Saturday, July 16, 2011

Lady Gaga And The Wheelchair: II

Was it wrong?  Inappropriate?  Offensive?  Yes!  Of course, it was.

You've probably heard by now that Lady Gaga herself rolled out on stage in a wheelchair.  What did that look like?  This!  (Link goes to a google image search in which in several photographs that I don't have permission to reproduce Lady Gaga appears in a dark, mostly unblingy, old style manual wheelchair.  She's wearing dark glasses and a mermaid's tail.)  Apparently, Australian fans disliked what they saw; some threw eggs.  Disability activists also (but probably for different reasons) disliked what we saw; I've never thrown eggs -- some wars are won better with words or with not buying a ticket.

Here's a thought experiment.  Suppose we take Lady Gaga more seriously than, say, Kevin McHale (Artie on Glee).  Yeah, the fame monster is hungry for publicity, and it needs to be fed -- in as many outrageous ways as possible.  Yeah,

Here's what taking Lady Gaga seriously doesn't do.

It doesn't raise the profile of disabled people and encourage our acceptance either in general public spaces or on stage.  Lady Gaga is not disabled in a way that requires her to use a wheelchair.  Lady Gaga rolling around in a chair or using crutches or having a non-disabled dancer use a chair does not materially change our world.  It doesn't raise awareness around disability and disability issues.  It doesn't make people see wheelchairs as positive.  It's just another person sitting in a wheelchair; the only thing that does is assure non disabled folks that it is OK to be in wheelchairs when you don't need them.

Seeing Lady Gaga's representations of disability does not assure people that it is all right to be disabled because disability can be glamorous and sexy.  Everyone knows that Lady Gaga's performance is a stage realization and that for most people (not ruling anyone out here) disability is not really like that.  (I know; not even my glamorous sexy life is quite like that).  In fact, Lady Gaga's disability is so overtop that it harms public acceptance: real disability is almost never like that.  In some ways, the lived experience of disability appears even more unsexy when contrasted with the Lady Gaga image.

We in the disability community aren't really helping ourselves when we make these and other similar arguments.  The weightiness of experience and reality just isn't there.

So, what would it mean to take Lady Gaga seriously?

Here's a nuance.  A nuance, yes, but an important one.  Lady Gaga's disability is not about being disabled, so much as it is an exploration of the moments and ways that one might come into disability -- on stage and/or in the public eye.

In Paparazzi, she becomes disabled before the media; in Sydney, she became disabled before her adoring fans.  (It doesn't matter that she's costumed as a mermaid; I've seen scholarly and web readings in this vein.)  No, to me, it's about creating, testing, staging.  It's not about being disabled.  Lady Gaga's disability is only temporary -- I love Annaham's post about that here.  Her emphasis on the temporary nature of Lady Gag's disability got me rethinking  No, it's not about being and existing as disabled in, say, the same way that Kevin McHale's Artie does.  Or any of the other non-disabled actors who are playing disabled roles.  It's not even about having a disability identity...  It is, for me at least, about performing the moment that one becomes disabled and that, as a non-disabled person, she is uniquely qualified to do.  (I'm indebted to s.e. smith for a really helpful conversation about trying on different identities.)

Over the past couple of days, I've wondered whether or not, this disability exploration might have its roots in Lady Gaga's family history of lupus.  I've spent a while thinking about this.  I've come to think that family history and individual psychology might be a red herring, however; rarely does anyone of us do anything for any one reason or as a linear response to a complex situation.  BUT, more to my point, it doesn't matter whether or not Lady Gaga has disability in her family or whether she herself has a disabling form of lupus.  The point is as a non-disabled person she might, at any moment, become disabled.

How do we come into disability?  What do we do?  How do we respond?  The moment that one is recognized as disabled in the public eye is life changing in so many ways.  How do we present ourselves?  This moment and its consequences are to me what Lady Gaga is exploring.  Looking at newspaper reports, facebook, twitter and blog posts, I find I am interested not in how "unreal" her disability is, but in the reaction of everyone -- including activists like me -- around her.

(My first post on Lady Gaga and wheelchairs is here).


  1. I'm going to do an experiment. I'm going to link to the story and photo on my blog and ask my able bodied readers to react to it.

    The fish tail is interesting though, that's an homage to Bette Middler who did a number as part of her live show with mermaids in wheelchairs.

  2. Thank you for this; I've been coming at it from a very different point of view, and as you I am more interested in what disabled folks have to say about this than in what the general media or even Gaga herself has to say about it.

  3. I think it is art and as such just FINE. The more people talk about wheelchairs, the better. I am gay. I am a wheelchair lifer. I am a Lady Gaga monster and she makes me feel proud of it.

  4. My question is, if she is dressed as a mermaid, how else is she supposed to get around on stage?

    I'm not a monster -- she's got a good voice, and the songs are catchy, but her public persona is scary freaky -- but in this instance I think the critics are going a little overboard.

    And I don't believe that Midler got any flak for her mermaid in a wheelchair performances ( )

    And yes, I am SCI C-5 complete in a power chair for 14 years now.

  5. Dear Anonymous.

    I am happy to post your critical comment. It is below. I have edited out, however, your use of disability offensive language. WCD


    she's an idiot. the best thing to do would be to stop giving her the publicity she desires. So what she used a wheel chair and offended you. You are offended of your own choosing, she just acted like a goof to make money. I am not supporting her, in fact she makes my skin crawl, but she's human as we all are and we all do {edited: WCD} things. If you stop focusing your attention on her, maybe she will stop focusing on being a {edited" WCD}. This is the same girl who wore a meat dress. Imagine the pissed off vegans. WHO CARES, MOVE ON!!!

  6. "My question is, if she is dressed as a mermaid, how else is she supposed to get around on stage?"

    LOL you could modify that slightly and make a brilliant sticker for a wheelchair :D.

  7. Sorry for the double comment, I just wanted to say I agreed with Diane. My last comment replying to her seems to have been swallowed by the interwebs gremlin :).

  8. "How do we come into disability? What do we do? How do we respond? The moment that one is recognized as disabled in the public eye is life changing in so many ways. How do we present ourselves?"

    I've been chewing this over for a couple days now and still am, really. I "came into" visible disability last fall when I started using a cane or service dog to get around, and the difference in peoples' responses to me depending on what aid I'm using, or if they see me sitting and don't recognize me as disabled and then I stand up, it all takes parsing.

  9. Just a (boring, I know) point of order - the story that Australian fans threw eggs at her in the concert as a response to her wheelchair use is a media fabrication.

    A member of her entourage was egged outside a nightclub a day or two _before_ her concert here. The only negative responses to her appearance in a wheelchair (before the media storm) were two extremely mild tweets from American activists.

    So the whole story about outraged Aussie fans... is based on absolutely nothing.

  10. Ragnar12:21 PM

    My major problem with the argument of the article is that differently abled ("disabled," if you wish to use that word) performance is necessarily seen as derogatory: but is this the same for the majority of differing identities? Is gender performance derogatory to the gender it represents? "Disability," is itself a misnomer, because it assumes an ableist being or mode of identity. But aren't all individuals differently abled, not just physically, but also mentally? She is making visible her own (dis)ability and playing with the perceptions of her ability, as she has done countless times with her gender, body, and sexuality. You can argue that it is derogatory, but perhaps she is using the symbolic wheelchair to represent the (dis)ability she has felt in its various facets. In a way, she is making the unconventional (dis)abilities she has (or the ones we tend to not to (self-)prescribe), and by making the ableist majority realize that the Othering of "the disabled" is pure and simple hegemony and prejudice. As you have said, the Paparazzi video is a critical example of her popularizing the notion that (dis)ability is not some finely defined concept, that it is a spectrum, and reiterating that every individual is differently abled to differing extents.

  11. Why is it not okay for abled people to use a wheelchair? I am in transition from "more abled" to "less abled" and have been struggling with the perception that it is not okay for me to use a chair because I don't "really need it". I could use some input from the other side of the fence, because I get enough from fully-abled people, but it seems like maybe people on the other side also don't like it. But I don't understand why.

  12. kalany: If you are struggling, use the chair and let anyone who has a problem with that go and stuff themselves. Of course there may be some adjustment time needed for your nearest and dearest but don't tolerate anyone with a persistently bad attitude towards your new status - those hang-ups are there's alone, not yours.

    To me the chair is a tool that allows me to carry out tasks as well as an accessory that allows me to express my personality, which is why I was very insistent it should match my car and 90% of my wardrobe *haha*. I think my attitude towards it rubs off on able-bodied people so they're not awkward around me or the chair.

  13. How about another take on Lady Gaga's representation of disability. Check out my Blog Post!

  14. Elizabeth7:52 AM

    I think if you're open to discussion on the topic (which you seem to be), then take it from a perspective of those who were not offended. Completely disregarding the conditional aspects of the non-offendee: Some of those offended were able-bodied, and some of those offended were disabled. Some of those who were not offended were able-bodied, and some of those who were not offended were disabled.

    I know that Lady Gaga does not require the use of a wheelchair in her everyday life. Much of the population does not. Those of us who do require a wheelchair are much more receptive of the difficulties from having to live every waking moment with our disability. And in addition to that, we are also living with a constant inequality, yet we want that to be respected to the fullest.

    I live with my sister's family, and my nephews are a huge part of my life. They are not disabled, but are both curious to my life in a wheelchair. I think it's wonderful that they are. When I'm not in my chair, they often want to sit in it and use it both because it is 'fun' and because they are curious. This, to me, is not bad at all. They are more interested and receptive of those who have disabilities because of mine. It is not offensive to me for someone to pretend to live from my point of view. It makes me feel grateful that they are not turning a blind eye and looking away.

    It isn't damaging to me if Lady Gaga dresses as a mermaid and sits in a wheelchair. What is damaging is if a person tries to say that someone in a wheelchair is less of a person than someone who is not when we know that's not true.