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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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.
As March approaches, so does my favourite conference: ICFA. After a successful presentation on disability in Star Trek last year, I thought I would stick with the film and television track of the conference. Not only do I thoroughly enjoy analyzing popular films, but it seems that everyone loves watching movie clips during conference papers. Win-win.
This year I am presenting on Rupert Wyatt's reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). I've seen all of the Apes movies--was alternatively amused and appalled--and went to see Rise in the theatre (by myself) because I was extremely curious about how Wyatt's film would deal with the offensive racial politics of the earlier Apes films. Rise of the Planet of the Apes did not fail to deliver a similarly problematic narrative of the primate other. And so another academic conference was born. Here is my proposal for my paper/clip show with analysis:
“Some Things Aren’t Meant to be Changed”—Disability in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
In Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the Planet of the Apes franchise goes high-tech—both in terms of the films extensive use of CGI to create the lead ape, Caesar, and in its key plot device of the creation and misuse of a “neurogenesis” drug. Referred to as “the cure” for Alzheimer’s disease, the drug ends up significantly transforming the primate mind. Like most cure narratives in science fiction, the film speaks to Western culture’s preference for an idealized “wholeness” and imagines a scenario where only the most physically dominant and intellectually capable survive (represented by the technologically-enhanced chimpanzee, Caesar). As Elaine Graham writes in Representations of the Post/Human, however, it is essential that we interrogate such narratives of the future “ideal” body: “What is at stake, supremely, in the debate about the implications of digital, genetic, cybernetic and biomedical technologies is precisely what (and who) will define authoritative notions of normative, exemplary, desirable humanity into the twenty-first century” (11). As a way to distance itself from the overt racist politics of the original Planet of the Apes series, I argue that Rise of the Planet of the Apes instead emphasizes a normative humanity predicated on the erasure of the “undesirable” ill and disabled body.
Disability studies scholars Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell observe the tendency to frame the disabled body as “primitive throwback” to an earlier time in human development: “In a culture that endlessly reassures itself that it is on the verge of conquering Nature once and for all, along with its own ‘primitive’ instincts and the persistent domain of the have-nots, disability is referenced with respect to these idealized visions. As a vector of human variability, disabled bodies both represent a throwback to a human prehistory and serve as the barometer of a future without ‘deviancy’” (Cultural Locations of Disability 32). With its focus on “curing” Alzheimer’s disease and improving “natural” (but limited and “primitive”) cognitive abilities through medical testing on apes, along with a sustained focus on the animals’ institutionalization in “care” facilities, Wyatt’s film makes problematic ableist connections between primates and people with disabilities. Reading Rise of the Planet of the Apes with disability studies in mind, I want to address issues of agency, compassion, and the drive to “overcome” physical and cognitive differences. While there is a claimed desire to “cure” people, the lone female in the film, Caroline, nevertheless tells the (white, straight, able-bodied, and male) protagonist Will, “some things aren’t meant to be changed.” Where does this line of thinking—as well as the imagined apocalyptic consequences of creating “the (failed) cure”—situate people with disabilities both in the present and in the imagined future?
Another tempting CFP. Going to ICFA last month reminded me how much I enjoy critically viewing SF-film, particularly non-Anglophone/American SF film. I took a lot of (non-Anglophone) film courses during undergrad and seriously considered pursuing media/film studies in graduate school (instead of English Literature). The deadline isn't until the fall, so I have time to put together something worthwhile. CFP follows:
Science Fiction Film and Television (http://liverpool.metapress.com/content/121631/) is seeking articles for a special issue in on world sf cinema and television.
Although excluding the US from discussions of world cinema and television creates a problematic opposition(ality), we are seeking critical work on sf from other national/transnational, and especially non-Anglophone, contexts, both historical and contemporary.
We are particularly, but not exclusively, interested in work which introduces and/or offers fresh insights into specific national cinemas/televisions, or which reconceptualises sf by relativising US/First Cinema variants as culturally-specific approaches rather than generic norms, or which addresses the following:
· imperialism, neo-imperialism, post-imperialism
· colonialism, decolonisation, neo-colonialism, post-colonialism
· sf from the Third World/Developing World/Global South
· indigenous, Fourth World and Fourth Cinema sf
· the subaltern
· nationhood, national identity, regional identity
· race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality
· global networks, informational black holes
· borders, borderlands
· homelands, migrations, diasporas
· national, international or transnational contexts of production, distribution or consumption
· specific production cycles
Submissions should be made via our website at http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/lup-sfftv.
Any queries should be directed to the editors, Mark Bould (mark.bould[at]gmail.com) and Sherryl Vint (sherryl.vint[at]gmail.com).
The deadline for submission to this special issue is September 1 2013.