Unruly Bodies: tyranny of the visual

This week we’re sharing an excerpt from Susannah B. Mintz’s Unruly Bodies: Life Writing by Women with Disabilities to celebrate Disability Pride Month. The excerpt is titled tyranny of the visual, written by Lucy Grealy and Georgina Kleege. Earlier this month we published a recommended reading list featuring Mintz’s Unruly Bodies and other titles highlighting and sharing the experiences of self-identified disabled people.

The textual display of a disabled female body places in especially high relief the role of the visual in subject making, at once disclosing and disobeying what is nearly an axiomatic relationship between female identity, sexuality, and the gaze. From psychoanalytic theories of mirroring to the regulatory mechanism of Foucauldian surveillance, from feminist critiques about the specularity of cinema to the erotic watching of sexual encounters, and from the theatrics of autobiography to the importance granted visibility in identity politics, the dynamics of vision tend to hold primacy of place in contemporary theorizing about selfhood. The texts to be considered in this chapter both accord with and complicate that privileged cultural status of sight. Autobiography of a Face (1994), Lucy Grealy’s account of numerous attempts to surgically restore a jaw lost to cancer, and Sight Unseen (1999), Georgina Kleege’s collection of personal essays about partial blindness, are at once trained on looks and looking as barometers of self-worth and are concerned to devise alternate modes of self-knowledge and intersubjective communication. Because neither Grealy nor Kleege “looks like” anyone else, their stories expose the fallacy of a presumably universal visual dynamic, not only to claim the possibility of a reciprocal or female-authored exchange of looks but, more crucially, to disrupt the relationship between seeing and selfhood altogether.

Looking as an instrument of power that guarantees both an able-bodied and masculine subject position is a staple feature of psychoanalytically informed feminist film theory as well as histories of the freak show. In the well-rehearsed formulation of Laura Mulvey, the scopophilic encounter of film empowers an active male gaze that objectifies and controls a passive female surface. Male viewers’ looking coincides with that of the camera and of male heroes, while women must take the position of either the men in the audience (thus contorting their subjective position) or the women on-screen (thus colluding in their own objectification). The pleasures of looking are wholly enjoyed by the man, who participates with the idealized male protagonist of the narrative in gazing at the eroticized female image and who thus determines both the course and the meaning of the narrative. The female figure, in contrast, is a troubling and even stalling presence, soothing through erotic fantasy the terrible threat of castration that her own displayed body provokes. The scene of looking has thus come to be understood as marked by inequities of power: by the male subject’s desire to penetrate, know, and dominate and by the silencing of the female object.

Critics since Mulvey have protested against the apparent impossibility of a legitimate female gaze, a look-back from the woman that neither dissolves in narcissistic self-appraisal nor serves to dismember a now-immobilized male—or, for that matter, that even involves men at all. Jackie Stacey contends that psychoanalytic readings of film operate within a binary model of sexual difference according to which the structure of desire is always heterosexual; the rigid distinction  between either desire or identification,” Stacey writes, requires that the complex exchange of gazes between women in the audience and women on-screen must either “be collapsed into simple identification” or mapped onto masculine heterosexual desire. Stacey argues for a more complex understanding of female looking, one that exceeds the limitations of the “three rather frustrating options of masculinisation, masochism or marginality” while maintaining the space of difference between women. Critics have also reexamined texts in which women are the main characters and whose perspective thus directs the narrative. Lorraine Gamman, for example, has suggested that female characters who control point of view “don’t invert power relations, claiming total mastery for themselves, but instead subtly displace such relations.”

A similar reclaiming of representational perspective characterizes contemporary disability theater, performance art, and photography. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes that in an “ocularcentric era,” “the stare sculpts the disabled subject into a grotesque spectacle.” Freak shows literally commodified human “oddities” or “nature’s mistakes,” displaying physical anomalies in carefully packaged exhibits that conferred transparent normalcy upon viewers. In a modern scientific age, the medical gaze isolates and pathologizes deviant or deformed body parts. Charity posters sentimentalize disabled children whose infirmity cries out for rescuing from benevolent “normates.” And everyday encounters enforce the categorical separation between disabled and nondisabled through what Thomson calls a “stare-and-tell ritual” in which the disabled are called upon to explain “what happened.” Such objectifying scenes of looking may be counteracted, however, by visual art by people with disabilities that stares back at an ableist audience, challenging its assumptions about corporeal difference. The photographs in Alexa Wright’s series I, for example, in which different forms of congenital disability are digitally superimposed onto images of the artist, pry apart the correspondence between body trait and character inherent in acts of stigmatizing, problematize conventional notions of beauty and artistic value, and challenge viewers to question what they think they know based on what they see. Performance artists such as Mary Duffy and Cheryl Marie Wade similarly confront spectators with unabashed displays of female, disabled bodies that invite only to invalidate the power of the ableist stare, the look that constructs disability as oddity, medical abnormality, or pitiable misfortune. And in a theater piece called Go Figure, Katie Rodriguez Banister negotiates changes in her experience of sexuality after becoming quadriplegic, not simply to affirm a disabled sexual identity but, more critically, to prod viewers to reconsider normative presumptions about sexual behavior. In these various media, being looked at is dramatized as part of what materializes both gender and disability but then reorganized as an intersubjective dynamic, one in which autobiographical storytelling asks nondisabled viewers to interrogate their biases and fears about anomalous bodies.

Susannah B. Mintz is associate professor of English at Skidmore College. She is author of Threshold Poetics: Milton and Intersubjectivity