Friday, January 11, 2008

From Sex Object to the Fourth Plinth

This week’s been beautiful in Toronto. Positively spring-like for a day or two and I was wandering down the street, most decidedly not wearing a jacket and whistling this song (which has been in my head for weeks now. Weeks) when I caught a man giving me an appreciative once-over in the chestal area. Which doesn’t happen often. Or if it does, I haven't noticed it.

I'm of two minds about the ogling. Well, not that particular ogling as the guy followed the appreciative look below my chin with some appreciative eye contact and it therefore became more a mutual moment than a creepy and objectified one. I'm of two minds about objectifying ogling in general. As a woman, I find it offensive. As a woman with a disability, I'm all for it. Because people with disabilities - and especially women with disabilities - tend to be viewed as asexual creatures by the public at large, to the point of invisibility.

Some time ago, Kay over at The Gimp Parade posted about a Sports Illustrated story on Aimee Mullins, an athlete who’s a double amputee (and many other things, including one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in the World"). The issue in the blogosphere at that point was the sexualization/pornification of her as a female athlete and of her as a woman with a disability. Two pictures in particular created some debate. This one, which yes, could that be more geared to the stereotypical slavering male Neanderthal?

And this one, a magazine cover several years old, which seems more geared toward the stereotypical slavering geek


(Both photographs shamelessly lifted from The Gimp Parade)

I find them to be very different pictures - the first one definitely hits the ogling and objectified button in me, but I really like the cover. In the cover she looks strong, confident and sexy, but - and I realize this is completely subjective - sexy from within, not because she's been objectified (nudity isn’t only sexual). I think that the cover is visually stunning, the lines flowing down her body becoming more about aesthetic beauty instead of sexual beauty (although, gotta admit, she’s pretty hot). And I love the prosthetic legs - they echo the lines of her body and make her look a little otherworldly. I get that this is the objection - that we, people with disabilities, fight every single day of our lives to be seen as just another person, not the disability, but my interpretation of that photo is that it is art. That photo tells me something that the other one doesn't. It makes me think and feel and make up stories about this beautiful woman with the otherworldly strength and speed and that’s interesting to me.

Anyway, I got sidetracked. Back to being a sex object. Or not. I started using a wheelchair at 16, after having spent the previous three years in the artificial cocoon of various hospitals, which means that my entire life as a woman and a sexual being (in the sense of being old enough to do anything about it) has been spent not being seen as either a woman or a sexual being. As a disabled woman, I have no role models of beauty or sexual desirability. Any images of disability out there emphasize the can't, the crippled, the weak and ill, the pitiable, makes us something other than the rest of humanity and not a good way (like the cover above). Role models of female beauty in general are woefully unrealistic (adolescent anorexic giraffes have very little to do with normal women), but when's the last time you saw not just a woman with normal body weight, a few wrinkles, etc. being hailed as beautiful, but one with a disability? I mean, other than Marlee Matlin, who, based on the casting choices in movies and television appears to be the only disabled actress in North America. The part of me that has lived my entire life without seeing women like me being portrayed as beautiful and sexy rejoices in the sexual objectification of Aimee Mullins. It is the fact that for once, a woman with a disability is up there, being portrayed as a woman, not as a cripple. Of course, that she had to be objectified in the process and that it is the objectification that’s cause for a “yay!… erm… hang on, that ain’t right” moment is more than a little sad.

Which brings us to devotees and why talking about sexually attractive women with disabilities is like walking a knife's edge. Because there’re people out there who get off on disability in a completely objectified way and any time you as a women with a disability try to celebrate your body or your sexuality and do so in an open manner, you run the risk of getting on some devotee/hard-core group list – like Elizabeth of Screw Bronze! did about a month ago - and that is both offensive and enough to make anyone think of closing down a blog. And spend the next month showering. Maybe it's unrealistic to expect the world to have the capacity to see people of all forms as beautiful and desirable, yet not expect some parts of that world to get overly focused on your various bits and/or equipment while clutching a Kleenex and unzipping their pants. Doesn’t mean I can’t hate it.

At this point in my thinking, I was becoming really frustrated that there didn't seem to be a way to celebrate bodies other than to objectify them and that's when I remembered Alison Lapper. Who was born with no arms and shortened legs, who fearlessly explores beauty and disability, using her own nude body (unfortunately, I can't get the gallery link on her site to work – try clicking on it anyway) and who was the model for a powerful statue by Mark Quinn (more here) that was placed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Well. Wouldn't it be nice to have more of that?

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