Who Are We: Gender and Disability in Media and Society

We live in a society that loves to put people into boxes based off of specific characteristics. Gender is one of those boxes that is used to classify every aspect of who a person is and their role in society. It is part of our identity as people. But what happens when the gender constructs do not work for every person? How does that shape one’s identity and sense of self? Eli Clare looks at gender and disabled individuals in his chapter “Reading Across the Grain.” Clare states that “To be female and disabled is to be seen as not quite a woman; to be male and disabled, as not quite a man… The construct of gender depends not only one the male body and female body, but also upon the nondisabled body” (Clare 130). He looks at how gender and disability are so tightly interwound in shaping the identity of those with disabilities. Clare opens the chapter with descriptions of different advertisements/ articles featuring people with disabilities. The first is just an empty wheelchair and the second a woman dressed in a sexual manner draped over a wheelchair.

“A manual wheelchair sits half in shadow, it’s large right wheel in a pool of light. The chair is empty, turned 20 degrees away from the camera. The footrests tilt out” (Clare 119).

This first image does not even include a person, yet it says so much about those with disabilities. By not having a person, the image is reducing disabled people to just their disability. They are not seen as people, but a condition. What’s more, by placing the wheelchair in semidarkness the image is emphasizing that disabilities should be hidden from society’s eyes and not talked about.

“A white woman dressed in black–lace bustier, fishnet stockings, stiletto heels–looks straight at the camera. She gives us a red lipstick smile, blond hair piled on top of her head, diamond earrings dangling from both ears. She sits sideways across the left wheel of a manual wheelchair, which is turned so its back faces us” (Clare 119).

As Clare states “To be female and disabled is to be seen as not quite a woman,” which is to say that those with disabilities are almost genderless. This image makes the effort to portray a disabled woman not as such but as the most feminine woman they possibly can, to the point of over sexualizing. By not having her seated in her chair normally and having it face away while she faces towards the camera, there is an effort to erase her disability in an attempt to make her fit the “normal” construct of femininity.

By taking advertisements and breaking them down to their bare bones, Clare is able to show how society attempts to erase disability to make those individuals fit into the traditional genders. If that is not possible, disabled people are just reduced to their disability, no longer worthy of a gender. This mentality shapes how disabled people see themselves and their identity in society. Yes, disability is part of identity, but there is more to a person then their condition.

2 thoughts on “Who Are We: Gender and Disability in Media and Society”

  1. This was a great, insightful post on the commentary of disabled peoples representation in the media and its harmful aspects when not properly executed. We are constantly surrounded by our external, surrounding environment thus the media plays a grand role is shaping our personalities and mindsets. They hold influential power to sway decisions and possibly in a manner to answer the so what question which could be ways to generate more inclusive media representation of disabled people. Not only that but also create a commentary on the identity which disability is simply one factor of countless others to self-express one self and have a more considerate society where life is made more feasible for disabled people to live independently.

  2. There are definitely a lot of issues with the way this woman’s disability and sexuality are portrayed in the article. Clare often talks about how disabled people are considered asexual and genderless simply because of their disability. You do a good job discussing this and I also believe there needs to be more of an intersectional lens placed on individuals with disabilities in the media so that they can still be seen as sexual and gendered creatures while having their disabilities clearly being shown.

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