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Friday, April 17, 2009

On Being Ugly and Disabled

I dislike most television programs produced by mainstream networks such as NBC, ABC and CBS. I have a sharp aversion to popular talent shows such as American Idol and Dancing with Stars. These so called talent shows are based on two extremes: first, the audience loves to laugh at and see the judges rip into contestants that possess little talent. The ridicule heaped on such contestants is often mean spirited. The audience loves this and the judges comments are cutting and prompt much laughter. Seeing people become the butt of a joke is not my idea of entertainment. Second, some contestants have true ability and are thrust onto a national stage that would otherwise be impossible to attain.

Thanks to the internet I can selectively watch these talent shows. I usually view these shows when a contestant such as Scott MacIntyre who is legally blind appeared on American Idol. I find the appearance of people with a disability on these shows interesting because the mainstream media does a horrific job dealing with disability. Steve Kuusisto has noted on his blog Planet of the Blind that "American TV doesn't know how to handle disability. Accordingly it can't present real people with disabilities because in North American TV Land disability must always (and here we need to emphasize "always squared" be represented in quaint, saccharine or monstrous Victorian symbolism." At issue is never a disabled person's ability but rather how they "overcame" their particular physical deficit. The worse the deficit the better the visual--think beauty and the beast.

The beauty and the beast analogy struck me when I heard about Susan Boyle's appearance on the British program "Britain's Got Talent". To be blunt, Ms. Doyle is physically ugly. She also has an amazingly powerful and beautiful voice. However, no one knew about her voice when she walked on stage. She did not help her cause by stating she was unemployed, had never kissed a man and lived with her cat. The audience laughed at her when she appeared on stage and the judges openly mocked her. For example, Simon Cowell asked Ms. Boyle how old she was and when she replied "I'm 47" he rolled his eyes in disgust. When Boyle joked that she was 47 on "only one side of me" and shifted her hips another judge Piers Morgan, seemed to be in pain. This prompted much audience laughter. It was clear to one and all this woman was delusional--no one so poorly dressed and ugly could possess talent. After Boyle was finished singing Les Miserables I Dreamed a Dream the audience and judges looked befuddled. They were simply astonished by Boyle's voice. One judge, Amanda Holden, commented the she was "thrilled because I know that everybody was against you".

What I want to know is why was everyone against Boyle? The answer to this question is simple: it was assumed "ugly" women have no talent. Ugly women are not supposed to be gifted much less competent. Such women are supposed to become old maids forever wishing they were beautiful. They live alone and are miserable. This is of course totally wrong and it made me think that people with a disability have the same problem Boyle encountered. Society assumes people with a disability are inept. People with a disability are either physically or mentally incapable of excelling. It is assumed that all people with a disability have a singular focus--locating a cure for their disability. Christopher Reeve was a perfect example of this stereotype. The media ate up Reeve's search for a cure to spinal cord injury hook line, and sinker. They fawned over Reeve because he was the antiquated archetype of disability. Why is being ugly or disabled such an afront to others? The answer to this is social and theoretical. Socially we are part of a global capitalistic system, one that values youth, self reliance, and individualism. These traits are not associated with disability and result in something Karl Marx wrote a great deal about--alienation and false consciousness. Capitalism has a penchant for alienating members of society that are not productive. When you consider the fact 70% of people with a disability are unemployed it is easy to become alienated from others. Thus disabled people are perceived to be misfits, unable to contribute to the greater good. Yet people with a disability still want to fit in and be part of the mainstream. The effort to fit in is what Marx called false consciousness. The ability to fit in, to be like others is an illusion. In my case, I know I will never truly fit in. My difference, paralysis and wheelchair use, is too isolating. Social and architectural barriers abound. I do not foresee these barriers being eliminated in my life time. Thus like other people with a disability I have become "disabled and proud". This slogan puzzles many and I perceive it to be a metaphor. Disabled and proud as a metaphor undermines the great value placed on the ability to walk, see, and hear. I am not a failure because I cannot walk nor is my character flawed because I am paralyzed. The problem people such as myself and others with a myriad of different physical deficits encounter are largely social. It is hard to be a productive member of society when you are unemployed, have no access to mass transportation, housing is inaccessible, and stigma is attached to disability in the broadest sense of the term. These are the issues that desperately need to be addressed when it comes to disability. Yet this is what the media, my neighbors, school boards, and corporations try to avoid thinking about. Instead, pity and scorn are placed upon those that demand equality. This is why I am disabled proud--I am not afraid to assert my civil rights and bear the brunt of society's wrath. Frankly, I do not see that I have much of a choice. If I do not assert my civil rights as an American citizen who else will?


FridaWrites said...

You're right that these shows can be mean--we don't watch them either, though I just looked at a youtube video with Susan Boyle. A newspaper article says she also has learning disabilities and was bullied as a kid.

I guess I just don't understand people's meanness. Your explanation makes sense, but I just on a spiritual level don't understand people.

william Peace said...

Frida, These shows have a penchant for targeting people with a disability and women who are not attractive, i.e. young and slender. I don't understand the appeal of these show at multiple levels.

Full Tilt said...

Hi William,

Thanks for hitting upon my foremost gripe with television...These shows mirror the mean spiritedness of the larger world and its messages about what some have referred to as "otherness."

As an "other," all of my life I've had to fight for the right to exist as myself---a woman with a disability---whose many talents and strongpoints are often overshadowed by the stupidity of non-disabled people.

Personally, I didn't find Susan Boyle unappealing, and so what if she is middle-aged and unmarried or as yet unkissed? These things should not diminish her character or her awesome ability as a singer. You're spot on in your explanations.

william Peace said...

Full Tilt, Good luck on your new blog. I enjoyed reading it very much.

As a disabled woman you are a minority within a minority. There is a huge literature about disability and men but women with a disability get little attention. I hope you will discus gender and disability in your blog.

I hope you did not think I was being negative when I stated Boyle was not attractive. I am sure the producers of the show could have provided better clothes, a more stylish hair cut and make up that would have made her look much different. In fact, I suspect they tried to make her appear as unattractive as humanly possible. I also agree the fact she lives alone, is unemployed and never kissed a man totally irrelevant. Again, I suspect this was used to highlight the difference between her appearance and lovely voice.

AlisonHymes said...

I heard that she was taking care of her disabled mother until her mother died. In the U.S., there are now more single person households than family households so this whole idea that living in a family unit is the norm is a myth/propaganda. And I really want to know, not sure why, how old is Simon himself?

FridaWrites said...

I was thinking the same thing--that changing her haircut or color some and her clothes to something more fitting for her would have her conforming more, though she doesn't need to do these things and is fine as she is. Why people put so much emphasis on fashion--well, really, it's classist too. And that's something the makeover shows seem to miss.

Among other options, I think she'd make a nice music teacher or director, private lessons if she didn't have a music degree.

william Peace said...

Alison, Boyle's mother died two years ago according to UK newspapers. After the death of her mother Boyle stopped singing because she was overcome with grief. Please don't get me started on the myth of the nuclear family. The glorification of the family unit is a mystery to me and used by the right wing to scare people.

Frida, We humans can appear and present ourselves as we wish. But that does not mean the way we present ourselves will be well received. Fashion, especially for women, is very important. I think the producers of the show wanted to portray Bolye as unattractive as possible. This makes for a stark contrast between ability and beauty. Of course this is wrong an unfair.

kimba said...

Dame Joan Sutherland wasn't pretty either.

william Peace said...

Kimba, Being pretty is not always an advantage or wanted. I would think being particularly beautiful would garner unwanted attention. Talent and ability is far more important.

Becs said...

I'm glad you addressed this. It's been much on my mind this week.

In Western culture, it's so easy to be invisible if you aren't young and attractive.

I knew a woman who was always stunningly good looking, but after menopause and a few wrinkles, men stopped looking at her That Way. She was devastated. She was further devastated when she learned she had cancer and had to have disabling surgery. She managed to deny it for about five years but I know it always bothered her.

For myself, a bit past middle age (unless I plan to live to 108, which I don't), only for a few fleeting moments more than cute, middle-age has been no hardship for me.

Susan Boyle is my new heroine. Nothing put her off and she knocked their socks off. Brava!

william Peace said...

Becs, Last time I checked You Tube over 20 million people had watched Boyle's performance. Aside from her powerful and lovely voice, I think people are drawn to the dichotomy between her appearance and ability. The fact she stuck it to the audience and judges is icing on the cake and proof that everyone loves an underdog. Boyle truly undermined preconceived notions about appearance and snap judgement we humans have a penchant for making.

Katie said...

As a woman of average wieght, tall and not bad looking i am all too aware of my priviledge in this society; and as a lesbian and a diabled person my attutude to my body, looks, femininity and awareness of how they fit, or don't fit, with what it culturally acceptable are perhaps heightened... I can pass as straight (but don't get too much unwanted attention as not blonde, made up or too femme) and able-bodied (though i try not to "pass" at all, it is more people's assumption) but I also find that as my disability is invisible, looking so "normal" has serious drawbacks to being understood, getting assistance/help i need, and moving through the AB world. I use a walking stick and when i have it my experience is largely much better, as there is a visible marker that there may be "something wrong" with me, that i may move differently, need a chair, not have to have to queue etc. Being assertive is much easier once you have someone's attention!

I can't stand those shows, i don't find them entertaining at all, just exploitative. They do seem to encourage disabled and other "misfits" just to get the ratings up and get some laughs from people who are reassured that they are not like that.

Katie said...

BTW i am ashy of
As a non-Blogger blogger the comments thing is a bit limited link wise!

william Peace said...

Katie, Thanks for your comments. Appearance for women is a major variable in the way they are perceived by men and society at large. When you add in disability and being a lesbian I am sure you are highly attuned to subtle and not so subtle forms of discrimination based on appearance. I have long felt that women and disability is subject that must be delved into far more deeply.