‘A lot of feminism has been about reclaiming the male gaze. But, disabled women make a good point – what if we never had the gaze in the first place?’
Read Part II here
Edited by Dr. Roberta Francis Watene, Ph.D. and Umi Asaka of the Donald Beasley Institute
“The disabled body is always seen as a public body. It’s always seen as a spectacle. People think they have the right to look at it, to categorize it, and then to dismiss it and then to look away…” Ju Gosling.
Being a disabled woman and a feminist doesn’t just cause ideological strain. The key to intersectionality is acknowledging the everyday experiences of women who experience oppression from different social forces. Whether through the politicisation of reproductive rights or unwanted sexual contact, we are taught that the female body is a point of violence and public interest. We are taught to protect ourselves, never to walk alone, to wear appropriate clothes, not to drink too much, how to use self-defense, and to carry keys between our fingers.
We are taught to fear body hair, fear menstruation, fear having too big boobs, fear having too small boobs, fear being soft-spoken, fear being bossy, fear being girly, fear being too much of a woman, fear not being enough of a woman. Disabled people are also used to being treated as public property. The medicalisation of disability has meant that it is deemed acceptable, even appropriate, to ask disabled strangers intimate details about their lives.
As Sarah Smith Rainey puts it, “Strangers usually exhibit an amazing level of audacity when confronted publicly with a disability, revealing their beliefs about disability, care, and relationships.” The lack of respect with which the disabled body is treated is dehumanising, to say the least – it douses us with internalised ableism and sets us alight with shame.
At least you’re still beautiful.
I’ll never forget walking with my friend through a train station in Wellington, where a very loud and confident busker was playing. He was a young man who carried himself with the air of someone who thought everyone wanted to hear his voice… you know the type. As we were walking past him, he yelled across the hall at me, “Hey, are you alright?” Immediately I could feel my face flush as the words reverberated around the busy station. I mumbled that I was “fine” and attempted to walk away, wanting the encounter to end. He wasn’t satisfied with that, yelling back, “Were you born that way?” I didn’t have an answer for him, and I didn’t want to answer him. I wanted him to go back to strumming Wonderwall. He didn’t give me a chance to answer anyway, topping off the encounter with an, “I’m sorry. At least you’re still beautiful!” In the space of ten seconds, he made unwanted inquiries and observations about my body – both as a disabled ‘specimen’ and a female ‘object’ of voyeurism. My disabled and female body had become a public interest to the entire train station.
These kinds of interactions aren’t uncommon for disabled women, to the point that walking down busy streets at nights in front of drunken men puts my fight or flight mode up immediately. One of the worst parts of ableist and sexist encounters like this is my reaction – I apologise. I apologise to the person with me who witnessed the encounter, or I have to fight every inch of myself not to. I don’t think this is unusual for women, especially women who face intersecting points of oppression. But why do we do it? Is it because our existence has been questioned and interrogated to such a fact that the mere act of taking space and – God forbid, being a point of discomfort in that space – is reason enough for our continual apology for it? Feminism has worked hard to allow women to take up space, apologising for it feels inherently anti-feminist. After every apology comes guilt. I feel shame for not being stronger, shame for not being sharper, shame for not being a good feminist.
But, if we’re so conditioned to be ashamed of our disabled bodies, being a ‘kick-ass feminist’ is pretty difficult. Traditional notions of how to present as a ‘feminist’ lack nuance and intersectionality. Why? White, straight, non-disabled, and cis women have an inherent advantage in performing feminist notions of ‘empowered womanhood.’ For instance, during the second wave of feminism (and still to this day), self-grooming and cosmetics were seen as anti-feminist and an oppressive daily ritual. However, not all women have the privilege of presenting in radical ways that challenge gender norms. For instance, as a non-binary writer, Jacob Tobia says, “passing” as cis-gendered comes with a lot of privilege. Trans women are more likely to be subjected to violence for not presenting in a typically feminist way. The gender binary is so deeply entrenched within our society that when someone does not perform their gender ‘properly,’ they can be subject to harm.
When it comes to disabled women, sexualisation may have different connotations than it does for non-disabled women. In a 2017 Buzzfeed article, Lucy Webster wrote that “feminism seems to struggle with a disability because disabled women are subject to stereotypes diametrically opposed to those saddled on our non-disabled counterparts.” Objectifying women involves minimising her to her sexuality and child-bearing properties. Objectifying disabled people involves infantilising and medicalising them, turning them into an asexual and undesirable creature. A lot of feminism has been about reclaiming the male gaze. But, disabled women make a good point – what if we never had the gaze in the first place?
The busker in the train station went from minimising me to a disabled body, unworthy of humane treatment, to acknowledging my sexuality as a woman. He said his final comment as a way of consoling me for the first – thinking that sexualising me would make me feel better about his macabre sympathy for my disability. I had never really thought about this before, but, honestly and ashamedly, it sometimes works. The internally ableist part of me continually dreads the thought of being seen as a disabled, non-sexual creature. I catch myself thinking that if I want to impress that attractive guy, I have to overperform traditional womanhood to outshine my disability. I have to look good 100% of the time. I have to look as though I put the perfect amount of feminine effort into my appearance. For the love of God, I have to flirt and demonstrate empowering sexuality and femininity to ultimately outweigh my awkwardly disabled body. The feminist within me screams in protest, but it’s an undeniable and unconscious truth. How can I reconcile my distaste for the male gaze when I’m continually performing for it to avoid the often worse ableist gaze?
To be genuinely intersectional, feminism must acknowledge the lived experience of different and all women. You may have noticed a trend throughout this article: feminism is ultimately a movement about choice.
The choice to not have a child.
The choice to not have sexual interaction.
The choice to present in a way that challenges gender stereotypes.
However, sometimes the mainstream framing of this ‘choice’ is not so relevant to disabled people. A lot of disabled people’s choices are ignored entirely.
The choice to have a child.
The choice to be sexual.
The choice to be authentically ourselves without ableist presuppositions.
The feminist movement must acknowledge that these choices are as equally valid as the more traditionally feminist ones, and it should advocate for the protection of both. It is so important for women from privileged communities to make space for women from marginalised communities so that they can speak their truth about how feminism is not representing their community. Speaking out against mainstream feminism is daunting. But, it is only through intersectionality that we will reach radical change. In the words of Bell Hooks, we must continue to talk back:
“Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of ‘talking back’ that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject- the liberated voice.”