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Mods, Rockers and mobility vehicles are coming to Brighton Pride!

Duckie flyer with a group of mods and rockers

Lucille Power, a London-based disabled artist has dreamed up a fun project to shake up Brighton Pride on August 2nd: In a special performance, she wants to transform wheelchair users and riders of mobility scooters into 1960s mods and rockers for 'Lucille Power's Rev-in', in collaboration with London's legendary club night Duckie.

The performance sounds like so much fun - I am already looking forward to getting dressed up in studs and leather and dousing myself in hairspray (guess which one of the two I'm going to be?). The idea is to invest the history of mods and rockers with new meaning, and at the same time challenge the stigma that is attached to wheelchairs and other mobility vehicles - after all, we know that our wheels are rockin', so let's show some pride!

Lucille is still looking for participants to take part in 'Lucille Power's Rev-in', for Duckie as part of Brighton Pride on 2 August. She is looking for a small number of people to take part in a performance being Mods and Rockers for the night, and particularly welcomes people with mobility issues who are wheelchair users, or use mobility vehicles, and/or their friends and carers. LGBT people are particularly welcome to contact her.

Participants will take part in a performance at the Dome on the evening of 2 August using their mobility vehicles, and dressing as mods or rockers. There may be the possibility of hiring some mobility vehicles for the evening, so if you are an occasional user, or even if you haven't used one, but have mobility issues, contact Lucille: lipstickpower@yahoo.co.uk

Personally, I can't wait for it - Check out www.duckie.co.uk/generic.php?id=182 for more details. www.duckie.co.uk

Posted by Nina Mühlemann, 7 July 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 8 July 2014

Hamburger Queen: Where fat politics and disability politics meet – and have a party!

This month, ‘Hamburger Queen’, a beauty contest for fat people, is in its final run. Dreamed up by performance artist Scottee, the contest is part beauty pageant satire, part platform for chubby people. Contestants have to show off their fabulous outfits in a ‘fat trend’ round, their cooking or baking skills in the ‘fat taste’ round, and, last but not least, prove their fat talent. In the past four years, this round has incorporated anything from comedy, lip-syncing or fertility dances to people doing weird and kinky things with hangers or shoes. ]

Each round is judged by a panel of celebrities, which has in the past included Lisa Standfield and Paloma Faith. The night also includes a guest performance (past artists have included Gateau Chocolat, Bird La Bird and of course Scottee himself) and lots of sequins, chaos, banter and delicious burgers.

This all sounds amazing, and it is, but Hamburger Queen is much more than fabulous fat funfest: It is very en vogue in London’s clubbing and fashion scene to celebrate ‘difference’ and ‘freakishness’, albeit often in dark, narrow basements where disabled people are not allowed because they are considered to be fire hazards.

Often, this ‘freakishness’ boils down to nothing but a bunch of skinny boys who dare to wear blue lipstick. Truly outrageous! At ‘Hamburger Queen’, the celebration of difference is more than just lip service. I should know, I was the winner of the contest in its first year. I am chubby. I am in a wheelchair.

Part of the reason why I decided to be a contestant in Hamburger Queen (In the beginning called ‘Burger Queen’) was my frustration with the night club/ queer scene of London. My experience was that me and my wheelchair were often regarded as a novelty prop, an edgy way to jazz up the pictures of a night out, but disabled access was an issue rarely considered or deemed relevant to club promoters, hosts or DJs. When ‘Hamburger Queen’ came along, I was ready to create something constructive out of that frustration: Competing in a show that celebrates body types that are different, which unashamedly reflects on our physicality, seemed like the perfect opportunity.

When it comes to my own relationship with fat, it’s complicated. In my early teenage years, I hated my chubby thighs. I went to a private school where all the girls were slim, wore silky scarves as belts (I know!) and had blonde highlights. I hated being one of the biggest girls in my year. I was already one of the only 5 visibly disabled kids in school, if only I could be thinner, I could at least be a little bit more normal.

Later, other health concerns complicated the relationship with my body even more: It seemed that no matter what I did, my body would never behave in a predictable, acceptable way, so I might as well have as many cheese toasties and frappuccinos as I liked.

Finally, in my early 20s, I became more accepting of my body, and at the same time, became familiar with disability studies, which was an eye-opening moment for me. For me, on a personal level, fat and disability have always been intertwined. Fat politics and disability politics seem self-evident allies and I believe that you cannot be truly accepting of one without also being accepting of the other.

Fat and disability intersect on many levels – the physicality of the disabled body and the fat body are still one of the biggest taboos in our society, and celebrating fat, impaired bodies seems highly radical when we are constantly told by the media that our lives aren’t worth living, that bodies like ours need to be fixed and cured.

When I wear my ‘Burger Queen’ medal on a night out, a gorgeous, massive necklace by Tatty Devine, I get many of compliments and interested questions about it, but when I go on to explain what it is (‘I won it at a beauty pageant for fat people’), people often give me looks of horror, embarrassment or pity, or go on to tell me ‘but you are not really fat!’ (1. You really don’t get it. 2. Seriously, have you seen my thighs??) Simultaneously, I had experiences with strangers telling me to my face that if they were disabled like me, they’d finish themselves off (cheers, if I were a horrible person like you I’d...), and I sometimes get those same looks of horror, pity and embarrassment.

Hamburger Queen gave us a platform to invite different looks, and to celebrate solidarity and empowerment while having a drink, a laugh and wearing fabulous outfits. Throughout its run, I felt a true alliance between disability and fat politics: From its very first run, Hamburger Queen was a truly inclusive, radical and wonderfully weird night.

The RVT and Scottee himself were extremely supportive of me as a disabled contestant and built me a ramp to the stage, so that I could perform at Hamburger Queen. Many of the artists who chose to perform at Hamburger Queen, for example Bird La Bird and Brian Lobel, have a strong awareness of crip politics, and this awareness was shared by many of the contestants. In the audience, I have spotted many disabled people over the years, which is not a given, considering that the Royal Vauxhall Tavern has limited disabled access and no disabled toilets.

Hamburger Queen gave us a space where allies were forged, where high-brow entertainment and trash culture were equally celebrated. It was and is a night that is unashamedly fat, feminist, crip, camp and queer. I will be heartbroken when it’s all over – ‘Hamburger Queen’ filled a real void in London’s nightlife.

Hamburger Queen’s final preliminary heat takes place on Thursday, 17th April at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and the big, fat final takes place at the Bloomsbury Ballroom on Thursday, 24th April. See you there!Get your tickets here:  http://www.hamburgerqueen.co.uk/

Posted by Nina Mühlemann, 16 April 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 17 April 2014

The Light Princess - a modern (feminist?) fairy-tale with an outdated perception of disability

 When I heard that the glorious Tori Amos was attached to a musical, which reworked a Scottish fairy tale called ‘The Light Princess’, I was thrilled - Amos’ enchanting, bewitching and very often slightly unsettling melodies seemed like the perfect fit for a modern fairy tale, and fairy tales and the myths they create, perpetuate and question have always held a strong fascination over me. On many levels, ‘The Light Princess’, which is on at the National Theatre London until December, did not disappoint:  The musical is embellished with beautiful animations by Matthew Robins, the stage design is sparkly and colourful as can be (always a plus in my book). Furthermore, Tori Amos mentioned in an interview that she had ‘no intentions of making a fairy tale ‘that is set before the birth of women’s rights’. In the programme to the show, they actually mention Angela Carter and her short fairy tale collection ‘The Bloody Chamber’, which made my heart flutter a little bit. One of my favourite singers taking inspiration from my favourite author? I was all over this production.

The plot of the original fairy tale has indeed been reworked quite a bit: George MacDonald’s story, first published in 1864, features a princess who is cursed by her evil aunties to have no gravity, instead she floats mid-air, except when she is in water.  In the musical production, there is no evil aunt, but instead a good ensemble of brave, smart female characters. There is Piper, princess Althea’s companion and the feistiest female orphan since Annie who has graced a musical stage, and there is an outspoken sergeant and a compassionate falconer – in one scene, those three women save the day by slaying dragons together. The floating princess does live happily ever after with her prince, but she also goes on to study marine biology. And the prince needs, at least in theory, just as much saving as the princess. Whereas she is floating, light and unable to cry, he has too much gravity and is unable to smile.

‘The Light Princess’ does a lot to address gender stereotypes, depicts a lesbian relationship and has several black actors starring in major roles – it seems like a fairy-tale truly fit for the 21st century.  But although this production seems to embrace diversity, it struggles to widen that embrace towards disability. That is not to say there is no disability in ‘The Light Princess’ – disabled characters abound. First of all, there is princess Althea’s father, the ‘lame’ king: He is not fit to be king – apparently, we can have women’s rights, but a lame king is a no-go. To make this argument more convincing, he is also old and, so we are told, about to die. That’s fine then. Then there is the evil king, whose eyes get clawed out by falcons as a punishment and who is blinded for life. Apparently, we can have women’s rights, but archaic forms of punishment are okay…? The reason, it seems, why there is so much disability in ‘The Light Princess’, is that disability is used to give the narrative its classic fairy-tale feel. While gender, sexuality and race are being dealt with in a modern, liberal fashion, its treatment of disability is rooted in Victorian stereotypes. Then there is princess Althea herself: Her lightness and floatiness can easily be argued to be a disability: As a child, it causes her to be stigmatised by society and as a result to be locked away. While this disability manifests itself physically, it is a result of trauma, of Althea being unable to cope with her mother’s death.

Althea lives her life locked away in a tower, reading books, together with Piper, her companion/carer/assistant. However, when her older brother dies, she is forced to leave this comfortable, albeit solitary, existence behind and show that she is ‘queen material’ (the exploration of ‘queen material’ is the main theme of several wonderful songs and one of the best ways 'The Light Princess' tackles gender stereotypes). Her father demands her to become more grounded, to join the army, to rule the country – all those things she cannot do floating mid-air, according to the king. Althea does not want to be ‘queen material’ and feels that she will never be able to live up to her father’s expectations, so Althea and Piper are running away. On their Thelma and Louise-style adventure, Althea proves herself to be fairly capable – she slays a dragon and makes quick, sharp observations about her country. When left to her own devices, it seems, the princess is ‘queen material’, but only if she gets to do things her own way and is not restrained (disabled!) by society or her family.

However, its neighbouring country is invading the kingdom and Althea ultimately has to return to her father, who still is desperate to have her cured, while the princess wants him to accept herself as she is.  He is so desperate to ground his daughter that he does not shrink back from force-feeding her to make her more heavy, and later puts her in heavy, painful braces to ground her: This is where ‘The Light Princess’ depiction of disability is most tangible, grounded in reality and refreshingly shown from the perspective of a disabled individual – a princess even! Are we one step away from a disabled Disney Princess??

 Unfortunately, this point things are taking a turn for the worse. And all my high hopes are crushed in an instant. The first sign that things are getting wonky is when the delusional king is receiving suitors who promise to heal Althea, marry her and give him another heir. The first few suitors that we see are dodgy alright and one of them suggests the aforementioned force feeding. The last one, however, is a strange character: His suggestion for a cure for Althea is love – which, in the end turns out to be the force that can ground her (surprise, surprise!), but Althea loves anyone it is the dashing prince Digby (what a nomble  name!), and the sheer idea of her falling for this fellow is marked out as ridiculous because a) he’s old and b) he has a stammer. Althea’s other suitors are physically and psychologically abusive, yet this suitor of hers is put on an equal footing with those men just because of a stammer being old – I really can’t get my head around this scene, and I have no idea what the writers were thinking here. Tori, what’s going on? What about all the faff about society’s pressure on people who are different and what not, just a few scenes ago?  But things are yet about to get worse (and yes, they can): In the end, Althea is being cured, on the spot, forever, because of the true love she feels for the prince – it resolves her trauma. Job done. The idea that Althea wanted to be accepted for what she is, lightness and all, is completely abandoned. The ending also lets down the strong feminist tones that dominated the first half of the play: Now Althea can actually be a mummy (never mind that she is only 16 – they have women’s rights but no condoms?) and live a normal life. Yes, normal. The writers could have easily gone for an ending that avoids the myth of the complete cure: How about ‘the princess still had occasional bouts of lightness, but eventually she always came back to the ground?’, which would have fitted in much better with Althea’s character and the first half of the play.

If this ending does not feel like a massive slap in the face, then I don’t know what does. Race, sexuality and gender are all depicted as socially constructed categories, but disability is used as a metaphor for all that is bad, as narrative prosthesis, and generally the big fat scapegoat of this musical.

I really wanted to love ‘The Light Princess’, and there are things about it I genuinely loved. During the interval, I was completely smitten with it. It is visually stunning, the music is gorgeous and Rosalie Craig as the light princess Althea is amazing – she can belt out a song while hanging mid-air, upside down, like nobody’s business. With her ginger hair she even looks a bit like a young Tori Amos. In many ways, the musical really feels like a modern coming-of-age-story, fit for the 21st century, debunking fairy-tale myths about gender, race and sexuality. Paradoxically, its disability portrayal is lagging behind by about 150 years: the fairy-tale myths this musical employs are grounded (no pun intended)  in disability.

Posted by Nina Mühlemann, 13 November 2013

Last modified by Nina Mühlemann, 14 November 2013

“Ah, better to get a normal fella who can act crippled” - thoughts on Daniel Radcliffe in ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’

Daniel Radcliffe in the Cripple of Inishmaan

I’ve got a bit of a crush on Daniel Radcliffe. Not only because he can ride a broomstick like no one else and is friends with Dumbledore. I think his acting is wonderfully understated and, more importantly, he has come across as utterly modest, charming and funny in every interview I could get my hands on.

When I realised that he would star in a West End play, I was in heaven. Finally I would get the chance to indulge my inner fangirl! The name of said play? ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ – with Daniel in the role of Cripple Billy. Awkward. ‘Cripple Billy’? Really? And played by a nondisabled actor, who just happens to be one of my favourite British actors? Now there’s a catch, if there ever was one. However, I decided that I needed to watch this play all the more, even if it meant I would have to ditch my rose-tinted fangirl glasses and put my PhD-on-disability-performance glasses on.

I didn’t know the play before, which was written by Michael McDonagh and first staged in 1996. It is set in the 1930s, on the small Irish island of Inishmaan, which gets visited by American film producers on the lookout for the next Hollywood star. To Billy, orphaned and disabled from birth, this seems like the ideal way to escape the dull, bleak life in Inishmaan, his two spinster aunties and his identity as the village cripple. Also interested to meet the American film crew are Billy’s crush, the outspoken village beauty Helen, and her brother Bartley.

Although the whole village seems to find Billy’s ambitions ridiculous, the producers actually take an interest in him and take him to the USA. Once they are back in Hollywood though, they ditch Cripple Billy quickly in favour of a nondisabled actor who is ‘cripping up’. Billy laments: “They didn't want me. A blond lad from Fort Lauderdale they hired instead of me. He wasn't crippled at all, but the Yank said, "Ah, better to get a normal fella who can act crippled than a crippled fella who can't fecking act at all." Except he said it ruder. (Pause) I thought I'd done alright for meself with me acting. Hours I practised in me hotel there. And all for nothing.” I wonder how Radcliffe feels, saying this line? How director Michael Grandage feels about his decision not to hire a single disabled actor for the play when roles for disabled people are so hard to come by, and disabled people’s only chance to be seen by a wide audience is in rubbish inspiration porn like ‘The Undateables’?

Considering that we had a wonderful Cultural Olympiad last year and a spectacular Paralympic Opening Ceremony, the moment to cast great disabled talent never seemed better – but sadly, this seems like a fantastic opportunity missed by stage and TV productions. Unfortunately, I don’t think this show would have sold out, like it did every night, without Radcliffe in the main role – after all, I bought my ticket for this very reason. However, if productions have nondisabled actors cripping up, I think there are other things they could do to soften the blow for the disabled community: For example they could make a conscious effort to cast disabled people in other roles or to hire disabled people as part of the production team. Generally, if the play is about disability, the production should familiarize themselves with disability politics and have disabled people advise them on the staging, so that the production doesn’t feel offensive.

I don’t think this has happened much with this production. Many moments in the play have made me, as a disabled person, quite uncomfortable. During the first act of the play, for example, Billy’s aunties ponder over his prospects of finding a girlfriend, saying “Poor Billy 'll never be getting kissed. Unless it was be a blind girl.” This created a lot of laughter from the audience, to my disbelief. Watching the audience, I didn’t get the feeling that the joke was on the aunties, under-estimating Billy’s chances with the ladies – after all, Billy has never been kissed before.

Personally, while there were some lines in the play that appealed to my black sense of humour, many moments that the audience found funny seemed to be simply making fun of disability – and, as they didn’t come from a disabled point of view, I found them offensive. There are many disabled comedians and playwrights out there with a wicked sense of humour who highlight the funny side of disability, but that should be their prerogative. To make fun of disability, from a nondisabled point of view, quickly feels exploitative. There are some great moments in the play that reflect on disability, as for example when Billy begs a friend to call him ‘just Billy’, not ‘Cripple Billy’, or the aforementioned scene where a nondisabled actor steals Billy’s role in the Hollywood movie, but they do not make up for the fact that this is one more play that treats disability as a metaphor, for the stagnant, ‘crippling’ life on Inishmaan. Been there, done that, can we move on now?

Radcliffe himself seems to be the only one in the production who did some research on disability, as he wanted to find out what specific disability Billy has, even though it is not mentioned in the play: “After a lot of research I landed on cerebral palsy as being a viable option because there is a specific kind of cerebral palsy called Hemiplegia, which affects one side of the body and not the other. It's also a condition that can be apparent at birth. So then I had to learn about the mechanics of cerebral palsy and what that involves, why it affects the body the way that it does, and how people learn to live with it - they usually become incredibly skilful with their ‘good' side. I felt it was important to make his condition specific, rather than attempting some generalised ‘cripple' thing. To me, that is kind of offensive, to say, "oh well I'll just do something a bit weird", without looking into it at all.”

Radcliffe chose to portray Billy’s disability as a physical reality, not a metaphor – Billy’s disability seems believable, and his mobility restrictions are portrayed consistently, but are not over-emphasized or satirised. To me, this was the saving grace of the play. Radcliffe mentioned in an interview that he seems to have done more research on disability than the playwright of  ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’, Martin McDonagh, himself. It shows.

Nonetheless, this play deals with some interesting thoughts on disabled identity and shows a refreshing lack of sentimentality. Also, the acting of the whole cast was brilliant. But it would be interesting to see what a company like Graeae would do to material like this, or generally, how a production company who is aware of stereotypical tropes and stereotypes around disability would stage ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’. Sadly, as it is, it is just one more representation of disability by nondisabled people, made for a nondisabled audience.

This is emphasized by the fact that the Noel Coward theatre is one of London’s least accessible theatres, and that during it’s almost 3 month-long run, only one single performance of ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ is accessible to visually impaired or Deaf people. It is impossible to enter the building with a wheelchair without help from the staff, and there are only one or two wheelchair spaces, separated from the rest of the muggles – err, I mean, audience. Not even rose-tinted fangirl glasses could gloss over the shortcomings of this play.

Posted by Nina Mühlemann, 1 July 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 2 July 2013

Homely and magical: The Southbank Centre's Festival of Neighbourhood

It is Friday morning at 9.20, and I’m invited to the Southbank Centre’s press preview of their Festival of Neighbourhood. The all-summer long celebration, running form the 1st of June till the end of September, is the third of a series of summer festivals that the Southbank Centre has put on together with MasterCard, after 2011’s Festival of Britain and 2012’s Festival of the World. As I am early, I have a quick stroll through the site – I know it fairly well, as I lived in a student hall across the street from Waterloo station for a year between 2010 and 2011. During that time, the Site, and especially the Royal Festival Hall, indeed was an important part of my neighbourhood where I had the first few romantic dates with my then-boyfriend, now fiancé, where I saw lots of wonderful performances from J.K. Rowling to Heston Blumenthal to the Liberty Festival, and where I wrote the best part of my MA dissertation. It seems very fitting for this place, which serves for so many people as an office, playground or pleasure garden, to celebrate its neighbourhood, and the sense of neighbourhood and belonging it radiates.
Even during this quick walkthrough, I can see that the site has been transformed: Even inside the lift, there is a joyful, comic-style map of the area which introduces the specially constructed sites like the urban beach, the London Wonderground (both have already been here last year), and the brand new Beano Town, which is where I’ll be heading for the first part of the press review. There are colourful wheelbarrows scattered everywhere on the outside spaces of the Southbank, and inside them they have flowers and vegetables growing. Considering the lack of spring we had this year, this sight makes my heart do small leap of joy.
When I enter the Festival Village, which is now Beanotown, an iconic imaginary neighbourhood, I am presented with a copy of the Beano comic magazine and invited to try cheese and bean toasties, especially created for this new space.  There is a real-life Dennis the Menace who seems up to a bit of mischief, and also an exhibition which celebrates Beano’s 75th anniversary. The schoolboy jokes that are played inside the bathrooms on endless loop startle me and make me giggle. Beanotown seems like the perfect place to take children, or to go when you’re in a bit of a waggish mood.
After exploring Beanotown, we are led into the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where the choir Voicelab gives a musical introduction to the colourful flags, covered with thought-provoking questions like ‘On it? Past it?’, that Bob and Roberta Smith have designed for the roof of the Southbank Centre, under the captivating title ‘Grow Your Own Ideas?’. Growth, bloom and levity are elements that run through every aspect of the festival.
Then Jude Kelly, Artistic Director if the Southbank Centre, Shân Maclennan, Creative Director of Learning and Participation and Paul Trueman from MasterCard reflect on the ideas behind the festival. “Festival of Neighbourhood is a space for the community as we ask what it means to live side by side harmoniously, particularly with people that differ from ourselves. Community cohesion is one of the major challenges we face today and this festival will explore how we can support community endeavours and create a much better sense of belonging and stronger cooperation with our neighbours,” Jude Kelly explains. Later on, they are joined by Wayne Hemingway, designer, author Neil Hollis and artists Bryony Kimmings and Dean Atta, who explain what neighbourhood means to them, why a sense of community is important to them and how they try to encourage others to become part of their community.
After this, I am invited to a tour of the site, and I can see with my own eyes that the Southbank Centre takes its responsibility in the community seriously: An urban garden has been created for the festival, and its produce will be used in the Southbank Centre’s kitchens and the trees will be donated to council estates after the festival has finished. Many of the decoration materials were recycled or can be put to a second use after their time on the Southbank is over, and two massive, topiary-like figures have been installed at the back of the Queen Elizabeth Hall: They are depicted sweeping, and are inspired by the many people who cleaned up after the London riots in 2011. There are also murals on the walls by London's finest street artists.
It astonishes me how the Festival of Neighbourhood feels homely and magical equally. The same evening, I take my fiancé back there to drink Pimms amongst the blooming, flowering wheelbarrows, and life feels like an urban fairy-tale, complete with a neighbourhood fit for any storybook.

Posted by Nina Mühlemann, 2 June 2013

Last modified by Nina Mühlemann, 2 June 2013

Thoughts on the WOW festival

WOW festival logo

This week I went to several events of the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre in London. I saw Claire Cunningham’s Ménage A Trois for the second time and a Q and A with Claire Cunningham, The WOW edition of CripTease, two very interesting talks that focused either on female queer identity, trans identity and gender or on fat. In the later, the lovely Dr Charlotte Cooper took part in, who I got to know because we both participated in the same mock beauty pageant for fat people, ‘Hamburger Queen’.

I think it is wonderful that such a wide spectrum of female identity, or identity in general, is represented at the WOW festival. It feels very inclusive and there is a feeling of respect and generosity in the air towards other performance of audience members that reminds me of the Unlimited festival – the difference being that the blistering cold sometimes dampens that spirit when people are competing ferociously for chairs or tables inside the Royal Festival Hall.

However, what I found slightly disappointing was the way all those events were separated from each other.  It would have excited me to hear how a queer perspective shapes the issues around fat, or to know disabled trans people’s thoughts on gender. To me, the intersections of those issues, and the way they shape each other, is immensely interesting. I know from research that queer theory, gender studies and disability studies can hugely profit from each other when one area’s framework or perspective is applied to another area.

Furthermore, most people’s identity does not just tick one box, so to speak, and for me, the way different parts of someone’s identity or lived experience shapes and forms their outlook on other things is much more interesting than to just hear their thoughts on the ‘identity box’ they seem to fit in most readily. To me, this is the point when people become vibrantly human and multidimensional.

It is certainly great that the Southbank Centre programmed the WOW with diversity in mind. However, I feel like in 2013, even more could have been possible. I wish the Southbank Centre’s events had encouraged this exchange, so that seemingly universal aspects about womanhood or humanity could be discussed and revaluated. I dare you, Southbank Centre, to have a talk next time that features Paris Lees, Charlotte Cooper, Campbell X and Penny Pepper. That would be truly a reason to celebrate.

Posted by Nina Mühlemann, 10 March 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 10 March 2013

‘Undateables' is back -and still gets it all wrong

Channel 4’s ‘Undateables’ goes into season two. ‘Undateables’, despite its title, wants to come across as politically correct, respectful, sympathetic – treating its ‘extraordinary singletons’ as if they were regular folks. But, it seems to suggest to an assumed nondisabled audience, really disabled people are not the same as everyone else. Instead of including them in a regular dating show or of deeming some nondisabled people as ‘undateable’ too, we need a special one for their ‘special needs’. There are no LGBT people in ‘Undateables’ either, so far. That would be a little too much diversity, wouldn’t it?

Undateables does nothing to diminish stereotypes that exist around disabled people: Candidates are often portrayed as wonderful supercrips, overcoming their disability – in the case of Brent, who has Tourettes, the show even suggests that falling in love with his date Lizzie will make Brent’s Tourette disappear. No pressure then, Lizzie. Does this mean that my fiancé does not love me enough, because I am still in a wheelchair despite a wonderful 19-month relationship? Maybe if Bob and I try harder, we can make my Spina Bifida go away!

In other cases, disabled people are portrayed as lonely, desperate and overeager to find that ‘special someone’, often pushed by their mum. I have yet to see another dating show where mums are as ubiquitous as in this one. Of course many disabled people have special bonds with their parents because they often function as carers, too, especially during childhood. But all candidates are over the age of twenty, and personally I think it would not hurt to show friends, brothers, sisters or personal assistants of the candidates too. And fathers.

One mum sends her daughter off to a blind date, and tells the camera: ‘I can’t wait to see her in a wedding dress!’ (again, no pressure, honey!), while another one prepares a list of questions for her son to ask his date and goes with him to a speed dating event.  Personally, I find this all a bit creepy, especially as Channel 4 does not tell us why the mums are there – do the benefits cuts mean the candidates can’t afford PAs? Were the candidates excluded during their education and on their job search and thus found it difficult to form friendships?

None of the discrimination disabled people face daily is addressed, apart from the fact that they can’t seem to find a partner. But wait, even that truth is a lie: one candidate has already had 17 girlfriends; another has just been in a long-term relationship that lasted several years.

Why does Channel 4 tell us that dating is so hard for these ‘extraordinary singletons’? Because that’s going to make all the truly undateable nondisabled people who like to watch this load of rubbish feel way better. If even THESE people can go on dates, you can do it too! Look, how they’re trying, isn’t it inspiring? For disabled people, this show only repeats all the myths the media keeps already feeding them on a daily basis, until they end up internalizing them.

I still remember with horror the girl in a wheelchair from last season who rejected a lovely guy, just because he was disabled, too, and she didn’t want a disabled boyfriend. Not exactly Crip Pride we see here, that’s for sure.

Just because Sam Wollaston from the Guardian says that the show is not exploitative; is ‘sensible, sensitive and kind’ - does not mean it is. It just means that that chap is falling for the inspiration porn for non-disabled people, which Undateables is. Of the worst kind.

Posted by Nina Mühlemann, 10 January 2013

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 14 January 2013

‘A bizarre silver stocking’ and the limits of mainstream beauty

A screenshot of Viktoria's picture and the caption

Viktoria Modesta: Fashionista, model, singer, nightclub icon, amputee. I have come across Viktoria Modesta many times ever since I moved to London  - I attended the same club nights as her, seen her perform her music, saw a beautiful photograph of her and one of her custom prosthetic legs at the Spare Parts (It is now hanging in our living room). Like many other people, I was glued to my TV screen when she performed as the ‘Snow Queen’ at the Paralympic Closing Ceremony. Alongside Oscar Pistorius and Mat Fraser, she made the public realise that people with impairments can be sexy as hell – or so I thought.

Viktoria attended this month’s European Music Awards, wearing a beautiful Vivienne Westwood gown that emphasized her curves. The dress was slit open in the front to reveal not only black hot pants, but also a crystal encrusted, custom made below-the-knee prosthetic. Of course, her picture was all over the internet a few days later, and Viktoria shared it with excitement on her Twitter and Facebook page. Suddenly, that excitement and joy I felt over Viktoria’s great look was tainted.

Reporting on the fashion of the awards show, the website digitalspy did ‘best dressed’ and ‘worst dressed’ lists, and Viktoria, just named ‘a guest’, popped up in the gallery of the show’s worst dressed. The reason for this, the caption of the picture said, was that her ‘daring black gown’ was ‘slit up in the middle to reveal a bizarre silver stocking’. Well done, digitalspy. If you look at the picture closely, it is really obvious that the ankle is definitely too thin to be actually human flesh – but the digitalspy captioner got probably so used to overly photoshopped pictures that s/he lost all previous knowledge of human anatomy.

How did this happen? Did Lady Gaga’s penchant for mobility aids reinforce the media’s belief that sticks, wheelchairs and prosthetics in close proximity to glamourous starlets must be a prop? Has the general absence (with a few exceptions) of people with impairments in glossy magazines and gossipy websites lead to the assumption that it is less likely for an amputee to show up at an award ceremony than for a person to wear ‘a bizarre silver stocking’ on one leg?

To me, this shows the deeply ableist attitudes this type of media harbours against people with impairments: The fashion world might embrace people with bodies that are different to some extent, as proven by Viktoria’s work as a model. The mainstream media, however, simply seems to ignore the existence of people with impairments, unless they fit into one of their neat little ‘benefit scrounger’/ ‘superhuman athlete’ boxes. If Viktoria does not provide a sob story together with her amputated leg, it can’t be the real thing and is just ignored.

After Viktoria linked digitalspy on her facebook page, all hell broke loose: While she found the situation quite amusing, many of her friends and fans were genuinely upset and started to comment on digitalspy’s website – which made matters only worse: The picture stayed in the worst dressed category, but only the words ‘to reveal a bizarre silver stocking’ were removed. While digitalspy realised that they made a mistake, they were not willing to admit what a weird, ableist mistake it was. Finally, after further comments, Viktoria’s picture was finally put into the best-dressed category, admitting that she was wearing a prosthetic, and digitalspy posted an apology, admitting that the caption was ‘inappropriate’. But it seems that they did not fully understand why their action was so offensive to the thousands of disabled people who long to see more disabled identities represented in the media, without a charity or supercrip story next to them. Viktoria managed to laugh the whole thing off – it was indeed a very bizarre incident, but for me it left a bitter aftertaste.

If there was that moment when disabled people were recognized by the mainstream media as equally sexy, successful and beautiful, it has passed now. Yet the reaction on Viktoria’s Facebook has shown that the public is smart and more willing to accept people with impairments as sexy. Hopefully the media will follow its lead and smarten up.

Posted by Nina Mühlemann, 23 November 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 24 November 2012

Disability, Food and Reality: A Blind Cook Wins Masterchef US

This summer, disability was everywhere. The most surprising super-crip pop-up was that of Christine Ha in the American version of Masterchef. Ha has an auto-immune condition that caused her to become blind at the age of 19. Now 33, Ha came, cooked and won Masterchef US.

First presented to us, Ha is all heroic super-crip, trying hard to overcome her disability by entering the contest. Whenever Ha’s in focus, the music becomes dramatic, the judges’ faces show both admiration and doubt. In one of the first challenges, Ha struggles but it turns out the difficulties she felt were all in her head – her only problem, as judge Gordon Ramsey explains to her, is her lack of self-confidence.

Nothing new here: The disabled person disables herself because of self-doubt, and once she realises, with the help of a non-disabled fairy godmother, that she just has to overcome that, everything’s fine – she can go from strength to strength, and Ramsey experiences a boost in his book sales.

Ramsey’s virtue is contrasted by Ryan, one of Ha’s competitors: After he wins a challenge, he picks a live crab for Ha to cook, which promptly pinches her. Ryan’s exploitation of Ha’s impairment remains a singular incident throughout the show, and is the only time where one contestant does not marvel, sometimes in a slightly patronising way, at Ha’s skills.

While some candidates and the judges furiously condemn Ryan’s tactic, Ha merely shrugs it off and tries to do her best. Her dish comes out wonderfully, and at this moment Ha’s experience is relatable for every disabled viewer. Disabled people have to deal with barriers and ignorance every day, and are used to adapt and to make their surroundings work for them. Masterchef US assigns this selfish, non-understanding attitude towards disabled people’s needs to one single, ‘mean’, individual, and fails to acknowledge this as a broader issue, and this is where the show is as far removed from reality as it could be.

The moments where Ha explains her techniques are immensely interesting, as they show an approach to food and cooking that is new on TV. I suspect that this caused Ha to win – her cookbook (the winner gets a publishing deal) offers unfamiliar ways of handling food, focusing on touch, smell and taste. 

Throughout the episodes, Ha is painfully aware of her ‘inspirational’ story. She seems undecided on whether to embrace or despise it. One moment she sobs “I just want to inspire people to overcome struggles”, and a few episodes later she has an outburst of anger, protesting against being just seen as an inspiration, and wanting people to respect her skills.

That Ha engages with the way she is portrayed is crucial. Masterchef US may use familiar tropes about disability on TV, but also gives a voice to a disabled woman. In some scenes, Masterchef US doesn’t just assume that its audience is exclusively non-disabled, but makes Ha truly relatable to disabled viewers.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 22 October 2012

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 22 October 2012