Love & People
This paving slab thing really seems to bother some people.
Some of it seems to be just good, old-fashioned prudery. Personally, I don’t have a problem with kids hearing an oblique fellatio joke. Think about the dreadful things we’re happy for them to watch (they were still watching Hannah Montana when ‘Love & Monsters’ aired, for example). By contrast, a mild joke about consensual sex between people who love each other seems quite nice. Besides, we turn off the TV in disgust because there’s a joke about sex and then the kids go to school and spend all day giggling about bottoms and willies. I know I did.
If she really is stuck in the slab (and we can’t be sure of this, given that Elton is an unreliable narrator and we never see Ursula’s slab-embedded face from the POV of his video camera), there’s no reason to suppose that the Doctor didn’t ask her if it was what she wanted. Why assume that he’d force it on her?
There is something potentially disturbing about a woman being so utterly in a man’s power… but Elton doesn’t read like an abuser. Of course, the problem is that he can abuse her if he wants because of her extreme physical vulnerability. This seems at least as pertinent as the gender issues in this episode.
There is, of course, no reason why a ‘disabled’ person can’t have a happy, fulfilling life. They can and do… at least when they’re not reliant on ATOS for access to basic human dignity.
I’m making the link between Slab-Ursula and ‘disability’ despite the fact that she connects with this complex social phenomenon in very broad, Fantasy terms. Aside from the origins of her ‘disability’, she represents near total immobility, which is not unheard-of in the real world but which is unrepresentative of the huge matrix of different ‘disabilities’. She could, if read too closely as ‘disabled’, be considered offensive as a representation because of her extreme helplessness. Taken that way, she could tie in with the perception of ‘disabled’ people as like objects lacking agency. Pity dehumanizes the pitied; that’s why common humanity and solidarity are infinitely preferable.
I think a major bit of the unease over this scene – and the joke in particular – is actually submerged anxiety about sex between ‘disabled’ and ‘able-bodied’ people. The conscious worry is perhaps over abuse… but abuse is not peculiar to relationships involving the ‘disabled’. Of course, there is a horribly high level of abuse of the disabled, but abuse is, by definition, not about consensual sex between loving partners. The idea that Elton and Slab-Ursula’s relations might be inherently abusive probably stems from that very perception of the ‘disabled’ as weak and helpless, semi-people, in need of protection. The object without agency, as above. Like kids. (Children in our society are too often seen as passive receptacles.) For an adult, there can be no such thing as consensual sex with a child (which is true). Ergo, for an ‘able-bodied’ person, there can be no such thing as consensual sex with a ‘disabled’ person (which is not true). Of course, the analogy rests on the correct perception of a common power imbalance (the essence of abuse)… this is why the extreme nature of Ursula’s ‘disability’ becomes a potential problem when she is related to real-world ‘disability’. Real ‘disabled’ people are not always so utterly dependent… and focusing on the power differential as a physical thing fails to grasp how socially-constructed it is, how dependent upon social structures of privilege. ‘Disability’ is relative to how the social world is culturally and materially constructed.
I’m not saying, by the way, that anybody who doesn’t like ‘Love & Monsters’, or that scene, hates ‘disabled’ people, consciously or unconsciously. Society in general needs to do better in our perceptions of these issues.
What the ‘disabled’ actually need (besides Iain Duncan Smith consigned to a slave labour camp where he spends all his time making stretch limousines customised for wheelchair access) is to be treated like people, just like everyone else. (I feel able to pronounce on what ‘they’ need in this instance, because all I’m saying is that they need to be accorded the baseline status that I get automatically. For anything beyond that, my job is to shut up and listen.)
The episode makes it plain that, if she is really stuck in the slab, she’s also in a non-abusive relationship, whatever the potential problems. If we get caught up on those potential problems, we run the risk of discrimination, i.e. of over-emphasizing the potential problems in ‘disabled’ relationships while forgetting about the huge amount of abuse that takes place in ‘able-bodied’ ones, thus embracing the hubris of privilege.
Having “a bit of a sex life”, or at least being accorded the ability to have non-abusive sex if you choose, is surely part and parcel of being treated like a normal human being (which is how ‘disabled’ people should be treated because its what they are). The kind of ruthless, inhuman, results-driven neoliberal world that Kennedy/Absorbaloff represents (a call-centre-verse where all human enthusiasms and capacities are slaved to a maniacally ravenous, pinstriped monster of consumption) is the kind of world that produces monsters like ATOS and IDS. Children can see them on the TV and nobody turns a hair… and they’re far more offensive than a joke about a ‘disabled’ person giving the man she loves a blowjob now and then.
(Note: I put the term ‘disabled’ in scare-quotes because, while it seems to be the best term, I like to treat it cautiously.)
EDIT (26/10/13): Clunky clarification added in brackets at end of the first sentence of the last paragraph. Just in case anybody decided to deliberately misinterpret my meaning.
October 25, 2013 @ 9:53 am
I wonder whether there's an element of that thing where people see physical disability and they imagine mental disability on top of it? Because comparisons of people with sufficiently serious mental disabilities and children with respect to sex are… well… I don't understand the issues well enough to say, but it's definitely more complicated. If it is nonsense, it's a lot less obviously nonsense.
Perhaps the instinct comes from this, and then, people don't recognise that instinct because when you actually think 'mental disability' in this case, it's so obviously untrue, so they look for other ways to resolve the dissonance and explain this instinctive feeling.
('Disability' seems a far less scary word than 'disabled'. I guess the problem is that while 'disability' is a fairly objective term for a category of things which make people not able to do certain things, 'disabled' risks defining people by their disability.)
October 25, 2013 @ 12:02 pm
My issue with the term 'disabled' (and I'm far from original here) is that it misses the social aspect to the construction of 'disability'. To be crude about it: someone in a wheelchair cannot reach the food on the high shelf of the supermarket… not just because their legs don't work but also because society has decided that vital things that people want can be stored on shelves too high for a significant portion of the population to reach. The social world we have created – with all its shelves and architecture and buses and attitudes – is part of how 'disability' is created. The supermarket is a good example, not just practically (and I used to work in one) but also because it links this to 'the market', which is how we distribute goods. If society distributed goods by putting them inside safes that could only be opened by singing tunefully, I'd suddenly be 'disabled'.
October 26, 2013 @ 2:39 pm
On the social constuction of 'disability':
Under capitalism, a disabled person is someone whose body prevents them in some way from being a productive worker.
A woman who can't have children, or a man with erectile dysfunction, aren't considered 'disabled', because although they can't make new workers, they can still work.
October 29, 2013 @ 4:01 am
To whatever extent that line is a problem, it strikes me as being so not because Elton mentions having a love life, but because he does it without asking Ursula whether she's OK with having the personal details of their sex life announced to total strangers. This is almost totally divorced from the specific circumstances of Ursula's new life, other than the fact that a man basically saying "My girlfriend suffered an accident and is now disabled, but I still get blowjobs" strikes me as pretty crass thing to say, particularly when his girlfriend hasn't cleared the idea ahead of time.
It's a problem compounded by Elton not turning Ursula to camera so that she can join in the conversation; the result comes across to me as a little bit too much like Elton speaking for his girlfriend, without her necessarily wanting him to, at least on some topics.
One could argue Henderson's performance takes a lot of the edge off the above; she doesn't seem too bothered by Elton's slip-up. And yes, pointing Ursula towards the camera would undermine the 'unreliable narrator' approach. Those are both arguments one could pick at, but whatever. My point is that there is at least a possible problem here, and one that exists completely separately of any prudery or subconcious problem with 'disabled' people still having sex lives.
October 30, 2013 @ 2:01 pm
I'm not sure this is all that problematic, Squid. First off, Elton isn't so crass as to say he "gets blowjobs" — he says they have "a bit of a sex life," which is ambiguous; we can only fill in what that might mean from our imaginations, most typically relying on the cinematic context, and we don't actually have to fill in more specificity at all.
Secondly, Ursula does get a chance to respond. No, she doesn't face the camera, but we hear her voice; she is a part of the conversation, and she issue a mild corrective. Given that she seems inclined towards privacy, I can't fault Elton for not turning her towards the camera (considerations for unreliable narration aside — Ursula could very well not be a slab at all, but simply speaking off camera, and we have evidence she's been behind the camera before) as that too would be a breach of her privacy.
We really do have to respect Henderson's portrayal in this scene — at least, if we want to increase our respect for the agency of those overcoming their 'disabilities' and having the right to speak for themselves without being constantly second-guessed.
October 31, 2013 @ 10:36 am
I agree that filling in isn't something that has to be done, but it's not clear to me that isn't the intent of the line as written. It reads to me like a stab at plausible deniability stemming from the show's timeslot, not a deliberate gap into which a person merely pours in their own attitude.
The idea of it being a breach of Ursula's privacy to turn her around… that's very interesting. That idea had never occurred to me. It occurs that this idea might lead to a new discussion about the issues of portraying a 'disabled' person -as written by someone not 'disabled' – as not wanting to be seen, but that's a consideration so far out of my personal experience that I don't feel qualified to do any more than note it.
As I say, I agree entirely that Henderson's portrayal is very helpful in mitigating problems, but it's not clear to me as to why that should completely override other concerns. If you wouldn't mind, it would be helpful if you could expand. Is it something in the specific nature of Henderson's portrayal here, or are you referencing a broader point?