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).