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Controlling Normal

ekthorp's picture

 Emma Thorp

A, Dalke and E. McCormack

Gender, Information, Science and Technology

February 11th, 2010


Controlling Normal

             Society highly values physical “beauty.” The definition of beauty has changed drastically from decade to decade and century to century, but the importance of this “beauty” has remained constant. Instead of questioning what the criteria of beauty is and used to be, and how and why is has changed, the importance of physical beauty itself should be questioned. In her book Extraordinary Bodies, Rosemarie Garland Thomson discusses how “disabled” people are constantly seen as ugly, dysfunctional, and as freaks due to unrealistic representations in literature and popular culture. Her description gives readers insight to why bodies considered not beautiful, such as disfigured and disabled people, are looked down upon, while those considered “beautiful” are exalted.

            Thomson begins her book with a section entitled “The Disabled Figure in Culture.” In it, she defines “disability” as any one person who is unable to perform certain tasks that “normal” people can do. She then goes on to challenge that definition. The idea of “normal” activity is created by society, and therefore the idea of “disability” is created as well. For example, while it may be difficult for someone in a wheel chair to climb stairs, it is easy for that same person to go up a ramp. Therefore, is this person only disabled when faced with stairs, or is this person constantly disabled? What exactly should our bodies be doing for us? Of course, there are certain disabilities that do legitimately interfere with almost every function of daily life, such as blindness or deafness, but ultimately, the definition of “disabled” is far more complex and confusing than “anyone who cannot perform “normal” activities.”

            In addition to questioning why certain people are labeled “disabled”, Thomson also questions why “able-bodied” people are considered superior to “disabled” people. She finds the answer to this by looking at representations of “disabled” characters in literature. According to Thomson, all groups of people who lie outside the norm are “defined through representation”(Thomson, 8) and kept from status and power due to unfair and untrue representation in texts. There is a gap between figurative “disabled” characters and real “disabled” people. In literature, the “disabled” figures are rarely the main characters, and usually merely support the antagonist. They are mostly one-dimensional and have limited relationships and conversations with “able-bodied” characters. They way the “disabled” figures are portrayed in literature flattens the experience of real disable people, who have complex conversations and relationships with others, and experience as much as any literary hero. In fact, many “disabled” people are more skilled or talented in relating with other people, both “able-bodied” and “disabled” people. This is because those who are “disabled” must use social tools, such as sarcasm, humor, wit, or humility, to break down the wall constructed by society between “able-bodied” and “disable” people.

False representations of “disabled” people in literature “justifies our system of empowerment by physiological differences.” (Thomson, 8) It is through this system that we assume there is something inherently wrong with people who are “disabled”, while often they are every bit as capable of carrying out most daily functions as an “able-bodied” person. The appearance of a disability is only important in that it functions as a “visual difference that signifies meaning”, (Thomson, 11) while that is often not the case. There is a huge difference between representation and reality, but unfortunately, cultural assumptions and literary representations are used to fill in the gaps of what the general public knows about the “disabled”.  These gaps filled with misinformation is what allows a society governed by “able-bodied” people to classify “disabled” people as inferior, and limit their access to political and social power.

Within the context of my class “Gender, Information, Science and Technology”, we have read several articles that correlate to Thomson’s argument. Perhaps most noticeable, Thomson’s statements are strikingly similar to those of Donna Haraway in her article “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Tchnology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” While Thomson argues for the destruction of “normal” and the “able” and “disabled” binary, Haraway hates all labels and categories. However, both say that the creation of categories is what causes people to create superiority. Without the creation of groups, we would not be able to classify one group as better than the other, and therefore not deny political and social power from those rendered inferior.

I also saw similarities to “Accounting for Cosmetic Surgery: The Accomplishment of Gender.” by Diana Dull and Candace West, and “The Face Value of Dreams”: Gender, Race, Class, and the Politics of Cosmetic Surgery by Victoria Bañales articles we read on cosmetic surgery. There is obviously a huge difference between being labeled “ugly” and being labeled “disabled,” both lie outside the realm of “normalcy,” and within the realm of possible “correction” through surgery. The contrast between the surgeries is that one, for the correction of a “disability” is often deemed necessary, while the cosmetic surgery is usually rendered extraneous. However, I saw many similarities between the two types of surgery. The social status of the patient is often increased after the surgery in both cases. Often surgical and correctional procedure for those with a “disability” is often used as a means of making those viewing the “disability” comfortable, not those with the “disability.” In this sense, cosmetic surgery and surgeries to “correct” a disability are strikingly similar. They get rid of individuality in order to make the greater society seem uniform.  This is a travesty, as it is our distinctions and differences, even our flaws and “disabilities” that make our society beautiful.

The criteria of what is beautiful are a constantly evolving notion. Consequently, that is considered ugly is always changing as well. That which is normal is also always changing, and therefore, what is considered abnormal is always in flux. The definition of “disabled” is always only defined in opposition to what is “able-bodied.” Unfortunately, society poorly defines what is able, and what is normal. Rosemarie Garland Thomson writes about how society poorly portrays those who are disabled through literature, and how this representation is what leads to inaccurate perceptions of actual “disabled” people. Reading her book after reading several articles for my “Gender, Information, Science and Technology” forced me to see several corollaries between Thomson’s work and the articles we have read for class.



Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary bodies: figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. 1st. New York City: Columbia University Press, 1997. 1-19. Print.



Anne Dalke's picture

The Normal and the "Ab-" (abnormal? able-bodied?)


What I like, first, about your project is its adding to our class discussion about "norms" the very rich work of Garlan-Thompson in the emerging field of disability studies. The first most interesting idea I picked up, at the Disability Studies Conference I attended @ Temple last June, was that "disability" is not an individual experience, but rather a relation: of an individual to other individuals, an individual in an environment. It's constructed in the "inbetween." The second most interesting idea was that we are all "disabled," if that means vulnerable and dependent, living in "leaky" bodies. It's not just that we're all on the way to being disabled: we are all that now. Being disabled is the norm.

It's nice that you are able to see similarities (what you call "corollaries") between G-T's argument and those we've read by Haraway, Bañales, and Dull and West. What I'd nudge you to, further, is think out from those correlations: what are you thinking, now, about the relation of ability to disability, of reality to representation, of information and misinformation (this is a great set up for our next topic in class!). Do you think there are "true" and "false" representations, or only a range of representations, some of them more useful, more socially just than others?

My last nudge here is for you to try, on the next assignment, to make your paper more internet friendly: look over the various projects your classmates have done, and try for a format that looks less like a paper, more like a web "event." Form signals content, and this project, which questions the very concept of "normal," might itself begin to play with what we think of as the "norm" for student intellectual work.