Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Theory About One Thing

This post requires two disclaimers:

One: I have adored Eddie Redmayne since I saw Les Miserables on Christmas 2012. Not only is he a talented actor, he is also a thoughtful, charismatic, and adorably self-depricating person, at least in interviews. The way he discusses preparing for roles and admits to his own mistakes. He's incredibly respectful as well. I hold him in pretty high esteem. I do not think this colors the opinion I'm about to express, but it might.

Two: The keyword there is "opinion." The following is one opinion from one disabled woman who has a significant amount of privileges. I don't speak for anyone other than myself, and I especially don't speak for people whose experiences are closer to the ones portrayed in The Theory of Everything.

Okay, let's get to the actual opinion, shall we? The Theory of Everything collected press even before it--and Eddie-- got nominated for an Oscar. With his win, I imagine there will be a bit more discussion, but once the awards are given out we as a culture tend to move onto the next controversial topic. Now then, it may be surprising that there is negativity surrounding an uplifting movie about one of the greatest scientific minds of our time, but if there's one thing people have it's opinions on the internet. Truth be told, though, the criticism isn't unique. Any film that casts an able-bodied person as a character with a disability garners censure from the disability community. The hype surrounding The Theory of Everything brought able-bodied bloggers and journalists into the mix. Some of them probably believe their arguments. Others want to paint themselves as progressive and understanding. If they really accepted their own claims, wouldn't their privilege invalidate their opinion in the same way that they wish to deny Eddie this part?

It's a thorny issue. one that every oppressed group has to deal with to some degree. When does privilege require you to stay silent?  Should actors who aren't x (disabled, gay, transgender) be able to play characters who are? They're always difficult questions to answer, and in this case they may be impossible. Disability is unique to a degree in that unlike most other forms of oppression it can be acquired. it can affect people later in life. Most conditions affect people on a spectrum. It can be invisible. Also, although having a loved one with a disability is not at all the same as having a disability, it can profoundly affect someone's life from birth. Thus, it's hard to look at someone and decide whether or not they have the right to speak on a disability-related issue. Honestly, there's the chance that you shouldn't accept anything I have to say about Redmayne's portrayal of Stephen Hawking. I am physically disabled, but I have the privilege of being able to walk, speak, feed myself, etc. I am not overly limited in my ability to care for or express myself. My condition is chronic, but it is not degenerative. I have no memories of the world pre-ADA. I acknowledge all of this. I do, though, have a background in disability studies, history, and culture. I also have what might be an unpopular opinion.

I do not think there is anything wrong with having a non-disabled actor portray a person with a disability in this instance. My thoughts on the subject are very specifically related to both the actor, Eddie Redmayne, the character, Stephen Hawking, and the condition, ALS. It's easy to apply a generalized should in the abstract. But this example is as complicated as it is concrete. First of all, the actor. Eddie Redmayne put an incredible amount of effort into this role. An actor takes on an entirely different life with each film. There is a new personality to portray, a new physicality to enact, a new voice with which to speak. And Redmayne is the type of actor who takes this very seriously. In any interview about his preparations for The Theory of Everything, he talks about the work he did to understand Stephen Hawking, both mentally and physically. Although not a science person, he studied to comprehend Hawking's discoveries. He spoke to people with ALS, the way actors portraying police officers often go on ride-alongs.  He worked with a dancer to perfect the affects of ALS at each point in the film's timeline. In the director's commentary for the film, James Marsh says that the physicality had to become unconscious for Eddie. That once the cameras started rolling, his mind had to be focused on the words, the inner monologue, the same way any actor's would. This undoubtedly put a physical and mental strain on Eddie, but Felicity Jones has made a point of saying that his dedication made his scene partners attempt to take it up a notch with their own characters. It's important to note that she, too, changes her character's body language in the different stages of the film. Thus, although portraying a person with severe physical disability might be more taxing than some other roles, the process isn't necessarily different. 

Okay, fine, one might say. Eddie did the work. He earned his Oscar. But that doesn't mean that an actor with a disability couldn't have done the same. This isn't an impossible claim, by any means. However, there are considerations here that don't come up when this issue is considered in other contexts. Nearly every interview Eddie has given about The Theory of Everything brought up the physical nature of this role. How difficult might it have been for an actor who already had a physical disability to contort themselves in the various positions required to make each stage of Hawking's ALS manifest. Depending on the actor's disability, though, the hardest part might have been the initial stages when Hawking is more or less non-disabled. If nothing else, it would require even more effort, led to more fatigue, and require the actor to exert more muscle control that their own disability allows. There's the deepest irony of this situation--to show the degeneration of muscle control requires a supreme amount of muscle control. I'm not saying any of this is impossible for a physically disabled person. That's an individual question. I would have concerns, though. There's an increased chance of injury, but this could apply to anyone. My true worry would be for the actor's mental health.

There's a story told about the filming of the Sophia Burset-centric episode of Orange is the New Black. Although Laverne Cox was willing to play pre-transition Sophia producers wanted to cast an outside actor, worrying that taking on the part would be triggering for Laverne Cox--that having to dress as a male might cause dysphoria. In the end they were able to hire her twin brother for the part. Had Cox performed the part, I'm sure she would have been fabulous, but I understand the producers' concern. I also know that as a person with a physical disability, I am very conscious of my abilities, and how privileged I am to have them. Having had to use a wheelchair occasionally makes me very, very, thankful for the days when I can walk. More significantly, I lost vision in one eye at the age of thirteen. I live with a constant fear of losing the low-vision I have in my good eye. I have a better-than-most understanding of the difficulties of not being able to see. I used to act, and I know how to go about researching and preparing for a role. I cannot imagine portraying someone whose vision is worse than mine, because I believe it would trigger my fear of losing my vision, because that is a very real possibility for me.

But then, I'm not blind. So would I be "allowed" to play a blind person? Anyone without ALS could be said to be in the same position as Redmayne. They might know what it's like to have a physical disability, and to use a wheelchair. They might know what it's like to go from able-bodied to disabled, as many disabilities are acquired. But they probably wouldn't have a disorder as degenerative or life-threatening as ALS. So, should whoever played Stephen Hawking have had ALS? There could be someone in the early stages who could have done it, but how traumatizing might it be to have to enact later stages of the disorder? And to present these stages, they would have to do the same preparation as Redmayne, the same physical and mental work, while knowing that this could very well be their body's default within months--remember, Hawking's ALS did not move at the disorder's usual pace.

To me, it seems like this could cause unnecessary mental anguish. One of an actor's best coping mechanisms is the fact that the life they are portraying is not their's. The role is a job. It's not a possible future. In fact, even for Eddie Redmayne this role comes with a bit more mental risk than most, because acquired disability is a possibility. He will never be a world-renowned physicist who is diagnosed with ALS in the 60s, but he could end up needing an electric wheelchair one day. He could lose his ability to speak. The possibility is there for him as much as for anyone, disabled or not. And that's my main reason for thinking that this role, specifically, can be played by a non-disabled actor. It is incredibly specific, and it is an acquired disability. Most people with disabilities haven't experienced that part of Hawking's life--the non-disabled part--anymore than a non-disabled actor has experienced the later part.

Of course, there are other considerations. The increased physical strain wouldn't be there for an actor with an invisible disability, but their experience of disability is, in many ways, as different from the physical disability experience as a non-disabled actor. And, really, what I think it boils down to is the fact that Stephen Hawking, the real, living person, does not mind being portrayed by a non-disabled actor. Of course, he also does not tend to identify as disabled, and he has been criticized for benefitting from the disability rights movement without using his position to advocate for it. But that's a whole other post. My point is that there are reasons to critique every possible opinion about this film. But what no one seems to deny is the success of Redmayne's performance. It is respectful, thoughtful, and nuanced. The film isn't overly inspirational the way most Disability! pieces are. It's more-or-less honest, and it's about more than just a white man's struggle with his body. It's about family, about belief, about change. It's important.

Should there be more disabled actors out there? Absolutely. Should they play disabled and non-disabled characters? Absolutely. Should The Theory of Everything be ignored or censured because of this? Absolutely not. In my opinion.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Flavors of Feminism

If in your book/essay/blog post you claim to be an intersectional feminist—or„indeed if you see writing about any social issue—and then you neglect disability, you have failed. 
Any time I come across a list of adjectives that nearly every author addressing social issues—particularly gender equality—wants to make sure their reader considers, I cringe. These ubiquitous lists contain what I like to call the flavors of feminism. 
Listen, they entreat. Pay attention to transgender women! Women of color! Queer women! Muslim women! Jewish women! Women next door! Men who have also suffered the sting of patriarchal expectations!
These lists are nearly comprehensive, and as such they are generally identical, regardless of the author’s position and privilege. This makes the omission even more harmful. 
These lists entreat us to rally around those like us, and those different from us. However, they generally exclude the one category that can touch anyone, regardless of gender, race, class, or creed. There are parts of the disability experience that could provide common ground between folks that inhabit entirely opposite subsets in every other conceivable way. 
And maybe that possibility is why it’s so easy for able-bodied people to neglect. Unlike many minorities, disability can be acquired. Without it the menu requires only acknowledgement from the reader--yes this is my life, I must understand my challenges and check my privileges; or, no, this will never be my life, and so I must have empathy. Disability is a variable. It could happen to you, or a loved one, and introduce an entirely new factor into your understanding of social issues. Yikes! That’s too nebulous for this true/false questionnaire!
I’ve put more thought into in this than I meant to, but I wanted to examine the function of these lists in order to tease out the reason for the exclusion as well as the consequences. At a a basic level, these lists are true/false tests. The reader scans them, notes which apply to their life, feels the thrill of being remembered, the relief of remembering that one is not alone. The other descriptors eacb up an image, the reader’s mental construct of an entity to whom the designation applies. Someone in their life, or from the media. Not them, but a person, they realize, whose life is affected differently than theirs by the construct at hand . They consider the possible differences, the positive and negative, and tell themselves to bring them to mind as they construct their identity within this realm. They must do so, because taking on that perspective will never be instinctual. It will never be a part of their day-to-day experience in the same way as someone who is part of the listed group. 
But disability is a reminder that circumstances can change. That’s uncomfortable for people of all privileges. However, I don’t think it’s bad for anyone to remember that this shift can happen to anyone; that even the uncertainty gives them something in common with those on the other side of the spectrum in all other aspects. Fine, maybe you can’t unexpectedly wake up with a different ethnicity, race, or sexuality*, but you could acquire a disability. So could the man in the mansion across town. Both of you need to think about how your economic choices affect the disabled, because it is the ethical/equal/right thing to do—but also because it could affect you.
But that’s seeing this from a non-disabled lens, which is an act of empathy on my part. It is not a sphere I inhabit, or that I could. I cannot omit disability because it doesn’t apply to me, and I’m not reminded by running through the women on Orange is the New Black**. I am disabled. It is the linchpin of my identity. Thus, I feel more than disappointed when it is excluded from a checklist of minorities that the true intersectional xxx-ist must remember. I feel invisible, neglected, and ignored. I feel as though I have done something wrong. I must have, to be forgotten by those who wish to fight for the rights of everyone, whatever their lifestyle, power, or privilege. 
Disabled woman is a flavor of feminist. We stand (march, sit, lie) with other minorities to advocate for rights they have been denied, and we should have the same consideration. We tell others about the Stonewall riots, so please remember the Capitol Crawl. And, please, put us in your lists. To be truly intersectional, one must acknowledge that black men can be queer, Muslim women can be trans, non-binary folks can be in the one-percent. 
And any of these people can be affected by disability. So could you. 
And I am. That makes it my favorite flavor of feminism. I’d really appreciate you remembering to keep it on the menu.

*Yes, you can convert to a religion, but since that is a thought-through choice, one generally puts more consideration into how the whole of their life will be affected by that. 
**Note that I say women. Bennett does have a disability, but his character isn't associated with that; whereas Laverne Cox has become the country's symbol for transgender women.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Question About Bathrooms

I hate single occupancy, accessible/family restrooms. They are actually less accessible for me because the toilets are so tall, there are other reasons, too, which I mention below. Although I am very much a cis-female,* my experiences allow me to empathize and be invested in the debate about gender-neutral restrooms that is so important in the attempt to stop public harassment of transgender people. It's also why I found myself responding to a post on tumblr about the reaction of non-Muslim women to seeing them adjust their hijab**.

The post reads, "Fixing your hijab in a public restroom is so hilarious because they’re either completely amazed and stare at you the whole time, or they quickly look away as if they have seen something that they could be killed for."

Aside from illustrating the typical non-Muslim woman's misunderstanding of Islam, this blithe post made me consider public restrooms more than I ever have, even though my own experiences have caused them to be a bigger hurdle than I assume they are for most people. I've dealt with blood, drainage, and IV lines in public restrooms, but I've never felt unsafe or been in a situation where my believes could be so easily compromised against my will. I'm framing my question around female-identifying folks who follow Islam to align with the OP, but please note that it applies to women of many faiths that require modesty for many reasons.

What do these women say in the debate about gender-neutral bathrooms? Sit-to-pee vs stand-to-pee, the increasingly popular idea that restrooms could be arranged based on this preference as opposed to gender, doesn't seem to address this issue***. It would be considered haram (a sin) for a non-relative who identifies as male to view the hair/body, of a stranger who identifies as female, correct? So, in a female-only space someone who wears hijab, like the OP, can adjust a scarf without worrying about male-identifying folks seeing their hair. In a situation where adult, male-identifying folks could be in the communal area one could not be able to remove any covering or even adjust it without some anxiety, even if they don't believe an accidental glimpse is haram/sinful.

All the issues that come about when discussing bathroom safety for trans-folks come into play here, too. Separate-but-equal single occupancy bathrooms denies community. Sure, some people do not want their bodies to be on display to anyone while they put on make-up or adjust clothing, and that's fine. However, the mirror area in an contemporary women's restroom are often places of judgement free socialization.**** At conferences, I have been encouraged to network in the line for the restroom, and have done so. Also, as someone with a disability, I find that when I have to use an entirely separate room I feel very isolated. Once, an infection in my leg began draining through my clothes while I was in the college library. My friend was able to bring me bandages and fresh clothes   to me by crawling under the stall door. Due to pain and drainage, I wouldn't have been able to get up to let her into a single occupancy stall. And yes, maybe those closing doors with their deadbolts are safer than the stalls that feel like they might topple over with one slam, but at an obscure gas station in Bumfuck Nowhere, Georgia, I feel much safer knowing that I'm not alone in the cement out-building full of toilets. But that is just me. In my opinion, a person who chooses to wear hijab shouldn't be denied access to a mirror lest their hair be seen, or be banished to a single-occupancy room. Nor should anyone take up an accessible stall unless they have a disability. So, what would make both folks of faith and trans/non-binary folks comfortable?

Would partitioning off a "dressing area" be okay, or does that still lead to harassment of transwomen and anxiety for those attempting modesty? (This idea makes me think of Rickie***** from My So-Called Life, who would gossip and do his make-up with the girls in the women's restroom, and no one minded. Perhaps the answer here is that everyone should just be respectful like Rickie.)

Obviously, in the strict interpretation of faith-based modesty, enforcing the binary is important to most followers. In Islam, it would be haram for any non-biological female to be in a female space, but that kind of binary does not exist in the world we live in. Being trans is not a choice, but for many, many people religion isn't, either. Female-identifying people face judgement by their communities, and things I've read make me believe that humans are often less forgiving than deities.

There are those who would point to the reason thst seeing a female's body is haram/sinful in many faiths, particularly the Abrahamic ones. The fear of unwanted sexual thoughts puts some onus of responsibility on the man--don't look! don't lust!--but women must make the effort to curb their enthusiasm. To avoid unprovoked sexual thoughts, and their physical counterpart, which is the true underlying issue in all feminist conversations about restrooms, one could suggest bathrooms be segregated by sexuality, not gender. But then folks like Rickie and I would  never be able to pee. Also, this would force people to come out in public, making the space way less safe, so I reject it. Plus, that solution would completely deny one of the main reasons that I think communal restrooms are important, the chance to connect with people who have had similar experiences, even if it is just a   wink of understanding as the woman at the sink next to you pins their hijab and smiles in understanding while you attempt to apply mascara without parting your lips.

 I know something of separate bathrooms, and covering one's body, but in this conversation my voice is for asking the question, not dictate an answer. So, to those who face these issues from either side of from both, how do you think the world can make public spaces safe for transgender and non-binary people, while respecting folks right to modesty?

Bias acknowledgment: I ask this all as a white, disabled, bisexual, cis-female who was raised in a predominately Christian community. I have been educated about Islam, but I am not well-versed on the Koran. Most of my Muslim friends are American, so I have awareness, not experiences of Islamic countries/cultures, as well as other faiths that require modesty, such as Chassidic Judaism. Also, I think a person's choice to reveal or hide their body is one that should be respected, no matter why it's made.

Please, if you respond to this, respect trans/non-binary people, as well as those who follow religious doctrines. I know many faiths reject non-binary genders all together, but I want to consider this in terms of how we make public spaces safer for people of all beliefs and bodies.

*one who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.

**It is considered a sin in most versions of Islam for a male who is not a relative to see the hair of an unrelated female. Other women can see whatever the person wants them to see.

***And surely there are transwomen who still prefer to do this?

****Not always, of course.

*****Brilliant Rickie Vasquez, a non-binary, a bi/pan POC who graced our screens in 1994, and yet people still think such a majestic creature impossible. Tino is the unicorn. Rickie is real.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Magical Law and Bills of Attainder

In reading a political memoir, I came across the concept of a bill of attainder, which is, essentially, a writ that allows a legislature to punish someone without a judicial trial. Like any nerd who understands the world through fictional references, I immediately thought of Harry Potter—or, more specifically, Sirius Black.
According to Wikipedia, the bill of attainder was most common in England in the 13th-18th century. It led to imprisonments and executions of many prominent personages, such as Thomas Cromwell, Catherine Howard, and Richard III. Notably, the use of bills of attainder ended in 1798, over one hundred years after the 1689 Statute of Secrecy. Bearing this in mind, along with the fact that Magical Law, along with the culture, is slow to change, it’s safe to assume that the practice remained on the books.
Even so, it’s notable that someone being denied the right to a trial is notable, even in the heavy-handed world of British Magical Law. We see several trials over matters large and small, and under a stable ministry, punishments are supposedly fair or as Fudge says in PoA “We don’t send people to Azkaban just for blowing up their aunts!” (PoA 75) He says this, though, because Harry has assumed the opposite—in fact, Harry often seems to believe that he is going to be given a punishment far worse than the crime he has committed.
Part of this is personal. Growing up with the Dursleys led Harry to expect disproportionate punishments, and though we never see the adults inflict physical abuse on him, Dudley’s beatings and Vernon’s threats are enough to lead him to believe that McGonagall will cane him for disobeying Madam Hooch in PS/SS, a first offense that did not result in injury. However, that’s not his only fear. “He thought of Hagrid, expelled but allowed to stay on as gamekeeper. Perhaps he could be Hagrid’s assistant. His stomach twisted as he imagined it, watching Ron and the others becoming wizards while he stumped around the grounds, carrying Hagrid’s bag.” (PS 212)
Harry’s thoughts here serve as a precedent for his experience with wixen punishment throughout the books. Consequences for crimes lead to extreme rights being revoked, in this case Hagrid’s right to be a trained wizard along with the prestige—and safety—it brings. However, at this early point, Harry is already aware that these punishments can be softened, specifically by Dumbledore, as they are for him frequently. (At least until the Ministry destabilizes.)  
Harry isn’t the only one with this perception of wixen law and order. Hermione, too, fears expulsion more than death within first two months of school. Why? Precedent. She doesn’t have Harry’s knowledge of Hagrid’s past, but she has read a lot. Specifically, she’s read a lot of contemporary history—"Modern Magical History and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Great Wixen Events of the Twentieth Century.” (PS 152) And for all that wixen society is meant to seem even-handed—until it isn’t—the fact is that this hasn’t been the case in the time since the books were updated, even with the enchantments wix probably put on their printing presses. And although Dumbledore asserts that “the Ministry has no authority to punish Hogwarts students for misdemeanours at school,” (OotP 245) his attitude is seemingly an anomaly among headmasters, and as soon as Fudge’s fa├žade begins to crack, he infiltrates Hogwarts. Thus, from here I will consider Hogwarts under the general umbrella of wixen society.   
Like many societies, wixen Britain seems to lay claim to a stable, democratic identity. This is not generally the case, though, something that is made clear by the juxtaposition between Fudge and the Prime Minister in the opening chapter of HBP.The Prime Minister seems to recall his term based solely on Fudge’s increasingly harried appearances, and the disasters he does comment on—his junior minster’s breakdown and the Brockdale Bridge crisis—are the result of Fudge’s slipping hold on control. Of course, even without magic this meeting would be apocryphal. John Major’s predecessor was Margaret Thatcher, not a man who would have tried to throw Fudge out the window—though I wouldn’t put it past the Iron Lady—and he plenty of crises on his own. What sets Fudge’s crises apart, though, are the chaos and ineptitude they imply.   
Escaped prisoners who turn out to be innocent, mass breakouts, murders of political officials. The Prime Minister notes that he has “never been a murder in any of the government departments under hischarge…” (HBP 26) And that’s rather the point. This is more than Fudge being a “[b]ungler if there ever was one.” (PS 96) Yes, Fudge let things get worse by denying Voldemort’s return, but he did so to cling to the guise of a stability that the current wixen government could not support. This can be seen if we look at the man who nearly had the job, the one who passed the bill of attainer against Sirius. “And I wasn’t the only one who was handed straight to the Dementors without trial. Crouch fought violence with violence, and authorised the use of the Unforgivable Curses against suspects. I would say he became as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark side.” (GoF 614)*
And that’s the thing. At this point, Crouch was Head of Magical Law Enforcement, presumably an appointed position, and he had almost immeasurable power—something that is common and rewarded in this society. The war was, at this point, between autocrats—Crouch, Voldemort, and Dumbledore—and I see no evidence that this wasn’t the norm. Sure, the Minister seems to be an elected position, Hogwarts answers to a board of governors, and the Wizengamot exists, but these institutions seem to bend constantly to bribery, be subject to infiltration, and have a tendency to hand over their power to one person. Even if the show trials are fair trials in times of peace, well, how many of those have there been between the traditionally old-fashioned Ministry’s adoption of Post-Enlightenment practices and the rise of one dark lord or another? Not much, I’d wager. Not for a long enough stint for the idea of rule by the people to truly sink in, judging by the power Lucius Malfoy’s coin purse wields. Wixen Britain tends to lend itself to two things: despots, and consolidation of power. Perhaps it says something about the effects of magic at large. Perhaps wix are either are either afraid of their own power, or desperate for more. Either way, it’s an historical trend that seems not to have died out, simply to have lain low during times of uncertain stability, which is why Fudge didn’t stand a chance.
It’s also why Hermione believes, in early DH, that a career in Magical Law would not allow her to do good in the world. This belief, though, is what makes it hard for readers to believe that she went on to have just such a career. Aside from providing proof that even hard-headed Hermione can grow up and change her mind, this turnabout shows just how much of a change Harry and his friends hope they can make. Despite hating the government of his youth, Harry takes a job as an Auror under Kingsley Shacklebolt’s leadership. Shacklebolt, who has led the Order in what seems to be quite a democratic fashion. I don’t have much to go on for that claim, except that he seems to delegate to Harry when necessary at the beginning of DH, and to others during the Potterwatch. And, of course, that in spite of other interests, and the distrust of the law that they’ve both held since childhood, Hermione and Harry both serve in his ministry. For the first time, they are fighting to make changes from within the system—reworking it, no doubt, but also not fighting against it. They seek to nip corruption in the bud, and they must believe they can do it.
Although I don’t know much about the government of 1990s Britain that Rowling was undoubtedly critiquing, I do know what it’s like to live under a system that seems too flawed to survive the way it is. And the fact that Harry and Hermione believe that change can come in a fair, presumably democratic way, gives me hope for the real world.
Sixteen years on, and Harry Potter is still helping me have faith in the real world.
Note: Page numbers are taken from the ebooks, British edition.
 *I think that the show trial of Bellatrix, Crouch Jr, & Co. proves that—it was as much for his benefit as the Bill of Attainer against Sirius. It also parallels the way in which the international community tried Nazis—it’s the just thing, of course—but PR was arguably a larger motive.