Friday, January 27, 2012

The Abyss Gazes Also

In my last post I touched on how we may project attitudes in line with integration and equality while promoting values which are anything but. I realized I had more to say about this, though from a slightly different, and perhaps more controversial angle.

There is a clip on YouTube, which, if you watch all the way to the end you will learn, is really just an extended ad for Jerry Springer's internet TV show. Sitting just shy of one million views, “I'm Happy I CutOff My Legs!” features a transabled* transwoman who did just that. As someone who is sympathetic towards trans people of every stripe and BIID I naturally look upon this as rather exploitive. However, in regards to Jerry Springer such claims to this effect in defense of any group are hardly new, especially so once we're off TV, and on the internet.

Jerry is a man who, when he sat down to tell the world the story of his life, felt that the best way to sum himself up was with a single word: Ringmaster. Clearly he seeks to draw a comparison between himself and the dapper gentlemen of days long since past who presided over the thrills and chills of a traveling circus. However, Jerry, unlike a ringmaster, does not preside over three rings of trained professionals displaying their talents, but a seemingly endless cavalcade of otherwise unremarkable people who for one reason or more fall outside the bounds of what is “normal”.

Enter Sandra.

What I was struck by upon my first viewing was Jerry's use of pronouns. If you're not familiar with politics in gender variant sub-cultures, there is a great deal of fuss rightly raised over the proper use of pronouns and how we gender individuals. Jerry, despite his reputation, seemed more than happy to oblige. This small act of conciliation though comes right after saying, “The story on today's show could be the most bizarre story we've done in our fifteen year history.” Upon hearing this the audience begins to cheer and clap in anticipation. He goes on to say, “This is really crazy. My guest began wearing women's clothing at age twelve, and became a transsexual at age thirty five. But that's not the unusual part of this story.”

Jerry begins by letting the audience know that what he has to tell them is crazy. However, he has to clarify that cross dressing and transsexualism are not what is crazy about his guest. It feels awkwardly redundant to say this, but Jerry Springer's show has earned it's bread and butter by gleefully exploiting homophobic attitudes in American culture. You can see the smiles and laughter already bubbling up from the audience at the mention of gender variance. After fifteen years one could expect something like that to have become blandly repetitive, but apparently such is not the case.

What knits their brows together though is what he says next, “At the age of fourteen, she decided she didn't want her legs. So, one year ago she took a saw-” He cuts himself off here to retrieve a circular saw from a stage hand and begins to milk the crowd telling a joke and revving the tool before he continues. Raising the steel machine over his head, it's blade loudly spinning, he shouts, “So one year ago she took a saw just like this...and she cut off her own legs.”

I'm interested in how, while acknowledging that Sandra injured herself and that it is indeed behavior which deviates strongly from cross cultural norms, his attention is drawn not primarily to her motive. The highlights provided, which we must remember function ultimately as an advertisement for his show, spend the least amount of time focusing on this. I think it is through a close observation of the video that we may better understand what Jerry, his audience, and most importantly, the editors, find most fascinating.

Television is an audiovisual medium, but derives most of its impact from its visual aspect. Film scores are consciously designed to be unobtrusive, and indeed, the history of film begins with a succession of related images entirely absent of sound. Thus, I posit that we may gain a greater insight into the values, attitudes and intention at work here by paying closer attention to how the camera is used than to what is said. Actions, after all, speak louder than words.

Sandra comes out wearing an outfit with a black and red floral theme, and some fake, or so I assume, pearls on her wrist. She wears a skirt which falls over her knees, and is clearly not ashamed of her stumps, though she doesn't appear to be particularly proud of them either. If her constant squirming is any indication, she actually seems slightly nervous to be on stage; a reticent act in Jerry's circus. Regardless of what she chose to wear though, I think it is interesting to note the amount of shots taken which focus primarily on Sandra's stumps.

At first, we observe her head on in a classic talk show angle with the camera seated somewhere in the house. She is captured in the frame such that her stumps swing just barely above the floating title of the show, “I'M HAPPY I CUT OFF MY LEGS” Jerry circles around to begin questioning her, and the next shot we see is from the floor looking up with Sandra in profile facing the left side of the frame. Her body and wheelchair take up over a third of the screen in the immediate foreground. Her head is cut in half by the top of the frame in favor of a shot which puts her knees at the center providing a close up view of her stumps. Jerry is in the background, but the camera's focus is trained on Sandra's absent legs.

The shot slowly exaggerates itself as they continually cut back between the two angles established thus far. The camera pulls in closer and closer until her head is no longer in the shot, a shot they hold even as she responds to his questions. Next, they cut to a medium range shot,, capturing her at a roughly forty five degree angle, again the camera is looking up from below. Perhaps it was intentional that this shot lets the viewer see part way up Sandra's skirt.

The film cuts and Jerry's editor takes us to a point later in the interview where Jerry asks Sandra, “What did you try to do to get your legs cut off?” As she tugs her skirt back over her knee to show it in full and illustrate with her hands a litany of painful methods, we see a shot which I estimate has never been used so extensively except within devotee pornography. The most extreme close-up thus far is taken, such that the entire screen shows her stumps as her fingers and palms dance across them.

It pans up to her face for a second or two before panning back down and then cuts even more briefly to Jerry for a reaction shot. Then it cuts back to her stumps. Again it cuts, and we have a new angle, showcasing, again, her stumps. At this point it becomes an exercise in redundancy to explain how they continually revert to slowly exaggerating shots of her stumps even as she is responding to Jerry's questions.

If this was Aimee Mullins, or Oscar Pistorius this would immediately be deemed exploitation. It would be elementary though to simply draw a comparison between transabled and disabled individuals and leave it at that. In Sandra's case, there is no comparison to draw; she is disabled. It would also miss the more important point.

What is the purpose of Jerry's show? Why do people continually gather both in person and at home, to watch the events unfold? If you watch Jerry's pitch at the end of the clip his final words are, “...the craziness never ends.” Jerry isn't the ring master of a circus. He runs a very literal freak show. In an interview with CNN, he once said, “I'm doing a show about outrageousness. That's what I'm hired to do.” My copy of Webster's dictionary defines outrageous thusly, “1. Involving or doing great injury or wrong. 2. Very offensive or shocking.” Given his emphasis on craziness it's fair to say he probably means to refer to the second definition. Though it is wise to consider what this could mean given the first definition.

What we see in Sandra, and more generally in anyone who has graced Jerry's stage, is a person who so strongly deviates from our norms that we feel no guilt in profiting from their pain, literally in Jerry's case. Sandra, in part because of her gender variance, though also definitely because of her active pursuit of disability, is stripped of her dignity. What is shocking is what occurs once we no longer view people as people.

Regardless of your perspective on disability, we all heal the same. Sandra's stumps are in no way objectively different from those of someone “normal”. Sandra though is no longer human, and as such the usual decorum (read: facade) no longer applies. She is a freak who merely appears human, and we thus allow ourselves to poke, prod, stare, and laugh as we can not normally permit ourselves to do with any other disabled person.

With Sandra there is an opportunity for us to observe deviant bodies without the burden of a quasi philantropic pretense as in LittlePeople, Big World. Neither are the producers and editors burdened with constructing a show to accommodate such a facade. Her other deviances allow us to place her back at that level of the “untouchable” class, the court fool, where so many disabled used to reside centuries ago.

You may still wish to deride her, and that is to be expected. Though it would be ignorant to act as though bearing one's self so absolutely and honestly, not only on stage, but on camera as well, is somehow easy. The most common fear, in the West at least, is public speaking, which ranks even higher than death. As Jerry Seinfeld pointed out, “That means that at a funeral you'd rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.” Sandra though is not giving a eulogy, or a keynote address. She is talking about a part of herself few people have ever spoken of so openly. In fact, due to the the presence of cameras and the internet, this is likely the most candid anyone has ever been with such a wide audience about feelings like these. Sandra knows she is different. She knows people are laughing. She knows what they must think. All this, and she still went on.

As with devotees who expose their own ruthlessness when they take advantage of the disabled, when we strip Sandra of her humanity, we lose a little of our own. Rather, we expose the true depth of our moral character. Jerry Springer has earned his bread and butter by giving us permission to express the latent hatred and brutality we otherwise politely seek to hide. We may laugh at what is in front of the camera, but the real show lies behind it.

"Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." - Nietzsche

    * I just want to be clear on my terms here. When I say “transabled” I mean it to refer to anyone who has willingly permanently disabled themselves, in the absence of extenuating circumstances (i.e. temporary psychosis, insurance fraud, to avoid enlistment in the armed services, etc.) I distinguish this from BIID which I understand largely as it is defined through the work of V.S. Ramachandran. BIID, to me, refers to a specific condition of the brain wherein the neural map of the body does not match it's physical state. People with BIID may become transabled, but not all transabled people have (rather, have had) BIID.
It is far from a flawless definition, but it is constructed to serve the purposes of this post, and
not necessarily any official diagnostic purpose or the larger dialogue around the subject.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pushing The Wrong Way

This April the Sundance Channel is planning to air a new 14 episode reality show called “Push Girls” which seeks to provide a glimpse into what life is like in Hollywood on four wheels. It stars Auti Angel, Tiphany Adams, Angela Rockwood, and Mia Shaikewitz, who devotees will likely remember from Ms. Angel's "Colours N. Motion" dance crew, amongst other efforts to popularize wheelchair dance throughout the years.

To quote from the show's website, “In the same way "Murderball," winner of the 2005 Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, took the lid off the competitive world of “wheelchair rugby,” Sundance Channel is bringing an unfettered, uncensored glimpse at what it means to be sexy, ambitious and living with paralysis in Hollywood with PUSH GIRLS, a new original non-fiction series from producer Gay Rosenthal.”

If you're not familiar, Mrs. Rosenthal's work I'll give you a tiny review.

Long ago, in the 90's, TLC was more than a colorful R&B trio, it was also “The Learning Channel”. Playing Robin to the Discovery Channel's Batman, it cut its teeth playing educational documentaries that fell outside of Discovery's emphasis on nature. As with History, and other educational channels, it gradually warped and morphed its way out from under the onus of educational content until the mid 2000's when its focus shifted to reality based dramas like Gay Rosenthal's Little People, Big World. Here is how the show describes itself, “Parents Matt and Amy Roloff are both little people -- 4 feet tall -- but they are determined to succeed in a world that isn't always accepting of differences.”

It was a success, and two years later along came Gay Rosenthal's Ruby on the Style Network. Again, I will let the show speak for itself. “Savannah resident Ruby Gettinger is beautiful, charming, charismatic and at one time weighed a life-threatening 500 pounds. With no-holds-barred honesty and unwavering optimism, Ruby shares the story of her personal struggle to lose weight and get healthy,”

And so, now we come to 2012, with the Sundance Channel bravely seeking to step out and do what no one has done before, to make a real change in the world of entertainment, by showing how poorly integrated it is. Except, it's been done before, and it doesn't change anything.

Shows like these have already been rightly criticized for having more to do with letting us stare while making us feel good about it than imparting any tangible change. In some ways it recalls the voyeur scene from The Cost Of Living, or a less honest version of Jerry Springer. Their tacit premise is that through familiarity boundaries will be broken. Yet this plausible premise is shackled by a fundamentally flawed approach.

There is a common complaint laid against devotees which says that we only see the disability, not the person. While I can't say that it's never been true, I certainly doubt that it's always been true. I feel much more confident making that claim about the entertainment industry. The Daily Mail happily misquoted Angela Rockwell as saying, “Our common denominator is our wheelchairs...” She meant to say “is not”, as you can see in the interview they did at Sundance, but the mere presence of the error suggests a telling Freudian slip on author's part.

I applaud their effort because as anyone could tell you, lack of exposure is definitely part of the problem. However, this seeks to solve that problem the wrong way. It is dangerously simplistic to say the only problem is one of underrepresentation. Certainly that exists, but it works to magnify the additional problem of poor representation.

We rarely see the disabled portrayed in our media, and when we do it is most often the story of their injury or an update about their recovery on the nightly news. Say what you will about devotees, but if you look at say, the fiction of an out proud devotee like Ruth Madison, and compare it to what news channels often run, I think you'll find more than a few differences. What you'll find is the root of the problem.

When we cast minorities as the other, when we point out and focus on their differences, we run backward against attempts at integration. They are treated as separate and thus unequal. They are not placed alongside us, but on a stage in front of us, often accompanied by a great degree of fanfare. I'm reminded of Britain's Missing Top Model, which spent a lot of time and money in marketing pointing out how groundbreaking they were to ever think of having a reality show about the disabled. You can practically hear them saying,“We're an incredibly forward thinking network, see we treat THESE DISABLED PEOPLE OVER HERE, THE ONE MISSING AN ARM, AND THE WHEELCHAIR-PERSON, I MEAN UH PERSON IN A WHEELCHAIR just like anyone else really.” There are though, some wonderfully notable exceptions to this.

In the UK there was Hollyoaks, a soap/drama about good looking rich white kids dealing with all the ups and downs of being good looking rich white kids. They hired an actor who was actually disabled and barely mentioned her disability, and even then, only lightly. Then there was Beeswax, an indie film which was notable for having a paraplegic protagonist whose injury, disability, or possible hope for a cure, never came up. It never mattered, and it was an utter breath of fresh air that sadly soon ran stale. For every Hollyoaks, or Beeswax, we have easily ten or twenty cases of the helpless invalid, the relentless fight for a cure, or the athlete who won't let anything hold them back.

The honest approach
Push Girls seeks is of course better than practically everything that's been put to film since the television was invented, but it will be just another a drop in the bucket unless the media is willing to take more concrete steps to change the climate it's operating in. Here's hoping.

“All television is educational, the only question is what is it teaching?” - Nicholas Johnson, former chair of the FCC

Monday, January 23, 2012

On Film & Consent

There is a wonderful Dance/Art film I that I think everyone interested in the politics of dis/ability would enjoy. “The Cost Of Living” is a highly lauded exploration of many social issues through dance, dis/ability playing a prominent role. It uniquely blends dance, with acting, and even a light narrative, to provoke our thought through a mixture of approaches, some subtle, some very blunt.

One of the more disturbing points in the film comes when the character “David”, played by David Toole who has no legs, is confronted by a man with a video camera who continually follows him, blocking his way, while we hear a series of rude questions. The scene works on a number of levels.

To begin with, the questions asked such as, “Why do you have no legs?”, “Do you blame God for how you were born?” “Can you masturbate?” “Do you have an asshole or do you shit into a bag?” have a very literal context to them. It may sound striking to some, but such questions by strangers are not an uncommon part of life for the disabled.

The questions though, are asked by a narrator, and the cameraman appears to remain silent. These are questions that we all ask, though perhaps not so deliberately. The narrator may be providing the inner monologue of the cameraman, but also in some ways that of David when he is so rudely observed. The message here, and indeed a fundamental element of dance, is that we do not need to speak to make ourselves heard.

The other important point here is that while the camera obviously functions as a metaphor for how the able bodied relate to disability, and for how it feels to be stared at, it can, in the context of devoteeism be understood very literally as well.

There is a problem amongst devotees, as in society, which is as old as the camera itself, and which has grown in proportion to its use and ubiquity. Being filmed or photographed by rude strangers is, sadly, not an uncommon part of life for the disabled. There are still videos on YouTube to this day of disabled people who have been covertly filmed by devotees for purely sexual purposes. Judging by the video quality and clothing worn by people, some these were taken in early nineties or late eighties. They have traded hands enough times that they have survived the shift from analog to digital, and they are still around

As I understand it, legally there is nothing wrong with this. When you are in public you lose your right to a reasonable expectation of privacy. In fact, I've heard the same rule applies if you are sitting in your living room with the windows open. What is legal though may not always be what is right.

My premise is that suffering, in its many forms, is something “bad” and ought to be avoided whenever possible. Furthermore, humans ought to be treated with a certain set of rights some of which grant them freedom from suffering needlessly. I claim that the kind of filming in question, and the proliferation of its product harms both parties in a number of ways.

To begin, filming harms the subject.

The most obvious scenario is one wherein the subject is filmed, and becomes aware of the filming, or its intent. This can happen before, during, or after the fact, and still be damaging. It feels silly to have to explain this, but believe it or not it can be incredibly scarring to find out that you have a secret cadre of online admirers discussing in detail your every recorded move. What is missing in this interaction is a word which is important in many areas of life, but most especially in all things sexual. That word is consent.

As a word and concept, consent has a long history of being linked to sex. Webster and the OED have traced its earliest use to the thirteenth century, being derived from the Latin “consentire” which held virtually the same meaning, suggesting its use in Latin goes back even further. It is linked with ideas like “age of consent”, whose earliest use was in 1504 and refers to “the age at which one is legally competent to give consent especially to marriage or to sexual intercourse”

What is interesting is that often with these films it is obvious that the person in question is taking great care to avoid being seen or noticed. I think this is important because it points to the thought process of the person who is filming. They do not expect to gain consent for their actions.

They seek to blend in or avoid being seen filming because they know there is no consent. Assuming that the first page of Google results are correct, and we have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public, we do still have some say over how our images are distributed. If you've ever been around a documentary film crew, you'll know how adamant they are about securing someone's permission (consent) to film them. I think that we ought to have an extended provision in our law which grants us security from having our image filmed, shared and traded for sexual purposes without prior consent.

Regardless, it can be argued that if the subject does not find out they are being filmed, then there is no harm. This is problematic for a number of reasons. To begin with, there is no way of guaranteeing that the subject or one of their relations will never find out that they will be, are being, or have been, filmed. Again, there are videos which date, conservatively speaking, from the early nineties, which are still bouncing around the net today, sometimes with multiple copies in multiple locations, and more new ones are popping up all the time. This was once a stronger argument but as the internet becomes more and more user friendly and embraces sharing, it becomes increasingly weaker.

Still though, even in the absence of the internet I argue that it is harmful and there are two reasons for this. To begin with, by ignoring the subject's lack of consent, or rather, by working actively in opposition to it, you are not respecting them as human beings. By filming, sharing, or even viewing these, you are ignoring the person on the screen. This is literally dehumanizing.

What I have described thus far encompasses most of the common arguments I have met with regarding this pattern of behavior. I have seen the discussion go around a number of times, more often in disabled circles than devotee ones, and with rare exception does it stray beyond these basic arguments. I feel though that there is something we have yet to consider.

While engaging in any part of this process of filming is indeed disrespectful, dehumanizing, and harmful to the subject, but it also is not healthy for the person who does the filming. I think that when we treat others in such a way we are not respecting ourselves. There is more to us than some crazed and lecherous passion which ignores our victims and snaps back at them when they complain.

Outside of its own circles though devoteeism is practically linked with indignity. You'll most assuredly be trolled, flamed, stalked, and otherwise harassed for talking openly about it. Your friends, family, and anyone else in your social circle are very likely to leave you or grow distant. Merely the mention of this has been the cause for more than one divorce. Furthermore, as I understand it, there is nothing which will protect you from being fired for your feelings. It is dangerous to be a devotee.

On one hand devotees feel this, and know that it is wrong. We seek to be treated fairly and equally, on a just basis, a basis which is often informed by if not in advocacy of, human rights. Yet I have seen many with this sentiment turn a blind eye when their actions violate the rights of another. I once saw a dev board online where a man with an SCI who felt hurt by his ex, who also had an SCI, posted all of her contact information and even some pictures. We were the hounds to which the forsaken were thrown. We were a weapon. We were the worst thing that could happen to someone.

Consider for a moment the effects of this.

I have read a few books regarding the interaction between people and disability at a personal and sociological level. One interesting theory I found discussed how society can be an actively disabling agent. When we treat people like they are disabled, when we link it with concepts of frailty, dependence, and indignity, we are a source of impairment stronger than any condition they may have. We can build all the ramps we want, but that is hardly where the change must end.

So, perhaps we can understand that as we in society can be complicit in disabling, and its deleterious effects on the individual, so too can those who are not devotees understand that they are complicit in indignity, and the following undignified behavior. When we are constantly told that we are less than human, it is contradictory to at the same time expect us to act as humans.

I want to be very clear about this next point. This does not excuse the actions of someone who takes part in this process of covert filming etc. Regardless of how poorly you are treated that does not give you the right violate the rights of another. This is true if you are a devotee, or a jilted ex-boyfriend.

The solution I see involves a recognition and respect of the humanity in each of us.

The fact is that as devotees are stripped of their dignity, they are often stripped of their ability to love. It is believed that any attraction the devotee feels toward someone with a disability is only fetishistic in nature. There is a denial of the possibility of there ever being anything more.

I claim that if you really love someone, you can't help but respect them as people. To love is to respect. If, as devotees, we do love someone, be they able bodied or otherwise, we will absolutely respect their wishes.

In closing I did want to include this interesting little anecdote I found in the first edition of The Psychology of Disability by Carolyn L. Vash which I will quote at length.

Another side of human acceptance is illustrated by a story told by Marya. A bilateral, above-knee amputee, she had been married to Emory for over three years when he confessed to her once night that he had, since early adolescence, entertained fantasies of having relations with women such as herself; and that her disability had been a prepotent source of his attraction to her initially. By then they had established a solid marital relationship and were viewed as an ideal couple by many of their friends. Marya recalled,

'I wanted to die. I wanted to vomit. Actually, I wanted to kill him. But somehow, the next morning, when he begged me not to leave him, because he had grown to love me for many other reasons, I weakened. He had trusted me enough to tell me something that still bothered- no, terrified-him. He had given me love and support and now he was asking me to accept his disability-a psychological problem that he was repulsed by and didn't understand. I agreed to stay if he would go to a psychiatrist. That was a ten years ago, I don't know that he has completely resolved all of his hangups, but our marriage is a good one...and whatever crazy thing he has for my stumps, he is a lovely guy I'm glad I held onto.'”

If you really don't believe me you can find this quote on page 97 of the second edition which Google has provided.

The Basic Idea

The basic idea here is to explore those realms of “devoteeism” which I feel are all too often ignored. Primarily, I am concerned with the ethical concerns of devoteeism which, if they are considered at all, are often left for last (at least in our conversations). I tossed the idea of this blog around for a long time, but have continually put it off. I have no idea how frequently I'll be posting, or how long each entry will be, so I do apologize for that unpredictable nature.

I hope to begin a dialogue about how we, as devotees, act, and what the effects of those actions are on others. I have no qualms though about deleting comments from people who are being disruptive in any manner. I do happily invite dissenting opinions and other perspectives, so long as you conduct yourself calmly and maintain a respectful atmosphere toward all.