Friday, 18 July 2008

Superchicks, clones, cyborgs, and cripples: cinema and messages of bodily transformations

What I've done here is reproduce a very hard to find article published by Helen Meekosha in:

Social Alternatives vol 18, no 1, January 1999.

Helen sent it to me in reponse to a request when I was researching my thesis a few years back. As the piece is already in the public domain, I can't see any problems in archiving it here, as long as anyone who might happen to cite it refer to the original source. My hope is in part to give the piece wider exposure by posting it here. I have tried to find some relevant imagery to illustrate her argument about Alien Resurrection, and although this risks accusations of sensationalism on my part, the real motivation is knowing how many visitors to this blog use Google image searching as their entry point. So the images may be enough to bait the hooks needed to get at least a few people to linger a bit longer by reading Helen's critical analysis.

Furthermore, unlike say the uncharitable interlocuter who flamed me in my earlier "Crash" post, I am not of the opinion that it is somehow illegitimate to reference older films. To the contrary, the longer texts have been in circulation, the more opportunity they are afforded to become iconic. Ideally one should also consider the fact that the representation of disability issues is so neglected by Hollywood that authors/activists have little alternative other than to reference a few "canonical" texts. Placed in a wider sociocultural context, it seems to me that the issues raised by Meekosha can only become more relevant and central to public consciousness with the passage of time. As far as films go, one need only consider how the X-Men series subsequently emerged as a prominent example of representation of these looming debates.

"Hollywood is continually pumping out movies saturated with images of disability. Sometimes these movies can tell us more about disability, difference and what it takes to be a good citizen than some might even want to know. In classic anthropological terms, movies have cultural functions, and movies about disability are more likely to be movies about normality and stability and the threat disability poses. Indeed, disability may be used as a metaphor for threats to the social order. A number of recent films allow us to examine the boundaries of disability representation in contemporary popular culture.

Some viewers see the latest Alien move "Alien Resurrection" (AR) as a full-on feminist thriller, replete with androids, clones and postmodern references. It hints at lesbian/queer sexualities. It contests the nature/culture divide, by gluing them together, and thereby demonstrates its postmodern feminist credentials. Yet AR can be read as rich in metaphors relevant to disability politics in the late twentieth century. It touches many of the key debates in which activists around the world are engaged.

Is there a "politically correct" representation of disability, given Hollywood's association of disability with "evil", "sinister", "tragic" and "instructive" narratives? Many active in disability politics yearn for more affirming "nice guy/gal" images, while others argue that the movies should reflect the full diversity of the disability experience. So how are we to react to the opening sequence of AR where Christy the tough smuggler is using Vriess's, his crippled comrade's, "dead" leg as a dart board for his knife? It depends, I would say, on who are the "we" who are watching.

The film operates at two different levels- one which can be read as working in the discourses of contemporary feminism, the other which appears unintended and speaks primarily to audiences of people with disabilities. First then, to examine the feminist/feminine world created by the director.

The Alien series, this one directed by Jean Pierre Jeunet, have pressed the boundaries of science fiction cinema, creating in the process a feminist action hero in the star Sigourney Weaver as Ripley. By AR, the fourth film in the series, Ripley who went molecular to destroy the Alien Queen in Alien 3, returns as a cloned "mother" to the incubus within. But with a spin, she is now a "supergirl", more powerful, speedy, acute, coordinated and generally aerobicised than any woman has the right to be. Which of course is the point- she is no longer "just a woman" but rather the mutated amalgam of her past and the Alien mother, created by scientists from surviving germ plasma. Where does she come from? Is she one of "us" or of "them"? Is this is a crisis of identity, where multiple pasts fuse in the present body but the projected future is problematic?

Ripley (her very name recalling the long running newspaper columns about the weird and wonderful ("Believe It or Not") is the archetypal woman in a man's world ,tougher, able to sustain herself against pain and suffering, uncomplaining. She embodies qualities of the essentialist female myth, with its roots in American frontier images of the pioneer woman, now updated with reference to those radical econfeminists who see women as a species different from men, inheritors of the power of the Goddess. Others see Ripley as representing part of the third/new wave feminist adventurer moving beyond conventional boundaries of feminist concern. She confronts the masculinist fantasy of the man eating vagina (vagina dentata) which is the Alien Queen.

Meanwhile moral majority America casts the film as an expression of a death dealing culture, which found original expression in the annihilation of the indigenous people, and now sustains its blood lust through massive foetus killing/abortion- under the influence of feminism. So feminists and anti-feminists can have their own textual analytial battles, but these are not, ultimately, the point. As with most mythical texts, the unintended consequences can be most revealing.

Some audiences are aware of the discourses of disability, and the interstices of cultural practices which sustain them. For these viewers, AR is saturated with strategic triggers which draw in the power relations of disability as these are are experienced in the wider world and daily life. Many of these triggers fire seriously disturbing and destructive judgements about the value of people with disabilites- of who has the moral right to survive in the third millenium? These judgements resonate with contemporary regimes of surveillance which locate people with disabilities within a range of power struggles- such as the Human Genome Project, "voluntary" euthanasia, pre natal testing and pre implantation testing ("monstous births"), the right to motherhood, rape, abortioon, infanticide of the disabled, the nurturer as killer, cultural hysteria about the public display of "deformed" bodies, the order of death and the differential value accorded disabled lives.

The Human Genome Project has been heralded as the saviour of humanity, by allowing science to "mend" or eliminate disabling genes, or indeed any genes linked to characteristics which are less than "perfect" in the hierarchy of normalcy. MIT geneticist Eric Lander, is quoted as saying that when the HGP finishes "it will be hard to explain to students how we did biology without the human genome".

However, for people with disabilities it carries with it threats of species-cide, the eradication of people like them from the planet. These are people with histories, cultures, languages, who have struggled to survive within the wide range of ways of being human. This range will gradually (or even rapidly) reduce, until all that is left is the small pool of acceptable genes. In the process the message to people with disabilites will be clear- your kind is not wanted here, and we (the normals) have every right to remove you: nay, not just the right, but the duty!

In the laboratories of the Company aboard the spaceship Auriga, Ripley has been rcreated from her own molecules, but perfected through genetic engineering- and we are asked to applaud her super human characteristics. On every dimension she has been "improved", as though with the biogenetic version of a flavour enhancer. But the subtext suggests that in the future "normals"may also become disabled people. In all the Alien movies, contact with the monster leads to one's own destruction as a result of "rape" and the implanting of Alien foetuses in the host. In Alien 3, Ripley was "raped" by the Alien and kills herself rather than give birth to the hideous monster. The differently bodied are presented as a constant sexual threat- in the movies as in life.

Pre natal testing is clearly linked to the applications planned for the Human Genome Project. Here concern is that prenatal testing is solely concerned with identifying "defective" foetuses. Horror fiction uses the idea of "monstrous births" as a device for representing the deformed and tortured soul of the being and to induce a fear of reproducing the abnormal. In AR the Alien Queen was to be prevented at all costs from giving birth to more monsters, who ate human flesh and destroyed the human community. When this attempt failed, the monstrous child was destroyed by Ripley who was both mother and her sibling.

One of the most confronting scenes for disabled people occurs in the same laboratory, where Ripley encounters her "failed" clones locked in the agony of the embodied mistakes of the scientists. The forms of failing which are embodied here are drawn from the ranks of the known universe of disability- "the deformed", "the spastic", "the disfigured", "the limbless". They cry out for her as a sister to end their pain by killing them. In tears,the nurturing mother kills her children/siblings with a flame thrower, becoming Dr Death (one of her male colleagues comments, that "It must be a chick thing").

These are precisely the scenarios which are used to justify the demand for "voluntary" euthanasia- where the reality behind the public debate which focuses on those with terminal illnesses is that many people with disabilities are deemed to have lives inherently worthless. Research in the USA suggests that in those states where the "death option" is mobilised, there are relatively few support services or structurs available to make life "worth living". Yet the irony persists that this scene can be read by some non disabled feminists as an assertion of the right of women to keep control over their reproductive processes, because the cloning was directed by male scientists wose presence represented patriarchy.

There are other references to disability in the movie- most obviously when the going gets tough and the smugglers suggest that they abandon the cripple- a decision not well received by Vriess. Hollywood then proceeds to conform to ultra PC and the Black smuggler saves his friend by sacrificing himself.Vriess survives, a smart and independent sort of guy. Perhaps we should acknowledge that the struggle of the movement against stereotypes in the movies has had an impact.

"I see disabled people's re-valuing of their own bodies and ways of living and the forms of culture that are emerging fro disability pride, as oppositional discourses and practices. They do weaken the internal hold of the disciplines of normality over those who have disabilites" (Wendell 1996: 92).

In the final scenes we discover the good citizen is actually an android, Call, who has fallen in love with Ripley, leaving us to question the future of human bodies, disabled or not.

It is not just in the future cyberworld of the Alien mythology that identity has become more problematically associated with corporeality- we see it too in contemporary contexts: black bodies, gay bodies, transsexaul, transgender bodies, ill bodies and disabled bodies. Corporeal identity thus carries social and personal meaning in a world of uncertainty and flux. Classificatory systems have been used over time to demarcate bodies- determining who consitutes insiders and constitutes outsiders. But are cyborgs really the vision of the future that would transcend the limits of "normalcy" and allow those with disabled bodies to be seen as part of the range of beings which inhabit societies? Perhaps not. We can now see bodies being used and produced for different forms of cultural and capital accumulation. "We are not seeing the end of the body, but the end of one kind of body and the beginnng of another kind of body" (Martin 1997: 544).

While AR offers its texts to the disability aware in layered and unselfconscious format, Gattaca, directed by Andrew Nicol, could be seen as a film which confronts disability more directly- through the theme again of genetic engineering. We are introduced to a world "in the not too distant future" though many of the practices of genetic screening for employment are widespread already.

The hero, Vincent, who is naturally born, but is projected to live only thirty years due to his imperfections, aspires to become an astronaut, a role only available to the genetically perfect. Human bodily perfection is prized, anything less is "In-Valid" or "De-gene-rate", and disabled bodies are criminalised and sent off to work in low skill, low status jobs. While anti discrimination laws exist, our hero, an In-Valid, remarks that "we now have discriminatin down to a science". It is a world where the Human Genome Project has been realised- indeed Gattaca (GAT ATT TTA TAC ACA- linking amino acids adenine [a], thymine , guanne, , and cytosine is the combination of "overlapping triplets" that mark the basic patterns of DNA>. It is a world where the HGP has realised its dream, and all genetic material is manipulable and controllable. The film was to end with a contemporary documentary line in which the audience were informed that "of course, the other birth that may never have taken place is your own". While this was positively endorsed by advisory geneticists, test lay audiences rejected the line, seeing it as a suggesting they may have genetic defects.

Movies with disabled characters are now beginning to reflect the influence of the disability movement on popular culture. So we can see in Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's "Carne Tremula" (Live Flesh) the hero David (played by Javier Bardem) who is a cop, disabled by a bullet to the spine, whose wife, Elena, begins an affair with his attacker, Victor. David is constructed as the Olympian wheelchair riding, basketball playing supercrip, yet despite the apparent "normality" of his diabled state and thus the film's apparent acceptance of the disabilty presence, it also becomes a metaphor for castration- and thus provides an "explanation" for Elena's affair with the fully potent "able bodied" Victor.

A recent Hollywood engagement with the world of disability through a comic frame occurs in the Farrelly Brothers' film, "There's Something About Mary", starring Cameron Diaz in the lead role, Ben Stiller as her teen sweetheart Ted, and Matt Dillon as her admirer and film villain Healy. The movie's web page, describing her character, notes, "though a little older now, Mary is even more beautiful than Ted recalls, with a successful medical career and a soft spot for the handicapped. However, Healy informs Ted, in his efforts to keep Mary for himself, that she has become a mail order bride, overweight, wheelchair bound mother of four kids out of wedlock".

The film itself is rather more open and everyday about disability than the publicists appear able to reflect in their web promotions, and neither stereotyping nor offensive (even if at times over the top). The cast includes strong performances by disabled actor W.Earl Browne as Mary's disabled brother Warren, accompanied by a group of his collegues from a day centre who find themselves in an impossible football game with the villain Healy. Indeed the key plot point revolves around the realtionship between Mary and Warren, and her commitment to him- she will only have as a lover a man who can relate to Warren as a human being.

The Disability Movement in Australia is beginning to realise the crucial role that popular cultural representation of disability plays in the opportunities for people with disabilities. With some few exceptions, the public sphere is saturated with discourses which use disabled people as metaphors for horror, evil, fear, and distress. These films are rarely reviewed in terms of the disability implications, unless they specifically "deal with" disability issues- as in Rolf de Heer's Cannes competition entry "Dance Me to My Song", which starred a disabled actor, Heather Rose.

Diability politics is in ferment, as governments roll back the gains of the movement in the name of rejecting political correctness. Popular representation of disability in its complexity plays an important part in political discourses. In Australia, at precisely the time when human rights and advocacy groups are having their funding cut, issues of biogenetics/reprogenetics, and the place of disabled people as sexual and socal subjects, present themselves as crucial questions for disability communities and individuals. The "not too distant future" has arrived".


LP said...

Thanks for posting this! I've been trying to find this article for research. BTW very impressed with your blog :)

KristinSz said...

Great post. i stumbled on it through google, in fact, looking for images relevant to feminist scifi (side/fun research for me. by day i'm a political geographer, by night a scifi reader. at some point these paths may converge into a coherent research project). This was by far the BEST thing i found, and i'll stay and look around.

Rodrigo Oliva Peroni said...

thank you SO MCUH! :D