Gendered disabilities: silent performatives in cinema

Author: Tova Rozengarten

Rozengarten, Tova, 2020 Gendered disabilities: silent performatives in cinema, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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What ideological meanings about gendered disabilities are reflected and produced in cinema? The disabled body easily conveys meaning without speech. Disabled bodies have been mistreated and misrepresented for entertainment purposes since the birth of cinema, as freakish spectacles to be ridiculed, mocked, feared and/or pitied. While contemporary representations are orientated towards more socially just and sympathetic treatments, the disabled body primarily remains a cultural signifier of tragedy, pity, undesirability, passivity and dependence. The thesis contends that these enduring stereotypes are made to appear as though they are a ‘natural’ product of impaired sexed bodies. A counter-discourse challenging ableism and sexism is silenced within these cinematic scripts.

The research involves a discursive analysis of five films to reveal what I call a stylised silence. To identify a silent style, the thesis engages with Aristotle’s work on the rhetorical function of enthymemes within speech acts, along with its modern application to visual images. The main framework for this thesis employs feminist disability studies, however the project includes consideration of film studies. Thus, the discursive analysis incorporates the artistic elements of film—encompassing the mise-en-scène in combination with the narrative script. Applying a feminist intersectional approach, the study considers representations of disability at the intersection of gender, sexuality, race and class. The category of disability is itself diverse and the selected films encompass a range of disabilities. The films analysed are: My Own Love Song (2010); The Intouchables (2011); Morgan (2012); Still Alice (2015) and The Theory of Everything (2015).

The conceptual and methodological approach is outlined in the first chapter. The second chapter introduces the various perspectives, debates and approaches within disability film scholarship that has included gender. Chapter three identifies the unspoken/silent ideology produced at the intersections of disability/gender/race, within one film’s fictional depiction of an African American man with schizophrenia and a white woman with a spinal cord injury. Chapter four engages with humour theories to examine the gendered silent production of ableist, racist and homophobic humour, within an interracial buddy/bromance comedy. Chapter five analyses the depiction of a recently disabled gay man, within a queer film festival production. The chapter observes how the film contains an unspoken/silent ideology of compulsory able-bodiedness. Chapter six analyses the gendered representation of Alzheimer’s disease. The analysis identifies a silent discursive formation, which produces complex and nuanced meanings about selfhood. Chapter seven engages with Simone de Beauvoir’s concept of gendered transcendence/immanence. The analysis locates and critiques the silent production of the disembodied professor, within a filmic representation of Professor Stephen Hawking. The final chapter applies Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity to these findings.

Overall, the study identifies a repeated silent discursive style which reflects and produces gendered ableist ideology. The thesis posits that silence is performative because an iterative silent discursive style produces the illusion that gendered disabilities constitute an abiding tragedy and undesirability. Bringing these unspoken discourses out of the projected silence and into linguistic life offers a way for subjects to speak back to these gendered/ableist cinematic sites of power.

Keywords: Disability, Film, Feminist Disability Studies,

Subject: Disability Studies thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Monique Mulholland