6 – Disability Representation in Art & Film


This image is a painting by Frida Kahlo named ‘Broken Column”. Throughout Kahlo’s work she drew a lot of influence from her own body and pain in her life. She stated that “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”, which links to her relationship to her body and the use of herself and her identity in her work. The idea of using your own body in  works such as this, makes for not only a very personal piece, but also one where, at least at first, you are the one with the control over how your body is used and viewed. There is this contrast to how people use their own bodies in their representation of themselves; what they put out into the world and how other people use their bodies or the ideas they have of other people’s bodies to put something very different out there. This is considered somewhat throughout the article by McRuer, wherein the concepts of ‘docile bodies’ (McRuer, 89), as a body that ‘may be subjected, used, transformed and improved’ (McRuer, 89), and the common trope of ‘curing’ disabled characters in media is seen.

The idea of mailable, ‘docile’ bodies presented in media, predominantly written and portrayed by ‘able-bodied’ or non disabled people, makes for a contrasting representation to the way in which possibly artists are and would display themselves. There is a lack of representation in media anyway and the repetition of these tropes is not only incorrect, but dangerous to keep putting out in to society. Especially this idea of a ‘cure’ as it makes it become a norm to perceive disabled people as ‘docile bodies’ which are able to be ‘transformed’ or ‘improved’ (McRuer, 89) and the idea of improvement itself is a dangerous and negative idea.

The painting by and of Kahlo could be said to present a very strong image, one that is undeniably, sad and lonesome, but powerful. The depiction of her alone in a vast landscape, links to the aforementioned quote of her being ‘often alone’ and therefore knowing herself the best. A lot of critics of Kahlo’s work and biographers of her life have written of her having a lonely life, being bedridden a lot because of her pain and therefore her self-portraits present different parts of her identity, often in vivid and different landscapes but almost always alone. The painting, in my mind, although she is depicted as crying, and the column of her spine is somewhat broken, she still looks to have strength with her brace depicted almost like armour and the nails across her body, that could possibly be read as pain from others and the outside society, have not knocked her down yet.

I feel like this theme of loneliness, although here true to her life, can be linked to the stereotypes of disabled people being alone and not having healthy relationships/relationships at all, especially romantic or sexual ones. These stereotypes can be said to come a lot from this lack of representation through places such as mass media. They repeat these tropes such as the ‘pity/hero dichotomy’ and often have villainous characters presenting this lonely anger against an unjust world. These alongside an ‘inspirational’ idea of having people ‘cured’ of their supposed negatively impacting disabilities presents all these almost fantastical views and strays so far from the everyday life of disabled people and a ‘normal’ integration and diversity in media as in reality to work more positively and with variety.


5 – Privilege and being ‘Human’


After viewing this image in class and the discussions that surrounded it, I found this interesting point in my research for my midterm paper which seemed to relate and take up a slightly different standpoint to what we had considered. In “Playing Up Being a Woman”: Femme Performance and the Potential for Ironic Representation by Elizabeth Galewski she states ‘Judith Butler takes a similar tack, suggesting that the definition of the “human” has been over determined in order to privilege some human beings over others. For her, radical democracy does not just mean expanding the definition of the “human” to include those who had previously been left out. Rather, it means a complete rethinking of political community in terms of subjects who are “dispossessed,” thereby changing the commonplace definition of the “human” itself.’ (Galewski, 282)

This quotation brings up the idea that one could argue that to claim the identity of ‘human’ means an already prevalent form of privilege that allows one to do this. This could be applied to those who the dominant hegemonic discourse do not consider ‘important’ enough to be a part of it. If one cannot be viewed as worthy of life, an example could be such as in situations of war that are based on racial or religious identities and hierarchies of supremacy, then one could be considered to not be a part of this privileged group that calls itself ‘human’. As Galewski and Butler consider that the definition of human itself has been created by ordering some people over others and that those subjects who are not included or seen as ‘lesser’ are considered ‘dispossessed’ and to fix this we must have radical reform to change the ‘commonplace’ definition of human. (Galewski, 282)

I feel as though this way of thinking has come up a lot in the articles of Nobody Passes with concepts of hierarchy and not being considered valid are seen again and again, for example the ranking of masculinity over femininity explored in Jen Cross’s Surface Tensions as she states, ‘when I say I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction, I mean that I don’t want to give them any more power over me: the power of recognition, of surety, the power of the masculine over the feminine.’ (Bernstein, 277) . Both these quotations can be seen to bring up themes we spoke of, the quote by Galewski brings forth the concept of someone having the privilege to not need to affiliate with the community groups attached to their identity, e.g lesbian or more so with issues of race, African-American etc. This highlights the fact that these people are ‘safe’ enough in their privilege to be able to take the label of ‘human’ and continue as part of society that is ‘protected’ from the dangers that are forced by that same society onto others or the ‘other’. The very existence of the concept of the ‘other’ exemplifies this hierarchy of ‘human’ that does not include all.

  • Galewski, Elizabeth. “” Playing Up Being a Woman”: Femme Performance and the Potential for Ironic Representation.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 11.2 (2008): 279-302.
  •  Bernstein, Mattilda Sycamore,. Nobody passes: Rejecting the rules of gender and conformity. Seal Press, 2006.