Saturday, August 12, 2006

Blue lily: The pity "conundrum," part two

Coturnix claims that the symbol and the reality of Hooters are different from one another, creating the possibility that the actual restaurants are not mysogynistic and demeaning to women. But the problem is that the Hooters symbol is not the logo or the costumes or the restaurants themselves, but the breasts of women. Objectifying women's bodies to create an environment for the dominant male heterosexual gaze, women's breasts themselves become the symbol for the restaurant. It was easy for the chain to establish this connection in a culture where women's bodies are symbolically colonized for the male sexual gaze everywhere you look. But detaching the symbol from the cultural meaning is more complicated then Coturnix suggests when women's breasts/bodies come to represent women themselves.

The telethon symbol.

Just as Hooters is one "genre" of women's objectified bodies serving as entertainment that includes strip clubs and The Rockettes, the MDA Telethon is one "genre" of how disabled people's bodies are culturally used to define normality, safety, and bodily superiority of the nondisabled. Beth Haller explains the cultural place of telethons and the effect of opposition to them:
Culturally, the disability activism against the telethon has real ramifications for the ideology surrounding disability in U.S. society. Marilynn Phillips* calls a telethon an "occasion of ideology," rather than an "occasion of social reality" in U.S. culture. Occasions of ideology invoke pity and charity in belief of a cure, whereas occasions of social reality summon feelings of resentment and confusion over the "abnormality" of people with disabilities. During occasions of ideology, discourse focuses on the "defect" of the person, and disabled persons are homogenized as one. Phillips says, "primarily, these are events which define culturally appropriate handicapped behavior (being a good cripple), and which serve to demonstrate predictable interactions between nondisabled and disabled persons."
With the MDA Telethon and the rhetoric Jerry Lewis insists on using to beg for money (and he does actually use the word "beg"), the symbol of the MDA and it's telethon is bodies in wheelchairs. Or, the wheelchair, if you like, though if a body uses a wheelchair the symbolism pushed by Lewis conflates the meaning of one with the other. Haller, on the body the MDA Telethon symbolizes (I've left her references in this excerpt intact):
Their bodies are seen as inferior in their physical functioning when compared with people who do not have muscular dystrophy. When the body becomes the focus of humanness, this inferiority of body means the people become inferior as social beings as well (Liachowitz). David Hevey explains how charities use bodies for the visual associations needed for awareness among the public:
The task for the (charity) agency is to find an image which gives the impairment and its effects a symbolic but social identity. Since the impairment has to be the site of disablement, it follows that the body of the person with an impairment will be constructed as both the essence and symbol of disablement. Their body becomes fragmented and refocuses on the major fragment--the impairment. The object of this first stage, then, is to place the symbol of the impairment into social orbit but labelled as the property or concern of the affiliated charity. (34)
With this in mind, people with muscular dystrophy are therefore constituted as inferior or subordinate to people without muscular dystrophy.
Lewis goes out of his way during the MDA Telethons to emphasize the difference between his nondisabled self and the disabled bodies he invites on the show. And they are bodies he invites, not individuals, as assured by the way he interacts with them. Haller's paper includes a fascinating analysis of the spatial structure of Lewis' interview with a disabled man during the 1992 Telethon. Here's a taste:
In an interview sequence between Lewis and Matt Schuman, a former poster child who works as a sports reporter for the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune, Lewis always stands. In the first shot of Lewis and Schuman together, Schuman's face is covered by the two lines of call-in numbers at the bottom of the television screen. The spatial difference exists because Schuman is seated in a wheelchair and Lewis, who is tall, is standing. This causes Schuman's presence in the shot to be negated because the call-in numbers cover his face part of the time and because only his head and shoulders are visible in the bottom left corner of the TV screen at other times. All attention is directed toward Lewis because he is standing. These spatial relations exist not just with Schuman but are repeated throughout the telethon whenever Jerry Lewis interacts with someone who uses a wheelchair. One way to diminish this superior-inferior special structure would have been to have an interview comer in which Lewis sits to talk to people who use wheelchairs. But instead Lewis stands throughout the days of the telethon.
Throughout the telethon, he hugs and caresses the children and adults with muscular dystrophy, all of whom he calls his "kids." When Schuman completes his short speech, Lewis rubs and pats the back of Schuman's head. It is not a "good job" touch from one adult to another, as a pat on the back or a shake of the hand might be. It is a parent patting the head of a child to indicate the child has pleased him. In reality, Schuman is a working adult who happens to have a physical disability.
Lewis infantilizes disabled adults he interviews, assuring the audience that bodies in wheelchairs are inferior, need pity and that the nondisabled should contribute money for research to avoid the gruesome fate themselves.

The persistent reality.

With Lewis insisting the objects of his charitable works either accept pity or "stay in your house," disabled people beginning to organize and fight for access to public buildings, transportation, employment, and general civil rights were responded to with sentiments like those to the blog post about protestors at an event of Lewis':
"I agree that more could be done to ensure more accessability for those that still have the ability to remain independent (ramps, parking, etc.), but money also needs to be raised so that future generations won't needlessly remain at a disadvantage, and nothing brings in donors like pity."
"I can't believe you attack him just because he doesn't do it the way YOU think is the right way. Get a life."
"It's sad that those poor unfortunate persons with disabilities hate the man who tries to help them."
"If you keep pushing people away because you can't agree with everything they say or how they do things, don't be surprised when people stop working to raise more than $100,000,000 a YEAR to help people in your situation."
Disabled protestors are repeatedly established as inferior, and disable people generally are told to keep their place and accept what charity they can get instead of the access they desire. It should be noted that people who argue that financial help for the disabled should come solely from private charities rather than government funding would lock disabled people into the pity rhetoric and out of a position where they're worthy of civil rights.

Finally, the conundrum, again.

For disability activists protesting the MDA Telethon and Jerry Lewis, the money raised is too high a price to be paid for personhood. The argument that money should be raised (and accepted by the disabled) by Lewis' methods because it's for a good cause -- a cure -- becomes meaningless when disabled bodies are so culturally devalued that life until the elusive cure locks them into the role of pitied victim instead of active member of society.

Of course, not all disabled people or people with muscular dystrophies agree with Jerry's Orphans and other Telethon protestors. Some are so focused on a cure that like Chris Reeve said in his early years of paralysis, he didn't really care about disability politics and access. Years later, as he continued to wait for that cure, Reeve acknowledged that he'd like more curb cuts in the meantime, though this was not publicized by mainstream media.

Is it possible to raise money through a telethon without demeaning disabled people? Telethons following 9/11 and Katrina did not categorize the people the money was being raised for as inferior in order to elicit compassion and donations. Disabled protestors insist on at least that level of respect. On activism and better alternatives, from Disability World:
Don't watch the telethon. Tell your local station ahead of time why you won't. Give directly to the MDA and not during telethon time. Tell them why you are choosing to do that. Also tell the MDA that Jerry Lewis has got to go. He has had years to change the message and has chosen not to do so. Their mailing address and phone number are at their website. (
Look up the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Canada (MDAC) and see how fundraising can be successfully done without pity.
Check out the Muscular Dystrophy Family Foundation (MDFF). It was founded by people with MD and their families. They provide the same kinds of services as the MDA. Their pitch is based on empowerment. ( Their spokepeople are rock musicians who have had MD since childhood.
Compare Lewis' MDA pity pitch to that of Easter Seals with their focus on discrimination and architectural barriers; United Cerebral Palsy with their emphasis on careers, education and family; and the United Negro College Fund with its focus on the wrongness of wasted human resources. Tell other people about your conclusions.
And a final note on Hooters: Because Hooters objectifies women and women's breasts, it is part of the societal force that determines preferred or "normal" bodies from "abnormal" or flawed bodies. As a disabled feminist, I find Hooters objectionable on two levels -- for the patriarchal contribution it makes to the objectified "perfect" female form and for the corresponding impact those standards have on disabled bodies. None of this will ever change if the structures reinforcing cultural standards are supported, for whatever reasons. My answer is no.

Crossposted at The Gimp Parade

* Marilynn J. "Damaged Goods: The Oral Narratives of the Experience of Disability in American Culture." Social Science & Medicine 30.8 (1990): 849-57.