Fantasizing Disability, and The Alien Perfection of Ripley (ICFA 2017)

Tuesday, 14 February 2017 16:01

ICFA--my favourite conference (and the only one I now attend)--is coming up next month. This year I have a full slate: in addition to participating on an archival research panel, I will be moderating a discussion panel I organized on "Fantasizing Disability," and presenting a paper on the character Ripley from the Alien franchise. Despite my apprehension around the current US political climate, I'm looking forward to being at ICFA and continuing important conversations about disability representation in genre (because facism is antithetical to disability rights). My abstracts follow:

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Fantasizing Disability

Genres of the fantastic present opportunities to explore worlds fundamentally different than our own, where bodily norms are questioned and disrupted. Fantasy in particular has the potential to create novel relationships to and characterizations of disability. While fantastic worlds frequently imagine diverse bodies (from elvish to gigantic to alien) interacting with each other, the genre often reduces disability to a symbolic medium and disabled characters to one-dimensional stereotypes. Fantasy (as well as science fiction and horror and all of their subgenres) abounds with disability tropes such as the curse of disability, the magical cure as a reward, the disabled villain, the disabled guru who helps the hero, the triumph narrative, and the trope of the “supercrip” (a person who gains compensatory powers for their disability). Given the necessity of integrating inclusive and realistic depictions of human diversity in genre narratives, this panel will address the representation of disabled people and disability in the field of the fantastic. How has disability representation changed since the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales of Rumpelstiltskin and wicked stepmothers? Why has disability become a mark of a character’s evil-doing or, alternatively, pure innocence (and how can we challenge these readings)? In what ways do disabled bodies act as sites of identification for the audience? What opportunities do various fantastic subgenres—from steampunk to fairy tale re-tellings—offer authors and readers in depicting and understanding disability? Located in an intersectional disability studies perspective, this panel will explore both the reductive tropes and transformative potentials of disability representation in the field of the fantastic.

Panelists: Sara Cleto, Derek Newman-Stille, Nisi Shawl, Fran Wilde Moderator: Kathryn Allan

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Beautiful on the Inside: The Alien Perfection of Ripley

Science fiction film has long explored medical science’s quest for perfection of the human physical form. Released in 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien launched one of the genres most successful franchises (spawning four other films) and created the iconic feminist action hero, Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver). Drawing on feminist disability studies, my analysis of the Alien films will focus on the character of Ripley and trace the ways her narrative revolves around the anxiety of what lies unseen within the (imperfect) human body and how to achieve an ideal form. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, in her foundational work, Extraordinary Bodies, coins the term normate, which refers to “the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings” (8) (often in antithesis to the disabled or the “freak”). I argue that Ripley, at first, is this social figure, but by the end of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1997 installment, Alien: Resurrection, her body has simultaneously become more ideal and more horrible as she transcends normate humanity (from the inside out) to achieve an alien perfection.

Garland-Thomson further writes that: “When our embodied ways of being in the world come to be understood as disabilities or when we understand our way as disabled, we then enter the category” (“The Story of My Work”). Applying this framing to my reading, I am particularly interested in such moments of recognition in the Alien films: when, and in what ways, does Ripley see herself in the alien, as being something other than “normal”? In my discussion, I will address how Ripley relates to the non-normate bodies of the androids (as represented by Ash, Bishop, and Call) and of the aliens—each body offers a possible design for human physical perfection but differs in their interior authenticity (e.g., blood) and organic function (e.g., reproduction). In a universe where the alien body is declared perfect (as repeated throughout the films by various agents of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation), what then constitutes the ideal human? Through my analysis of Ripley, I hope to continue demonstrating the generative potentials of bringing a disability studies framework to science fiction in exploring the social and medical definitions of humanity, as well as in expanding the future possibilities of disability identity.

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