On Seeing and Not Seeing Myself
I was little, I had a peculiar love/hate relationship with Halloween.
As much as I enjoyed the theatrics of becoming someone else for
a night, I always struggled to figure out who I wanted to be.
Not only did I have to pick a unique persona, but it had to fit
with my sense of myself, which was even back then deeply informed
by my disability.
never wanted to be a fireman or a soldier or a policeman. I knew
I couldn't sell those to myself, and that the incongruity wouldn't
work for anyone who'd see me. So I improvised. Most often I ended
up as a vampire; the makeup and teeth were fun, and the cape was
a good fit for the wheelchair. (Was I subconsciously channeling
FDR, whose image in those days was always in my mind?)
As I grew older, my choices grew craftier. I identified deeply with
Groucho Marx's blend of clearly Jewish braininess, chutzpah, and
lechery, so I was him for several years. Wisecracking and leering
helped deflect any sense of dissonance I either felt or was worried
about. Ultimately though, I just got lazy. When I was still walking
and had to go to a Halloween party on crutches, I would just dress
more nicely than usual and tell people I was Itzhak Perlman. Most
recently, I got even lazier, and showed up in my chair dressed as
Professor Charles Xavier from the X-Men.
On a certain level, this progression reflects increasing acceptance
of my disability as a visual, cultural, and interpersonal experience,
but I think it also shows how long I have wanted to see myself reflected
somehow in popular culture. I was reminded of this yearning for
identification by the release of a new documentary, "Murderball,"
about wheelchair rugby.
"Murderball" follows a number of men caught up in the
universe of the sport: players on the American national team; the
coach of the Canadian national team, who bears a grudge against
Team USA; and a young guy who's in the midst of rehab for his recent
spinal cord injury. The movie is amazing. Characters are vividly
drawn, the action sequences give a new and different meaning to
playing bumper cars, and the film as a whole really puts warts-and-all
disability out on display.
I found the movie refreshing because it's so unsentimental. These
guys are tough. They mock each other and themselves. They are loudmouths
with little shame; they even mock the Special Olympics at one point.
They talk about getting laid, and the tricks of using disability
to meet hot and willing women. They ooze testosterone and adrenaline,
and so does the movie.
I can't quite get on my high horse and disparage the machismo it
embodies. A certain kind of crip hetero-ness is at full mast here,
but that's good, because most crips are still fighting for the right
to be straight, and our needs as queer folk shouldn't obscure that
reality. The men on the American team are rebellious, raucous, virile,
and hot, and those qualities are being used to market the movie.
Some of the more photogenic guys on the team appeared in a multipage
fashion layout in the New York Times a few months ago, complete
with chairs. One player, clearly the main character in the film,
has been doing commercials and other appearances, promoting the
film. MTV, which helped finance it, seems to be hoping that the
same young people who watch extreme sports and crazy stunts on its
shows will suddenly realize that wheelchair rugby is cool.
Ironically, for me, the better the film was at presenting the guys
as typical jocks, the harder it was for me to relate to them as
crips. Many of them were jocks before becoming disabled, and they
still are now. Some of them were assholes as able-bodied men, and
at least one of them still is, and proudly so. I do not feel angry
or excluded or oppressed by these athletes and their antics. I don't
need the filmmakers to show me a gay player for balance, and I bear
no grudges against jocks as a group for any wrongs done to me.
I know these guys may have been the type in high school who did
lots of name-calling, or told fag jokes or worse, but I have never
lived in fear of them. I feel that my disability, my otherness,
perversely insulated me as a kid from the kind of verbal and physical
harassment and abuse my able-bodied queer friends may have experienced
as children and adolescents. With only one exception I can recall,
if kids in school didn't like me, they just left me alone. No names,
no fists, just nothing. Any angst I wrestled with was amply provided
not by strangers who loathed me, but by friends who, sometimes genially
and sometimes not, gave me a tough time, with no free passes because
I happened to be in a chair.
"Murderball" spoke to me brilliantly yet indirectly about
disability, and I believe it will blow many peoples' minds wide
open, but I couldn't relate to it personally. Given what I've said
about not seeing myself reflected in media images, this might seem
strange. But let me tell you where I have seen myself lately, or
at least heard myself. Big surprise, it was in the theater, in a
musical. William Finn, the man responsible for "Falsettos", one
of the best portraits of gay life ever put on stage and into song,
has a new show. It's about spelling bees, and the adorably eccentric
young nerds who populate them.
In "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," we are at a middle
school bee. All the kids' parts are played by adult actors, and
there's a lot of comedy and suspense flowing from the spelling,
but I was most struck by the way the songs portray the characters'
inner lives. One girl is good at spelling because she read the dictionary
on the toilet, reasoning that in its pages at least, she could find
order, and that the words would be her friends whether she had any
others or not. Another girl has been pushed to achieve and speaks
six languages, Still a third, the youngest competitor, has a strong
lisp, and two dads, who are grooming her to be a media star as well
as a poster child for the normality and viability of gay families.
For me though, the show's richest character is William Barfee. ("It's
pronounced Bar-FAY, he explains. "There's an accent egu!") Chronically
and painfully congested, he has a serious mucous membrane disorder
and may be borderline autistic. Yet his dominant asset is one of
his feet, which like some kind of performing circus horse, sketches
out words on the floor one letter at a time, which he then announces
to the crowd and the judges. The joy he and his fellow students
take in competition, and the way they deal with the absurd nature
of both the bee's rules and its essence, really gets to me. Perhaps
because I have been alongside them more than once, on a stage, before
a microphone, tracing words. Maybe I have learned to have more respect
for those passions, interests, and obsessions that make no sense
to the outside world than I have for those that are universally
I may see "Murderball" again, to catch what I missed,
to marvel, even to drool. But my cultural home isn't with loudmouth
jocks and extreme sports, whether wheelchair-related or not. It's
with Mr. Barfee's magic foot, and Mr. Christy Brown's even more
talented one. It's with the nerds who spell even when they know
most people think it's pointless. If I go out and rent "Spellbound,"
the recent documentary about the National Spelling Bee, I expect
it will resonate with me much more than "Murderball" has,
not because I am ignoring or denying the relevance of disability
in my life, but simply because sometimes, disability alone is not
enough of a common bond. Other identities may win out. Nerds may
actually trump athletes, if not in rugby, then at least in my head.
Kodmur lives, writes, and tries to figure his life out in the
San Francisco Bay Area. Write
to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
. Fear not; while spelling always counts, it won't be corrected.
know what you think of this BENT feature.
by Danny Kodmur
Soul Clothed in Shining Armor~5/00
Much Does it Matter? Wrestling with the Metaphysics of Disability
On Being (Un)Representative
Testing My Faith in Romance
No Need to Kick My Tires
Balcony Scenes with a
The Music and the Mirror
The Music and the
Under the Spotlight: Disability and Depression ~1/03
On Getting Stuck ~3/03
Of Cities and Closets ~5/03
So How Old Are You, Anyway? ~7/03
Socializing and Sobriety ~9/03
Walking in L.A. ~11/03
Wedding Bell Blues ~3/04
Fortress of Solitude ~7/04
Sound Bodies ~9/04
Fear, Fat, and Fabulousness ~5/05
Hermit Emerging, Gradually ~7/05