Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Lady Gaga And The Wheelchair

UPDATE:  Many of you are here to read about Lady Gaga's Sydney performance.  HI!  

I'm writing about this as we speak.  If you are interested in knowing about why it isn't appropriate for non-disabled performers to pretend to be disabled here is a post on Fox's Glee -- non disabled actor Kevin McHale plays a disabled character, Artie.

My most recent post about La Gaga and her chair is here.

thanks for stopping by!


Everyone has been asking me, "did you see the wheelchair dancer on the VMA? With Lady Gaga?" I didn't. I don't have a television (by choice). Since then, I have been chasing down images and video of this so-called wheelchair dancer: Youtube keeps removing them for reasons of copyright violation. Finally, however, I am in the picture: Lady Gaga shows up dancing with (among other things) a crutch and, about halfway into the song, a woman in a wheelchair is wheeled on by a large muscular African American man.

People let me be clear: There's a lot to say about the racial and gender politics of that performance. There's as much to say about the politics of disability. AND that wasn't an example of dancing in a wheelchair. That was NOT wheelchair dancing. That woman (I don't know whether she is disabled) did not perform as a dancer; she was a prop. If you didn't see it -- this picture is from the mtv site and the video clip is from Lady Gaga's own site (the wheelchair moment is just after the 2 minute marker); I can't post them for copyright reasons.

Anyway, check out the slumped position and revel in the 2 or 3 arm jerks; we don't get to see the woman's face - that might be a feature of camera angle and the clip, though. Is this woman disabled? I suspect not. I suppose that this was some hyper ableist imagination of spasticity and paralysis. But suppose for a moment that she is disabled. Imagine that this movement is what her body does as she dances. Why didn't they stop and explore it? Why not choreograph it so that we can see a disabled body move? And if you want some wild arm flinging movement, why not integrate her into the piece itself. There's some pretty wild arm flinging going on in the non-disabled sphere; she'd fit right in. But no. As usual, the (fake?) disabled person is merely a body wheeled on for display in a piece of gaudy pop art that passes for a wheelchair.

I'm not up for celebrating this piece of scenery as a "historic occasion:" the first time anything disability related shows up at the VMA. I would be impressed if Lady Gaga et al had hired actual dancers who use wheelchairs to be part of the performance. If you don't like any of the arty modern dance/ballet companies and hate ballroom dancing, hire the Colours 'N Motion hip hop dancers. There are disabled dancers who use wheelchairs. But whatever you do and whoever you hire, respect the art, reward the artistry, and support the artists whose work it is to extend their bodies in the power and grace of dance.


  1. "But whatever you do and whoever you hire, respect the art, reward the artistry, and support the artists whose work it is to extend their bodies in the power and grace of dance."

    Well said!!

  2. The wheelchair seems very strange there /out of context--and yes, she does seem to just be a prop. I googled to see how/if the media responded and saw she also uses the wheelchair in one of her videos:
    Warning: images of violence against women.

  3. The VMA performance seems to based on the video for Paparazzi, which is also rife with disability imagery. Though little of it could be called wheelchair dancing, Lady Gaga is seen in a "Ironsides" wheelchair (which was originally intended to be decorated with a designer logo), and struggling on crutches while wearing a "robot" outfit.
    (The wheelchair scene begins around the three minute mark.)

    I'm not sure if the video is supposed to depict a jealous recovering Lady Gaga leaving a trail of destruction in her wake, or further victims of the abusive boyfriend. In either case, I found the "suicide" imagery of the VMA incoherent and repulsive.

  4. You stole my idea for today's post, thankfully, because you did it much better. Obviously an actor, not dancer...I'm thinking. All above comments hit the head too. Darn.

  5. Anonymous11:08 AM

    Thanks for posting about this. I agree with much of what you say and issues you bring up. It seems very token (although I guess it wouldn't even be token if she's not a dancer who's disabled?).
    I just watched the video though and this moment shown is so brief, but I do see a woman dancing (although there's so much major problematic things that you name well). I guess I've seen people who are wheelchair users dance a little like her). She doesn't look slumped or spastic to me (although maybe I didn't get your comment about spasticity and paralysis).
    (On a whole other note, my computer program just underlined "spasticity" as a misspelled word because it didn't recognize this word or have it in its dictionary. Weird.)
    Also, I didn't really get the video--I mean, the blood and all--what's going on, not that I care that much, but maybe I'll have to watch the original video.
    Also, thanks for the info on Colours N Motion--wasn't familiar with them.

  6. Anonymous8:25 PM

    Oh, man, did you see the official video? I just watched it for some context for the live thing. I'll leave the comments for someone who can stomach it!

    PS re: the live video, my partner says, "If this is a music awards show, the wheelchair is the least of their problems."

  7. Wheelchairs have always been nothing more than a piece of metal with wheels that gets me from A to B. As long as it's comfortable and in my favourite colours, I am happy.

    I like Lady Gaga as an artist. I watched the performance, found myself entertained by her use of the wheelchair as a performance prop and that was all. Actually if you want to get intellectual about it, you could see her as having showed it as an object through which a person can express themselves - be creative and vital like you are - and not something that represents 'tragedy' or sickness.

    This is probably another one of those times when the disabled community will pile on top of me and tell me I'm wrong, but....**shrug**. I don't see why everything has to be politicized and dissected.

    1. The whole point of its appearance in this performance and video was to represent the ultimate sadness and tragedy of a once able-bodied star being broken and shattered. Although this is all glamorized and overlooked by the media. That is the central irony and tension of the entire piece. Lady Gaga didn't challenge these stereotypes, she reinforced them and utilized them to make some other point about stardom.

  8. Off to watch the official video ... it's online somewhere, right?

    @NYC disability -- Ironsides... love it.
    @Gaina -- we're chalk and cheese. I love that about you.


  9. I think the art is being taken out of context. Perhaps the woman was scenery - that doesn't mean Ms. Gaga is a hater of the disabled, it means it was used as a symbol.

    Amen, Gaina.

  10. Hi,

    quoted you yesterday. Good analysis, the paragraph ending with "...and support the artists whose work it is to extend their bodies in the power and grace of dance."

    Kjell/Moomstheatre Sweden

  11. @Gaina: I can't find the page now, but I read a bunch of comments about the official video by able-bodied people in which they expressed unease at the use of a wheelchair and crutches. They felt it was glamorizing disability and were uncomfortable with the sexualization.

    I'm uncomfortable with the suicide imagery being associated with disability (yet again) but think wheelchairs are due for a little glamorization. So in that sense, I liked the wheelchair and crutches being used as vehicles for personal expression. However, the video would have been vastly improved had Lady Gaga done some real wheelchair dancing (and possibly some adapted martial arts? well, one can always dream) to symbolize her empowerment, instead of the trail of destruction.

  12. Andrea2:56 AM

    I took the woman in the wheelchair as more like someone being wheeled out of a hospital or rehab or something and less like a disabled person. I thought that was the reference they were making there.

  13. Anonymous1:43 PM

    The thing about Lady Gaga (as if there were just ONE) is that she is very intentional in everything she does; so whatever effect the "wheelchair" or any aspect of her performance may have had, it was almost certainly intended. If it made people uncomfortable or question something, you can bet that's exactly what Gaga was going for.
    I expect you'd have a conversation that went something like: "Why didn't you get a real wheelchair dancer out there instead of that morbid spectacle?" "To make you ask me that question. Mission accomplished."

    Provocative is one word to describe the Lady.

  14. the Dancer in the Wheelchair is not disabled - and she is in the entire performance (not always in the chair) just look for the red hair... her name is Sloan Rabinor. She is an tour with Gaga now as a Dancer.

  15. Anonymous1:43 PM

    Hello to All,
    First of all, I want to say thank you for making mention of my dance crew COLOURS~N~MOTION! It is an honor to rep our community with our gifts and talents!
    As for the comments regarding Gaga's wheelchair performance, I have mixed emotions. Being an artist myself, I can appreciate her team's out of the box creativity. Then on the same token, being a professional dancer, I would have appreciated it much more had they went outside of the normal media portrail of the disabled community and actually included a wheelchair dancer!
    That is why I gained so much respect for HiHat, the choreographer for many acclaimed artist! She had a vision for Ludacris's video "Stand Up" and then went the extra mile to search for a true Wheelchair Hip-Hop Dancer! And with fate, she found me. Not only did she ask me to dance in the vid, but also allowed me to assist in Choreography for the wheelchair seen. And I know, the others were able bodied dancers, but that was so that they could jump out of their chairs when Luda said "Stand Up"! This was a creative way of an artist simple saying that his lyrics are so powerful, even the disabled will be healed to stand up. Lol
    Anyway, I enjoy rep'n for us and look forward to changing the typical stereo type of the disabled community. We Rock while We Roll! So let's change hoe they receive us One Dance at a Time!!!
    Auti Angel

  16. Elizabeth7:27 AM

    As a recently (as of 6 years now) disabled person and former dance choreographer who saw that VMA performance as it was airing, I did have a genuine laugh while watching from my own wheelchair. It was poorly done, but it didn't offend me. It was an obvious glamorization of something that doesn't seem to get mentioned anywhere (if we're about to talk about rights and discrimination of being disabled, it's a much different topic that does bother me). Before I had my own accident, I was not very aware of the disabled community. Had I been aware of it, I would have been curious about seeing anyone with a physical impairment (that I did not have) perform. It would have been wonderful had Lady Gaga used her fame to showcase real disabled people dancing, but my guess is that it never really crossed her mind. The thought of using fake disability as a performance was obviously a thought in her head, but not being disabled herself, her and those around her likely don't know very much about real disabilities, and the people doing amazing things with them.

    So while it would have been amazing to see real dancers with disabilities brought to the VMA stage, my guess is that Lady Gaga was the closest thing we'll see for a long time, even if it was fake and in poor taste.

    So I'm not honoured, nor am I offended by this performance as a disabled person.