The films Seen, But Not Heard and A Horse is Not a Metaphor address some of the political aspects of being ill. For feminists, illness as a site of inquiry is under-researched, under-theorized, and under-politicized in comparison to other sites such as work, body image, and identity. Introducing illness as a site of feminist political contestation in the classroom, through these two films, for example, can provide rich tapestries to explore the very issues feminists are now concerned with, and to develop strategies to empower women who may face daily the imminence of their own mortality.
Seen, But Not Heard (12 min.) is a short piece by Cyrille Phipps with the primary purpose of moving feminists to activism around the issue of black women and AIDS. Her narrative unfolds through statements by activists from groups like Harlem United, Brooklyn Lives, and the Latino Commission on AIDS; by women living with AIDS; and by descriptive facts, like of the one million Americans living with AIDS, half are black women. The central message is that with the popular, but quiescent, move of HIV infection from death sentence to chronic condition in wider political activist circles, the ravages of the illness for black women have been pushed aside, marginalized, and silenced. Now is the time to act and bring the medical into the political.
In A Horse is Not a Metaphor (30 min.), Barbara Hammer uses a multilayered approach, or "vertical cinema",1 to capture her experience of ovarian cancer treatment in her own quest for recovery. The experimental film searches for signposts to guide her through the unknown; as a result, she finds beauty in the practices of chemotherapy and in the spaces of her daily life as she makes her way through her own transformation. Her path, recorded sometimes in layers that are four, five, and six images deep, takes the audience to New Mexico, Wyoming, and Woodstock, New York, to witness her attempt to change the idea of illness to one of recovery and to record the joy of being alive. Like the film, her message too is a complex layering of autoethnography, reflective inquiry, critical feminist analysis, and a call to act.
In the classroom, I would use the films in both feminist praxis (theory, research, and activist) classes and feminist illness and disability classes. Obvious textual accompaniments to these films would be Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors.2 Sontag's classic work and companion book deal with the discourses that produce cancer, tuberculosis, and AIDS as illnesses of fear, and as ill bodies to be cast aside. Using Sontag's framework, students could make their way through Hammer's film while mapping the layers of meaning by invoking Sontag's use of metaphor and Hammer's more ontological account of freeing herself from metaphors. For senior undergraduate and graduate courses, I would add a couple of feminist theory writings. For a discussion about bodies, I would use Annemarie Mol and John Law's "Embodied Action: Enacted Bodies" as a way to pull out themes about the intimate link between discourses about illness and the materiality of the body.3 For a discussion about the formation of theory, I would use Marsha Rosengarten's "The Challenge of HIV for Feminist Theory" as a way to link the dissonance of biological discourses in medicine and black women's bodies ill with HIV and AIDS.4 For complementary discussion readings in illness and disability courses, I would embed the films in class sessions across various topics. For a discussion of cancer, for example, contrasting the popularity of breast cancer with ovarian and other types of women's cancer might work well using Samantha King's, Maren Klawiter's, and Mary DeShazer's works.5 Or, for a discussion of disabling illness, posing questions around the links between illness, disability, and feminist politics could bring insight into the production of subjects using works by Susan Wendell, Carol Thomas, Diane Driedger and Michelle Owen.6
What is so exciting about this combination of films is that together they provide lush grounds to explore so many feminist ideas about politics, theory, and research--intersectionality, materiality, collective action, race, experience, social justice, women's bodies, performance, gender, embodiment, ontology, social change, contestation, disability, autobiography, and reflexivity--tthrough illness.
is a professor in the Studies in Policy and Practice Program at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. She has co-written Women, Body, Illness7
and co-edited Contesting Illness8
and Feminist Geographies.9
She is currently working on two writing projects, one about soldiers diagnosed with traumatic stress injuries and the other about women living with fatigue.
1 Barbara Hammer, Interview with John Arthur Peetz, Artforum Magazine, June 15, 2010, http://artforum.com/words/id=25835.
2 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Penguin, 1991); Sontag, AIDS and its Metaphors (New York: Penguin, 1991).
3 Annemarie Mol and John Law, "Embodied Action, Enacted Bodies: The Example of Hypoglycaemia," Body & Society 10 (2004): 43-62.
4 Marsha Rosengarten, "The Challenge of HIV for Feminist Theory," Feminist Theory 5, no. 2 (2004): 205-22.
5 Samantha King, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Maren Klawiter, "Moving from Settled to Contested: Transformations in the Anatomo-Politics of Breast Cancer, 1970-1990," in Contesting Illness: Processes and Practices, ed. Pamela Moss and Katherine Teghtsoonian (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 281-303; Mary K. DeShazer, "Fractured Borders: Women's Cancer and Feminist Theatre," NWSA Journal 15, no. 2 (2003): 1-26.
6 Susan Wendell, "Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities," Hypatia 16, no. 4 (2001): 17-33; Carol Thomas, Sociologies of Disability and Illness: Contested Ideas in Disability Studies and Medical Sociology (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Diane Driedger and Michelle Owen, ed., Dissonant Disabilities: Women with Chronic Illnesses Explore their Lives (Toronto: Canadian Scholar's Press Inc./Women's Press, 2008).
7 Pamela Moss and Isabel Dyck, Women, Body, Illness: Space and Identity in the Everyday Lives of Women with Chronic Illness (Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002).
8 Pamela Moss and Katherine A. Teghtsoonian (eds.), Contesting Illness: Processes and Practices (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).
9 Pamela Moss and Karen Falconer Al-Hindi (eds.), Feminist Geographies Rethinking Space, Place and Knowledges (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).