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Saturday, 31 January 2015

GUEST POST: Into the Woods

This morning I received an (unsolicited) guest post from one of the students on my new final-year course Blindness and Vision in French Culture. I am delighted to publish it below.


(this photo shows Christine Baranski as Cinderella's stepmother and Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch as her two blind sisters, complete with white canes and dark glasses, on set during filming of Cinderella's wedding at Dover Castle)

Into the Woods: A Review
A Guest Post by read_and_dream

While I loved Into the Woods on a superficial level for its fun songs, clever interweaving of various fairy tales, and its gentle mockery of Hollywood stereotypes; I found the sexual undertones of it interesting as well, and the implications of what “into the woods” actually meant. However, there was one thing that I found problematic, something that wouldn’t have bothered me before I started the course Blindness and Vision in French Culture: this was how blindness was presented. I was expecting the prince from Rapunzel to be blinded, as I already knew the original story, but I was not familiar with the Aschenputtel version of Cinderella, in which the two evil sisters are blinded by the birds that Cinderella has at her command. It is not so much that I have a problem with this (although considering blindness as a punishment is problematic), but it is the way in which the sisters are presented after they lose their sight. Their blindness is presented as comic, as they blunder around. Had they suddenly become deaf, or wheelchair using, we would not have felt permitted to laugh, so why laugh at blindness? I think it may lie in the theory that we laugh at things that make us anxious; in this highly ocularcentric world, most of us, deep-down, have a fear of losing our sight, as we perceive it to be our most important sense. Or it could be classed as dark laughter; laughter that comes from a sense of superiority over others who are suffering. Why do you think so many people watch Big Brother?  It is not because it is good television. Going back to the film, I definitely felt uncomfortable at the fact that people were laughing at the sisters. I also felt  uncomfortable at the tragic presentation of the prince’s blindness; yes, it is horrible to fall on thorns and have your sight removed in that way, but he still manages to find Rapunzel using his hearing, and yet we are hardly given time to appreciate this before she has healed him with her tears. He is not given the choice over whether or not he wants his sight back; just like Gertude in La Symphonie Pastorale, it is taken as a given.  For once I would like to see a film where someone is given the chance to regain their sight, but refuses. I think that this would challenge people’s perceptions about the tragedy of blindness and let them see that it is just another way of being. A way of being without seeing.


Thursday, 15 January 2015

Why should I wear make-up?

Yesterday I was dismayed to find an article on the BBC Ouch Disability blog entitled, 'How do blind people put on their make-up?'. The first problem I have with this article is its title. This apparently innocent question in fact positions 'blind people' as curious objects with even curiouser habits. It invites the sighted reader to marvel at their 'innovative ways of doing daily chores' and seems to encourage the kind of inquisitive staring which comes from most people's total ignorance of what it is like to be a blind person in a sighted world.

(In fact the article's title is misleading. The piece does give some good advice on how to apply make-up by touch and I'm sure that some people will find it useful.)

The main problem I have with this article comes from what it does not say, rather than what it does.Throughout the article there is an unspoken assumption that wearing make-up is both important and necessary. It is what 'normal', 'successful' women do. Apparently, it is only whilst wearing make-up that women can 'look their best'!

I do not like make-up. I used to wear it regularly as a teenager (blame peer pressure) but now I probably wear it only once or twice a year, on very special occasions like birthday parties, weddings and funerals. I wear it on such occasions not because I want to 'look my best' but because I understand that it is a social convention to make an effort for significant life events. I wear it as a sign of respect, a sign that I have noted the momentousness of the occasion.

The main reason I do not like make-up is because it is dishonest. It covers up your flaws and helps you pretend to be something you are not. It is also shallow. It says I care how I look. I care how people see me. I want people to judge me by my appearance rather than by who I really am.

My face is far from perfect. My eyes are more like cats' eyes than human eyes. But I am proud of the way I look. I refuse make-up for the same reason that I refused to wear cosmetic contact lenses. It would be deceitful to artificially enhance my complexion; it would seem like I was ashamed of my appearance.

Our obsession with make-up is in fact an obsession with how we look and how we are seen. So perhaps it is understandable that I don't like make-up. After all, I can't see peoples' faces well enough to notice all those little imperfections that they may or may not be hiding. I value people for their spirit, their mind, their sense of humour. I don't care (or even know) if my friends wear make-up.

As a manifestation of our desire to look better than we are, make-up is an example of our privileging of the sense of sight. By caring more about how people look than how they sound, smell or feel, make-up wearers reinforce society's misconception that sight is the most valuable sense. But it is precisely this over-valuing of sight which encourages sighted people to see blindness as a tragedy. This article's no doubt well-intentioned assumption that blind people should wear make-up to boost their self-esteem, in fact ironically reasserts the very supremacy of sight which causes blind people to feel so bad about themselves in the first place.



Saturday, 3 January 2015

Book Review: What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins


This fascinating and enthralling novel is a fictional (auto)biography of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind American to be taught to communicate using the manual alphabet. Bridgman, who was educated at the Perkins School for the Blind by Samuel Gridley Howe, is now much less well-known than her more famous - and more photogenic- successor Helen Keller, but in mid-nineteenth-century America, Bridgman was one of the most celebrated women of her day.

As the book's 'Afterword' demonstrates, Elkins is a careful and respectful researcher who has used her detailed knowledge of both Laura's life and the wider historical context to recreate one version of Laura's 'most fascinating and complex inner life'. The novel's prose brings Bridgman to life in ways which are both touching and intriguing. Throughout the book, we gain a real sense of what Laura might have been like through the passages written in her own voice which express inner thoughts, feelings and desires which she might have kept from those around her. The novel's readability comes from Laura's complex, persuasive and compelling narrative style: she is at once both astonishingly naive and startlingly perceptive; deeply expressive yet stubbornly secretive.

Elkins's treatment of Laura's sexuality is a particularly intriguing element of the novel. Female sexuality was a taboo subject in Victorian America and many people still struggle to imagine disabled people with full and active sex lives. Rather than avoiding references to sex, Elkins celebrates Laura's uninhibited and unorthodox responses both to her own body and to the bodies of the people around her.

Laura's intimate first-person narrative alternates with the thoughts, letters and journals of the main people in her life - Gridley Howe, his wife Julia and Laura's teacher Sarah - to create a multi-layered narrative in which the reader is often shown several versions of the same event and asked to make sense of them. Through these other characters' chapters we realise that sightedness does not necessarily lead to insight and that blindness can be moral, emotional and political as well as physical. It would have been very easy for Elkins to fall into the trap of portraying Laura as a 'blind seer' (much like Victor Hugo's Dea) who paradoxically understands more than the metaphorically 'blind' sighted characters. Instead, Elkins uses her multi-perspectival narrative to show that no-one can truly know themselves or be known by others. Knowledge, like sight, is over-rated and misunderstood. We are never really visible.

As well as providing an enthralling tale of several interwoven lives, this novel also offers an insight into the political and religious tensions raging in mid-nineteenth-century America. Laura was used as a pawn by several factions and through both her responses and the thoughts of the other characters, we gain a real sense of the issues surrounding women's suffrage and emancipation, the abolition of slavery and the racial tensions which led to the American Civil War.

Bridgman was not only deaf and blind, she also had no sense of taste or smell. Elkins's focus on Laura's sense of touch can be read as a celebration of the tactile which emphasises that the absence of the other senses does not necessarily lead to a less-full existence. Indeed, Elkins's novel does an excellent job of refuting the 'blindness as tragedy' myth which circulated in Laura's time (as it still does today). Whilst the novel is full of characters who pity Laura, she never sees her blindness as a tragedy. She is sensuous and passionate, always wanting to experience more of life. If she is disabled, it is by her guardians and teachers whose words reveal how they sometimes see her as less than human - she is variously a burden; an embarrassment; a trophy; something 'special', fragile or volatile; a child to be protected; an animal to be tamed. What we see, from her own words, is an intelligent and responsible woman who is just as much of a person as those who both limit and judge her.

Above all, What is Visible raises important questions about how both non-disabled people and disabled people might relate to questions of pity, dependency and trust. As such it resonates with current debates around independent living, care-giving and the place and status of disability in society.