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.

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