Sunday, January 15, 2012

Returning from Break with Garland-Thompson

Winter break is coming to an end, which means that I've procrastinated on writing this blog entry for quite a while. That said, I'm going to write about Rosemarie Garland-Thompson's "Reshaping, Rethinking, Redefining: Feminist Disabilities Studies," which is a part of the Barbara Waxman Fiduccia Papers on Women and Girls with Disabilities. I'm going to experiment with yet another format for this post. This time, I plan to create a statement-and-response style by quoting the article and then, well, responding to it, probably with more questions than answers. We'll see how that works out. 

"Disability Studies views the condition of having a disability as a social relationship characterized by discrimination and oppression rather than as a personal misfortune or individual inadequacy. "

I have a problem with this view of disability. While I do think that we go overboard on calling people "disabled," I think this particular definition of "disability" ignores the fact that some individual differences are so contrasted with the majority that it is not logical to label these differences anything but disabilities. However, I think the definition does have a good point in that disability is recognized by how a person interacts with his social environment. We can see differences between individuals (i.e. that man has four limbs, that one has three), but it is not until individuals are placed within a social environment designed for a prototypical yet wholly undefined type of normativity that difference becomes either disability or advantage. If a difference is advantageous in the social environment, it cannot be a disability. 

"The fundamental premise of Disability Studies is that disability is a culturally fabricated narrative of the body, a system that produces subjects by differentiating and marking bodies." 

I don't think the system produces differentiated bodies, but I think it is by the system that we recognize differentiated bodies. Bodies are different and anyone can determine differences between bodies. It is not until bodies are evaluated within the social context, though, that those differences have meaning. 

"In short, the concept of disability unites a heterogeneous group of people whose only commonality is being considered abnormal."  

But what about the groups within the disabled - the eating disordered, the manic-depressives, the amputees? Society doesn't treat all of them in a homogenous way. I think it's inaccurate to lump everyone into a heterogeneous group of the abnormal. Rarely are schizophrenics regarded the same as those suffering from alcoholism. 

"Disability, then, is the unorthodox made flesh, refusing to be normalized, neutralized, or homogenized."

I have to jump in with Hornbacher here. What about disabilities like eating disorders, which are so orthodox in that they are wrapped up in adhering to social constructs? What about something that is so "normalized" and socially reinforced? How can this be seen as a disability? Or can it? 

"...each an acknowledgement that every woman is never simply a “woman,” but is multiply identified across a spectrum of cultural categories, many of which are extrapolated from human physical differences."

First, I just recognized something - I know a helluva lot more about feminism (and that's not saying much) than I do about Disability Studies. I better get reading. 

Here's the first sentence in this paper that links FS (Feminist Studies) to DS (Disability Studies), and I think this method of looking at a larger category and then breaking up the homogenous into heterogeneity by looking at individual difference may be a way of finding clumps of like differences and, thus, a way of identifying places of "disability." 

"Feminism becomes a theoretical perspective and methodology for examining gender as an ideological and material category that interacts with but does not subordinate other social identities or the particularities of embodiment,
history, and location that informs personhood."

So we're looking at feminism as a way of seeing the differences between women, and, by extension, between bodies, and how those differences still contribute to that person's "personhood," or place in the social context. 

"Feminist Disability Studies brings the two together to argue that cultural expectations, received attitudes, social institutions, and their attendant material conditions create a situation in which bodies that are categorized as both female and disabled are disadvantaged doubly and in parallel ways."

Just as the concept of gender is dependent on social definition, so is the concept of disability. I won't get into the parallels between FS and DS (I think this article is doing enough of that), but I will say that the parallels drawn between the two by the article most definitely pertain to my thesis. Hornbacher's works deal with, first, disability, but because one memoir focuses on her eating disorder, her work inevitably tackles gender as well - what is a gendered disorder, or (in the case of Madness), what does it mean to be female with a disorder that does not discriminate between gender?

"Within the critical framework of Feminist Disability Studies, disability becomes a representational system rather than a medical problem, a social construction instead of a personal misfortune or bodily flaw, and a subject appropriate for wide-ranging intellectual inquiry rather than a specialized field within medicine, rehabilitation, or social work."

So, does this mean we don't treat disability? It is unreasonable to suggest that reconfigure society to serve every disabled person (to some extent, we must rely on society to serve a majority), but perhaps it is reasonable to ask for a wider acceptance as differences - to not see differences as disability. 

"Making disabled women the objects of care risks casting them as helpless in order to celebrate nurturing as virtuous feminine agency." 

But what about needing help when society makes this borderline impossible? I mean, we can celebrate the "feminine agency" of disabled women by celebrating their giving and caring personalities (if present), but what about real restraints that might make these women the "objects of care" by necessity?

"...feminist practice often leaves no space for the needs and accommodations that disabled women’s bodies


"The fundamental premises of feminist disability critical theory are:  that representation structures reality; that the margins define the center; that gender and disability are ways of signifying relationships of power; that human identity is multiple and unstable; and that all analysis and evaluation has political implications."

I don't have much comment here, except that this seems like a useful way of putting these two areas of studies together, especially in the context of Hornbacher's works. In Horbacher's works, I have to look at the representation of the body and the mind, the power dynamics between the two, and what it means to be female -with an inherently politicized body - in addition to being disabled. 


Okay, processing this article has given me a major headache and I need to sit and think for a while. With that in mind, look for part II of this post later. 


  1. I agree that R G-T's bringing together of feminist studies and disability studies offers some real insight into what's going on in Hornbacher's texts (perhaps esp. in Wasted, which is certainly about a disorder that has been very insistently gendered).

    Would you go so far as to say (do you think R G-T
    goes so far as to say) that gender itself
    (femininity itself?) is a disorder? (i.e. how far
    can you push the parallel between "gender studies" and "disability studies"?)

    I think your most interesting question (and
    challenge to R G-T's presentation of disabilities
    as representing the non-normal) is "about
    disabilities like eating disorders, which are so
    orthodox in that they are wrapped up in adhering to social constructs." Do such disabilities
    highlight for us the disabling quality of cultural norms? If so, then how to distinguish between the enabling norm and the disabling version? Is it a question of degree?

    Have you read Culture as Disability,
    and its sequel, On the inevitability of cultural disabilities

    If not, well…

    do so!

  2. p.s. what about the wierd irregularity in font size/style here? Are you trying to make the medium into the message? Test the limits of my norms for academic writing ;)?