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Disruption in the Interpretation of Embodied Symbols

lgleysteen's picture

Disruption in the Interpretation of Embodied Symbols

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Assumptions are made about individuals through the expression and interpretation of embodied acts and body language is the conduit for social meaning.  The social meaning behind bodily acts are disrupted when the movement itself is not completely controlled by the individual.  Disability, gender, and communication are all entangled in a web of perception, symbolism, and agency.  This web of entanglement causes people to not see an action for as it was intended and make assumptions about a person on their limited controls on bodily action.  Interpretations of bodily actions are often misunderstood when an individual is not completely able bodied.

I was able to learn about the disconnect between my mind and the actions that were portrayed by body these past few weeks when I got a concussion playing Rugby. Concussions have a variety of symptoms including headaches, confusion, concentration problems, memory issues, outbursts of emotion, etc. With my concussion, my body did not do what my mind wanted it.  For instance, there would be times where I was having long conversations with people and I would come to the realization that I had been blanking out for a long span of time.  This realization would occur, when the other person in the conversation would pause and ask me if I was bored because I had appeared to stop paying attention to them.  It was like my mind went blank for a few minutes, and I would snap out of it, not understanding where the time went.  I also got called clumsy and awkward many times because I was dizzy and would walk into objects or drop plates in the dining hall.  Normally I am not the most expressive person when it comes to my negative emotions but with my concussion I would get tear up over the most trivial things.  There would be times in the dining hall when I would be very disoriented and overwhelmed and starting tearing up.  Many people would be really surprised at me and ask why I was getting so emotional over nothing.  My body language and facial expressions would portray emotions and thoughts that really were non-existent, and I would get judged on those expressions despite the fact that they really were not what I had meant.  My intentions were judged by my non-verbal communication.  While being concussed I was not able to embody the norms I was used to being able to do and my actions came across much differently than I had hoped for.

The body is a medium through which social meaning is expressed. When done in public, embodied acts represent cultural symbols. In the essay entitled “The Body Beautiful: Symbolism and Agency in the Social World”, Erica Reischer and Kathryn S. Koo claim that there are two theoretical orientations of the body, there is the symbolic body and the agentic body.  The body can be an active participant and agent in the social world as well as a conduit of social meaning.[i] Bodies are tools in which we use to mediate the world around us. The body itself not only transmits social meanings about itself but it reproduces social norms.  Bodies in large quantities reproduce values and conceptions and transform systems of meaning through their actions.[ii]

In the Introduction to her book, “Bodies that Matter” Judith Butler states that “sex is an idea construct which is forcibly materialized through time.  It is not a simple fact or static condition of the body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms”[iii] If the notions and social constraints behind what society views as normal for sex and gender are reproduced through the body, what does that mean for people who have disabilities? Gender and sexuality may be conceived of in one’s mind, but the way they portray those concepts is through embodied actions.  Gender and sexuality are embodied through more than just speech and visual appearance but by how the body physically moves.  Body language is often a key determinant in performing one’s gender or sexuality.  

Not all embodied acts of sexuality are portrayed through every part of the body but it is difficult to perform the norm when one’s physical body itself completely defies the norm.  Butler accounts for those who do not follow into norm by saying “It will be as important to think about how and to what end bodies are constructed as is it will be to think about how and to what end bodies are not constructed and, further, to ask after how bodies which fail to materialize provide the necessary “outside,” if not the necessary support, for the bodies which in, materializing the norm, qualify as bodies that matter”[iv] Bodies that fall outside or regulatory norms are not the “bodies that matter” Disabled bodies fall into this category because in the context of gender they do not reproduce gender norms.  Since disabled bodies are the bodies that are not the bodies that “matter” or their actions are misunderstood and misrepresented.   

The two most common reasons for the desexualization of disabled bodies are the ideas, that people with disabilities constantly need to be cared for and that people with disabilities might not have any sexual desire because their disability prevents it.  I believe that there is more to the desexualization and disengenderment of disabled people than these two claims.  Gender is primarily performed through embodied actions.  When bodies cannot act as a conduit of social meaning because their bodies or mental state prevents this action, they are desexualized and disengendered.  Disability is more than just a physical difference but a social one as well.  

In the 2008 documentary entitled “Examined Life” there is a segment in which Judith Butler and disability activist Sunaura Taylor take a walk through San Francisco and discuss the social implications of disability.  Sunaura Taylor as arthrogyposis, which causes fusion of bones, which restricts movement.  Sunaura Taylor uses a wheel chair and has limited upper body movement.  The segment begins with Sunaura Taylor saying that even though she is in a wheelchair she still goes on a walk.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines a walk as “An act or spell of walking or going on foot from place to place; a short journey on foot for exercise, recreation, or transportation”.[v]   Taylor’s conception of what it means to walk breaks down the idea of what the body can do and the means in which it performs action.  In her mind, she is going on a walk but society sees her as using her wheelchair to move around the city.  Her intentions are interpreted differently than her actions.  In the segment Judith Butler said, “In thinking about violence against sexual minorities or gender minorities, people whose gender presentation doesn’t conform with standard ideals of femininity or masculinity is that very often it comes down to how people walk, how they use their hips, what they do with their body parts, what they use their mouth for, what they use their anus for or what they allow their anus to be used for.”[vi]  Her statement is all about the body and what it is used for.  Embodied actions are what often symbolize a person’s gender and sometimes sexuality.  What a person physically does is an embodiment of their thoughts.   

Walking is one of the most gendered movements there is.  There was an incident in Maine on July 7th, 1984 when Charlie Howard (23) and a friend were walking down the street and began to notice a group of boys were following him in their car.  The boys were harassing Howard and his friend for walking too effeminately.  The boys proceeded to pick up Howard and throw him over a bridge despite the fact that he was yelling that he could not swim.  Howard ended up drowning in the river that he was thrown into because he was walking too similarly to a girl. [vii] It was true that Charles Howard was gay, but that trait was characterized by the way he was walking.  In “Examined Life” Butler discusses this incident and poses the question: “how could it be that somebody’s gait, somebody’s style of walking could gender the desire to desire to kill that person?”[viii]  Charles Howard’s style of walking is not the reason he was killed.  Through his style of walking, Howard symbolized homosexuality to the perpetrators of the crime.  His walk was an action that threatened the norm and he was punished for it. Howard’s intensions were to go for a walk but his actions were diffracted through the lens of the three boys into an action that symbolized a lifestyle that they hated.

Walking is an action that most people engage in everyday but it rarely receives a large amount of thought.  Walking can be one of the most revealing bodily representations of gender and sexuality.  Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario has created an animation in which there are a series of dots on a screen that make up a stick figure and are moving in such a way that it appears the dots are walking.  On the right side of the screen there are four different bars that are labeled on each end with different adjectives.  The first bar is labeled male and female, the second bar is heavy and light, the third bar is nervous and relaxed, and the fourth is happy and sad.  For each bar, there is a lever that changes the movement.  For instance, you can pull the lever across the male/female bar so the stick figure’s walk is more “masculine” or “feminine” or adjust its walk so it’s more nervous or relaxed.   When the lever is all the way to the male side of the spectrum, the stick figure walks with its limbs farther away from its body, put a lot of weight into each step, and move its arms up and down every time the body sways.   When moved to the female side of the spectrum, the stick figure sways its hips, while placing its feet lightly on the ground with each step.  

The huge differences in the stick figure’s walking  posture can be attributed to more than just biological differences in male and female anatomy.  The creators of the website appeared to have designed the program specifically with the idea of what it means to walk like a male or female.  To fit into one of the categories for the stick figure animation, body language needs to be male or female, not masculine or feminine.  What does it mean when the lever is pulled so it is directly between male and female? Body language can be a determinant of gender but it is in no way a map.  Also this animation seeks to portray male and female movement but it excludes people who are disabled.  If a person is in a wheel chair or has multiple scoliosis what would their animation look like?  The gender of the severely disabled person cannot be completely portrayed by body language because it so drastically deviates from the norm of walking like a male or female.

How are the sexual desires of the disabled represented and expressed?  The majority of the people living with disabilities are not asexual but they are viewed as such.  Eli Clare is a genderqueer person with cerebral palsy who writes about the entanglement of class, gender, sexuality, and disability.  In his book Exile and Pride, Clare discusses his frustrations with the opinion that people with disabilities are asexual when posing the questions, “What are the differences between wanted and unwanted sexual gaze? When does that gaze define our sexualities for us, many times in degrading and humiliating ways?  And when does that gaze help us create ourselves as sexual beings?”[ix]  Without being able to express their gender and sexual identity through the use of their body, the only choice people with severe physical impairments can do is to use verbal communication.  Verbal communication is extremely important while trying to make a connection with another person but when no body language is involved there is a missing link.   The actions that are expected in the process of trying to find another person cannot be performed and the intentions of the disabled person cannot give visual symbols but only obvious verbal cues.   

Within Western society images of sex and sexuality are everywhere while the idea of sex itself is looked down upon.  Disabled people do not fall into either category, and they are not represented through the media or even discussed in the first place when it comes to sexuality.  People with disabilities are not included in the discourses about sex. Eli Clare states, “We are genderless, asexual undesirables.  This is not an exaggeration.  To be female and disabled is to be seen as not quite a woman: to be male and disabled, as not quite a man.”[x] So much of masculinity and feminity is based on embodied acts.  Even the act of wearing specific articles of clothing involves an engendered act.  For instance, the act of wearing heels can only be pulled of if the person is walking in a graceful way.  There are mannerisms that are used to configure gender and those include the way people walk, gesture with their hands, swing there hips, use their lips in a certain way to talk, make eye contact, and in general just take up space, and these mannerisms are completely defined by able bodied individuals.  From the vantage point of a disabled person, Clare states, "sexual objectification appears to be a positive recognition of sexuality.  In the absence of sexual gaze of any kind directed at us -- wanted or unwanted -- we lose ourselves as sexual beings”[xi] This statement was intriguing for me if I had to choose between constant sexual objectification and harassment or being completely desexualized, I am not sure what I would choose.  The answer to the question of what would be better oversexualization or desexualization depends on the cultural context.   For someone who lives in a society, where their gender constantly devalues them and uses them as sexual objects, they would probably prefer desexualization.  In Western society, individuals would be much more likely to choose oversexualization.  

There have been instances where disabled people make a huge effort to reclaim their sexuality and find some success. The model and actress Ellen Stohl has been able to do this.  Stohl was involved in a car accident in 1993, which caused her to have to use a wheelchair.  In 1997, Stohl posed in an eight-page spread in Playboy magazine, being the first disabled person to ever pose for playboy.  The pictures include Stohl riding a horse and using her wheelchair while performing martial arts and sitting at her desk with a typewriter as well as pictures of her half-naked and lying in bed.  In one of the shots she is laying a bed and her hand is reaching under the sheets while her face has an expression of pleasure.  None of the sexual pictures involve Stohl using her wheelchair.  In the article there are two types of pictures, Stohl is either portrayed as a supercrip or a women with no disability at all.  Yes it is true that in these images Stohl is being objectified for her body while simultaneously removing her disability in the sexual pictures but it is a step towards viewing disabled people in a sexual way that had not yet been done before.  Since this was the first time a disabled woman, presented herself to society in a sexual manner, it was not completely perfect.[xii]  There were a lot of things feminists complained about in regards to Stohl posing for Playboy, but at least it was a step, in presenting a disabled body as sexual.  

Disability is a phenomenon that not only constrains the way the physical body is perceived but the social body as well.   The physical experience of people with disability restrains their social experience as well.  The constraint of the social experience of disabled bodies has a variety of causes, that are founded in certain ideas that most of the time are not even accurate but one of the main constraints is the way their physical bodies presents gender and sexuality.  The inability to perform embodied acts creates a loss in translation between those who reproduce the norm and those who do not.  The intentions of those who cannot perform gender through the use of their body are lost and they become desexualized.  Disabled individuals are seen as other and their actions are not fully understood.  There is not a simple solution to this problem.  One step could be doing something similar to what Ellen Stohl did and gain media representation of disabled people.  For more people to become comfortable with seeing disabled bodies in a sexual manner, small steps need to be taken.  Ellen Stohl’s spread in Playboy was controversial but it did very little in the way of crossing beyond people’s comfort level.  The process of attaining visible sexuality for disabled people, will be slow, that is why precarity should be taken in the initial stages as too not make people uncomfortable.  Sometimes it is good to make people uncomfortable and for them to question what they might have already known, but when it comes to sexuality, making someone feel uncomfortable, already starts the process of desexualization. Another step in changing the attitudes of people about sexuality and disability would be to create environments where people are disabled are not treated as other.  Up until this course, I have not once learned about disability and the role of disability within society.  If this was a topic that was discussed earlier on in people’s education than college, different forms of non-verbal communication might be better understood.  The physical limitations on people’s bodies won’t change but their vocal communication can.  Another change that needs to occur is the attitudes that people with disabilities are not capable of having sexuality and that they will be a constant burden to their partner.  This could be possible my increasing the amount of attention disabled and able-bodied couples receive in the media and in society.  If the media portrayed disabled people in a way that did not turn them into a supercrip or a helpless person, the disabled person might be able to be viewed as more sexual.

The fact that people are not able to move certain parts of their bodies is not an issue that can be changed as quickly as the attitudes about those people.  The fact that disabled people do not feel comfortable moving their bodies within the space of sexuality is a problem that can be adjusted.  It is impossible to change actual attraction, but it is not impossible to open the eyes of people who might otherwise completely pass by someone who is perfectly capable of enacting sexuality.  If the norm of what body language is is looked at in a different way, the intensions of the disabled would be more easily understood and there would be less loss of communication between the able-bodied and the disabled.  


Works Cited

"Bio Motion Lab Walker." BioMotionLab. Web. 16 Dec. 2011. <>.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "sex". Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Cambridge, MA: SouthEnd, 1999. Print.

Crawford R. 1984. A Cultural account of “health”: control. release, and the social body.  In Issues in the Political Economy of Health Care, ed. JB McKinlay, pp 60-103.  new York:  Tavistock

Examined Life. Dir. Astra Taylor. Perf. Judith Butler & Sunaura Taylor. YouTube. 10 Oct. 2010. Web. 16 Dec. 2011. <>.

 Reischer, Erica, and Kathryn S. Koo. "The Body Beautiful: Symbolism and Agency in the Social World." Annual Review of Anthropology 33.1 (2004): 297-317. Print.

"Role/Roll of A Lifetime: The Ellen Stohl Story . . . From Paralyzed to Playboy to Parent & Beyond." Ellen Stohl Story. Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <>.

"Three Youths Admit to Throwing Gay to His Death." The Montreal Gazette [Montreal] 21 Aug. 1994. Print. 

"Walk." Def. 3. OED. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. <>.

[i] Reischer and Koo page 298

[ii] Crawford page 67

[iii] Butler page 2

[iv] Butler page 16

[v] Oxford English Dictionary

[vi] Examined Life

[vii] Montreal Gazette

[viii] Examined Life

[ix] Clare 129

[x] Clare 130

[xi] Clare 131

[xii] Clare 120


Franky Lawrence's picture

have never though about how

have never though about how disable people are looked at sexually. After reading this article it put the subject matter in a different light.

thank you