Something that has really struck me about the conversations around Evelyn Evelyn is the reaction that “Conjoined twins don’t have a disability! To say they do is insulting!”
Not all commenters make the link between the two statements – some stop at the first – so I’ll take these two separately.
A little background: Evelyn Evelyn is Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley’s new ‘art project’, presented as fact but understood as fiction, in which they “discover” poor struggling musically-gifted conjoined twin orphan women, save them from their child porn and circus-exploitation past, and help them – in a long drawn-out process, due to the women’s traumatic fallout and difficulty relating – produce their first record. Palmer and Webley dress up as the twins to perform on stage, co-operating to play accordion, ukelele, and sing. They can barely restrain their sniggers while they interview about this oh-so-hilarious and edgy topic. More in the Further Reading.
“Conjoined twins don’t have a disability!”
So, a note on normalcy. The idea that some people would shout in defence “But conjoined twins don’t have a disability!” took me by surprise. I wonder how these people are defining “disability” in their heads, if they’ve ever thought about the subject – do they picture a hunched figure, withdrawn, unable to work, self-care or socialise? Do they picture someone undergoing huge medical procedures, someone with prostheses or other visible aids? What is the image in their heads?
Because disability can be all of these things, and none of these things. Disability isn’t a checklist, or a fixed point. Disability – and normalcy – are socially constructed. Disability is the interaction between a characteristic or a group of characteristics often called “impairments”, and a world that recognises people with these characteristics as abnormal.
Disability is considered a tragedy, a fate to be avoided at all costs. Disabled people are those that society defines as “abnormal”. Disabled bodies are the ones that don’t fit in typical boxes. Disabled people are people that the physical and social environment doesn’t accommodate. Disabled people are considered defective, deformed, faulty, frightening, feeble, freakish, dangerous, fascinating. Disabled people are stigmatised, laughed at, looked down upon, marginalised, Othered. Disabled people are medicalised. Disabled people are defined in terms of how currently-nondisabled people view them.
Disabled bodies are those that are subject to the able-bodied stare.
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.
How can people simultaneously look at this project as funny and edgy and worth paying money to stare at, while considering conjoined twins to be “not disabled”? Why are their bodies so hilarious, then? 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.
People with disabilities resist these definitions, resist being marginalised, Othered, stared at, compulsorily medicalised. (Just as we try to resist, where possible, being beaten, abused, raped, exploited, exhibited, forcibly sterilised.) We laugh at ourselves plenty. We reclaim terms like “crip” and “gimp” and “crazy”. This does not grant able-bodied people free rein to mock us, to play schoolyard imitative games, to use child porn survivors as a little bit of “colour” for their projects.
There is a lot more to be said on the social construction of normalcy. I strongly recommend Lennard Davis’ Enforcing Normalcy . For more reading, check out this booklist at Hoyden About Town, our booklist here at Disabled Feminists, and our blogroll.
“To say that conjoined twins have a disability is insulting!”
This one’s quicker and easier to debunk. No, it’s not insulting. It’s as simple as that. It’s not an insult because being disabled is not an inferior state. Saying that someone is disabled is no more insulting than saying “Lauredhel’s a woman” or “Barack Obama is black”.
Being disabled just is.
Further reading on the Evelyn Evelyn conversation:
Annaham’s post here at FWD, Evelyn Evelyn: Ableism Ableism?
Amanda Palmer’s blog: The Whole Story Behind “Evelyn Evelyn” [WARNING: invented story about child sexual abuse and exploitation; the other links discuss this also]
Amanda Palmer’s blog: Evelyn Evelyn Drama Drama
Jason Webley: Blog #1 – Evelyn
Amanda Palmer’s twitter, in which she remarks “setting aside 846 emails and removing the disabled feminists from her mental periphery, @amandapalmer sat down to plan her next record.”, and follows up “pain is inevitable. suffering is optional.”
SPIN magazine: Meet Amanda Palmer Proteges Evelyn Evelyn
Sady at Tiger Beatdown: AMANDA PALMER WANTS TO SHOCK YOU. Just Don’t Get Upset About It, ‘Kay?
TVTropes: Rape Is The New Dead Parents