- Ahhhh Freak Out! Metaphors of Disability and Femaleness in Performance
. . . a sign cannot exist, cannot mean in a socially meaningful way, apart from the body.—Joseph Grigley, “Postcards to Sophie Calle” (228)
On December 9, 1975, I was a star for a day. The Albuquerque Journal featured a large, front-page headshot of “Blonde Pixie Carrie Sandahl,” playing a harmonica. Underneath the photo, a caption reading “I’d Like Santa to Bring Me a Coloring Book and Some Crayons” pleads my humble request. The photo accompanied that day’s lead article for the Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children’s annual Christmas toy and fund drive. Because I share a first name with the founder of the hospital (Governor Clyde Tingley’s wife), I made the perfect pitch-girl for the paper’s fundraiser. The reporter described me as “a bright, blue-eyed pixie who gets up pretty good speed in her wheelchair as she roams the halls . . . playing a harmonica or chattering as only a perky five-year-old can—and patting the cast on her leg” (A-1). I remember the reporter’s visit and how I was rewarded with smiles, toys, and attention for my feisty performance of Tiny Tim at Christmas. Being a ham from an early age, and oblivious to the belittling stereotypes into which I was playing, I loved every minute of it.
I also remember being a star performer at another photo session several years later, in a role I was not so eager to embrace. I posed nude for a medical textbook photographer. I recall how embarrassed I felt, displaying my naked pre-pubescent body, arms raised, while the camera flashed. Before the shoot, my mother comforted me by saying that the photos would help other children like me and that it was okay to be naked in front of doctors. I submitted to being photographed, running my mother’s words over and over in my head, fighting the urge to lower my arms and cover my nakedness. I remember the male photographer’s silhouette behind the camera and how I was praised (“good girl”) for my compliant performance. I was also told that my face would be concealed when the photos appeared in the textbook, so no one would know it was me. I came to understand that my defective body could be separated from “me,” that my body was not really “me.” [End Page 11]
During such performance experiences, I became conscious of the fact that my body itself was a spectacle, a reason for attention, and that I would reap rewards for playing the role of disabled girl-child correctly. Each of these performances cast me in the all-too-familiar and limiting metaphorical roles of disability and femaleness. As a person with a disability, I played the role of poster child and medical object; but I also played the cute, perky, good-girl role, a compliant object of the male gaze. My “girlness” and my “gimpness” were inextricably intertwined, each edifying and naturalizing the other.
That these roles edified one another is hardly surprising given the following observation by feminist disability scholar Rosemarie Garland Thomson:
Many parallels exist between the social meanings attributed to female bodies and those assigned to disabled bodies. Both the female and the disabled body are cast as deviant and inferior; both are excluded from full participation in public as well as economic life; both are defined in opposition to a norm that is assumed to possess natural physical superiority. Indeed, the discursive equation of femaleness with disability is common, sometimes to denigrate women and sometimes to defend them.(Extraordinary Bodies 19)
Even though disability and femaleness share social meanings, Thomson notes that, historically, disability activists and feminists have not always worked together to challenge these meanings (Extraordinary Bodies 21–29). In fact, feminism and disability politics are often at odds. For example, when women with disabilities interpret the right to choose an abortion as a euphemism for the right to abort a disabled fetus, stakes in the abortion debate intensify significantly. Given the history of forced sterilization, passive euthanasia of disabled children, and eugenics policies in the United States, even...