This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
Sex and Gender
2005 Final Web Papers
Similar to de Beauvoir, I want to discard the fighting against language, and rather utilize the language as an act of control. With the help of the romantic poet William Coleridge, I have imagined a mode of resistance to this blockage of pleasure. In Coleridge's poem, "Kubla Khan" he speaks about a creation of a new world. The lines, "Could I revive within me/Her symphony and song,/To such a deep delight 'twould win me,/That with music loud and long, I would build that dome in air, / That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!" (ln. 42-47) are playing with the notions of one's own ability to find one's current language, and take it upon themselves to claim oneself with it, thereby producing this "pleasure-dome" where pleasure is accessed through the current discourse as a result of claiming oneself using the current discourse. Using language to claim one's identity is similar to the ideas of de Beauvoir as well. She says, "Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man...She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not her with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other." (pp. 676) We need to free ourselves from these confines of relating ourselves to and against men, and rather focus on a way in which female identity can be formed in a new way—an entity free from the differentiation of men.
A good place to look for inspiration is, surprisingly enough, several women within the disability-feminist movement. The disabled women within this feminist movement have resisted the outside placing names upon them, and rather have chosen to name themselves with current words within the discourse—regardless of how much residue of negative associations the words may have. They have constructed their own "pleasure-dome" in that they have named themselves and therefore they resist the outside gaze imparting names on them. Similar to woman being defined in relation to man, the disabled are defined in relation to the non-disabled body. Leonard Davis, a disabilities scholar says, "Without the monstrous body to demarcate the borders of the generic, without the female body to distinguish the shape of the male...these taxonomies of bodily value that underwrite political, social and economic arrangements would collapse." (Davis, pp. 280) In other words, attempting to break that link between deviant and abnormal with the female and disabled will help society become more accepting of both groups of people. The disabled women have helped break this link already by claiming words within the discourse that explicitly convey their situation. Nancy Mairs, a woman battling Multiple Sclerosis does this very effectively. In her novel, Waist-high in the World; A life Among the Nondisabled she claims the word "cripple" because it demands that others acknowledge her embodied identity on her terms. She says,
"People...wince at the word 'cripple'...Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fate/gods/viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger." (Davis, pp. 284)
She wants to call attention to the material reality of her crippleness and less to her oppression. By calling herself a "cripple" she is forcing people to look at her through her own self-constructed definition and thereby allowing her to be in control of her identity. She also recognizes that although she is a woman with a disability, she can not speak for all women with disabilities. She realizes the specificity of her experience and focuses in on her own power as it relates to her own body. She can be in control of her own identity and no one else's. She says,
So, then: my body. And only my body. The specificity of the personal pronoun I is critical to me (and to this book) because the range of bodies with disabilities is so exceptionally broad that I could not speak for them all and do not wish to be perceived as trying to do so...I can only represent my own experience as authentically as the tricks and vagaries of language will permit, trusting others to determine what similarities we share and make use of them as they see fit. (pp. 43-44 Mairs).
By claiming her own body and realizing that she would literally be "no body" if she gave it up is important in figuring the "pleasure-dome" as well. Mairs claims not only her identity through the given discourse, but also claims her own physical material embodiment which only adds strength to her control over her own self.
The problematic overlapping thread between disability and women is that they are expected to be fixed in relation to a certain "norm" determined by the outside world. Smith and Hutchinson, in their critical work Gendering Disability write, "The twin ideologies of normalcy and beauty posit female and disabled bodies, particularly, as not only spectacles to be looked at, but as pliable bodies to be shaped infinitely so as to conform to a set of standards called normal and beautiful" (Smith and Hutchinson, pp. 83). The specific culture of disabled-feminists is attempting to prevent this forced conformation to an outside standard. Cheryl Marie Wade is a prime example of this rejection of the outside world calling her "their" names. She writes a poem entitled "The Woman with Juice" and creates her body and identity through the discourse on her terms:
I am not one of the physically challenged--
I'm a sock in the eye with gnarled fist
I'm a French kiss with cleft tongue
I'm orthopedic shoes sewn on a last of your fears
I am not one of the differently abled--
I'm an epitaph for million imperfect babies left untreated
I'm an ikon carved from ones in a mass grave at Tiergarten, Germany
I'm withered legs hidden with a blanket
I am not one of the able disabled--
I'm a black panther with green eyes and scars like a picket fence
I'm pink lace panties teasing a stub of milk white thigh
I'm the Evil Eye
I'm the first cell divided
I'm mud that talks
I'm Eve I'm Kali
I'm The Mountain That Never Moves
I've been forever I'll be here forever
I'm the Gimp
I'm the Cripple
I'm the Crazy Lady
I'm The Woman With Juice (pp. 1 Brava)
This active claiming of oneself through language is integral in creating and upholding the "pleasure-dome" and is very evident in Wade's description of her self.
Another example of this resistance is Diane DeVries-- a woman with just a trunk for a body. Diane DeVries, regardless of what others say, refuses to use prosthesis. Diane worked with both upper-and lower-extremity prostheses for many years but did not like using them for both practical and aesthetic reasons. She said that being independent was impossible with artificial arms because someone else had to position the terminal hook devices for each different activity. Aesthetically, Diane felt they made her look like a "little Frankie" (DeVries, pp. 53) and only exacerbated the monstrous image that the outside world constructs for the disabled. Instead of prostheses, she preferred wearing sleeve-less dresses and leaving her stumps uncovered. Although this provoked debate because some people thought it was offensive to show her stumps in public, she did so anyway because she wanted to. She has a positive attitude towards her body and cultivates an appearance that she thinks looks together without any use of cosmetic limbs. She said, "You got to let them see you. I mean they're going to look at you anyway, so you might as well give them something to look at" (DeVries, pp. 35). Diane DeVries is an example of this resistance—she is creating her identity as she sees fit, and refuses to conform to the outside world's standards of beauty and normal.
Moraga in her essay "The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind" helps to identify this kind of resistance in taking claim of oneself through the discourse as well. She struggles with being labeled as something in ways that are based on an assumed sisterhood—an assumption that womanhood equates with some sort of common ground for everyone in that category. She does not want to be owned by the outside—even if it is by other women. She says, "Do not call me 'sister.' I am not yours." (pp. 237) Moraga is comfortable with only a personal declaration of one's own identity. The claiming of one's own identity through the current discourse is what allows for the construction of the "pleasure-dome". If one is able to claim one's own identity through her own language, then she is able to control it.
Not only does Moraga resonate with my own ideology, but there is fundamental connection between Moraga and Simone de Beauvoir as well. Moraga says, "And our liberation won't happen by some man leading the way and parting the Red Sea for us. We are the Red Sea, we women." (pp. 232) This is very in line with Beauvoir's notion to "start afresh" and break free of the confines of being defined solely in reference to men. This also connects back to the disability-feminist train of thought in that they assert their humanity first and foremost to break free of the confines of the notions of the deformed body. Beauvoir begins with asking the question, "What is a woman?" as a means to exhibit the idea that men would never feel the need to ask that question because men do not think of presenting themselves as of a certain sex. Man inherently encompasses the positive as well as the neutral as indicated by the common use of the word "man" to designate human beings in general, and therefore relegates women to the only spot open on the spectrum—the negative.
The intersections of Beauvoir and Moraga only help to strengthen the idea of the "pleasure-dome". There seems to be an ambiguity as well as determined relegation for what women should be. The identity of women is this paradoxical idea; they are without any true identity since they are created in reference to men, but at the same time they are identified as being confined to this negative and very limited realm of human. The passivity which has been assumed to be part of womanhood cannot affect the claiming. Moraga says, "I think this is why I have always hated the terms biracial and bisexual. They are passive terms, without political bite. They don't choose. They don't make a decision. They are a declaration not of identity, but of biology, of sexual practice. They say nothing about where one really stands." (pp. 236). Beauvoir speaks of those as well by saying that women need to break free of the confines of being defined in relation to men. Beauvoir's recipe for independence insofar as it exists in this world for women is "to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue none the less to exist for him also: mutually recognizing each other as subject, will yet remain for the other an other." (pp. 704). According to Beauvoir, Woman needs to be her own definer and, by doing so, will exist as a Subject as well as an Other.
This is why I believe that the disabilities-feminist movement is very important. The disabled women are refusing to be shaped in relation to something else—they are claiming themselves as one whole entity. They have adopted this idea of "re-symbolization" that allows for this push against what they are "called" and rather creating what they are calling themselves. The feminist-disability culture has been fighting hard to present images of disabled women within the public realm as a way to force them to look at women's disabilities. This is important because although they are presenting their corporeal images to the public, their own personal identities have already been claimed and therefore these images are imbued with power. For example, in January 2000, The Breast Cancer Fund based in San Francisco mounted a public awareness poster campaign called "Obsessed with Breasts". This campaign showed women boldly and sexually displaying their mastectomy scars. The posters parodied the traditional Victoria Secret or Calvin Klein ads. In doing so, these posters presented an erotic image of the breast, with the seemingly forbidden image of the amputated breast. As a result, they were able to disrupt the visual convention of the female breast being only a sexualized object for male appropriation. The posters produced a powerful visual violation combining the spectacle of the eroticized breast with the medical image of the scarred breast. By presenting the something that has been purposefully concealed from the public view, the scarred breast, into the public sphere is a conscious move of re-symbolizing the stigma of disabilities.
In a similar direction, Ellen Stohl—the paraplegic actress—posed naked for Playboy in 1987. After becoming disabled, she wrote to Hugh Hefner articulating her desire to pose nude because of the difficulty of maintaining sexual appeal for disabled people. For some, they felt that Stohl needed to present herself in an overtly "feminine" action in order to compensate for the seemingly desexualizing power of her disability. That idea, however, is not what I take Stohl's action to be representative of. The photos of Stohl in Playboy can not erase her disability, regardless of how sexual she looks. There is a centerfold of Stohl nude and masturbating—and also photos of Stohl in her wheelchair. Although there is some debate as whether or not her disability was able to be erased because of her overt sexuality, I feel as though that is irrelevant. The important point is that a disabled woman, her disability and all, was sexually presented in a mainstream magazine catered specifically for men's pleasure. Stohl recognized the outside world's view of disabled women, and resisted it. She would not allow herself to be relegated to an asexual position, so she posed in Playboy—her disability and all.
Catered to a different audience, though with similar intentions, is another example of these attempts to re-symbolize: the introduction of Barbie's friend "Becky" in a wheel-chair. It is important that Becky is presented in a way that challenges notions of normalcy in feminist ways. The disabled Becky is dressed in comfortable clothing—pants, roomy shirts and not the insanely high heels that Barbie usually always wearing. According to Smith and Hutchinson, "The disabled Becky is dressed and poised for agency, action, and creative engagement with the world." (pp. 89) While in contrast to Barbie who is always dressed in her restricting sequined gowns and push-up bras, Becky suggests an almost liberating outlet from those oppressive constraints of femininity. By placing Becky into the mainstream youth, helps to fight this image of disability as abnormal and only allowed within the private sphere. A disability activist has a new suggestion for an alternative similar to Becky—a disabled Civil Rights Lawyer in a power wheelchair and briefcase who enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act. He wants to call her "Sue-Your-Ass-Becky." We'll all be waiting with bated breath for that to materialize.
Similar to women, disabled women are vulnerable to the outside's judgmental look as well. For them, however, it is not the "gaze" but rather the "stare". The stare is what sculpts the disabled subject into a grotesque spectacle and it frames their body as an icon of deviance. The disabled women have more of a reason to prevent themselves from the susceptibility of this pointed "stare" and therefore have resisted to it in a way that has created an outlet for their resistance—by posturing themselves as something, prevents them from being relegated to the "Other" role. The disabled-feminists have actively created their own sort of "pleasure-dome" by claiming their own identity through the current discourse. Feminist disability theory suggests that we are better off learning to individually accommodate bodily limits than trying to deny them. This is actively implemented by the women's blatant claiming of the limitations of their body on their own terms. Who cares, then, if the outside world than calls you "differently abled"? What does it matter if the outsiders wince at your word "cripple"? They are not able to usurp your own power if you have already claimed yourself. The disabled women within this feminist movement have recognized this. As Diane DeVries says, "I mean they're going to look at you anyway..." resonates with the idea that the outside world is always going to place names. That more important idea is through the construction of some sort of "pleasure-dome" allows for immunity from those names. Within the "pleasure-dome", the children's song "...but names will never hurt me" really will ring true. The pleasure-dome is built upon the utilization of the present discourse as a way of resisting the discourse. So: let's get building.
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