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Disability, Dance, and an Oppressive Mobilisation of Looking, by Georgia Gardner

I have been careful to also engage with disabled scholars whose experiences of disablism differ from my own, recognising the diversity within the disabled community.

The patriarchal conditions of classical ballet illustrate the convergence of the male and clinical gazes, facilitating the confluent invisibility and hypervisibility of disability. Necessitating the dancer be visually available, live performance compounds risk for the marginalised performer. It initiates an oppressive mobilisation of looking, facilitating both fetishisation and erasure through the spectatorial stare and socio-political gazes. An icon of the patriarchal female ideal, the ballerina compounds peak fitness, heteronormative desirability, and sylph-like aesthetic-tendency with voicelessness. With rigid codification prioritised over accommodation, and societal infantilisation erasing disabled sex, the disabled dancer is stigmatised as an oxymoronic fiction.

Mary Duffy, an Irish artist perhaps most notable for her embodied performances in the 1980s and 1990s, offers a nuanced negotiation of these interlocking gazes, forcefully dislodging the tokenistic belief that disabled presence alone is subversive. Although Duffy’s performances may appear an appeasement of the male gaze (prioritising exclusionary beauty as the most pertinent issue of disablism), her self-insertion into the canonical prestige of the female nude is a potent refusal of the abjectification and de-sexualisation of the disabled body. Harnessing the social alterity of disability as a tool to ‘disarm’ the spectator, Duffy negates the vulnerability perceived as inherent to disabled people, employing sexuality as an agent of self-empowerment.[2] This underscores a crucial overlap between the authoritarian male and medical gazes that aim to cultivate vulnerability and substantiate a physical, psychological, and social subordination of women.

Working inter-disciplinarily, Duffy’s performance practice is useful to support this conversation of dual disempowerment. In a little-documented untitled performance (1995) Duffy, self-described as ‘born without arms,’ articulates a live rendition of her eminent series of performed self-portraits, Cutting the Ties That Bind (1987).[3] This transition from performed photograph with written prose, to live performance with spoken prose is immediately significant. It invites a dynamic of exchange, shifting the spectators from participating in a familiar disembodied objectification, not unlike staring, to witnessing Duffy’s live self-objectification. In an intimate audience-performer relationship, Duffy initiates a performative journey of autobiographical, political, and bodily unveiling, positioning herself naked under a spotlight on an empty stage.[4] The script, intertwining introspective thought with quoted encounters, transforms what is formally considered a soliloquy, into a self-othering dialogue. Duffy’s performance, a self-moderated unfolding of her experience of being disabled, critiques the pseudo-scientific stare that Petra Kuppers suggests assumes an entitlement akin to a doctor, rejecting the paradigmatic tokenism in dance.[5]

The canonical exclusion of the disabled dancer, ironically forges conformity to the patriarchal and balletic ideal of female victimisation, reinstating social tropes such as the saviour complex and paralleling the balletic narrative of the heroic male protagonist and helpless woman. Psychological effects of marginalisation, including subordinate self-view, are among the female traits that underpin euro-centric balletic narratives, the dancers all too often depicted as reliant on their male counterparts. Denying this rhetoric of victimhood, Duffy promotes the social model of disability. The social model was coined by Mike Oliver in 1983 and is a critique on the cultural conception of normal, revising social perspectives, placing fault not on disabled people (as is a common outlook in the medical model) but in structural inaccessibility and systemic ableism.[6] Declaring ‘My body was right for me…whole, complete, functional,’ Duffy advocates for an understanding of disability as a neutral facet of her multidimensional subjectivity.[7]

Visually, Duffy’s performances echo art historical beauty ideals, employing imagistic allusion she negotiates the abjectification of the disabled body, disempowering the social scripts that affirm the dialogical marginalisation inflicting disabled women. In Cutting the Ties That Bind, Duffy’s recognition of herself as an icon of Western beauty is striking. Claiming a statuesque stance, gradually emerging from drapery, disrobing, and accentuating her nude body, Duffy presents herself as the revered armless sculpture depicting Venus de Milo, historically epitomising beauty.[8]

Duffy’s reflexive monologue is crucial to the success of her Venus de Milo allusion, shattering the limitation of female agency materialising in the expectation of being seen and not heard. This voicelessness burdens the ballerina portrayed through the male gaze and is echoed for disabled people through the medical gaze, spoken for by the ‘paternalistic voices’ of doctors.[9] Thus, incorporating diagnostic terminology throughout the soliloquy, such as ‘Congenital Malformation,’ Duffy confronts the clinical gaze while highlighting the historical exclusion of women from knowledge, and disabled people from their own bodies. Weaving childhood reactions to her disability into the monologue, she critiques the diagnosis-first clinicisation (the reduction of disabled people as solely their condition) of disabled people, cementing the diagnostic terminology as out of grasp. This overt medicalisation, in an autobiographical performance, implies a marginalisation from selfhood; particularly poignant as Duffy recalls her formative years. The conflation of her official diagnosis with recounted unsolicited remarks ‘Were you born like that? or did your mother take them dreadful tablets?’ is a potent refusal of violating questions faced by disabled people. Equalising the performative diagnostic knowledge of strangers and the dehumanising probing of doctors, Duffy reveals in both a disregard for consent.

Furthermore, the allusion situates the non-normative performing body as desirable and crystalises the inseparable nature of patriarchal, disablist, and dance tradition. The critical theorist Mary Russo writes on the trope of the grotesque body as ‘the body of becoming, process and change,’ reflecting the menstrual cycle, reproduction, and transition, rooting the notion of grotesque in the social abjectification of intersectional womanhoods.[10] Additionally, asserting that the grotesque body is ‘open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple and changing,’ Russo implies self-containment, composure, and extreme bodily control as distinctions of the oppositional classical body.[11] This is replicated in traits of formal dance virtuosity exposing the societal and canonical privileging of inherently ableist conditions. The grotesque-classical dichotomy pinpoints the extent of patriarchal expectation. With grotesque traits innate to humanity, the classical feminine ideal demands lifelessness.

Russo’s reference to Natalie Davis’s notion of an inherently feminine ‘disorder,’ is significant in the interlocking misogynist and disablist lenses, reiterating the historical perception of women as impaired, referencing hysteria and misconceptions about the womb. [12] Thus, femininity is equated with incapacitation. This evidences the vilification of disability as in part due to its societal association with feminine victimisation (with shared perceived traits such as defencelessness, rumoured biological enigma, and debility), dialogically rooted in the patriarchal desirability of female vulnerability.

Thus, we can understand both the stare and the gaze as underpinned by the acculturated subordination of women, and the societal drive to maintain patriarchally fetishized physical dominance and heteronormative power dynamics. Examining this cultural framework of looking, disablist marginalisation is only amplified in dance tradition. Situating the grotesque within performance context exposes an intersectionally disparaging dichotomy, fuelling female abjectification and victimisation. Duffy’s performances forcefully rebut the voicelessness and dehumanisation punctuating dance tradition and disablist historiography, underlining hypocritical body-centred dichotomies as sustaining forces of the cultural denigration of femininity and disability.

Georgia Gardner is a Scottish artist and researcher based in Edinburgh. Her work can be viewed at and she can be contacted @_GeGardner. She has recently completed an MA in Fine Art and is now continuing her studies while working on upcoming exhibitions. This text is an adaptation of a chapter of her dissertation, The Marginalisation of Dance and its Bodies.

Image: Mary Duffy, Cutting the Ties That Bind, 1987, Series of photographic print, 51 x 71 cm, The Arts Council, Ireland.

[2] Mary Duffy quoted in: Ann Millett-Gallant, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 27.

[3] ibid, 25.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Petra Kuppers, Disability and Contemporary Performance: Bodies on Edge (New York: Routledge, 2004), 32.

[6] Oliver M, Thinking about Disability. In: Social Work with Disabled People, (London: Palgrave, 1983), 33-49

[7] Duffy quoted in: Millet-Gallant, The Disabled Body, 26.

[8] Millet-Gallant, The Disabled Body, 27.

[9] Ibid, 26.

[10] Mary J. Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, and Modernity (New York: Routledge, 1995), 8.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (London: Duckworth, 1975), 131.