In contrast to normalising disability by including it in the mainstream fashion industry, some artists are using mainstream tropes to make statements about disability and the portrayal of women in the media. Such imagery, Garland-Thomson (2005) claims, forces viewers to reconsider their notions of beauty, desirability and other life values. In such images the ‘mark of disability’ acts as punctum, refuting hitherto stereotypical images of disabled people as worthless victims, freaks or objects of pity and shame. Although G-T draws a distinction between what she sees as ‘cripsploitation’ and the valued inclusion of disabled people in mainstream media, she admits that such presentations of disabled people as consumers does the job of inclusion, albeit inadvertently through attempting to increase profit by securing the disabled market share, as Haller and Ralph (2001) observed.
A more meaningful way of including disabled people, she proposes, would contribute to social justice by showing disability as “a tenable and valued way of being in the world” (p 527). In the first example G-T cites, Matuschka deliberately showed her body with mastectomy scars on the cover of the New York Times Magazine as “a source of pride and as a display of beauty” both raising awareness about breast cancer and challenging notions about the desirability of women as sexual objects and the fetishisation of the female breast:
Garland-Thomson also cites the portrait of disability rights activist and lawyer, Harriet McBryde Johnson on another cover of the NYT magazine, who is portrayed as “charismatic rather than cute, ironic rather than pathetic” (p 526) along with the clearly provocative question: “Should I Have Been Killed At Birth?” the answer to which is firmly located in her expression. These are representations that force non-disabled people to challenge their assumptions about disability and how it is represented in the media: “Visual reimaginings such as these begin to fulfill the promise of an egalitarian order” (p 527).
In an excellent parody of the infamous Wonderbra ad featuring model Eva Herzigova, Belgian Tanja Kiewitz was asked to pose for this shot:
The caption “Look me in the eyes… I said the eyes,” which is normally used in reference to men’s obsessing over women’s breasts, is a deliberate reference here to the punctum of Kiewitz’s amputated arm, although she is also wearing a bra that accentuates her cleavage. A clever use of pastiche, this image was published by Belgian disability awareness group CAP48 as part of their fundraising campaign. Kiewitz said in an interview: “It would be good if handicapped people started to be used to advertise other things… Why shouldn’t somebody with a disability be a model? It would make a change from those models who all look alike. Why don’t we have more people in wheelchairs speaking on TV, they can speak as well as anybody else.” This is the voice of inclusion, of empowerment.
In another pastiche of mass media advertising that questions accepted norms of body type, photographer Holly Norris in collaboration with artist and academic, Jes Sachse made a series entitled American Able, which is an obvious reference to American Apparel’s series of controversial advertisements:
Sachse suffers from a condition called Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a congenital myopathy characterized by severe joint contractures and muscle weakness as well as craniofacial abnormalities. On her website, Norris writes the following: “‘American Able’ intends to, through spoof, reveal the ways in which women with disabilities are invisibilized in advertising and mass media. I chose American Apparel not just for their notable style, but also for their claims that many of their models are just ‘every day’ women who are employees, friends and fans of the company. However, these women fit particular body types. Their campaigns are highly sexualized and feature women who are generally thin, and who appear to be able-bodied. Women with disabilities go unrepresented, not only in American Apparel advertising, but also in most of popular culture. Rarely, if ever, are women with disabilities portrayed in anything other than an asexual manner, for ‘disabled’ bodies are largely perceived as ‘undesirable.’ In a society where sexuality is created and performed over and over within popular culture, the invisibility of women with disabilities in many ways denies them the right to sexuality, particularly within a public context.”
On the one hand, the images can be seen as liberating Sachse, making her (and her disability) visible and asserting her sexuality. On the other hand, however, since the audience reaction has not really been recorded and analysed, it could be argued that the series only serves to expose Sachse to ridicule and reinforce the notion that the bodies of disabled people are undesirable. Do the images really ask the viewer to engage and challenge the way women are exploited in advertising, or the fact that brands such as American Apparel have a very limited scope of what a ‘normal’ body type should look like? Let alone raise questions about the de-sexualisation and invisibilisation of disabled persons (women, she is quite specific on this point!) in the media and reassert their right to sexuality.
In a less activist but similarly positioned move, Rachelle Friedman Chapman posed for a lingerie photo shoot in yet another bid to get the public to look beyond the wheelchair and prove that disabled people are in fact ‘sexual beings’.
What is interesting to note here is that Chapman’s catheter is clearly visible in all the shots, just in case we were lulled into believing that somehow she might after all be ‘normal’. Chapman said in an interview: “I’m doing this for those who can’t see past a wheelchair, I’m doing it to show that we are capable, sexual beings and we are not to be overlooked. I’m not glamorizing disability. My paralysis is an awful part of my life and I hope for a cure. But, in the meantime I need to love myself.” Does this photo shoot really prove as Chapman claims that disability does not limit sexuality? Is this model not falling into the trap of attempting to emulate the prescribed thin, able-bodied type that Norris and Sachse at least had the gall to challenge?
In all of these examples, it appears that the desexualisation of the disabled body in the media is the prime site of oppression and the issue to be addressed. Is this a result of the over-sexualisation of the normal human body in the media? What I mean is, since there are so many images that reduce the human body to a site of pleasure, is this the reason that the primary objective seems to be a reassessment of the disabled body within media discourse? If there were fewer overtly sexual images in the media such as the American Apparel ad campaigns, would there be such fuelled need for the disability activist to engage with this, or would different issues become primary?
Of course, I do not deny the importance of the issue, but it seems to be a reaction to the sexualisation of the human body in the media; were the marketable features of humanity to be changed from idealised notions beauty and sexuality to, for example, the importance of labour or occupation, would then the disability activist discourse also shift (as Galvin pointed out, sexuality is not the number one loss among disabled persons)? I think my point is that this kind of work is reactionary in a totally superficial way, and does not really get to grips with more fundamental issues that disabled persons need to deal with in their daily lives, such as independence, mobility, access and occupation. Or possibly this is the result of the fact that I am living in a society that still has not acknowledged disability in any meaningful way, and as such there appear to be more pressing issues here. Whatever these artists and activists may say, it appears to me that there are enough images in the media dealing with the sexuality of disabled persons – though they may not be included in mainstream media, there is definitely evidence of penetration and the confidence to raise the issue and engage with it. Of course, I will probably have to deal with the issue of sexuality in my project, but I will not position myself as overtly activist about it.