It was my great pleasure and privilege to welcome Francesca Martinez to MMU on 17 October 2014, where she delivered her thoughts on “The Beauty of Diversity”. I invited Francesca to open a lecture series about social justice, because I had heard her on podcasts and news programmes. She made me aware that it was possible to explore the social model of disability with passion and good humour. Comedy may be a better vehicle to explore this aspect of social justice than academia.
Francesca spoke (without notes or props) for just over an hour. In that time, she covered a great number of issues: labels, the pain of adolescence, bullying, education, medicine, class, party politics, values, ‘choice’, etc. All of it was upbeat and positive. However, the key message for me was that “accepting yourself as you are, is an act of civil disobedience.” It is a simple, elegant message that I am now going to over-egg through examination and explication. I am an academic; that is my job.
The statement of self-acceptance as political is not a new one. It is the impetus behind the feminist slogan “the personal is political”. However, as hooks (1984) makes clear this is a slogan that needs dismantling and re-constituting. Recognising that your personal circumstances of oppression are linked to the political order is not the same as developing an understanding of the mechanics of power.
When women internalised the idea that describing their own woe was synonymous with developing a critical consciousness, the progress of the feminist movement was stalled. (hooks, 1984: 25)
Whilst Francesca was using her experience to highlight oppressive practice, she was also offering a challenge to the current portrayal of humanity within contemporary policy. Heartfield (2006) argues that the current era is characterised by “diminished subjectivity”, where people are viewed as weak, vulnerable and/or dangerous. And the key relationship for this weakened subject is in the market place, through consumption. This has particular and obvious relevance for a ‘wobbly’ woman trying to make a living as a performer. Is she a product that can be sold? However, it also has an impact on our experiences as the potential audience.
When I introduced Francesca, I commented that she was more likely to be seen on Newsnight than on 8 out of 10 cats or Have I Got News For You. This is despite her obvious talent for topical comedy from an important perspective. Francesca made it clear that what prevents her from appearing on such programmes is not her own drive or ambition, but TV producers and advertisers suggesting that her disability might make viewers nervous. So, the impact on Francesca and her ability to maintain a livelihood is obvious. However, for us in the audience, this is deeply patronising. I have watched Francesca woo an audience with passion, charm and wit both because of and despite her ‘wobbles’ and the need to concentrate on her speech. She was far from frightening. As a member of that audience I am deeply offended by the idea that I cannot cope with a particular form of difference. I am also left with bland, predictable products to consume. Worst of all, it proves the adolescent bullies right.
So, whose fear is really at the heart of the decision to keep Francesca and other examples of the “beauty of diversity” off my screen? And what are they really frightened of? Fear is a useful tool of power “and the strategy of capitalising on fear is well-established” (Bauman, 2007: 17). What is frightening about Francesca for those wishing to capitalise on fear is not her disability, but her acceptance of it and the pleasure she derives from that acceptance. When we are all supposed to be frightened that we are not perfect, somebody who has given up berating their body and apologising for it, poses the risk of exposing the unhealthy values and superficial criteria that drive consumption.
So, here’s a dilemma – if consumption is not the answer – why should you buy Francesca’s book What the **** is normal? Well, because it is funny, charming, well-written and Francesca deserves to be read. But also because disability is supposed to be narrated as individual and tragic and that understanding limits our ability to move on. Francesca tells a different story which allows us to make more fruitful connections.
Besides, I thought it would make a great birthday present for my Mum.
Bauman, Z. (2007) Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty Cambridge: Polity Press
Heartfield, J. (2006) The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained Sheffield: Sheffield Hallam University
hooks, b. (1984) Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center Boston: South End Press