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Disability Chic

by J.

In the February 1995 edition of American Vogue, Helmut Newton, the decadent fashion photographer, explores yet again a variation of the theme of restriction of women that is his speciality. His pictures have a generic similarity: light, usually in black and white, reflecting soapily from leather, women photographed from extreme angles, enchained, women encased in fetishistic leather garb, and now women entrapped by physical disability and confined by callipers and crutches: the ultimate fetishistic gear.

What are we to make of this? That it's chic this year to be a cripple? Yes, exactly that, chic this year, but not last year, and not next. This year callipers are in.

You may see this as a positive development, the assertive option1, flaunting the aids that circum vent disability without compromising their efficiency so as to disguise the impairment that causes it; but is it really the assertive option? I don't think so, because disability is not like fashion: you can't give up being disabled when it's no longer chic. It's not a game to be played with bondage toys that make you feel sexy by restricting your body and your movements.

I am annoyed about not liking what Newton has done because I believe that the photographs are not simply theatrical exercises in modish fetishism. I believe that they are self-consciously designed to elicit exactly the feelings that they have elicited in me. The depiction of disability as being beautiful does not disturb me. The depiction of simulated disability does, because it represents a state of being as a charade that can played for a while with kinky toys which can be discarded when you are tired of them; and most irritating of all, I am certain that the photographs were constructed to be irritating in exactly the way that they have irritated me, and I don't care to have my feelings manipulated quite so easily.

But aren't such photographs valuable as the first introduction of physically impaired people into the world of high fashion? Isn't it a way of helping every body accept that physical dis ability is not something shame ful, to be hidden away? I don't think that it is. It is true that many people believe that the physically impaired should be hidden away, but the presenta tion of an unimpaired model, using the aids designed to circumvent disability, as fashion accessories, does not seem to me to be a constructive way of changing this social prejudice, however beautiful the model might be and however elegantly dressed: this seems to me to be analogous to the presentation of racial stereotypes by white enter tainers wearing black-face make-up in the films of the '20's and '30's, stereotypes that did nothing at all to enhance the status of black people in American society, and worst of all, when black people were first allowed to act in the films, the roles they were allowed to play were the stereotyped ones inherited from the black-face actors. So we had the unedifying spectacle of black people acting as white people acting as caricatures of black people.

If the model really were physically impaired and disabled, if she really needed the callipers and crutches, the photographs would have been morally blameless, admirable even, because the pictures would make explicit the truth that physically impaired people can be beautiful and attractive; but perhaps such an exhibition would have been too disturbing, because people are irreversibly transformed by physical impairment, and besides permanence and irreversibility are antithetical to fashion: nobody would want to be seen having to use last year's callipers next season. So Newton chose the Hollywood solution; we get the frisson of accepting the invitation to gaze at what many people believe ought to be hidden away, and we can gaze without guilt, knowing that we are looking at an illusion. As we look at the photographs we have the comfortable knowledge that the model is beautiful, elegantly dressed, and that there is no reason why she ought to be hidden away. There is, however one thing wrong with her, but a few square meals would soon put that right.

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