Disabled Girlhood and Flexible Exceptionalism in HBO’s Miss You Can Do It

in Girlhood Studies
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  • 1 Arizona State University atodd2@asu.edu

ABSTRACT

In this article, I analyze critically Miss You Can Do It, an HBO documentary that follows the contestants and their families in a pageant for disabled girls. I explore disabled girls’ affective labor as happy objects and trace how certain exceptional, disabled girls are, in Puar’s sense, recapacitated and enfolded into the national imaginary. Through an analysis of the storyline of Alina Hollis’s adoption as a disabled foreign child, I illustrate how her transnational adoptee status functions in the service of a new, flexible family structure—one that is benevolent, recapacitated by its valuation of disability, and unwaveringly American.

Introduction

A man in a tuxedo escorts a little girl wearing a sparkly party dress onto a pageant stage studded with white and blue stars. He passes her off to a woman wearing an evening gown, and she takes the little girl’s hand and kneels down with a microphone: “We asked you if you had any dream come true, what would it be? Do you remember what you said?” The woman places the microphone to the little girl’s lips, and the little girl recites something but it is unintelligible. The woman removes the microphone, opens a piece of paper she has been holding, and responds, “Yeah? And did your mom help you write this? Should I read it for them?” She adds, “You look pretty,” while gesturing to the audience, not just as a compliment, but a directive, signaling that the little girl must stand there and look pretty. She continues, “Okay you ready?” The woman says, “When I was adopted from the Ukraine, I left several friends in the orphanage. My wish would be that all my friends find loving families because any who is differently abled did not have a good future waiting for them.” The woman then looks to the little girl and asks, “Are you happy to be here?” The little girl emphatically nods her head, and responds: “Yeah, I am. Really.”

This scene is from the Miss You Can Do It pageant, captured in HBO’s 2013 documentary, Miss You Can Do It. Abbey Curran, the first disabled Miss USA contestant, created the non-profit pageant for disabled girls1 in 2004. She explains that after winning the Miss Iowa pageant, a judge remarked, “We win things only so we can pass the dream on to someone else,” and thus she felt the call to give something to girls who may never have a chance to compete in more traditional pageants.

In this article I understand the HBO documentary, and the pageant itself, as technologies of national belonging, working to enfold certain subjectivities into the national imaginary. As Sarah Banet-Weiser reminds us, the cultural work that beauty pageants perform not only “creates an idealized [feminine] subjectivity” but also manages to “stabilize a national identity” (1999: 22). Thus the pageant can be conceptualized as a balancing act. There is no doubt that the pageant affords the contestants a space in which to access the feeling of belonging, as Curran intended. However, I argue that the documentary can be theorized as shoring up US exceptionalism through the affective work2 of the disabled girl contestants. Discourses of US exceptionalism are inextricable from the production of the contemporary nation-state. Puar contends that exceptionalism marks both a “distinction from (to be unlike, dissimilar)” and “excellence (imminence, superiority),” thus US exceptionalism functions through a shoring up of narratives that signal how the US has at once departed from as well as mastered “linear teleologies of progress” (2007: 3). I am interested in how disabled girls function within a specific, contemporary discourse of US exceptionalism whereby the nation’s population comes to understand itself in terms of its own superiority, which works to (re)produce fantasies of benevolent excellence. The opening vignette animates the ensuing analysis. I was struck by how Alina Hollis’s story, from disabled orphan in the Southern Ukraine, to transnational adoptee, to all-American daughter, is at once a literal as well as a symbolic enfoldment of disabled subjectivity into the national imaginary. I illustrate how her enfolding is premised on her affective labor, which manifests through her luminous status as a happy object, similar to other exceptional disabled contestants who are welcomed home in the US imaginary. By looking at how Alina’s particular status as a transnational adoptee functions within a larger affective economy, I explore how her storyline serves to (re)secure US exceptionalism through the shoring up and celebration of the flexible, heteronormative, post-post-Americans with Disabilities Act3 American family.

This article responds to McRuer’s call for scholars of disability to recognize “uneven biopolitical incorporation … of disabled subjects, who in certain times and places are made representative and ‘targeted for life’” (2010: 171). I look first at the opening montage of the documentary in relation to a brief history of the relationship of youth to the nation-state, highlighting the girl as the privileged subjectivity of neoliberalism. I examine how the girl’s position as the privileged subject hinges on her potential productivity through affective labor. I then trace how disabled girlhood is made valuable through this affective labor, or how disabled girls are transformed into happy objects for the nation-state’s consumption. I end with focusing on Alina’s specific story, arguing that while she and other exceptional disabled girls are enfolded back into the nation-state and afforded certain privileges, it is ultimately made possible on the back of her own status as a transnational adoptee and other ghosted disabled subjectivities that are always already excluded from this welcoming home.

“We Are all Sent here for a Reason”: Disabled Girlhood and Affective Labor

HBO’s documentary, Miss You Can Do It, opens with a waving American flag that quickly pulls away to reveal the idyllic Midwestern town of Kewanee, Illinois. Rustic bluegrass melodies that gesture toward an unspoiled era of Americana tradition play as the camera pans across quaint local businesses that line the main street. The scene shifts to a young woman putting on makeup. She starts speaking.

Accomplishment begins with two words: I’ll try. I mean, seriously, what is the use of living if you don’t have a dream, or you don’t have hope? And I knew that there was something better in my life than just being a student, or just being a girl from Kewanee. Eventually something had to be magnificent because we are all sent here for a reason or a purpose.

We then move to a flashback sequence during which the viewer comes to understand that the young woman speaking is Abbey Curran, who, in 2008, was the first disabled woman to compete in the Miss USA Pageant. We are told throughout the documentary that Curran has cerebral palsy, which impedes her ability to walk during pageants without an escort. However, she positions her disability as something that drove her to do pageants, not quite as something that has inhibited her. She remarks that she was driven to do pageants because it is “something different, maybe, for a girl with a physical disability. We also want to be looked at as beautiful … and accomplished.” Curran articulates that “being born with cerebral palsy was definitely something that I had to overcome. While others saw me as different, I simply saw myself as having more challenges.” She then explains how she created the Miss You Can Do It pageant in order to “pass the dream onto someone else.”

It is important to note the juxtaposition of the flag, a symbol of US nationalism, with Curran’s narrative of girlhood, overcoming what she describes as her challenge, and giving back. Youth, and girls in particular, have an historically vexed and theoretically complicated relationship to the production of the US nation-state. Nancy Lesko argues that at the turn of the century adolescence signified anxieties about “progress,” and thus became “a site to study, specify, diagnose, and enact the modern ideas for personal and social progress” (2001: 21). The creation of adolescence, in the Global North, and, more specifically, in the US, functioned as a technology in which the collective anxieties of modernity were played out on the bodies of youth. Dependent on a teleological progress narrative, and an increased technical management of bodies, modernity framed normative adolescents as always becoming, and thus promulgated gendered and racialized techniques of youth management. For example, a nascent focus on gendered education at the turn of the century was one way to ensure that boys and girls were shaped in certain ways for what was seen to be a proper heteronormative national order. Not only did it ensure such a proper national order, but it also ensured a proper world order, which was and still is characterized by the hierarchical superiority of the Global North in relation to the Global South.4

Within the current neoliberal paradigm, youth still function in the service of the US nation-state, but many scholars of youth and gender have documented a shift in how certain youth are deployed. Harris argues that “young women are being constructed as a vanguard of new subjectivity” (2004: 1). McRobbie clarifies that because of their emergence as “highly efficient assemblage[s] of productivity” (2009: 59), young women are positioned as the privileged subjects of neoliberal capitalism. Shifting economic and labor conditions, the privileging of the exploitative gendered flexible subject, in combination with the gains of feminism, have created, somewhat tenuously, new possibilities for certain young women. Working alongside this material shift is a symbolic one: the girl has accumulated new cultural currency by way of exceptionalist rhetoric. McRobbie mobilizes the Deleuzian term “luminosity” to describe the ways in which girls have been “put under a spotlight” (2009: 54) vis-à-vis their imagined potential productivity. Thus girls have become luminous—interpellated into the cultural imaginary as a “metaphor for social mobility and social change” (Switzer 2013: 351). The project of luminization is a technology of regulation and management. Although girls are being brought into discourse, this is an asymmetrical process. I ask, “Which bodies can be legible as neoliberal proto-citizens, and through what mechanisms?”

We could assert that this new, ideal, neoliberal girl proto-citizen is imagined as implicitly able-bodied because eventually she is called on to insert herself into the labor market, effectively excluding disabled girls from the project of neoliberal citizenship. However, Puar contends that “all bodies in neoliberal capitalism are being evaluated in relation to their success or failure in terms of health, wealth, progressive productivity, upward mobility, and [enhanced] capacity.” Current iterations of neoliberalism rely on the tension between “capacity and debility” as a method to “profit from both the debilitation of certain bodies but also profit from the ways in which people recover or overcome debility through processes of capacitation (cited in Fritsch 2013: 142). The focus on “differential capacitation” of bodies overrides the past will to normalization, and certain bodies who are capacitated in the right way are afforded the status of the able-disabled: “the upwardly-mobile, … entrepreneurs, employers of attendants, consumers of therapies, supplements, and enhancements” (Fritsch 2013: 143). Abbey Curran is recapacitated, within the US cultural imaginary, by way of her ability to overcome her disability and enter into the non-profit industrial complex, a privileged position within neoliberal multiculturalism.5 As Melamed argues, neoliberal multiculturalism privileges those subjects who “learn to do good, to feed the poor, to uplift women, [and] learn to play their parts in the civilizing/disqualifying regimes that target populations disconnected from circuits of neoliberal wealth and value” (2011: 45). As one of the able-disabled, Curran is held up as the vanguard of an exceptional, affective disabled subject. Through the creation of the Miss You Can Do It pageant, as an endeavor of uplift, and through her positive orientation to the world, Curran is effectively recapacitated.

Fritsch (2013) argues that positive affects structure the contemporary production of disability. This production circulates positive affects, specifically happiness, as a method of recapacitation. Happiness, as Ahmed argues, is a form of world making, and within that world making, there is coherence around certain kinds of bodies. Because happiness is an orientation toward certain objects—those necessary for the good life—happiness functions largely as a promise that directs bodies toward objects that are “happiness means.” Thus, “things become good, or acquire value as goods, insofar as they point toward happiness” (2010: 26). Certain bodies can become happy objects, and certain bodies work to circulate happiness by virtue of their happy object status. The bodies that become happy objects perform labor that is legible (and valuable) to the market. It is important to note that McRuer’s theorization of “compulsory able-bodiedness” is “driven” by happy affects because “compulsory able-bodiedness is always, already, a social good in neoliberal capitalism” (Fritsch 2013: 144). Disabled bodies become valuable capital that is vital to this particular affective economy defined by neoliberal multiculturalism. The uncomfortableness and so-called problem of disability is contained, individualized, and depoliticized through happy affect.

Within the space of the documentary, the viewer is continually enveloped in the warm glow of various narratives of overcoming, courage, determination, and, ultimately, happiness. This narrative is present in Delaney’s story. She is a seven-year-old with a spastic form of cerebral palsy, which causes her muscles to stiffen and cross, that is, attempt to cross the midpoint of her body, thus impairing movement. Although her parents note that she gets frustrated at times because she is “strong willed” and “wants to do everything herself,” she “doesn’t really ever show that frustration. She is the happiest little girl, and very rarely do we get to see that point where she is really angry at things. She just tries no matter what—it doesn’t matter if it takes fifteen times to get her shoes tied.” Throughout the section of the pageant that includes an interview with the judges, Delaney excitedly discusses the new High School Musical Three movie, her dress for the formal wear section of the pageant, and the fact that this is her first pageant. Her performativity of happiness effectively wins the judges over, and they bombard her with questions. The judges are oriented toward Delany because within the space of the pageant, she is a happy object. Ahmed argues that an affective experience of an object is also premised on the “conditions of the object’s arrival” (2010: 25) or what is around and behind the object. It is through Delaney’s disability that conditions of happiness become possible, and it is her status as a happy object that renders her subjectivity intelligible to the nation. Delaney’s disability is productively transformed from excess, or surplus, into value. Within the space of the pageant, her value is produced through her status as a happiness object for the judges, and within the space of the documentary, she performs larger representational affective labor as the ultimate symbol of neoliberal citizenhood evidenced through her perseverance and gumption.

Although everyone receives a prize for participating in the pageant, there is a winner who represents the pageant to the public through appearances and other promotional work. After Delaney’s interview we meet Kenna, who has a learning disability that inhibits intelligible vocalizations. Kenna’s interview is far less conversational than Delaney’s; after her interview the camera cuts to Abbey, who states that “kids who can’t speak obviously have a harder time. It’s difficult because you do fall in love with the girl who is going to talk your ear off.” Near the end of the documentary, Abbey explains the process that goes into deciding who is crowned Miss You Can Do It.

It’s not about the outfits, it’s not about the hair, it’s about the girl on the inside. We want the girl who is just so happy, so excited, who is truly going to make a difference in her life. She’s … going to be able to … make differences in other people’s lives.

Another judge adds: “[We] are just looking for the biggest heart and the most sparkle, and someone to represent all the disabled girls.” Unsurprisingly, Delaney is crowned Miss You Can Do It and was chosen as the best fit to represent “all the disabled girls.” If we consider happiness as a technology of cultivation—it cultivates subjects in the right way—we can see how Delaney is represented as being correctly cultivated. She is chosen as the winner because, through her happy affect and status as happy object, she keeps things in line, orients bodies in the right way. Delaney’s duty is to generate happiness by the very act of embracing her status as disabled in the right ways—as overcoming, as excited, and as optimistic. Embracing her disabled status in these ways secures Delaney a productive role in the moral economy of happiness, but it also, unwittingly, solidifies the world of able-bodied hegemony, one which privileges bodies that can effectively and affectively perform neoliberal citizenship.

These luminous, desirably disabled girls, who function both as happy objects and subjects who must take up the happiness cause for others, are positioned to perform various iterations of affective labor. As a judge notes, “I think Abbey is a good example of not letting a physical limitation limit your potential. I think Abbey can show these girls that the sky’s the limit, and that you can overcome whatever obstacles life throws your way and do whatever you want to do.”

“Everybody Has Potential and Everybody Has Gifts”: Happiness in Crisis

Within the documentary, the disabled girl’s happy object status does not just circulate good feelings through the space of the pageant. The disabled girl also performs certain work in connection with the (re)production and (re)consolidation of the family as a happy object. The storyline of Alina Hollis and her sister, Margaret, illustrates how their status as happy objects rehabilitates, as well as makes exceptional, a family in crisis through a logic of flexibility.

The audience is first introduced to Margaret in her interview with the judges. A woman wearing a white rhinestone-studded dress carries Margaret into the interview room where there are four judges waiting to meet her. They ask her a barrage of questions: “What’s your name? What’s your favorite color? Blue? Pink?” We quickly realize that Margaret is visibly uncomfortable with all this attention; she places her hands in front of her eyes. The judges begin to laugh affectionately and coo at her gesture, which they read as shyness. Margaret’s interview ends with the judges playing peekaboo with her, placing their hands in front of their faces until she removes her hands, now feeling comfortable enough to look at them. The documentary lingers in this moment—the judges and Margaret laughing together, the judges’ eyes sparking, and we see Margaret’s eyes through her fingers, lit up with pleasure.

The documentary then shifts to Elmwood, Illinois, where a suburban house sits squarely in the frame. The camera moves to the backyard and we see a family playing t-ball. A little girl is up to bat; she is standing in deep, lush green grass. The grass contrasts with the clear, blue sky and the massive outdoor play structure’s rich dark wood and plastic in bold primary colors. The girl then hits the ball and starts running the bases, and we see a family scramble to catch her ball in the sky, laughing and hooting. The carefree, playful mood evoked by this American family’s summer ritual quickly dissipates as we hear Anne, the matriarch, begin to recount the story of the birth of her first daughter.

Originally they thought they heard a heart condition, so they took her to evaluate her. About two hours later the doctors came in and said that they had great news that the heart condition that they suspected wasn’t there …. We were very excited about that. And I will never forget what the resident said: ‘You guys really dodged a bullet—most babies with Down Syndrome have a heart condition.’ And that was the first time anybody had even mentioned those words to us. I remember in those moments being completely devastated … and thinking about all the things that I thought I wouldn’t have. One of the things that I remember from that day [is that someone] said ‘remember it’s okay to grieve the child that you thought you were going to have. Because in grieving that it helps you celebrate the one you have been given.’ It’s been an amazing gift but we did not know she was coming with this extra chromosome.

Anne explains that she wanted to have a “constant” for Margaret. She knew that Margaret “wouldn’t be invited to every sleepover” and that she would “be sad for her.” To remedy this problem, she and Todd, Margaret’s father, decided to search for a girl with Down Syndrome to adopt.

As Alison Kafer articulates, and as Anne suggests, “a future with disability is a future no one wants” (2013: 3); a disabled child is a signal of a future of no future. Margaret is quickly repositioned in this monologue as a gift. The affective conversion of grief to celebration is important to note, because as Ahmed (2010) argues, the power of happiness becomes augmented when it is perceived to be in crisis. The crisis of having an unexpectedly disabled child is assuaged through the work of (re)producing the family as a happy object. (Re)consolidating and (re)occupying a conventional family structure is achieved through the transnational adoption of Alina.

Ahmed argues that the family is a happy object; it is “both a myth of happiness, of where and how happiness takes place, and a powerful legislative device, a way of distributing time, energy, and resources.” A happy family also circulates through objects, as evidenced by shots of the Hollis house, their backyard with the extravagant play structure which “make visible a fantasy of a good life” (2010: 45). Most importantly, Ahmed points out that the family “becomes a pressure point” (46): it is necessary for the good life, and through the work that it takes to keep the family together, it becomes a happy object in and of itself. The late twentieth and early twenty-first century is marked by the proliferation of a global transnational adoption market. Transnational adoption has “become a popular and viable option for … hetero[normative] couples seeking to (re)consolidate and (re)occupy” conventional family structures (Eng 2003: 1). This impetus to (re)consolidate and (re)occupy is incited by the neoliberal signification of the parent, a position that signifies wholeness, completion, and value. This value can be measured through the accumulation of affective capital, acquired through the work of (re)producing a happy family, as well through the work of (re)producing properly affective, flexible citizens.

We learn that Anne and Todd contacted an international Down Syndrome adoption agency in their search for a sister for Margaret. Anne recounts that they did not care where in the world the little girl came from; they just wanted to provide Margaret with a sister of the same age. They could not “look at the list and pick,” so Todd and Anne agreed to start with the first little girl, and “if that didn’t work out, then [they] would go to number two.” The first little girl worked out, and after nine months, they brought her home to the United States from Southern Ukraine. The camera then pans to Margaret and Alina, giggling together in their sundresses, sliding down a slide. Then the scene shifts jarringly to a utilitarian looking gray building sitting squarely in the frame—the audience can only assume it is in Southern Ukraine. The building blends seamlessly into a bleak gray sky, and we see what looks like a dilapidated, rusted play structure behind the building. Inside the building, dozens of children bundled up in mismatched outfits eat biscuits while a menacing voice recites something to them. This scene presents the orphanage as an unhappy object, in great contrast to the Hollis’s idyllic suburban backyard. The contrasting play structures are not only a matter of aesthetic choices made by the producers to affectively produce a particular audience response, they also work mimetically as stand-ins for The Ukraine and The US, which works to shore up US exceptionalism.

The scene then returns to the present day, and Anne recounts that the “worker at the orphanage said to [her], ‘You stupid Americans, you have all these perfect kids to pick, and you pick this one of no value, you stupid Americans.’” Todd adds, “They don’t understand why you’re in their country to adopt this child who has no worth in their eyes.” The camera shifts back to Anne and she remarks, with tears welling in her eyes, “She’s perfect in her spirit, and that’s what we’ve always focused on.” The parents go on to explain how they have faced pushback with their choice to adopt a child, who, like Margaret, has Down Syndrome; to some of their family members they are “crazy,” but to others, they are “saints.” Anne clarifies that they are neither crazy, nor saints, and that “anybody could do it, it’s whether or not you choose to.” Alina is made luminous through her “perfect spirit,” a happy object for Margaret and her parents alike. Further, the work of enfolding her into the Hollis family is part of the work of (re)consolidating and (re)occupying a new, flexible heteronormative family structure. This family structure is one that is benevolent, recapacitated by its valuation of disability, and unwaveringly American.

The flexible subject, as McRuer argues, is one who can weather a crisis. “[T]hey are successful precisely because [they] can perform wholeness through each reoccurring crisis” (2006: 17). Premised on the conditions that mark the late twentieth century—changing economic practices that privilege flexible production, labor, and consumption—the flexible [heterosexual] body, “tolerates a certain amount of queerness” (12) making it through subjective crises. However, this flexibility is premised on the logic of compulsory able-bodiedness and it is through “compliant, queer disabled bodies” (18) that can flexibly comply that the heterosexual, able-bodied subject can manage crisis.

Through their parents’ retelling of a horrific hate crime, it becomes clear that Alina (and Margaret) occupy the position of this compliant disabled body in service of their brothers’ flexibility. The parents explain that their house and car were recently vandalized. The narration continues over stills of their car and house with “get outta town retards,” “retodds,” and “fuck” written in red spray-paint. Todd and Anne explain that although the girls were too young to read and understand the hate-speech, the boys, Noah and Caleb, could read, and they had to explain to them that “retard is not a good word. People out there might not like your sisters. Because of ignorance, because they don’t like people who are different,” and that the boys “might have to stick up for [their] sisters one day.” The scene ends with both parents crying in the middle of the frame; they explain that after this incident, they “realize[d] how much better Noah and Caleb are because of Meg and Alina. [They] couldn’t have raised them to be that great without them. So the benefits of being a parent—just realizing how strong they are going to be—it makes it worthwhile.”

New modes of capitalist production require different energizing narratives; a successfully flexible subject must cultivate emotions the right way, or what Elman characterizes as a properly “managed heart” (2012:188). In this new capitalist structure emotions, affective orientations, and emotional performances have market value, and a literal example can be found in the service sector—a premium is placed on customer service, which consists of appearing welcoming and friendly. Within this affective economy, the disabled figure functions as a regulatory discursive formation, enforcing and managing norms circumscribing appropriate feelings and their expression (Elman 2012). Alina and Margaret function to rehabilitate their brothers from passive, innocent ignorance about disability and hate, to advocates of tolerance for their sisters.6 Not only are Noah and Caleb represented as flexible, affective subjects, but we can theorize the Hollis family as attaining a similar flexibility. The family weathers several crises including the birth of Margaret and the hate crime, and in both cases, the crisis is managed through Alina, whose transnational adoptee subjectivity is contained and safely consumed through her happy object status as a compliant, rehabilitative, disabled girl.

I argue that Alina’s storyline functions to shore up US benevolence and acceptance vis-à-vis imagined Ukrainian abjection of disability by positioning Margaret and Alina’s parents as average, yet exceptional, parents. This paradox functions more clearly through Anne’s remark highlighting how “anybody” can parent disabled children, as if it is just a matter of choice. This rhetoric ultimately performs in the service of neoliberal multiculturalism as well as US exceptionalism by obfuscating structural barriers to parenting disabled children under the guise of individual choice.7 The documentary sets Ukraine up as seeing “no value” in disabled children, whereas the US can see the value in them. As her mother remarks, it is Alina’s perfect spirit that makes her valuable. It is Alina’s status as a happy object that imbues her with value. Through the logic of neoliberalism, the United States sets up disability as the last frontier, wherein the superficial enfoldment of disability into the nation-state has effectively proven that the United States is, indeed, the harbinger of diversity and acceptance.

Conclusion: Ghostly Doubles

As I have illustrated, properly affective disabled girl bodies are “made representative and ‘targeted for life’” (McRuer 2010: 171). Indeed, the nation-state is bolstered by and secured through “new forms of ‘tolerance,’” as evidenced through the “welcoming home” (173) of the properly affective, exceptional, adopted disabled girl. However, it is imperative to recognize that this incorporation is uneven; the valorization of one disabled population at once covers over and normalizes the deferred death of another (Puar 2010). For example, in November 2014, police officers assaulted Troy Canales, a young autistic black man, smashing his head into the concrete sidewalk outside his house. Troy is “verbally communicative but has a hard time making eye contact with strangers,” and although the teenager recounts not understanding why he was being assaulted, one arresting officer claimed “he feared for his life after talking to Canales” (Goldensohn 2015: n.p.). Canales’s improperly affective disabled black body provoked violence from the police, and this is just one example of the material reality for those disabled bodies that are always already unincorporable.

Thus, ultimately, I argue that through the heteronormative, palatable space of the pageant, those disabled girls deemed exceptional—those who can productively utilize the cultural capital inherent in “happy affect”—are afforded normative citizenship, which functions to effectively shore up the United States as exceptional. This exceptionality is premised on the ways in which the nation’s population, as mentioned earlier in this article, comes to understand itself in terms of its own superiority—one example being the exceptional, yet feasible and necessary, project of parenting disabled girls—which works to (re)produce fantasies of benevolent excellence. The production of feelings of national belonging, through the movement of the documentary, diverts attention from current necropolitical projects of expulsion through which children who cannot convey their sparkle are, quite literally, made to die.

Notes
1

I have made the explicit choice to use “disabled girls” rather than “girls with disabilities.” Overboe and other scholars and activists of disability argue that “‘person with disability’ demonstrates and is underscored by a ‘normative’ resemblance that we can attain if we achieve the status of being deemed ‘people first’ (with the emphasis on independence and extreme liberal individualism) in the eyes of an ableist society” (1999: 24).

2

Affect as a theoretical concept has been utilized in many different ways. Scholars contend that the affective turn in humanities is characterized by both its focus on the body and the exploration of emotion. I am particularly drawn to Ahmed’s (2010) articulation of affect as a shared orientation, or an investment or directionality that binds people together.

3

I seek to go beyond the critiques of quotidian inaccessibility and the façade of legal inclusion that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 1990 and the 2008 ADA amendments propagate. For me, “post-post-ADA” signals a move beyond these critiques as well as a play on “weak multicultural” rhetoric.

4

Lesko argues that in nineteenth century sociological discourse “the concept of progress was inseparable from that of decline, and the fate of societies was similarly linked to that of individuals” (2001: 25). This binary of progress/decline is linked to the recapitulation theory, which states that each individual child’s growth recapitulates the development of humankind. Modern concepts of childhood and adolescence are built upon this “threefold parallelism across animals, savages, and children: children were like savages, savages were like animals, and animals were like children” (33).

5

The pageant does require an entry fee so Curran is also participating in the market economy in a traditional way.

6

This is illustrated clearly in a video that has gone viral several times on the Internet. The video on the “Everyone Matters” YouTube Channel is titled, “The Hollis Boys, 6 and 7, ‘Speaking up for our sisters’ with Down Syndrome.” It shows the boys holding up various notecards that serve to educate the larger public about Down Syndrome. A series of notecards read: “Our sisters are realizing that with some hard work and help they can do anything.”

7

There are many structural barriers inherent in attempting to adopt a child internationally, and even more so if that child is disabled. Couples that are not heterosexual or married face discrimination when attempting to adopt children, and the costs of adopting a child are often prohibitive for low-income parents.

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  • McRuer, Robert. 2006. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Disability and Queerness. New York: New York University Press.

  • McRuer, Robert. 2010. “Disability Nationalism in Crip Times.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 4, no. 2: 163178.

  • Overboe, James. 1999. “Difference in Itself: Validating Disabled People’s Lived Experience.” Body & Society 5, no. 4: 1729.

  • Puar, Jasbir. 2009. “Prognosis Time: Towards a Geopolitics of Affect, Debility, and Capacity.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19, no. 2: 161172.

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  • Puar, Jasbir. 2010. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Switzer, Heather. 2013. “(Post)Feminist Development Fables: The Girl Effect and the Production of Sexual Subjects.” Feminist Theory 14, no. 3: 345360.

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Filmography

  • Davis, Ron. 2013. Miss You Can Do It. USA.

  • The Hollis Boys, 6 and 7, ‘Speaking up for our sisters’ with Down Syndrome.” YouTube video, 4:08. Posted by “Everyone Matters,” 21 September 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObPoZCTTVeI

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Contributor Notes

Anastasia Todd is a Ph.D. candidate in Gender Studies at Arizona State University. Her current research explores how disability functions alongside and through regulatory discourses of girlhood. Her dissertation explores various iterations of disabled girls’ affective labor and the ways in which the media circulates representations of exceptional disabled girls.

Girlhood Studies

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • Ahmed, Sarah. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Banet-Weiser, Sara. 1999. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Elman, Julie Passanante. 2012. “Nothing Feels as Real”: Teen Sick-Lit, Sadness, and the Condition of Adolescence.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 6, no. 2: 175191.

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  • Eng, David L. 2003. “Transnational Adoption and Queer Diasporas.” Social Text 21, no. 3: 137.

  • Fritsch, K. 2013. “The Neoliberal Circulation of Affects: Happiness, Accessibility and the Capacitation of Disability.” Health, Culture, and Society 5 no. 1: 135149.

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  • Goldensohn, Rosa. 2015. “NYPD Officers Beat Autistic Teen in Front of His Home, Lawsuit Says.” DNAinfo, 8 July. http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20150708/fordham/nypd-officers-beat-autistic-teen-front-of-his-home-lawsuit-says (accessed 15 October 2015).

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  • Harris, Anita. 2003. Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge.

  • Kafer, Alison. 2013. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  • Lesko, Nancy. 2001. Act Your Age: A Cultural Construction of Adolescence. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

  • Melamed, Jodi. 2011. Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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  • McRobbie, Angela. 2009. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change. London: Sage.

  • McRuer, Robert. 2006. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Disability and Queerness. New York: New York University Press.

  • McRuer, Robert. 2010. “Disability Nationalism in Crip Times.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 4, no. 2: 163178.

  • Overboe, James. 1999. “Difference in Itself: Validating Disabled People’s Lived Experience.” Body & Society 5, no. 4: 1729.

  • Puar, Jasbir. 2009. “Prognosis Time: Towards a Geopolitics of Affect, Debility, and Capacity.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19, no. 2: 161172.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Puar, Jasbir. 2010. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Switzer, Heather. 2013. “(Post)Feminist Development Fables: The Girl Effect and the Production of Sexual Subjects.” Feminist Theory 14, no. 3: 345360.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Davis, Ron. 2013. Miss You Can Do It. USA.

  • The Hollis Boys, 6 and 7, ‘Speaking up for our sisters’ with Down Syndrome.” YouTube video, 4:08. Posted by “Everyone Matters,” 21 September 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObPoZCTTVeI

    • Export Citation

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