone would do this, now THAT is disgusting.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..A useful link =-.

  5. First of all, I think this is an absolutely horrid thing to do and, and I am appalled that such actions are accepted in this century. But even though the way she described it did not make it sound as if Axler had an anxiety disorder (rather, it was a random instance of anathema—I call them “static-thoughts” since it’s like static clogging up one’s brain), I could almost sympathize with her if she had taken a constructive route of sublimation free of cruelty and spite, as I have such an anxiety disorder. I have learned to control it through therapy, medication and sublimation, but occasionally I still do get incredibly horrifying thoughts that go against everything I stand for, and I have to remind myself of my moral core and draw upon it to dispel those thoughts and take away their power. I do write and draw about the nature of those thoughts, but I only entrust them to my counselors and my closest confidant(e)s, and I think the kind of exhibitionism that Axler chose to display is not only trivializing but downright vulgar. Not to mention that constructive, /positive/ activities such as cooking, sewing and exercising also help eliminate the anxiety that brings me bad thoughts as well. Therefore, I cannot have any sympathy for her at all, since not only does her excuse for art glorify all the most wrongheaded and ignorant stereotypes of disability, but it also gives those who really do battle such thoughts on a daily basis yet have developed good ways of combatting them a horrible name.

  6. Have you seen the play? You are cherry picking quotes to prove your own moral disgust. This places you in the same intellectual sphere as Glenn Beck. You are essentially accusing someone you don’t know of murder!

    Had you bothered to SEE the play. Or read it, you might find out that, in fact, your points are the same as Axlers. The play takes on the nature of life. The child isn’t merely “disabled” but lives in a vegetative state and can’t survive without tubes. So that’s the nightmare the parents find themselves in. So here’s my bullet points to you:

    1. Your reactionary attitude points to an intellectual dishonesty that denies conversation not enables it.

    2. You need to stop attacking people whose motives you don’t understand because you haven’t seen/read that which you are talking about.

    3. This is how people get killed. Stop it.

  7. Horrible. It MIGHT have been interesting she had critiqued the parents’ response to the child in the play … but instead it sounds like their view is the only view. Very disappointing.

  8. Basically she turned disability into her personal freak show and passed it off as a play. It’s a shame that some people really can’t get past that mentality, and to call herself an ‘ally’ in the fight against disablism – just no.

  9. This is repulsive. Why is it socially acceptable for this woman not only to publicly voice incredibly ableist views, but to construct an entire play around them? And receive praise for being “edgy” and “original”? These are the kinds of things which make me despair for our society.

  10. Kent: this is not framed as a review of the play. You fail Bothering To Read For Comprehension 101.

    The play takes on the nature of life. The child isn’t merely “disabled” but lives in a vegetative state and can’t survive without tubes.

    First: read this: Ableist Word Profile: Vegetable.

    Secondly, way to prove my point. What exactly about this character drove you to use the label “vegetative state”? The fact that she has a mobility impairment? That she is tube fed? That she communicates using technology? That she doesn’t look typical? It will come as a disappointment, but certainly no surprise, to participants at this very blog whose impairments and assistive technologies you are describing, that you consider such people non-human.

    Now go away. Your ignorant bigotry is not welcome here. The people here are neither your metaphors nor your side dishes.

    p.s. After fucking off, please look up “reactionary” in the dictionary. It does not mean what you think it means.

  11. Wikipedia describes a vegetative state as a state in which someone is “without detectable awareness.” Of course not being able to detect awareness doesn’t prove unawareness, but in this play, Cassandra communicates by emitting light and music, so she is inarguably aware of her surroundings, and therefore it’s not accurate to say she’s in a “vegetative state.” For someone who’s telling people to see the play, you obviously haven’t gathered very much information about it, because I could tell that Cassandra was aware just from reading these reviews!

  12. That is so horrible, I don’t even have words for it.

    Also: could you link this post to the ones about reproductive rights? Because as scary as it is to contemplate, these are the ideas (maybe not this extreme in everybody, but certainly there) that can stand behind the whole “abortion as default if the child will be disabled” attitude.

    In fact, maybe showing some of those main stream feminist what their thinking can lead to when pushed to the extreme might make at least some of them stop to think.

  13. “The child isn’t merely “disabled” but lives in a vegetative state and can’t survive without tubes.”

    I teach in a special needs school where some of the students can’t survive without tubes. They can’t speak. They rely on technology to communicate. Some of them can’t move anything other than their heads. One young man only has control over his eye movements, nothing else.

    You would probably call them vegetative, as they have near-identical impairments to this character. In fact, they are what you call ‘merely disabled’ – and they also happen to be ‘merely human’. Just as you are. So don’t go mentally divided people with disabilities up into categories, assuming that there is a special category made up of things in vegetative states that somehow don’t ‘count’ and can therefore be used as exhibits in a freak show. And don’t you dare suggest that is wrong for people with disabilities to be offended by this portrayal, as if there is some massive gulf between us and the ‘vegetable’.

    As other people here have already said, there are people with impairments like this that post and comment on this very blog.

  14. Hey, I just found this blog through a link on facebook. Well-written, enlightening stuff, I’ve had two ‘aha’s in three posts and will be rethinking some of my language. So…just posting to let you know that all passers-by are not Kent.

  15. Lastly, Kent, my “This is why our people are killed. ” is very clear. Dehumanisation of PWD means they can be more readily killed. Abuse, rape and murder of people with disabilities is absolutely rampant in our societies, with often no investigation or lower sentences handed down on the basis of the presence of disability. Singer is quite happy to go on record as saying that it’s perfect ok to actively knock off infants with disabilities. Every single piece of popular culture that further dehumanises us adds up to an environment of death for PWD.

    Your “This is how people get killed.”, on the other hand, just reads like a threat.

  16. I hate the old “if you haven’t seen it then you can’t criticise anything about it” argument. It’s so obviously hollow (and always reactionary!). There is a direct quote from the playwright that is completely in line with the reviews, and if they were really way off the mark then the playwright herself would doubtless be outraged and would publicly say so. Gr.

  17. This is awful.

    I have no other words.

    These are exactly the issues I dealt with as a ‘deformed/defective’ child. These are the issues I’m still dealing with in therapy – being treated as a ‘thing’, not a person, being degenderised, desexualised. Being someone’s specimen, someone’s science experiment.

    Maybe I should write a play like this from the child’s point of view. Would that be original and edgy, d’you think?

  18. Fucking a and a half. As a playwright, this (the play, at least as it is represented by reviews and playwright interviews) offends me.

    Reading some of the interviews with the playwright, it sounds like zie sees, “What happens when a parent — particularly a mother — doesn’t feel instant love for and attachment to hir child?” Which is a good and worthwhile question, one that deserves intelligent and insensitive exploration along with a sympathetic mother character.

    But not like this.

    I’ll admit that I haven’t read the script or seen the play, though I’d be very interested to get a copy of the script whenever it becomes available. But it’s reading like the playwright uses ableism to make the mother sympathetic. It reads like we’re supposed to say, “Oh, your child is a ‘deformed smudge monster,’ so it’s perfectly understandable why you’d feel this way. You poor thing.”

    I’m not okay with that.

    It uses Cassandra’s disability as a sort of excuse for why she is supposedly unlovable. That is flatulent, soupy bullshit. I’d love to be invited to vicariously experience a catharsis about my own less-than-maternal feelings and fears. I’ll reject the invitation if I also have to sympathize and adopt some ableism to do it.

  19. Troubling also is the fact that Cassandra is reduced to *only* her effects on her abled parents; combined with the fact that, as Lauredhel and other commenters have mentioned, she is denied personhood and subject to a whole lotta disability stereotypes, it’s more of the same (and in the guise of being “edgy,” “controversial” and “dark”).

  20. I’d love to see this play done by actors with visible disabilities as the parents.

    I’m surprised they didn’t go for that – look, even PWD hate Cassandra! It’s so edgy, don’t you get it?

    I don’t get the play. I just don’t. Maybe I don’t have enough info, I don’t know. What is the point? A baby with “defects” is a monster and her mother hates her. Wow, that sounds… what are plays supposed to be like? (Not a media critic of any kind.)

    I think the idea of a mother dealing with PPD or just not becoming wonder mom would make a great play – what happens when you don’t live up to social expectations?

  21. From this description this also reminds me of the David Lynch movie Eraserhead, which, again, is lauded for its edginess but to me read as incredibly ableist, it also heavily features the disabled baby as monster trope, I found the whole thing deeply upsetting.

  22. There is also a tie-in here with article posted earlier about the child psychologist.

    Again, we have someone- in this case, the disabled baby- who does not communicate in the manner (tab) audience and the (tab) characters are accustomed to, and this is read as another sign of the baby girl being “less that human”.

    Because you existence as an (intelligent) human being depends on your ability to do everything the way “we” do it.

  23. @Kaitlyn – from the interview, it sounds like the crux of the story is how parents deal with “dashed expectations.” I just really wonder how this play ends.

  24. Hsofia – I guess that works, but there are ways for parents to deal with “dashed expectations” without dehumanizing their child. (A miscarriage? Still born? But that’s not edgy.)

  25. I read one of those reviews, the last with the interview I believe, and then looked at how the play was described and looked at the image and I couldn’t describe what was off. I just knew there was something wrong with this playwright thinking this play was a thoughtful look at ablism and would actually challenge other people to think about how they view those disabled.

    I think I may have gotten hung up on the baby’s name being Cassandra and wondering what is it the baby’s meant to be telling everyone that they refuse to listen to? If we’re meant to think of the name as symbolic. Or if the point was that the baby was communicating but no one was recognizing it as communication.

    Which left me thinking – WTH? Disabled people will only respond to hateful diatribes and vicious judgement? That’s the message?

    Laying out all those reviews as you have, however, clarified things quite well for me.

    On the surface it seems like there’s something there, with a mother unable to see a child that doesn’t look like her dream as being real and a father who’s content to be a father. But by making the child, Cassandra, be an amalgamation of ablist fears; no limbs, no traditional baby face, no traditional communication; it sets up a lot of subtext justification for animosity towards the child.

    NOTE: The pram in the picture reminded me vividly of Burton’s Batman Returns and how the Cobblepots treat their infant; abandonment via attempted drowning. There is a strong pop cultural basis to associate the pram with ‘monster/bad guy/evil’ (right down to black blood).

    When I think of the visual difference between a regular crib with some stage created medical looking equipment, and an Edward Gorey style pram, then it becomes a deliberate invocation.

  26. @Kaitlyn – oh, I totally agree. I think whatever it is that is being explored could have been explored without this scenario. Heck, there are parents who really ARE going through the experienced of having to re-examine all their expectations of parenthood. I have to wonder if the playwright went this terrible “monster” route because she really doesn’t know what she’s talking about (and didn’t want to be called out if she’d chosen an actual health condition).

  27. Avalon’s Willow – good point about the pram!

    But with the pram, it’s easier to keep Cassandra “invisible” for the audience, so we can project our own (ablist) nightmares on what she is.

  28. D’oh! Good call on my sloppy thinking. Though since we can’t see her and she doesn’t communicate “normally”, the audience may think of her as a “what” or an “it.” That may have been the intention. And the mother doesn’t think of her as a who.

    I’m sorry, not thinking which isn’t an excuse but there you go – it’s so entrenched.

  29. One horrifying thing about the interview was the playwright’s admission that the play was in part inspired by Axler seeing a real woman with a disability. Yet somehow Axler decided to express her ableist sentiments by creating a child with a disability which was, in part, fantastical. I wonder if she thought her ableism would be more acceptable if fictionalized in this manner. Disgusting.

    I also find it telling that Axler, in trying to figure out “how anyone could love that” (in her words) went straight to parental love. Because the idea of PWD being objects of romantic love is just unfathomable to her.

  30. Kaitlyn said:

    But with the pram, it’s easier to keep Cassandra “invisible” for the audience, so we can project our own (ablist) nightmares on what she is.

    Actually a modern crib with some high baby bumpers could keep a baby in a crib just as invisible while looking entirely familiar. That pram is anachronistic in a very distinctive visual way. The set designers could also have gone for a medical newborn bassinette incubator (y’know the type for premies) but with frosted sides, rather than clear. But both a regular normal crib and the bassinette invoke a certain mundanity (I hesitate to use normalcy). That pram very distinctly says other and that’s before all the wires and tubes etc.

    I suppose I could consider this play as something that speaks to modern audiences about maternal child abuse. But the set up doesn’t seem to be one where the audience is meant to feel horror at the mother.

    I’d feel distinctly uncomfortable watching a play where the set design and premise does the opposite of what I observed in hospitals 15 years ago – when they were trying their best to make hospital rooms (maternity wards especially) seem more homey and less cold and technological.

    Every week we all learn about an able bodied parent who decided their disabled child shouldn’t live another day. I don’t think a play where a disabled child is set up as an unseen monster challenges the society that makes excuses for those parents.

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