When reading Tavi Gevinson's interview for Bitch Magazine on a rainy Sunday afternoon I was struck by this quote: "My arch nemesis at school would like to tell me that Rookieis for a first-world girl.” First world girl? What. No! The dismissal of Rookie, the teen girl magazine that Tavi founded, edits and art directs, as 'first world' made me so sad (and mad!). It’s a criticism I’ve heard before. Not to say that Rookie is perfect. But this statement in particular really says more about so called 'Western' countries ignorance towards the so-called 'developing world' than it does about that site. Oh and possibly my long-standing irritation towards the whole #firstworldproblems outlook (the hash tag, the phrase, just everything. I never said I was easy going okay?!) The misguided belief that simple pleasures, like pop culture, silliness and cuteness, are contained within the borders of rich, white nations is an insidious sort of ugly I’m keen to avoid.
It’s the ‘stop talking about Miley Cyrus people are dying in Syria’ attitude. The brand of ironic colonialist back patting that is all over my Facebook newsfeed and makes me feel funny. To divide issues into silly and serious ignores that everything is part of well...everything. Power manifests everywhere, and we can learn as much about the history of these power structures in the VMA’s as whatever humanitarian crisis of the month The Onion is pretending to care about. I’m saying this as a real life Syrian girl that wrote a whole term paper on Miley by the way. This stuff really does co-exist and to say otherwise denies the complex contradictions of being a person of colour from a developing country in the 21st century.
Pop culture matters. The ghoulish spectre of slavery cuts through the institutionalised racism and cultural appropriation of American pop music. And what about the supposedly hash-tag-less ‘East’? Here, seemingly 'first world' motifs are reconstructed to signify the political identity of the Arab World. Sponge Bob Square Pants has become an icon of Tahrir square while Mickey Mouse is a Hamas children's TV mascot. Tell me, is that a third world problem or a first world one?
I think of the movie ‘The Last King of Scotland’, which subverts the white saviour narrative by telling the fictional story of a white doctor’s destructive relationship with Idi Amin, the president of Uganda. This quote by Amin to the white doctor, is especially important, contrasting the fantasy of ‘Africa’ with the reality of Ugandan life under Amin. He says:
“Did you think this was all a game? 'I will go to Africa and I will play the white man with the natives.' Is that what you thought? We are not a game, Nicholas. We are real. This room here, it is real. I think your death will be the first real thing that has happened to you.”
Because we are real, and perhaps the most troubling part of the #firstworldproblems mind set is its erasure of the lived experience of so called ‘third world’ people. In reducing big parts of the map to homogenous blobs of ‘sad brown faces’, you forget that the rhythm of day-to-day life, its annoyances, it banality is universal.
In this sense for ‘first world people’, to even attempt to see the inhabitants of the so-called ‘third world’ as human, they must actively work against what the novelist Chimamanda Adichie describes as “the single story”. The single story is a pre-set narrative, which forces a shallow tale of imagined suffering onto people of colour. Writer Jenny Zhang nails this, in her essay ‘Style=Substance’ for Rookie Magazine. And yes, that was the ‘first world girl’ magazine we were talking about before. She writes:
“Here’s what I wish I knew back when I was in high school and so proud of myself for being the exceptionally compassionate, caring person I believed myself to be: focusing only on the pain and degradation of any oppressed group of people does another kind of damage to those individuals. It turns them into stereotypes of pain and damage and ignores everything else about them, including whether they’re funny, or stupid, or weird, or brilliant, or irreverent, or stylish, or creative, or boring, or selfish, or anything else that people are capable of being. It takes away their complexity and vastness and reduces people to one-dimensional figures.”
You see, the thing is, even when I was at my lowest #thirdworldproblems point I still cared about 'stupid' stuff too. And to quote to, once again, quote Jenny’s beautiful essay: "we contain multitudes". Yes! We. Contain. Multitudes. We contain so much more than you think us capable of. And I’m not talking about epic poems on genocide, terrorism, civil war. I’m thinking crushes on cute boys, cat’s eyes in liquid eyeliner, late night talks with best friends, idealistic daydreams and everyday disappointments. And whilst real bad stuff like war is perhaps more 'real' to me (whatever that means) than to some people, I still have room in my head to worry about whether my hair look cute or throw a grump that my blackberry isn't receiving emails. I know it may not seem ‘authentic’, but it's true.
“It is obvious with the most cursory of glances that in our society, conjoined twins are disabled. Society does not accommodate them. They are medicalised from fetushood. They are spectacle. Their operations are videoed and broadcast across the world. They are displayed, tested, stared at, discussed, and mocked, purely because of the shape and layout of their bodies. They are the subject of comedy fiction and “inspiring” tragedy nonfiction.”
“Why is it so funny when Palmer and Webley cripdrag-up in that modified dress? Why do they snigger and smirk as they talk about “the twins” and their tragic tale? They do this – you do this – because you do see these bodies as Other. Fascinating, bizarre, freakish. Fodder.”
I’m not sure if you saw, but a couple of weeks ago, Coco and Breezy modelled for Kelly Framel’s fashion blog, ‘The Glamourai’, with Kelly styling the sisters in the image of the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton. A bunch of people seemed to like it. I, on the other hand, did not. How could I, when all these pictures offered was a sad reminder of the continuing misrepresentation, appropriation and romanticisation of disabled bodies in visual culture.
Invisible borders divide disabled bodies into two genres. The first: the romantic fairy tale style, a world where disabled bodies are represented as mythical unicorn fairy creatures, delicate, tragic and otherworldly inspiration. (This is where disability as dress up, romance, or quirky inspiration comes in.) The second, in contrast, is not mystical but medical. A place where a person is nothing more than the sum of their symptoms, a Caliban-esque creature to turn away from, to be kept in the dark. No pictures for you, wait, wait, actually, maybe just one, but only to prove how much I absolutely do not want to look at you. (And if that’s not good logic I don’t know what is). I think of Katherine Dunn’s novel ‘Geek Love’, a flawed study of the freak show and an (ironically) ableist investigation of ableism. This quote, from the character Arty (a sideshow star born with ‘flippers’ in place of limbs) comes to mind particularly: “I'm a freak but not much of a freak. I'm like you, fucked up without being special. There's nothing unique about me except my brains and the crowd can't see that.” I think of my scoliosis and how back braces and crooked spines are never going to be in Vogue.
Different roads lead to the same outcome. And whether it’s a medical photo with the eyes blacked out or a ye olde freak show theme on a fashion blog the message is the same. Disabled people are too different, too ‘Other’, to be seen as real, and thus we cannot accept responsibilities for our actions towards them. After all how can you appropriate from a fairy tale creature? A B movie monster? You cannot.
But they were real people I hear you say! And I Wikipedia-ed them and they seem like, really cool and stuff. And besides, they do have great style so isn’t bringing disability into it a little ableist in itself? Short answer: no. To consider disability in a case where able-bodied people are quite literally dressing up as disabled people is neither overreaching nor oversensitive. Of course we can be inspired by the Hilton sisters style, their history, their performance work. And, perhaps, with deep thought, and an understanding of the very real oppressions that disabled people face, this inspiration could translate into a fashion shoot. But ‘crip drag’ (the act of ‘performing’ disability as an abled bodied person) is not an appropriate way to articulate this inspiration.
Parallels can be drawn to Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley’s creative project, Evelyn Evelyn, where the musicians invented a pair of conjoined twins, and performed as these characters on stage. Annaham from the site ‘Forward: Feminists with Disabilities’ explained why the act of dressing up as conjoined twins for ‘artistic’ reasons is problematic in her critique ‘Evelyn Evelyn: Ableism Ableism?’ Here she breaks down the motivation and thought processes behind creative crip drag, the first sentiment being: “what’s more shocking and weird than conjoined twins, at least according to abled culture?” And the second, the act of translating this ‘Othering’ lens of viewing disability into the “outright appropriation of this uniqueness in the name of art.” I can certainly identify both these factors in both the Glamourai shoot and in able-bodied culture’s continuing fascination with the aesthetics of the Victorian freak show.
For instance, I have to admit I was a little thrown by Rookie Magazine (a favourite publication of mine) choice to publish a how to dress up guide for their “favourite ‘freak ladies’” Violet and Daisy as part of their circus themed ‘Thrills and Chills’ issue last August. A point exasperated by the fact that they offered little to no context of the lived experience of disabled people, or the complex nature of the film they were referencing, either in the post itself, or any of the previous writings from that month. (Though to their credit the photo set ‘That’s what friends do’ later on that year was great.)
The question of race should also be highlighted in the Glamourai shoot. For, the casting of able-bodied African-American and Puerto Rican women, to play the role of ‘disabled’ serves as a painful reminder of the intersections of race and disability in the lived experiences of disabled people of colour. I am reminded of a scene in the documentary ‘Still Black’ where a trans man, who was a wheelchair user, explains how able-bodied people refused to give him any physical assistance. Their fear of black masculinity was so great they believed he would car jack them from his wheelchair. I am disappointed that the only other cultural example of disabled blackness that comes to mind is the ‘tragically crippled’ figure of Uncle Willie in the writing Maya Angelou. That is not right.
Vice once said that “all the people who are into “50s stuff” are definitely racists.” And there is a certain truth to this half-joke. For the uncritical consumption of a culture where oppression is not just an ingrained subtext, but a straight up focal point, renders you, unintentionally or not, as part of the problem. Disability is not a cabaret. It is neither theatre nor costume. And whilst Coco and Breezy’s shoot may not be the most outrageously awful example of ‘crip drag’ (I think Amanda Palmer is still winning on that front) it is concerning that, nearly fifty years after Daisy and Violet’s death, examples of such a practice exists at all.