Saturday, 15 March 2014

Disability Is Not A Dress Up Box: The problem with Coco and Breezy’s Glamourai shoot [I Shape Beauty Piece]

“It is obvious with the most cursory of glances that in our society, conjoined twins are disabled. Society does not accommodate them. They are medicalised from fetushood. They are spectacle. Their operations are videoed and broadcast across the world. They are displayed, tested, stared at, discussed, and mocked, purely because of the shape and layout of their bodies. They are the subject of comedy fiction and “inspiring” tragedy nonfiction.”

“Why is it so funny when Palmer and Webley cripdrag-up in that modified dress? Why do they snigger and smirk as they talk about “the twins” and their tragic tale? They do this – you do this – because you do see these bodies as Other. Fascinating, bizarre, freakish. Fodder.” 

I’m not sure if you saw, but a couple of weeks ago, Coco and Breezy modelled for Kelly Framel’s fashion blog, ‘The Glamourai’, with Kelly styling the sisters in the image of the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton. A bunch of people seemed to like it. I, on the other hand, did not. How could I, when all these pictures offered was a sad reminder of the continuing misrepresentation, appropriation and romanticisation of disabled bodies in visual culture.
Invisible borders divide disabled bodies into two genres. The first: the romantic fairy tale style, a world where disabled bodies are represented as mythical unicorn fairy creatures, delicate, tragic and otherworldly inspiration. (This is where disability as dress up, romance, or quirky inspiration comes in.) The second, in contrast, is not mystical but medical. A place where a person is nothing more than the sum of their symptoms, a Caliban-esque creature to turn away from, to be kept in the dark. No pictures for you, wait, wait, actually, maybe just one, but only to prove how much I absolutely do not want to look at you. (And if that’s not good logic I don’t know what is). I think of Katherine Dunn’s novel ‘Geek Love’, a flawed study of the freak show and an (ironically) ableist investigation of ableism. This quote, from the character Arty (a sideshow star born with ‘flippers’ in place of limbs) comes to mind particularly: “I'm a freak but not much of a freak. I'm like you, fucked up without being special. There's nothing unique about me except my brains and the crowd can't see that.” I think of my scoliosis and how back braces and crooked spines are never going to be in Vogue.
Different roads lead to the same outcome. And whether it’s a medical photo with the eyes blacked out or a ye olde freak show theme on a fashion blog the message is the same. Disabled people are too different, too ‘Other’, to be seen as real, and thus we cannot accept responsibilities for our actions towards them. After all how can you appropriate from a fairy tale creature? A B movie monster? You cannot.
But they were real people I hear you say! And I Wikipedia-ed them and they seem like, really cool and stuff. And besides, they do have great style so isn’t bringing disability into it a little ableist in itself? Short answer: no. To consider disability in a case where able-bodied people are quite literally dressing up as disabled people is neither overreaching nor oversensitive. Of course we can be inspired by the Hilton sisters style, their history, their performance work. And, perhaps, with deep thought, and an understanding of the very real oppressions that disabled people face, this inspiration could translate into a fashion shoot. But ‘crip drag’ (the act of ‘performing’ disability as an abled bodied person) is not an appropriate way to articulate this inspiration.
Parallels can be drawn to Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley’s creative project, Evelyn Evelyn, where the musicians invented a pair of conjoined twins, and performed as these characters on stage. Annaham from the site ‘Forward: Feminists with Disabilities’ explained why the act of dressing up as conjoined twins for ‘artistic’ reasons is problematic in her critique ‘Evelyn Evelyn: Ableism Ableism?’ Here she breaks down the motivation and thought processes behind creative crip drag, the first sentiment being:  “what’s more shocking and weird than conjoined twins, at least according to abled culture?” And the second, the act of translating this ‘Othering’ lens of viewing disability into the “outright appropriation of this uniqueness in the name of art.” I can certainly identify both these factors in both the Glamourai shoot and in able-bodied culture’s continuing fascination with the aesthetics of the Victorian freak show.
For instance, I have to admit I was a little thrown by Rookie Magazine (a favourite publication of mine) choice to publish a how to dress up guide for their “favourite ‘freak ladies’” Violet and Daisy as part of their circus themed ‘Thrills and Chills’ issue last August. A point exasperated by the fact that they offered little to no context of the lived experience of disabled people, or the complex nature of the film they were referencing, either in the post itself, or any of the previous writings from that month. (Though to their credit the photo set ‘That’s what friends do’ later on that year was great.)
The question of race should also be highlighted in the Glamourai shoot. For, the casting of able-bodied African-American and Puerto Rican women, to play the role of ‘disabled’ serves as a painful reminder of the intersections of race and disability in the lived experiences of disabled people of colour. I am reminded of a scene in the documentary ‘Still Black’ where a trans man, who was a wheelchair user, explains how able-bodied people refused to give him any physical assistance. Their fear of black masculinity was so great they believed he would car jack them from his wheelchair. I am disappointed that the only other cultural example of disabled blackness that comes to mind is the ‘tragically crippled’ figure of Uncle Willie in the writing Maya Angelou. That is not right.
Vice once said that “all the people who are into “50s stuff” are definitely racists.” And there is a certain truth to this half-joke. For the uncritical consumption of a culture where oppression is not just an ingrained subtext, but a straight up focal point, renders you, unintentionally or not, as part of the problem. Disability is not a cabaret. It is neither theatre nor costume. And whilst Coco and Breezy’s shoot may not be the most outrageously awful example of ‘crip drag’ (I think Amanda Palmer is still winning on that front) it is concerning that, nearly fifty years after Daisy and Violet’s death, examples of such a practice exists at all.

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