Monday, February 26, 2007

Symmetry is overrated...


Forest Whitaker took home the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role last night, for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Whitaker is hardly a conventional-looking actor-director: a noticeable strabismus (turned-out eye) and ptosis (drooping eyelid) have made him recognizable in a wide range of roles, and he has said that he thinks his appearance gives his characters more depth. It could have been repaired in recent years; even now, there are commentators asking if it should be. Whitaker has said he'd consider the fairly routine surgery to improve his vision, but not for aesthetic reasons.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

and we're calling this a disability? PLEEEEEEASE!

Penny L. Richards said...

Ptosis can obstruct vision, and strabismus can interfere with visual inputs like depth perception--but even if these impairments aren't part of an individual's experience, it's still a facial difference that can carry stigma, prompting assumptions about the bearer's competence, morality, etc. Whitaker has described the reluctance he found in directors, when he first started acting, to cast him, based on this concern.

The field of disability studies considers more than just the things that will get you a parking placard or require a work accommodation.

Anonymous said...

no kidding -- i have severe cp and graduated college with honors but can't get the most menial of jobs. a facial deformity is not a disability. when did "a facial difference that can carry stigma, prompting assumptions about the bearer's competence, morality, etc." become part of the definition of disability? that's absurd. a scar on your face can prompt the same thing.

forrest whitaker is NOT disabled, and watering down "disability studies" to include him just to get a famous name on your blog is an insult to those of us who are.

Penny L. Richards said...

Well, there's no one definition of disability for all purposes, of course. But the field of disability studies does consider the cultural meanings and lived experience of facial differences. Here's Rosemarie Garland Thomson on what disability studies covers:

"...disability brings together traits that may have little in common in order to create a social class of people designated as defective and politically, economically, and socially discriminated against. Thus, people with chronic or acute illnesses, appearance impairments such as birthmarks or fatness, traumatic injuries, congenital impairments or anomalies, sensory impairments, latent conditions such as HIV or hereditary conditions, learning disabilities, and mental, developmental, or emotional illnesses are grouped together under the medical-scientific rubric of abnormality and its accompanying cultural sentence of inferiority. This process of interpellation and its material consequences are the major critical concerns of feminist disability studies."

(from RGT, "Feminist Disability Studies," Signs 30(2)(2005): 1557-1587)

A widely assigned text in DS classes is Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, in which the author noted,

"I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I've spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor by comparison."

Anonymous said...

I stand by my original statement. The problem with the quotes you offer is, again, that they water down the definition of disability thus allowing real issues of PWDs to get lost in the shuffle not only in society but within the so-called disability community. These broad definitions of disability were generated by a PC society and groups looking to qualify for funding originally intended for people with true disabilities.

Take the Grealy quote you offer: "I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I've spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor by comparison."

First of all, cancer’s not a disability. It’s an illness that is now defined as a disability for legal purposes. Secondly, she admits the social pain of “nothing other than looking different from everyone else . . . that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life.” I’m not dismissing her experience, but by her own admission it was unrelated to her condition. Black families moving into predominately white areas can experience prejudice in the way she described. It’s “wrong” certainly, but to call it a disability is a farce.

I’ll grant you that by the accepted definition of disability, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and other illnesses are disabilities. I still say Whitaker’s condition is not. I’ll go further and say that if PWDs are ever to move forward AS A GROUP, the definition needs to narrow – not widen.

Thomson’s suggestion doesn’t work on levels too numerous to explore here, but just take one example. She says, "...disability brings together traits that may have little in common in order to create a social class of people designated as defective and politically, economically, and socially discriminated against.” Mr. Whitaker just won one of the most superficial awards in the world for a job he earns millions doing.

It’s about real experience – not PC texts.

Penny L. Richards said...

Ah well. Like it or not, I think you're going to have to expect a blog named "Disability Studies" to work from the broader definitions current to that field, which include the concepts of stigma and defect.

Anonymous said...

With conviction like "ah, well" who could argue? It was a worthwhile debate til that.

Anonymous said...

In fact, I feel compelled to add: Your “ah well” is rather patronizing. You create a blog to discuss disability issues, and, from what I can tell, the first time you’re actually engaged, you end it with “ah well” this is what we’re doing and that’s that. You made no real attempt to refute my response to your quotes. It’s typical of society’s response to PWDs…once they stop making us smile, let’s pat them on the head and hope they go away. I’m sure you consider yourself a crusader for the disabled. Whether you are a PWD or not, you’re actually part of the problem. Any one in the disability community with an ounce of a voice should be moving the cause forward as opposed to finding non-issues meant to make us all feel warm and fuzzy. “Symmetry is Overrated” … Whitaker won and he’s one of us…. Ridiculous.

Sara said...

See, and here I was thinking, "Right on, Penny; symmetry is overrated." Regardless of whether FW is disabled or just relatively disabled given the field he's in, it's an excellent thing to remember. But then, I speak as a visual artist when I say things like this, not as a disability student. But then, as a putatively disabled person, I'm also perfectly fine with being given occasional opportunities to feel warm and fuzzy over the success of someone else with an odd shape, especially someone as talented as FW.

Ha. Oh well. :)

Meanwhile, IMO, sparking a conversation such as the one above is also a valid purpose for any post on a blog like this, don't you think?

Cheers!

Rae Ann Turner said...

My son was born with Congenital Third Nerve Palsy (with Ptosis). He's 2 years old and can play piano, DJ on my husbands turntables, watch and play golf with ease, and is very intelligent for his age but people always stare at him with such rudeness whenever we are in public because his eye is rather droopy even after the sling surgery at 5 months of age.

I would not call it a disibility. I used to look at it as a birth defect until I realized it is a part of him, his personality really. He is tremendously comical and would not be the same wonderful kid without it! I have an amazing Pediatric Opthalmologist and he monitors my son's condition intently. The rest is up to God...

Penny L. Richards said...

Hey Sara, I agree--it's his profession that makes this an interesting story to me--though of course there's always been more leeway for male film actors' appearances than for women in the same field. I wouldn't necessarily call FW disabled (and I didn't, in the original post), but I obviously think issues of non-standard appearance and medicalized defect are within the purview of Disability Studies, worth exploring.

Rae Ann--your son sounds delightful. Thanks for sharing about him! One of my siblings was born with a ptosis--we found that when he was in school, teachers sometimes misinterpreted his apparent expression as tiredness or inattention--just something to watch for when he's a little older. The ptosis itself wasn't a functional impairment for him, but the way people stare and assume can amount to disablement.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting to learn about the field of Disability Studies. Perhaps you can share more in future posts? Just the question of what is a disability is thought provoking.

Janet

Anonymous said...

"I wouldn't necessarily call FW disabled (and I didn't, in the original post)..." Writing about Whitaker on a disability studies blog with the focus you chose IS calling him disabled. Also, if that wasn't your intent, your first reply wouldn't have been an attempt to further define his condition as a disability. At least you corrected yourself, and maybe learned something about disability.

"Just the question of what is a disability is thought provoking." Yes, it is. Hopefully someday they'll be a place to discuss such things without a dismissive, pc moderator like richards who clearly cannot engage actual debate. Funny how she had time to respond to other posts, eh?

I wonder...do white profs teach African-American studies? Possibly they do, but I don't think they should. Richards is an example of why a similar rule should apply to dis studies.

I'll leave you ladies to your "polite" debate about PWDs that you know.

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