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Reimagining Disability

Notes towards Day 17 of
Critical Feminist Studies

Reimagining Disability

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution

"Feminist Disability Studies focuses on the singularity and perhaps
the immutability of the flesh,
and at the same time
questions the identity it supports..."

Ellen Stohl, a paraplegic actress who appeared as the nude
centerfold of Playboy magazine...
because "sexuality is the hardest thing for
disabled persons to hold onto."

"Disability demands a reckoning with the messiness of bodily variety... the unorthodox made flesh...

The strands of feminist thought most applicable to Disability Studies
...undertake a broad sociopolitical critique of systemic,
inequitable power relations based on social categories grounded in the body...
politicizing the materiality of bodies and rewriting the categories..."
(Rosemarie Garland-Thomson)

Aimee of People Magazine's 50 Most Beauiful People...
her public version of her career is that her disability has been a benefit--
she has several sets of legs, both cosmetic and functional,
and is able to choose how tall she wants to be.

I. coursekeeping/announcements
For Thursday: read as far into Octavia Butler's novel Kindred as you can get
(it's hard to teach&learn about 1/2 a novel)
initiate two weeks' of novel reading: after Kindred, The Book of Salt....

In two weeks (by 5 p.m. Wed, Nov. 21): 6-pp. draft due on-line,
reporting on research done towards your final project

Friday a week (11/16): Carole Joffe (University of California-Davis)
The Supreme Court and the Degradation of Abortion Provision: The Future of Abortion in the US
12:30 - 2:00 PM, Dalton 300

On national news, gender is "only a construct":
Political Memo: Different Rules When a Rival Is a Woman?
Some of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters are accusing rival candidates and the questioners of "piling on"...."It’s O.K. in this country to be sexist....It’s certainly not O.K. to be racist....I don’t think Barack Obama would have been attacked for two hours"....Mrs. Clinton...told reporters she thought the criticism of her occurred not because she was a woman, but because she was the front-runner, even as she used language that invoked feminist imagery. "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen....Well, I’m really comfortable in the kitchen, and I’m going to stay in there and absorb the heat."

Maureen Dowd, Gift of Gall: Girlfriend had a rough week. First Hillary got brushed back by the boys in the debate. Then some women bemoaned Hillaryland’s "Don't hit me, I'm a girl" strategy....deplored the "antifeminist subtext" of Hillary’s campaign playing the woman-as-victim card. "Using gender this way," she said, "is a setback." I must rush to a sister's defense....She should certainly be allowed to play the gender card two ways....she is “one strong woman"....But she can break, just like a little girl....

Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire
and the Writing of Art's Histories

II. Last Thursday, we were discussing the construction of a different canon of feminist texts:

Ingrid: to have a better understanding of the issues we are dealing with now, we must identify with their roots.

EMaciolek: Nothing will be satisfactory for one has a set list. Also, how boring would it be if there were one?.... Nothing could change or grow about them, that canon would plateau.

As an alternative to the plateau...
a volcano throwing up boulders?

I had been mildly unhappy with all the readings for Critical Feminist Studies, even the ones I enjoyed, without knowing why. As my participation dropped off, my discontent, rather than diminishing, increased. Cixous's call to hear from women had spoken deeply to me, and the volcanoes were churning down below. Some of the things that were thrown out in the eruptions follow....

A kinder and more nearly accurate image of 'men' is not one of the results I expected from Critical Feminist Studies. Nor a kinder, gentler attitude toward my own physical self. And what happy results they are!....

What do we women do when we try to meet a man's strengeth with our own? We begin to lose ground rapidly; our voices rise, become shrill; we bang doors. (I once with a broom handle beat the doorfacing beside a man's head.) All clear signs we have lost and recognize it.

And so I finally come to my discontent with the readings. Shrill voices, nervous illogic, even a few banged doors and noses..... Why are we still trying to use the force of logic? Why are we women TAUGHT logic? The form itself is a use of strength/force: we always become shrill or worse when we use it....

We haven't heard from women yet. I dare to say we won't hear from them while we continue to use the forms and criteria of force/strength. I think that takes in all the subjects treated in our reading.

I am quite addicted to logic in my private thoughts and writing. But I intend to give it up. I want to see what might happen when the volcanic woman in here is let loose from those old muscular forms.

III. Letting loose from old muscular forms-->
a great seque-way into Reshaping, Rethinking, Redefining:
Feminist Disabilities Studies by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson


disability is a culturally fabricated narrative of the body:

  • a system for interpreting bodily variations
  • a relationship between bodies and their environments
  • a set of practices that produce both the able-bodied and the disabled
  • a way of describing the inherent instability of the embodied self.

disability functions to preserve and validate privileged designations
--Cf. sarahcollins: one of the most interesting points Butler makes is that...drag...acts as a "ritualistic release for a heterosexual economy that must constantly police its own boundaries against the invasion of queerness"

--Cf. Culture as Disability and
On the Inevitability of Cultural Disabilities

the constituency for Disability Studies is all of us...
the "temporarilty able-bodied" (TAB)...serves as a reality check

disability becomes
a representational system rather than a medical problem,
a social construction instead of a personal misfortune or bodily flaw,
and a subject appropriate for wide-ranging intellectual inquiry.

The fundamental premises of feminist disability critical theory:

  • representation structures reality
  • the margins define the center
  • gender and disability are signifying relationships of power
  • human identity is multiple and unstable
  • all analysis and evalutation has political implications.
Feminist Disability Studies offers a counter logic for
current understandings of

(Politics of Medicalization
Politics of Appearance),


disability and gender are stories we tell about bodies...systemic ways of representing bodies
Women are tethered to materiality, to "immanence"....
our role as spectacles...the proper object of the stare...appropriating to-be-looked-atness....
bodies as objects not actors in the world
the disabled body as a visual assault, a shocking spectacle

Cheryl Marie Wade, "A Woman with Juice"


The Politics of Medicalization
standardize bodies, eliminate any physical differences
treatment of conjoined twins and intersexed individuals...
both forms of embodiment are congential variations that spectacularly violate sacred ideologies....
our notion of the individual as discrete and autonomous...
and our insistence that biological gender is unequivocal.

Growing Up Intersex, Going on Oprah

The Politics of Appearance
critique of the value system of beauty, traditionally framed
as an aesthetic quality, free from political implications

disciminatory phenomenon of looks-ism

beauty expectations are systemic...a social fact

fantasy of the malleable body...a pliable and invulnerable instrument of agency...
that we can control and alter

moral dimensions of such plasticity...fantasy of self-improvement


Nancy Mairs
calling attention to the material reality of her crippledness...
the politics of self-naming...
"Perhaps I want them to wince...As a cripple, I swagger."





--the choice to abort fetuses with disabilities...a coercive form of genocide against the disabled....
a "eugenics of normalcy"?

--cosmetic surgery and prosthetics (breast implants/flaps for cancer survivors?)

--beauty as the last restrictive institution...
women have not been freed from the social mandate to pursue beauty

--the liberal ideology of autonomy and independence (feminist practice often leaves no space for the needs and accomodations that disabled women's bodies require)

--the exclusionary, essentialist oppressive aspects of the unity of the category 'woman'

WHERE'S the "methodology of intellectual tolerance"?

what has previously been thought of as incoherence...

internal conflict and accepted as provisional answers?