Last night in Sydney, Lady Gaga, dressed in black from head (a cloak) to toes (a leather mer-tail) rolled herself out in a wheelchair and, as alter ego Yuyi the Mermaid, performed “You and I.” While some are criticizing her use of a wheelchair as a “stunt” (the Huffington Post) for “shock value” (as Justin Billauer, founder of the US’s Life Rolls On, says on Radar Online), the Sydney Morning Herald quotes members of Australian disability groups who didn’t see anything offensive about her performing in a wheelchair.
MTV UK proclaimed that “the star has pushed the boundaries again by performing in a wheelchair in Australia.” The Huffington Post asked if Gaga hadn’t gone too far this time; at a surprise appearance at a Sydney club after her show, someone threw eggs at her, though it’s not clear (at least from the coverage I’ve read) that the egg-throwing was because of disapproval of Gaga’s insensitivity to individuals with disabilities.
Said Sue Egan, the executive officer at Physical Disability Australia:
“We’re not that precious about this type of thing.
“If she used a wheelchair to embellish her act, well as long as she didn’t take it too lightly and it would seem the audience weren’t concerned about it.
“I’m sure there were people with a disability in the audience.”
Stella Young, editor of Ramp Up, thought it was “really cool” that Gaga used a wheelchair in her performance.
“I don’t think she’s saying anything derogatory about disability.
“She arrived at the Grammys in an egg, so why not a wheelchair? I think it’s good to put these things in the mainstream.”
Ms Young said people shouldn’t be offended by representations of disability and Lady Gaga wasn’t ridiculing disabled people.
“I think that people are overly sensitive and overly cautious about representing disability and I don’t think we should be.
“If Lady Gaga wants to make statements about disability then she should, because she makes statements about all manner of things.”
On Brisbane’s ABC breakfast program, a woman named Yvonne who said she uses a wheelchair pointed out that “If she was cracking jokes about it, it would be very offensive” and chalked it up to, “It’s just Lady Gaga, she’s just very weird in what she does.”
Being of a certain age, I’ve not followed Lady Gaga’s career too closely. Mostly I’ve been aware of her because of reports about “stunts” for “shock value” such as her appearing in an egg, the meat dress and such; her performing in a wheelchair seems a bit of a piece. Indeed, she’s placed herself in a wheelchair before: the music video for her song Paparazzi showed her in a wheelchair, using crutches and wearing a helmet after being thrown off a balcony by her boyfriend. The wheelchair, crutches and helmet were meant to indicate the extent of her injuries and also the end of her career. By the end of the video, Lady Gaga is able to walk again and has regained her fame. The Paparazzi video makes a connection to injury and being disabled and the loss of fame, and to being healthy, mobile and regaining fame.
There’s nothing earth-shattering about such connections. Being physically disabled – having a sick or injured body — has long been associated with being weak, both literally and figuratively (spiritually, morally); being able to overcome physical injuries is a familiar narrative of overcoming adversity. Lady Gaga is drawing on such symbolism; by saying that her alter ego is a disabled mermaid, she seems to be seeking to make a statement that, in contrast to the over-the-top persona she cultivates, there’s something lacking and broken, weak and vulnerable.
That is, Lady Gaga is drawing on long-held notions about individuals with disability as, indeed, lacking and broken, weak and vulnerable. The Paparazzi video suggests that, only by in effect losing one’s disability is one able to be successful and “whole” again. Her using a wheelchair in her performances may not be deliberately offensive, and of course she is not expected to become a disability rights advocate: in our society, a wheelchair has become a potent metaphor. But unlike many who use one, or who use crutches, or even who wear a therapeutic helmet due to seizures, Lady Gaga is actually able to just stand up, put down the crutches and walk away without the helmet. She can choose to sit in the wheelchair and to “disable herself” by wearing a leather mer-tail, whereas using a wheelchair is not a choice for many.
There’s nothing really shocking about Lady Gaga showing up in a wheelchair. But what’s disturbing and disappointing is the extent to which our society — including the media — still assumes that it’s “weird” and “shocking” to see someone in a wheelchair, or with crutches, or who speaks or acts or moves their body different due to a disability and all the more as nearly 1 in 7 people on earth today are disabled.
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Photo by By aphrodite-in-nyc () [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons