It all started this past July, when pop star Lady Gaga rolled out onto a Sydney, Australia, stage dressed as a wheelchair-using mermaid named Yuyi. Then, as a treat to fans, she tweeted a loosely-coded message naming a popular gay bar where she’d be after the concert. But later that night, on the way out of that bar, she and her entourage were pelted with eggs by disability activists pissed at her for pretending to use a wheelchair.
Advocates for SCI cure were the most vocal against Yuyi, and also among the most critical of Gaga’s 2009 video, “Paparazzi,” in which she is thrown from a balcony by her boyfriend, but, using first an ugly chrome — and yet, rhinestoned — wheelchair, and then glittering crutches, dances her way back into the limelight. It’s a slick, disturbing video to a fun, danceable song. The disturbing parts are the domestic violence, porn-style costumes and a murder that closes the video out. (“We Love Her Again!,” proclaims a tabloid in the video, as she’s taken away for poisoning her boyfriend, basking in the glare of flashing lights.)
I like Gaga’s music. I own Lady Gaga’s “The Fame Monster,” and those songs consistently play in my iPod’s top 20. But I feel dirty watching her videos. They play like Fellini meets the Bondage Queen, and I often turn my head away from some of the nastier scenes. And yet, I watch them, don’t I?
And my reaction to Gaga is exactly the type of response that she evokes from so many people. Is she a good artist? Yes, she’ll probably define her generation, like Madonna defined mine. Does she go too far? Oh, yes, of course. Is she helpful or hurtful to the groups of “misfits” that she says she speaks for — including, now, thanks to her recent hit “Born This Way,” us? Yes, to both questions. Yes.
Is her appropriation of disability equipment helpful, hurtful or besides the point? After speaking with some of our best media critics and performers, it seems the answer is, again, yes, definitely.
Keep the Firecracker Tits
“Keep the meat dress and firecracker tits — mermaid’s mine,” tweeted the Divine Miss M — Bette Midler, citing three of Gaga’s more memorable costumes. Midler, who has been performing as a wheelchair-using mermaid since 1980, blasted Gaga for stealing her shtick. To my knowledge, no one in the disability community has ever gone after Midler for her wheelchair performances.
So what makes the former Queen of Shock’s use of wheels OK and Gaga’s controversial?
“[Midler using a wheelchair artistically] was new at the time for people who didn’t know disability culture,” says Leroy Moore, who founded Krip Hop Nation and co-founded Sins Invalid. “But having the same thing happen today, it doesn’t hold up.”
Moore, who has cerebral palsy, calls nondisabled performers pretending to be disabled a form of “black face,” referring to how white performers sometimes painted their faces black in an era when discrimination prevented black performers from playing themselves. And it’s not just Lady Gaga that Moore is calling out — rappers Rick Ross and Little Wayne are culpable as well. In Little Wayne’s “John” video, Ross is seated in a wheelchair the whole time, as a swipe against rapper/actor Jimmy Brooks, who plays Drake, a wheelchair user on the teen drama, “Degrassi.”
What’s wrong with that? “It doesn’t go deeper, it’s surface stuff,” says Moore, who lives in Berkeley, Calif. “If you’re going to do that, contact real people with disabilities and get to the real issues, but don’t pimp it. For me it’s sloppy and very lazy music. And also it takes away from real artists who have disabilities. I wouldn’t care if there were enough images in music and TV that have real people with disabilities, but there are not.”
But not every wheelchair user in the music business agrees. “I really don’t give a shit, it’s a non-issue,” says Atlanta-based music producer Simon Illa, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, about Gaga’s playing with assistive devices. “It was a shock factor, to get us to talk about it. I don’t mean to talk about wheelchairs — it’s to get us to talk about Lady Gaga. Critics are like, oh, this is so bad. But it did its job. And I have to say if you come up with a crazy dance routine using a wheelchair, then it’s a tool, use it. Why not make a wheelchair cool?”
Which is how media advocate Terri O’Hare, who has muscular dystrophy, sees it. Right after the eggs were thrown, reporters from around the world were contacting disability rights groups to see if they could stir up some outrage. And while a few SCI cure activists, such as Jesse Billauer, a quad who founded Life Rolls On, had some pithy remarks — “I invite [Gaga] to learn more about the 5.6 million Americans who live with paralysis; they, like me, unfortunately, don’t use a wheelchair for shock value” — O’Hare’s message was the opposite: “Are we going to snuff out all popular culture that has anything to do with disability if the performers are not disabled? I say wrong,” she blogged.
Once O’Hare’s entry floated around Facebook and Twitter, others started coming out of the ‘angry activist’ closet, and agreed that Gaga’s usage of crip gear is cool. “You know what it was? It was those stupid crutches in the Paparazzi video,” says O’Hare, who currently uses a wheelchair and lives in Albuquerque. “She decked them out, they look like something you’d get at a piercing studio. I’m a visual designer, I’m looking at the visuals, and I don’t care that it was Lady Gaga. Somebody went and took the equipment we need to get around and did something that reinvented it a little. I think it’s sexy and good, and what’s wrong with that?”
Gaga’s not the only contemporary mainstream singer to use disability imagery in her work. Earlier this year Eminem and Dr. Dre’s “I Need a Doctor” showed Dre being shot while driving a winding California mountain road, and then using various pieces of equipment, including a futuristic gait harness system, as part of his recovery process. Like Gaga in Paparazzi, though, Dre seems to make a full recovery, proving art is fiction. There was no tremendous outcry from the disability community for or against this video.
It’s Just a Wheelchair
Hollywood writer and New Mobility contributing editor Allen Rucker questions why a wheelchair — an inanimate object — ought to be treated like some kind of sacred cow. “I don’t see why we should take this thing and hold it up on a pedestal,” says Rucker, a para as a result of transverse myelitis. “My identity is not tied up in my wheelchair any more than in my car. It’s just something that carries me around. I don’t give it a name, I don’t personalize or anthropomorphize it. I just happen to be in one because something happened.” Rucker says he’s more offended by the use of the word “retard” in the movie Tropic Thunder. “Ben Stiller is smarter to know better and didn’t see that they overplayed the joke,” he says.
Rucker’s a realist. Sure, it would be fantastic if there were enough talented actors and artists to play disabled roles, but there aren’t, and casting directors want big names. “Until you can develop a generation of stars who can get the parts because they have name value and are good, you’re going to have this problem.”
And Rucker’s also an activist with the Screen Actors Guild, taking concrete steps to secure more work for actors with disabilities. He gives this insider’s perspective: “In show business a lot of what goes on is pitching and a wheelchair can be a psychological impediment. It’s hard to see why in this day and age, but it is. Part of the problem is that people in wheelchairs are often seen as shy and self-conscious. If they don’t walk into the room with all the cockiness of the next guy, that and the wheelchair can hurt them.”
And back to Gaga, Rucker says this: “Creatively what she’s doing doesn’t bother me. And as an activist, it doesn’t bother me. It’s petty. Or then again use it as a club to beat her over the head and maybe she’ll get a disabled person to open up the show or something.”
Like what happened with the television show Glee, which stirred up controversy by casting a nondisabled actor to play the role of Artie, a para. “And now Glee specializes in finding young disabled actors and getting them into the show,” says Rucker. “But there aren’t that many Glees.”
Rucker’s not the only one to compare Gaga’s use of a wheelchair to Glee’s Artie. “Lady Gaga is so over the top it’s hard to take her seriously. So in that way I think the negative impact is less than with Artie in Glee,” says Judith Smith, a quad who is co-founder and artistic director of Axis Dance. “But when artists do this they never use our equipment correctly, and they usually use archaic dinosaur chairs that don’t work or fit properly. Also, we don’t get to pretend we’re not disabled, so there can never be a payback! … joking, kind of.” Based in Oakland, Calif., Axis is a physically integrated dance company, which means dancers with and without disabilities dance in the same pieces.
And then you have the ‘ick’ factor of people who are turned on by disability. “The devotee, wannabe groups just frankly make me ill. It’s not about us, it’s about them wanting some aspect of our situation to fulfill some fetish,” says Smith.
Policing the Crip Border
“It comes down to authenticity,” agrees sexologist Bethany Stevens, but she questions who gets to decide what’s authentic or not. “What about people who have to use a chair every so often, and then have to argue about it with other disabled people as if we have to police these boundaries? Who the hell cares?” Stevens, a visiting professor with the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University, has osteogenesis imperfecta and relishes exploring how disability is understood, and who gets to call themselves disabled.
“When the Paparazzi video came out, I didn’t know who Gaga was — I do live under a rock when it comes to pop culture — and I used her as a teaching tool before I knew who she was. I started out angry, thought she was appropriating assistive devices. But then I started listening to her. It’s great music to dance to, and the pop genre is all about appropriation, remixing, playing with ideas and doing what you can to become famous. Plus I don’t think there’s one pop song that mentions disability, but Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ does that.” Written in response to the epidemic of suicides among gay teenagers, “Born This Way” is a positive, upbeat song about all the ways in which it’s OK to be different, including being disabled.
“And also, I want to figure out how to connect what Gaga’s doing to transability, the fluidity of embodiment and moving away from this binary of ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ and allowing for people to play with these things, these attributes,” says Stevens. ‘Transability’ is a term coined for people who feel like they should be disabled, and so then take steps to either live as if they have that disability, or to gain that disability [see “Portrait of a Pretender,” September 2011]. These are the “wanna-bes” that make us so uncomfortable.
“What is authentic disability? Who gets to decide, and why do they get to decide? I don’t know if Gaga’s transabled. Even if she’s not, who gets to arbitrate these boundaries and why do we feel the need to do that? She’s moving us into a playground of sex and voyeurism and fun,” says Stevens.
It’s all about intention, says Illa, the music producer, talking about performers like Gaga using wheelchairs as props. “That’s how I feel about everything we do as human beings,” he says. “I’m not going to draw a line between disabled and nondisabled, because where do you draw the line? Life is versatile and the social norm is changing so much, and it’s all what you give your attention to. I want people to want to have my life. That sounds weird as shit, but I’ve always been that way. I want to live a life that says, Illa’s doing it — he’s working with artists in the mainstream and competing at that level. I want to be him.”
And if we ever get to the point where people without disabilities look at successful people with disabilities and say, “I want to be like them,” will it matter if someone nondisabled and famous chooses to roll for a night on stage?