Intersectionality…?

Hi everyone! Long time no see. Sorry for being MIA. I have been a bit busy with finishing the Threepenny Opera tour, which was epic, and diving headlong back into the world of Phd candidate life. The kick off to this was attending a talk given by a queer theorist named Jasbir Puar who is about to publish a book that, according to her website, “takes up questions of disability in the context of theories of bodily assemblages that trouble intersectional identity frames.” …I have to be honest, even after her talk which I found extremely interesting and engaging, I’m still not completely sure I know what that means.

Intersectionality is defined by google as “the study of intersections between different disenfranchised groups or groups of minorities; specifically, the study of the interactions of multiple systems of oppression or discrimination.” As far as I am aware, it also relates to the interactions of identity within individuals, or communities of people. For example, I am blind. I am a woman. I am 31. I am American. I am a performer. I am a daughter. etc. Each one of these statements denotes an identity that sets up a normative set of expectations that are often based in stereotypes, i.e. stating that I am a woman might lead people to assume I’m a good cook (not true) and that I don’t know anything about football (true). Being American might lead people to assume that I’m loud (true) and fat (not true). Regardless, all of these identities come together to make me, Amelia, the person who is writing this blog right now. Furthermore, these identities are fluid and constantly changing. What it means to be any of these labels at any point will constantly shift depending on (to name a few things) where I am, who I’m interacting with and how I am feeling within myself at any moment. I can also change the wording to denote slightly different normative constructs. For example, instead of saying “blind” I could say “disabled” or “visually impaired”. All three are true, but can mean different things. Instead of saying “American” I could say “foreign” (when I’m in London anyway). Again, both are true, but can mean different things.

In her talk, Puar read sections of one of the chapters in her new book. In this chapter, she discusses the relationship between transgender and crip/disabled identity. This in itself is very interesting, and is one of my favorite things about queer theory taking on disability as a subject of study. The majority of disability studies, when looking at the term in a general sense, seems to focus on physical/visual disability. Of course, Puar was not saying that being transgender is a disability. In fact, she was clear to point out that most who identify as trans fight the impairment model, despite various laws and regulations that try to classify trans in this way (i.e. saying someone has “gender dysphoria” which is classified as a mental illness).

I know very little about trans identities, and am therefore not going to get too into that topic at this point as I will almost definitely stick my foot in my mouth if I do. What I will say though is that Puar discussed more than once the discrimination that both disabled and trans people face, and that people who identify with more than one minority culture (i.e. black trans, or gay, woman, wheelchair user) tend to be victim to more discrimination. They also make up less of the visible, identifiable people within these minorities. And, of course, it’s true. I mean, I know a few people who fit these intersectional minorities, such as a black, blind, gay, drag queen… but he’s just one person. And how visible is he, really? How much more crap does he have to deal with than the white, blind, hetero drag queens? (I know one of those too) And where is the representation of all of these queer/crip/race/gender identities in performance and the media? 

I ask this question not as a criticism necessarily, but as a genuine, worried question. It almost definitely speaks to a bigger problem. For example, in my MA, there were 30 of us, most of whom were white, and identified as non-disabled and heterosexual. Each and every one of those people were lovely, talented and had worked their asses off to be in that degree, and to do all of the successful things they have done since. I have since then had many discussions with people who work in theatrical institutions and universities, directors, casting directors and other actors about why there is almost no representation of disability in drama schools, on tv and in movies and on stage. Again, I can’t speak for other minority cultures, but I know that the general stance from the disabled contingent is that chances are not given to disabled people. The doors are not open (or maybe they are, but the building isn’t accessible), which makes it very difficult to get inside. Is that even more so the case with people who are, say muslim and disabled? Queer and disabled? And if so, why? If intersectionality is really about embracing all identities, particularly the ones that sit outside of normative social constructs, how the hell does that get started, really? Why is it taking so long? 

 

Nuts and Bolts

Here are some useful things to know about my research. Again, please ask questions, debate, comment, etc. I am still getting to grips with most of this, so any thoughts and ideas are useful!

1. I’m looking for “trouble”. When I say this, I don’t mean it in a straight forward, “you did bad, go sit in time out” kind of way. Trouble in an academic sense is a space of tension, subversion or rupture. It is a place of conflict where things aren’t (and may never become) resolved. Though this might come from doing something like breaking a rule, the result is not as straight forward as the common understanding for the word trouble insinuates. For one thing, I don’t think trouble is “bad”. These places of tension often bring about possibilities for new questions, thoughts and ideas to occur. Trouble can (should?) be a place of creativity and insight as well as a method for laying down boundaries and rules. 

2. I’m going to use the word “crip” a lot. This too is an academic term. Shocked? Good. That’s the point. There is a whole section in disability studies that calls itself “crip theory.” (Look up Robert McRuer and/or Carrie Sandahl if you don’t believe me) It is based in methodologies from other identity based studies like queer theory and feminist studies. The use of the word is meant to be a tongue and cheek provocation. It is also a common word in disability culture. We all call each other crips, and when we do we’re not just referring to physical disability. Blindies like me get to get in on the action too, as do any others who fit under the disability umbrella if they so choose. 

3. Everything can be a performance, or at least “performative”. Crip theory and queer theory take on the idea of “performativity” which is… difficult to explain in a few sentences. In essence it means that pretty much everything you do, and everything you associate as yourself is performed. Gender, sexuality, culture, social class, and yes, disability (among other things) all have aspects of them that are based in societal structures and expectations that are taught to us from childhood. If this seems unlikely, think about toys that are given to children. The average five year old girl and boy have the same hormonal make up, yet what will the little girl be likely to want for her birthday? What will the boy? These are taught behaviors that are repeated continuously until they become “normative” or what is considered to be normal. Obviously, this is not universal for everyone, but the general systems that are in place are pretty obvious once you start looking for them. 

4. I’m an actor who has trained a in modern, western school setting, which means that I have been taught that an actor’s best tool is her imagination. I am really curious about what the imagination is and what it does for an actor. What images does imagination create? What are those images made of? In particular, I want to know how much of these images are visual, and more to the point, how often methods of acting, training actors, directing actors, etc. expect this imagination output to be visual? The academic way I am phrasing this in my thesis at present god something like, “Is acting ocularcentric (visual)? If so, where does the ocular sit in acting processes?” (blahhh!! …so much for not using words that no one understands!)

So essentially, I am a crip actor who wants to trouble the “image” in imagination. Make sense? No? Good. That’s about where I’m at with it too!