The relationship between feminist media studies and disability studies is one of emergent cross-pollination. At the generative intersection of the two fields, we might consider: How does compulsory able-bodiedness and -mindedness inform representations of gendered subjects across mediated platforms? Building off of Laura Mulvey's foundational theorization of the male gaze in cinema, how is the ableist gaze both distinct from and imbricated in patriarchal dynamics of mediation and watching?1 How might we conceptualize our mediated landscape as a built environment in which people have, depending on their social location, varying degrees of access as both consumers and producers? These are but a few critical questions with which we might grapple with meaningful engagement with disability studies as feminist media scholars. In what follows, I sketch the contours of disability studies and the subfield of disability media studies, noting their parallels to and points of intersection with feminist media studies. The synthesis of feminist media studies and disability studies—what we might refer to as feminist disability media studies—can enrich and expand both fields.
Disability is an umbrella category that is defined by its capaciousness for vast physical, mental, and psychological diversity existing outside of cultural notions of what constitutes a so-called “normal” body and mind—or, as Margaret Price has coined to communicate the two's inseparability, “bodymind.”2 Disability studies’ fundamental assertion is that disability and able-bodiedness and -mindedness are not self-evident categories and states of being. Instead, this vibrant and interdisciplinary body of scholarship argues that disability is the product of exclusionary social conditions and discourses. “Disability is a representation,” Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, “a cultural interpretation of transformation or configuration, and a comparison of bodies that structures social relations and institutions.” Thus, disability is “not so much a property of bodies as a product of cultural rules about what bodies should be or do.”3 Garland-Thomson's definition reflects a social, political, and relational model that illuminates disability as a product of arbitrary and shifting cultural conceptions of bodies. Like feminist theory's delineation between sex and gender, early disability activists and scholars developed the social model of disability. This model disrupts the conflation of impairment (the status of one's bodymind) with disability (the lack of ability produced by oppressive human-built physical, structural, and ideological barriers). Originally conceptualized in the 1970s by disability activists in the UK who critiqued the medicalization and pathologization of disability, the social model became the epistemological bedrock of disability studies. Cleaving impairment and disability into two discrete concepts enabled disability activists and scholars to leverage critiques of medicalized approaches that frame the disabled bodymind as in need of medical classification, correction, and observation.
Of course, both sex/gender and impairment/disability are false binaries. Feminist theory has complicated the tidy bifurcation of sex and gender to reveal that sex, like gender, is constructed by cultural, political, and scientific discourses. What we understand as sex difference is not the unmediated materiality of the body but the product of ongoing contestations over its criteria that are influenced by dominant cultural beliefs about gender. Feminist media studies reveals popular media as a primary site in which these discursive contestations play out and dominant notions of gender, the body, and difference are shaped. In a related manner, many contemporary disability studies scholars reject the bifurcation of disability and impairment and have introduced more nuanced models of disability; one such model is feminist disability studies scholar Alison Kafer's political/relational model of disability, which “builds on social and minority model frameworks but reads them through feminist and queer critiques of identity.”4
To evidence the cultural pervasiveness and insidiousness of ableism as an oppressive force, disability studies scholarship has since its origins cast a critical eye toward not only economic disparities, insufficient social services, and the lack of civil rights legislation, which maintain formal inequalities, but also the relationship between disability and media. Indeed, the earliest iterations of disability studies scholarship focused on the representation of disability in literature. As Cynthia Wu suggests, “It was a focus on ‘representation’ through which disability studies in the arts and humanities gained an institutional foothold.”5 Pushing off of this foothold, the developing subfield of disability media studies aims to grapple “with the complexities of disability and media together,” something neither media studies nor disability studies has accomplished independently.6 Like feminist media studies, then, disability media studies initiates an interdisciplinary intervention into media studies and is invested in questions of identity, representation, and relations of power. From considerations of the low employment of disabled people in the media industry to the pervasive casting of able-bodied people as characters with disabilities to inaccessible media technologies, disability media studies bridges and builds upon the strengths of both fields. Disability media studies offers robust methodological approaches and interdisciplinary analyses that reveal how normative notions of disability—as pitiable, pathological, inspirational, better off dead, and in desperate need of medical and spiritual miracles—thoroughly saturate the media landscape. Thus, disability media studies theorizes the inaccessible built environments (like staircases and public restrooms) and our media landscape as not only both structured by ableist norms but also mutually constitutive. In other words, our contemporary media landscape is itself a vast built environment that emerges out of and has consequences on the material domain, thereby highlighting the inseparable imbrication of materiality and representational practices.
It is academically and politically imperative that feminist media studies and disability media studies forge a more intentional intersectional dialogue. As disability becomes a more visible part of our media landscape and new technologies both expand and foreclose access to and cultural participation within it, Elizabeth Ellcessor and Bill Kirkpatrick insist that “it becomes an increasingly urgent social issue to understand the countless ways in which ability and disability drive our cultural narratives and frame our public discourse.”7 Considering representation specifically, media studies scholars such as Douglas Kellner have long insisted that media serves a pedagogical function insofar as it informs consumers, for better or for worse, about our social reality and how individuals fit into it.8
Feminist media scholars—in conversation with critical scholars of race and sexuality—have astutely critiqued how media representations often perpetuate racist, sexist, and heterosexist ideologies. In this vein, many disability media scholars assert that the stakes of representational politics are even higher for disabled people. As Beth Haller articulates, “Because people with disabilities still face many architectural, occupational, educational, and communication barriers in the US, interpersonal contact between non-disabled and disabled persons is still limited. Therefore, mass media images still provide many of the cultural representations of disability to American society.”9 In other words, our climate of structural and attitudinal ableism denies disabled people full cultural citizenship and limits contact between people with normative and nonnormative bodyminds such that the pedagogical impact of media texts is amplified in representations of the disabled bodymind. Thus, media texts more often than not groom consumers into ableist fantasies of a social reality in which disability is symbolic of moral failure, a fetish of inspiration, or altogether absent.
There is, however, no simple, linear relationship between representational visibility and social justice. For people with disabilities who have historically been positioned as figures to be gawked at in the public domain, the freak show stage, and the medical theater, the politics of visibility and media representation are contentious terrain.10 Many minoritarian groups struggle for an increased representational presence in the realm of politics and the media as part of their activist efforts to combat erasure, exclusion, and invisibility. Yet disability's history of undesired hypervisibility and its perpetuation in our contemporary cultural moment constitutes an ocular oppression that cannot be simply undermined by an increase in the sheer quantity of representations of people with disabilities. A focus on disability, then, engenders different concerns regarding visibility that complicate and expand feminist media studies’ theorizations of representational politics.
The marriage of feminist media studies and disability studies can undoubtedly generate necessary analyses of narrative and visual images of gender and disability. As feminist disability scholars such as Susan Wendell, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and Ellen Samuels have revealed, gender and dis/ability are mutually constitutive as social categories, identities, and axes of power; feminist disability media studies continues in that intellectual genealogy.11 Yet arguably the most fruitful way for feminist media studies to engage with disability studies is by embracing what Julie Avril Minich identifies as its “mode of analysis rather than its objects of study.” As a methodological approach, disability studies “involves scrutinizing not bodily or mental impairments but the social norms that define particular attributes as impairments, as well as the social conditions that concentrate stigmatized attributes in particular populations” and “might be applied to contexts that extend well beyond what is immediately recognized as disability.”12
A brief exploration of some of the questions posed at the beginning of this essay within the genre of reality television illuminates a few critical analyses made possible by feminist disability media studies. An ever-proliferating number of reality TV programs focus on disabled subjects and, driven by a thesis of normalization, part ways with representational modes that Other disability. However, as I have argued elsewhere, such programs hinge upon a neoliberal discourse that depoliticizes disability and build their narratives on scaffolding of oppressive normalizing logics of gender, race, sexuality, ability, and class.13 Yet a feminist disability media analysis is not only relevant when a visible disabled subject is part of the televisual frame. Following Minich's call, we might consider how shows that seemingly have nothing to do with disability are undergirded by an ideology of ability that is mutually constituted by race, gender, sexuality, class, and citizenship. For instance, how does American Ninja Warrior, a competition series in which athletes run obstacle courses, frame the gendered and national body through spectacular displays of able-bodiedness? This is just one inroad opened up by feminist disability media studies. Beyond an exploration of representations of the body, feminist disability media studies can and certainly should address political economy, industry, accessibility, and audience reception. A feminist media studies that employs disability as an analytic and methodological approach allows us to consider more robustly and intersectionally how the line between normal and abnormal is delineated—as well as mediated—in particular sociohistorical contexts along lines of gender, race, sexuality, class, and nation.