intersectionality: gender x disability

Cross-posted at Cyborgology.

My post today comes from a class on ableism and disabled bodies that I taught earlier this past semester in my Social Problems course. Its inception came from the point at which I wanted to introduce my students to Donna Haraway’s concept of cyborgs, because I saw some useful connections between one and the other.

My angle was to begin with the idea of able-bodied society’s instinctive, gut-level sense of discomfort and fear regarding disabled bodies, which is outlined in disability studies scholar Fiona Kumari Campbell’s book Contours of Ableism. Briefly, Campbell distinguishes between disableism, which are the set of discriminatory ideas and practices that construct the world in such a way that it favors the able-bodied and marginalizes the disabled, andableism, which is the set of constructed meanings that set disabled bodies themselves apart as objects of distaste and discomfort. In this sense, disabled bodies are imbued with a kind of queerness – they are Other in the most physical sense, outside and beyond accepted norms, unknown and unknowable, uncontrollable, disturbing in how difficult they are to pin down. Campbell identifies this quality of unknowability and uncontainability as especially, viscerally horrifying.

Campbell connects more directly to Haraway’s cyborgs when she opens a discussion of biotechnology and disabled bodies:

The fortunes of techno-science continue to disrupt the fixity of defining disability and normalcy especially within the arenas of law and bioethics. Whilst anomalous bodies are undecidable in being open to endless and differing interpretations, an essentialised disabled body is subjected to constant deferral – standing in reserve, awaiting and escaping able(edness) through morphing technologies and as such exists in an ontologically tentative or provisional state.

Anomalous and disabled bodies are both unsettling to the able-bodied, therefore, because they implicitly lay open to question our assumptions about essential definitions of embodied humanity. Throw technology into the mix and the questions become even more explicit. What is human? What does human mean? And where is the line between organic human and machine – if there even is one? Haraway’s position is, of course, that there is no meaningful line, and that we are all, in some sense, cyborgs — that the relationship between the organic and the machine is so complex that it is no longer sensible to attempt to untangle it. And thanks to advances in prostheses and other biotechnologies, the boundary between “disabled” and “augmented” is becoming increasingly problematic, despite the essentializing power that the label of “disabled” contains.

In order to introduce my students to the ideas behind the relationship of different kinds of organic bodies to different kinds of technology, and how we culturally process those embodied relationships, I invited them to consider the cases of two amputee athletes, Aimee Mullins and Oscar Pistorius.

Mullins and Pistorius present interesting examples. They are both known for being both accomplished athletes and for being physically attractive – Mullins has done modeling work. They present inspiring stories that have generated a fair amount of sports media coverage. And yet things have not been altogether smooth – there has been some controversy regarding the degree to which the carbon fiber prostheses they use for running confer any form of advantage on the runners who use them. Questions over the effect of the prostheses have threatened Pistorius’s bids to compete in the Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes.

I think the combination of positive and negative reactions is worth noting, in light of Campbell’s writing on culture and disability. Mullins and Pistorius are admired for “overcoming” a perceived disability, and this admiration feels especially safe for people embedded in able-bodied culture because they are conventionally attractive in every other respect. But this is a story with which we only feel comfortable provided that it doesn’t present any kind of threat to our conventional categories of abled and disabled bodies. It is unacceptable for a disabled body to be better at what it does than an abled body. It is even slightly uncomfortable when a disabled body manages to be “just as good”.

After the images of Mullins and Pistorius, I also showed my students this image of speed skater Apollo Ohno. Like the images of Mullins and Pistorius, Ohno’s body is explicitly being presented here as an attractive object. By most standards, Ohno is as able-bodied as one can get. But as I pointed out to my students, he manages this on the back of technology – on specially designed skates, in special aerodynamic suits, with the help of carefully balanced exercise and nutrition plans; almost no athlete is really “natural” anymore. But at least in part because of the closeness of his body to an able-bodied ideal, this presents no explicit threat to our categories. Ohno fits the accepted model of “human”. Who would look at him and doubt it? And if Mullins and Pistorius are perhaps not as close to that ideal, they at least fall into line with it, by virtue of the fact that they don’t explicitly question its legitimacy as an ideal – unless they seek to transcend it.

My point, in short, is this: we are uncomfortable with disabled bodies that question or trouble our accepted, hierarchical categories of abled and disabled, of human and non-human, of organic and machine. We are far more comfortable with them when they perform in such a way that they reinforce the supremacy of those categories. They become acceptable to us.

Sarah Wanenchak is a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research focuses on contentious politics and communications technology in a global context. She has also worked on the place of culture in combat and warfare, including the role of video games in modern war and meaning-making. She is an occasional blogger at Cyborgology.

Hermes sent in a link to a feature in The Morning News titled “Men at Their Most Masculine,” in which men were asked about what made them feel masculine and photographed in situations that reflect their masculine identities. Some quotes from men included in the project:

“I feel masculine when I am home, I can take care of myself. I often feel emasculated when I leave my apartment though, with everyone asking me if I need help. I don’t need any help.”

“To be masculine is to dominate in one’s field of study.”

“I want to show that, despite stereotypes, gay men can be masculine too.”

“I feel most masculine when I am lying in bed naked.”

“I am strong emotionally, have always stood up for myself, and fear nothing. I happen to be physically strong but that isn’t where I derive my masculinity.”

“I am masculine because I abandon women after taking their love. Because when you study Freud, you don’t let him study you. Because I study philosophy, not literature.”

Visit at photographer Chad States’s website. He apparently found all of the featured men via craigslist.

The photos and quotes illustrate some interesting contradictions in definitions of masculinity. Several of the men define masculinity in fairly traditional terms, using words like “dominate” or expressing masculinity as the ability to use women and then leave them. There is also an emphasis on being independent and not needing help from anyone else.

In other cases, the men redefine masculinity to at least some extent, such as the gay man who reclaims masculinity for gays, the guy who focuses on being emotionally strong, and the man shown posed in a way we’re more used to seeing with women.

It’s an interesting look at some of the ways men define masculinity at a time when we expect men to be more emotionally available and involved in family life (as opposed to the 1950s emotionally closed-off model) but provide mixed signals by also still judging men harshly if they seem too emotional or don’t meet ideals of what “real” men should be like.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Thorsten S. alerted us to a calendar illustrated with black-and-white nude photographs of Germans who have competed in the Paralympic Games. On the Web site of the photographers, Huenecken & Inselmann [link NSFW!], subjects include people in wheelchairs and people who use lower-limb prostheses.

Compare these portrayals of persons with disabilities to the portrayal of fetish model Viktoria, who was a Bizarre mag cover girl, apparently in part because she has a below-the-knee amputation. Do these calendar photos highlight the German athletes’ disabilities in the same way that the shoot of Viktoria fetishizes her disability? Alternatively, check out our earlier post about Disaboom, a community site whose ads for its dating service feature muscular and attractive people with disabilities. Do these calendar photos challenge the mainstream stereotype that people with disabilities can’t be sexy or strong?

By the way, how do gender expectations and stereotypes play out in these photos? If you go to the gallery linked early in this entry, you can see a man holding a gun in a position that clearly makes it analogous to his penis. You can also see an especially objectified [decapitated = identity erased] woman on horseback, as well as a woman in a stereotypical beach bunny/pinup pose. The tendency of the calendar to revert to dull assumptions of how men and women should be posed and photographed complicates any radical agenda of celebrating the bodies of people with disabilities.

Pictures with artistic NSFW nudity below the cut.

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Ironically* titled “Disabilities Downplayed for ‘Britain’s Missing Top Model’ Contestants” (my emphasis), this article discusses a new televised modeling competition featuring only disabled models:

Among the eight lovely ladies who will duke it out onscreen are women without limbs, some who are partially paralyzed and one who is deaf.

See the images below or click here for the slideshow.

I have many of the same questions about this program that I have about Viktoria’s spread for Bizarre Magazine and Elizabeth had about Disaboom advertising. Notice that, of the eight contestants, at least seven appear white. Half are (let’s face it) artificially blonde. And they all more-or-less conform to contemporary Western standards of beauty. In only one photo (maybe two) is the disability even visible.

I guess, basically, what I’m asking is: Are we trying to challenge a hierarchal system by gaining access to the top of the hierarchy? From there, who will we look down upon? And, if there’s no one to look down upon, what was the point of gaining access?

As Audre Lorde famously said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

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* Catherine writes: “Apparently this is an attempt to challenge the fashion world, but if we’re “downplaying” the disabilities, aren’t we attempting to obey the rules of the fashion world? What’s the point?” Special thanks to Catherine D. for the link!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Yesterday, one of my favorite blogs, Sociological Images, picked apart amputee alt model Viktoria’s appearance in Bizarre Magazine.

What makes Viktoria “bizarre”? Is it her amputated leg? Is it the fact that she has an amputated leg and is still incredibly sexy? Or is it that she has an amputated leg and still considers herself a sexual person? Is this empowering? And to who? Surely the disabled are desexualized in this country, so it’s nice to see that challenged even, I suppose, in a magazine about weirdos. And yet, I suspect her sexuality is acceptable, fetishizable, only because she conforms to expectations of feminine beauty. In the big scheme of things, does she reproduce the standard of beauty, unattainable for most women, that crushes women’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth? And will disabled women, most of whom (like most non-disabled women) could never dream of being so beautiful, actually look at her and be able to identify? Or will this just draw attention to another way in which they don’t match up?

Now really, I think that SocImages went a little overboard with Viktoria (especially when they dismissed her comments about sexuality as “standard porn star talk”). Maybe it’s because I know her little better than they do, but I think that they oversimplify the genuine place that she comes from in choosing to be a model. However, they do bring up an important discussion that’s been nagging me for some time. What is an alternative model, and what is an alt model’s role in visual culture? In my life, at various points, I came up with 3 different definitions. I believe in each of them, and I have a problem with each of them as well. Here they are below. Which one resonates with you? Do you think it’s a combination of the three below, or something completely different? Opinions, please.

1. The model who challenges society’s notions of beauty.

Examples:

Kenyan-born trans model Biko Beauttah, photographed by Bode Helm.
Velvet D’Amour, photography credit unavailable.

I love these models, but the issue here is that, while they appear to push the boundaries of beauty in some direction, they usually wind up brutally reinforcing another traditional notion in the process. For example, trans models make us rethink gender/beauty, but with their self-presentation they usually reinforce the ideal of a sleek, hairless feminine figure, thus fueling the hair-removal industry. In fact, epilator-manufacturer Philips Norelco has already found a way to to capitalize on this to great effect – just watch this ad. And large models like Velvet D’Amour and skinny-by-comparison but still-considered-plus-size recent ANTM winner Whitney Thompson help to redefine weight in modeling, but what makes them “legitimately beautiful” in the eyes of the mainstream world is their “correct” bone structure, their blond hair. Without some “redeeming quality” of this sort, the world doesn’t recognize them as models, and wouldn’t even give them a shot at making a difference. Mainstream media often presents them as beautiful “in spite of,” not “because of.” While their individual messages are empowering (I love Velvet’s interviews), I don’t find our culture’s use of these models empowering at all.

2. The hottie with strange hair/tattoos/piercings/latex.

Examples:

Mosh, photographed by Vance.
Scar13, photograhed by Nadya Lev.

Like it or not, it’s a valid definition – arguably the most widely-embraced one at that. This idea is epitomized by the Suicide Girls motto: “redefining beauty, one hot, naked chick at a time.” Underneath all the hair dye and black eyeliner, the ideal remains the same: symmetrical faces, clear skin and slim figures with a slightly above-average degree of variation as compared to mainstream modeling. Alterna-porn sites and alt modeling agencies such as Nocturnal Models helped cement this concept, but the biggest reinforcement came from self-proclaimed “alt photographers” and “alt models,” in whom they chose to include and exclude as they built up their online “spheres of influence.” This definition doesn’t make me happy now, though I had no problem with it at 21, when all I did was go clubbing and take pictures that reminded me of how I felt when I was dressed-up on the dance floor. When I realized that my own photography was reinforcing the same standards of beauty that make it difficult for women to have a healthy self-image, I took a step back.

3. The self-made persona.

Examples:

Feisty Diva wearing a hairpiece she created, photographed by Nadya Lev.
Anachronaut, photographed by Nadya Lev.

Another definition of alt model is someone who completely reinvents themselves from head to toe. This could be someone you’d never otherwise notice on the street, yet through inventive styling, self-applied makeup, self-styled clothing and hair, they create a whole new persona for themselves. The ultimate example of this is Mana, who goes from being a middle-aged man to a gothic Loli. These people make up their own beauty, owning their look from head to toe for the purpose of expressing an artistic ideal, proving a political point, etc. But are are they really “models,” or artists who allow you to take their portrait? It’s the most positive concept to me, but is it a valid definition of “model”?

So there you have it. Three definitions, some of which conflict with each other. And still, even after writing all of this out, I’m not sure if I’m even satisfied with my own personal definition, which draws on all three. Something’s bothering me. Something’s missing. Anyone have any idea?

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Nadya Lev, a photographer, blogs for the Coilhouse.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The images below are from a slide show to accompany the cover of a British magazine, Bizarre. You can see the slide show and the article accompanying her cover here. Thanks to Jason S. for the link!

What makes Viktoria “bizarre”? Is it her amputated leg? Is it the fact that she has an amputated leg and is still incredibly sexy? Or is it that she has an amputated leg and still considers herself a sexual person?

Is this empowering? And to who? Surely the disabled are desexualized in this country, so it’s nice to see that challenged even, I suppose, in a magazine about weirdos. And yet, I suspect her sexuality is acceptable, fetishizable, only because she conforms to expectations of feminine beauty. In the big scheme of things, does she reproduce the standard of beauty, unattainable for most women, that crushes women’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth? And will disabled women, most of whom (like most non-disabled women) could never dream of being so beautiful, actually look at her and be able to identify? Or will this just draw attention to another way in which they don’t match up?

Also, are these images really about her sexual-ness, her desire? Or are they about how sexy she is, the extent to which she can inspire desire in others? That is, is she just an object like any other pin-up girl? How are her images any different than those in mainstream pornography and men’s magazines? She speaks in the article about her own sexual curiosity and openness, but this is standard porn star talk and it’s very difficult to know whether it is genuine or performance. Would it matter if we knew?

This photo shoot of Viktoria for Bizarre magazine actually seems incredibly ordinary to me.

UPDATE: Comments on this post have been closed.