Sins Invalid: An Unashamed Claim to Beauty. Directed by Patricia Berne and Nomy Lamm. Blooming Grove, NY: New Day Films, 2013. 33 minutes.
Body and Soul: Diana and Kathy. Directed by Alice Elliott. Blooming Grove, NY: New Day Films, 2007. 40 minutes.
Service: When Women Come Marching Home. Directed by Marcia Rock and Patricia Lee Stotter. New York: Women Make Movies, 2012. 55 minutes.
Good documentaries about disability are hard to find. Representation is scarce and often teeters easily into dehumanizing and commodifying ableist tropes in which disabled people exist either for the edification of abled viewers or else to elicit their pity and disgust at the spectacle of our freakishness. The films Sins Invalid: An Unashamed Claim to Beauty, Body and Soul: Diana & Kathy, and Service: When Women Come Marching Home, all of which focus almost entirely on disabled existence, share common themes of interdependence, self-empowerment, collective community-building, and the ordinariness of sick, disabled, and mad existence.
Sins Invalid derives from a performance project originally founded in 2006 that aims to center the experiences of queer and trans sick and disabled people of color in its revolutionary cultural work on disabled or crip sexuality. In crip analysis of Marge Piercy’s novel Women on the Edge of Time, Alison Kafer draws sharp criticisms of the supposed feminist utopia that completely invisibilizes disabled bodies.1 Kafer grounds her commentary in common disabled criticism of feminist and liberatory discourses that are often predicated on presuming disabled undesirability; degendering and desexualizing disabled people; and fearing disabled reproduction or the specter of instability from illness, disability, or madness. Eddie Ndopu, who is deaf, black, and gay, writes that “disabled people are systematically rendered as an afterthought in or erased entirely from discourses and practices that purport to advance human dignity, despite the fact that disabled people, particularly queer disabled women and gender-variant people of color, are among the poorest and most disenfranchised segments of society.”2 Likewise, s.e. smith, a queer white disabled writer, cites inadvertent but pervasive everyday ableism, historical ableism in feminist organizing, and limitations of a primarily sex/gender-based analysis in critiquing feminist theory.3
In response to such endemic ableism in radical thought, Sins Invalid offers a rich tapestry of material affirming the beauty of disabled bodies and sexual and sensual possibilities that exist because of, rather than despite, disability. One performer interviewed in the documentary, Lezlie Fry (queer white performer), states, “I'm often in queer settings and in settings generally which are highly sexually charged, and which I can sort of feel like I'm testing the borders of unfuckability. It's easy to fall into the trap of proving that you're sexual despite your disability. My sexuality, my sexual identity, my gender identity, derives directly out of my disabled body and that is what I want to sexualize, that is what I want to politicize.”4
There are several particularly beautifully orchestrated scenes in the film. In one scene, Black deaf dancer Antoine Hunter performs to a monologue on the Tuskegee syphilis experiments in which white doctors researched untreated syphilis in poor black men. In another piece, Latina artist Maria Palacios stages a striptease from her wheelchair under neon lights spelling the words “Peep Show.” Mat Fraser’s contribution titled “Beautiful Freak” highlights both the ordinariness of his disability (shortened arms) and sensual possibilities as he takes a leisurely bath set to The Eels’s song of the same name. Dressed in period costume standing center stage, seeley quest delivers a haunting monologue as Carrie Buck, a young woman with intellectual disabilities who was involuntarily sterilized in Virginia in the early 1920s after giving birth to a child conceived in rape, and whose sterilization was upheld in the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell as legally permissible because it was for the public interest or greater good of society.5 Patricia Berne, the disabled woman of color who cofounded Sins Invalid and directs most of the performances, adds her voice to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s in discussing how the project provides artistic and community support for developing the work of queer and trans disabled performers of color, who are frequently denied access to this support and rendered invisible in other spaces.
Body and Soul: Diana and Kathy presents a revolutionary interdependence by depicting two (white) disabled people—Diana Braun, who has Down syndrome, and Kathy Conour, who has cerebral palsy—living together and providing support for each other, without reliance on paid, nondisabled professional staff and the presumptive authority of medical personnel. The documentary highlights the agency and fierce independence of both women from professional intervention, while portraying in devastatingly stark clips the ongoing trauma of Diana’s decades-long estrangement from her abusive mother and failed attempts to reconnect with her. Kathy and Diana, both of whom would be considered to have significant disabilities and potentially complex medical needs, are shown not merely as inspiration porn in an “overcoming” narrative, but as living complicated lives. The two women negotiate boundaries and emotional instability in their relationship as friends and housemates. They navigate the tensions between participating in the disability movement and risking loss of Medicare funding in so doing, and they defy the ableist productivity-centric measures of human worth embedded in capitalism by lying in bed with agonizing pain, centering instead their precarity. The camera work does not avoid contact with Kathy’s physical pain after she breaks her hip or with Diana’s emotional stress after repeated rejection from her mother, but rather allows us to linger and invites us to share in this suffering and vulnerability. Making space for this vulnerability is revolutionary. We are told too often as queers, as women, as people of color, as disabled, that we must always be strong and fierce and healed, which ultimately undermines our sustainability as people and capacity for resilience.
At the same time, the film offers a narrative dependent on ableist discourses surrounding mental disability. The narrator invokes the title of the film as a reference to the relationship between the two women in much the same way as the official synopsis that describes them as sharing a life. The narrator refers to Kathy as “the soul” (or sometimes, “the mind”) and Diana as “the body.” This framing presumes that someone inhabiting a physically disabled body may lay claim to personhood and humanity only through its intellect or cognition or emotionality, while someone inhabiting a mentally disabled body is deprived of agency and personhood and may offer any value only if they are also physically abled—ambulatory, sighted, hearing.
Service: When Women Come Marching Home follows the lives of several women veterans who have become disabled in the course of their military service—one becomes a double amputee, more than one survived sexual violence during their terms, and most recount symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and related anxiety and depression. In one scene, Sue Downes (white double amputee) recounts a Veterans Affairs security officer denying her entry to the building because of her service dog before she cited the Americans with Disabilities Act. Another scene features a montage from interviews with several of the women (both white and black) describing their experiences with daily anxieties, depression, fear of crowds, and sensory sensitivities arising from trauma. In another, Lashonna “Shona” Perry (black woman with post-traumatic stress disorder) discusses conflicts with her mother upon return to the United States that ultimately led to homelessness. Brigette McCoy, a black veteran who was raped by one of her unit officers and sexually threatened by another, shares a healing dinner with Layla Mansberger, a white lesbian veteran, whose rapist thought he could “make [Mansberger] turn into guys” by having sex with her.
The film ultimately lacks a clear disability justice analysis, as it slips from an overcoming narrative to a charity narrative. At the same time, the film skillfully addresses inadequate infrastructure and resources in government agencies and social services systems for disabled women veterans, and prominently features several of the veterans meeting with members of Congress and advocating for better recognition of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark disability civil rights legislation of 1990 (amended in 2008).6 Illustrating challenges of living with disability and dependency, Alexis Courneen (white veteran with chronic pain, mobility impairment, and trauma-related depression) says, “I don’t want my husband to have to be my caretaker” after her husband describes her experiences with depression about not being self-sufficient. Through depictions of internal conflict around bodily (in)capacity and empowerment through peer support and interdependence, Service offers great potential for discussing the possibilities that acknowledging disability offers for embracing vulnerability and precarity as part of human wholeness while resisting insistence that empowered femininity must depend on compulsory ablenormativity.
Sins Invalid, Body & Soul,and Service all derive from vastly different frameworks—Sins Invalid from an intersectional disability justice analysis, Body & Soul from the burgeoning disability rights / independent living movements, and Service from a peer support group of disabled women veterans transitioning to civilian life. Yet any of these films could be used to prompt and guide critical discussions on disability; negotiating desire from the disabled body; gendered implications of trauma, debility, and precarity; and more importantly, how a critical disability lens can inform a more radically inclusive feminism with room for recognizing power and possibilities in non-normative bodies.
1 Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 72-73; Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976).
2 Eddie Ndopu, “Our Lives Matter: Toward An Intersectional Politics Of Disability,” The Feminist Wire, November 18, 2013.
3 s.e. smith, “I'm Not a Feminist, and I Wish People Would Stop Trying To Convince Me Otherwise,” xoJane, November 16, 2011.
4 I intentionally identify a person’s racial, sexual, gender, and disability identities if publicly stated or described in their work. I do this to push back against the presumptive normativity (or “default” status) imputed to whiteness, heterosexuality, abledness, or cisgender experience that renders privileged identities “invisible” while simultaneously emphasizing the otherness of marginal identities and experiences. (For example, many articles may only describe a person’s race if that person is not white, leaving readers to assume that anyone whose race is not described is white by default.)
5 Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).
6 Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213 (amended 2008).