Radical Psychology
Volume Nine, Issue 1


Emi and Isa: A dialogue between Feminism and Disability

Carla De Santis*
                 

    This article presents a short debate between discourses of feminism and disability studies. Through fictional writing (Goodley, Lawthom, Clough and Moore, 2004; Richardson, 2000) of a dialogue between two friends, Emi and Isa, I aim to illustrate my internal contradictions or projections regarding these two discourses. The main topic of this dialogue is a contestant in the ‘Miss Venezuela’ pageant on 2006 -- Vanessa Peretti -- who was the first woman with a disability to appear in a beauty pageant in Venezuela.

Emi and Isa

    Emi is a fifty-five year old woman who is a well-known journalist in a local newspaper, she also writes poetry. Isa is a thirty-two year old woman -- a sociologist who describes herself as an average middle-class woman in Caracas. Isa currently works in the research department of a non-profit organization for people with learning disabilities. Emi and Isa met in a “Writing skills workshop” three years ago, somewhere in Caracas, during September of 2006:

Emi: Hi Isa!
Isa: Hi Emi!
Emi: Long time, no see. How are you?
Isa: I’m fine. What are you up to?
Emi: I was about to buy some lunch. You?
Isa: Same here. Do you want to have lunch somewhere around here?
Emi: Excellent, but it can’t be too long because I have to be back at work at 3:00pm.
Isa: Sure.

They keep talking and walking until they find a place to eat. Isa grabs the newspaper that was left on the table next to theirs and looks the headline: Another “Beautiful night in Caracas”.

Isa: Did you watch the ‘Miss Venezuela’ pageant last night?
Emi: No.
Isa: Why not? I supposed that you would want to know everything that happened in Caracas.
Emi: Actually, I don’t. If I need anything I just call the reporter or department that I’m interested in. And the Miss Venezuela, it’s just, I don’t like beauty pageants, they are terribly long, boring. And those girls!
Isa: Those girls what?
Emi: They are so young, but they look as if they were 30.
Isa: Be careful! (Both laugh). Really, why don’t you watch them?
Emi: I just don’t like watching young women being ‘sliced’ as if by surgery and transformed into ‘nice’ Barbie-mass-production beauties. They all look exactly the same! I remember reading a review about the Miss America pageant, a hundred years ago; it said something like:

A lot of the contestants do not owe their beauty to their Maker but to their Re-maker. Miss Florida’s nose came courtesy of her surgeon. So did Miss Alaska’s. And Miss Oregon’s breasts came from manufacturers of silicone (Goodman, 1989; cited in Morgan, 1998).

Isa: It is true, but last night there was something very different. There was this girl called Vanessa Peretti. She ended up being the first finalist and, with that, she would go to the Miss World or Miss International competition. I’m not sure which one.
Emi: So, what’s the big deal?
Isa: She is deaf. [1] Can you believe that?
Emi: Really?
Isa: Yes.
Emi: And how did she manage to hear the music? How did she dance? How did she know when was her turn? How?
Isa: That’s why it was amazing for me to watch the show last night. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I was really excited every time she moved to the next round.
Emi: I guess it would have been something interesting to watch. You should have called me.
Isa: After the competition, I looked for more information about her. I found an interview on the “Miss Venezuela” website. In it, she explained to the media how she felt the vibrations of the music in order to dance. Also, she commented how all the producers and the other contestants during the making of the event were impressed by her skills. However, she pointed out that it was not difficult for her to do it; moreover, she said that several deaf and/or mute people can dance. She made a statement about the lack of information among the ‘able population’ about hearing impairments. She expressed her feelings about how she might be opening-up spaces for other deaf people not only in the pageant, but anywhere else in the country. [2]
Emi: Hum…
Isa: I think it was a nice way to show able people like us that we don’t know anything about physical impairments. I would never think that a deaf person could dance.
Emi: Hum.., me too. But still. If you look at her ‘achievement’ she just became another Venezuelan woman in the “spider web” created by the Miss Venezuela industry. It is a good example of how women can only be ‘heard’ if they are beautiful. Look at how the newspaper quotes her: “I’m a reliable example of the Venezuelan woman”. [3]
Isa: Well, yes, maybe. Actually that reminds me of what one of my co-workers said when talking about her this morning: “She is the woman of my dreams; she is hot, can’t hear you and can’t speak. What else do you need?” I wanted to say something back, but I preferred not to discuss it with such a shallow-narrow-minded-stupid guy.
Emi: You see. What she has done is not necessarily a success. From a feminist perspective, I think she just joined the ‘enemy’. Thus, I think that the importance placed on physical appearance, combined with a rigid and fixed definition of beauty, can translate into higher amounts of anxiety and discomfort experienced as disabling for several females (Clifford, 1971, in Gilligan et al, 1989). Hence, I think this effect is present in any girl or woman in Caracas, who wishes -- or not -- to be a ‘Miss’.
Isa: Emi! Why do you have to be so radical? It’s always a ‘lecture’ talking to you. I’m talking about a stupid beauty pageant.
Emi: I don’t understand how you manage to see that crap.
Isa: Well, for example, I liked that during the show they did a small biography of her life showing how her family and community in Cumana, a small town on the east coast of Venezuela, have supported her since she was little. It illustrated how she was able to accomplish anything she wanted, like being in the Miss Venezuela pageant. [4]

They maintained silence while eating lunch. Suddenly, Isa moves her chair closer to Emi and looks at stares at her with her eyes wide opens. Then, she asks:

Isa: Tell me the truth. Did you or did you not want to be a ‘Miss Venezuela’ when you were younger?
Emi: Yes, Yes. I have to admit that a long long time ago, I did want to have the ‘beautiful crown’ on my head.
Isa smiles, as an act of triumph.
Isa: You see. That’s what I’m saying. Even you, a radical critic with feminist arguments can admit, at least in private, that you wanted to be a Miss Venezuela. It’s just part of our culture. From the time that we are very young we are told about the records of several competitors such as Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss International and many others titles that we have won as a country. Before Chávez, that was one of the few things that people knew about Venezuela internationally -- oil and beautiful women.
Emi: That is true. I did get a lot of that a long time ago when I travelled.
Isa: The Miss Venezuela contest has helped many women to be successful in their careers afterwards. We even had a local councillor, who ran for the presidency -- Irene Sáez. Her fame and success started when she won the Miss Universe title. So, don’t you think that the impact of the contest is quite big?
Emi: Well, you were the one who said that it was just a competition. For me, the beauty contest phenomenon warrants attention, and feminist analysis, because pageants represent and reflect not only the social construction of gender, but also of nationalism, morality, modernization, and globalization (Crawford et al, 2008).
Isa: Wow! Big words again! Calm down! Don’t you think now, that for any girl, but in particular other deaf young girls like Vanessa Peretti, this could mean something really important? I think that they could feel encouraged to do anything they want.
Emi: Well, yes and no. I mean, it could be true if we consider that this is the first time that a disabled woman has appeared as a beauty role model in our country. Yet, those girls, I mean all of the deaf girls, will suddenly realize that only if they are beautiful and tall they could become a Miss.
Isa: That’s my point -- the fact that only if you’re beautiful and tall you can be on the Miss Venezuela contest happens to every girl in this country. That’s why neither of us was a Miss Venezuela (both laugh again). But, having a deaf contestant who would go next year to international competitions takes away the disability barrier; at least for the deaf community.
Emi: Ok. I think I can agree with you on that. But, don’t you think it is a sad way of giving disabled people more hope; when you’re actually strengthening cultural and gender stereotypes about female beauty. It is another example of how idealized female bodies are used for an ever increasing variety of commercial and entertainment purposes. And in particular, they are now pressuring women, also those in the deaf community, to adhere to beauty standards. The beauty pageants mainly reflect and reinforce the importance of physical appearance in women’s lives (Van Lenning & Vanwensenbeeck, 2008).
Isa: Ok. You don’t have to lecture me again. I understand that you don’t like the competition (Yelling). However, since Vanessa competed this year the Miss Venezuela organization agreed to subtitle the show with Sign language from now on. For me, this is a huge step, if we consider that the broadcasting of that program is the most expensive on the Venezuelan television, and with the highest audience ratings. I think that’s a nice way to look at the contribution she has made for the deaf community.
Emi: Isa I don’t want you to get mad at me. But, the fact that one TV show during prime time has sign language is not a step forward. The Venezuelan constitution and the latest disability law submitted in our country say that all TV shows should have a sign language interpreter.
Isa: I know! I know! (Yelling). But you also know that for us ‘the law’ is an abstract concept that we only fulfil when we really have to, and in this case, Vanessa contributed to making a difference and a significant change.
Emi: Give me the newspaper! (Isa gives her the newspaper and Emi goes through it, turning its pages quickly. Isa seems confused). There you go! Is this the girl?
Isa: Yes.
Emi: Look at the picture:


Vanessa Paretti

Vanessa Peretti (www.missvenezuela.com).

Isa: I told you, she’s really pretty. The jury said she had a great figure. This picture is nice because she is using sign language. It must have been taken when she was introducing herself to the judges.
Emi: Do you think that anyone, especially men, are looking at her hands?! Her body just takes all the attention!
Isa: I know! And that is probably the whole mispoint of the competition. However, I just told you that for me her achievement is that she is there along with having a physical impairment.
Emi: It’s almost 2:45. I guess we can sit here and talk for hours only about this picture. It’s not an easy topic.
Isa: You’re right. I also have to go. I enjoyed discussing it with you…ha, ha. I hope next time we agree on something.
Emi: I hope so too. (Both laugh).
Isa: See you soon. I will call you.
Emi: See you. Bye.

Projection or Interconnection

    The last few months I have been introduced to and theoretically overwhelmed by discourses about feminism and disability studies, among many others -- the list is quite long. My biggest concern about being introduced to them stems from my personal difficulties of integrating these different political discourses into everyday life. That is why I decided to write a dialogue similar to Goodley et al (2004), because I wanted to use a more convincing and accessible style of communication than is afforded by conventional reports. According to Goodley et al (2004):

It doesn’t exactly set aside important notions of validity and reliability and so on, but it assumes that readers attend primarily to writing as it ‘speaks to’ their experience, and that analysis is part of a later moment of explanation (p.66).

    However, when trying to be more persuasive and more direct and accessible to readers, I realized as well that the dialogue between “Isa and Emi” became a personal projection [5] that reflects my internal struggles at understanding and incorporating political discourses within my own life, and in particular, feminist and disability studies arguments. Therefore, my fictional characters are representations of my feelings, wishes and thoughts as I tried to explain the dilemmas that I faced when thinking about Vanessa Peretti’s participation in the Miss Venezuela beauty contest. I consider that the character and events produced by the story can be part of true human experience and that something can be learned by writing, re-writing and reading the story (Goodley et al, 2004).

    Thus, while writing it I understood that it was difficult to separate the differing arguments even through the views of two characters. They were connected by a common cultural setting as well as their experience of being women and non-disabled persons with regard to hearing impairment. As Bauman (2006) posits:

A person cannot be purely Deaf apart from the confluence of multiple subject positions, nationality, race, gender, class, disability, sexual preference, just as one cannot be purely female, Mexican, or Asian (p.360).

    I realized then that my priority was to argue against having an ideal woman or a Miss Venezuela ideal in our culture. On this point, a study conducted by Van Lenning and Vanwensenbeeck (2008) evaluated the average measurements of the ‘playmates’ of Playboy magazine in seven different countries: USA, The Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Mexico, Turkey, Argentina and Japan. Their results showed how the average playmate body was similar. The study illustrated that the ideal woman as advertised to men had a body weight that was significantly lower than what may be considered medically healthy. Hence, the substantial homogeneity in the ideal body measurements likely resulted from the dissemination of western media images internationally (Van Lenning & Vanwensenbeeck, 2008).

    This body homogeneity relates to Isa’s and Emi’s ideal of what is required to be a “Miss Venezuela”. However, this international body homogeneity hides within both characters an internalized western media influence in the constitution of the female body if we consider the proportions (i.e. height, weight) that are needed to fulfil the contest admission criteria.

Vanessa Peretti might be seen as a challenge to this stereoreotype when we consider her as a person with a disability; yet her challenge to the beauty contest criteria was only possible through her possession of the ideal body measures and proportions. I regard as creative the interconnection of Vanessa Peretti’s identity within Venezuelan society, since she contrasts an idealized popular beauty representation versus an image of the isolated disabled person; this contrast confronts our conventional thinking. That is why, even when feminist critics have disagreed over the significance of fashion and beauty practices, they tend to share an interest in the ways in which these can produce new gendered identities (Hollows, 2000) as Vanessa Peretti did.

    While writing the dialogue, I tried to highlight the pressures for women in a country like mine where the Miss Venezuela industry and the beauty industry carry a high value among men and women. In this sense, my character Emi states: “Vanessa can now be heard only because she is beautiful”. I wonder, why have other deaf or disabled women not participated previously in the pageant? Was their absence due to their differing abilities? Was their absence explained because they were not deemed beautiful? Can the two categories; hearing impairments and beauty ever be separated for a deaf woman?

As Morgan (1998) posits:

any culture that defines feminity in terms of submission to men, that makes the achievement of feminity (however culturally specific) in appearance, gesture, movement, voice, bodily contours, aspirations, values, and political behaviour obligatory of any woman who will be allowed to be loved or hired or promoted or elected or simply allowed to live, and in any culture that increasingly requires women to purchase feminity through submission to cosmetic surgeons and their magic knives, refusal and revolt exact a high price. I live in such a culture (p.183).

    Was the experience of Vanessa Peretti a step-forward or a step-backward? Perhaps it depends on whether we use either feminist or disability studies ‘lenses’. However, it is the challenge of disconnecting both discourses in her life that makes the answer to this question quite complicated.


Footnotes

[1] I am aware that I should address Vanessa Peretti as a ‘hearing impaired’ person. However, I wanted to write the text in a colloquial manner. To the best of my understanding, in Spanish, we use the term: ‘sordo’ Translated into English, this term means ‘deaf’. Hearing impaired communities in Venezuela call themselves ‘sordos’ in most of the titles of their formal organization. However, a more accurate terminology to be used in Spanish should be ‘deficiencia auditiva’(hearing impairment), which it is not frequently used (Aramayo, 2005).

[2] For a detailed review see www.missvenezuela.com

[3] For a detailed review see www.missvenezuela.com

[4] For a detailed review, see www.sitiodesordos.com

[5] An operation whereby qualities, feelings, wishes or even “objects”, which the subject refuses to recognise or rejects in himself [sic], are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1988; p. 349).


References


Aramayo, M. (2005). La Discapacidad. Construcción de un modelo teórico venezolano (Disability. Construction of a Venezuelan Theoretical Model). Caracas: Fondo Editorial de la Facultad de Medicina. UCV.

Bauman, H. (2006). Towards a Poetics of Vision, Space, and the Body: Sign Language and Literary Theory. In L. Davis (Ed.). The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd Edition. London/New York: Routledge.

Goodley, D., Lawthom, R., Clough, P. and Moore, M. (2004). Researching Life Stories. Method, theory and analyses in a biographical age. London/New York: Routledge. 

Crawford, M., Kerwin, G., Gurung, A., Khati, D., Jha, P. and Chalise R. A. (2008). Globalizing beauty attitudes: Attitudes towards beauty pageant among Nepali Women. Feminism and Psychology. 18, 1, 61-86.

Entrevistas a Vanessa Peretti: Soy una fiel representante de la belleza venezolana (2006). [I’m a reliable representative of the Venezuelan Beauty] www.missvenezuela.com. Accessed on March 7th.  Available on: http://www.missvenezuela.com/2007/esp/entrevistas/entrevistas.asp?id_entrevistas=/2007/esp/entrevistas/17/contenido.htm

Gilligan, C.,Lyons, N and Hanmer, T. (1989). The relational world of adolescents girls at Emma Willard School. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hollow, J. (2000). Feminism, feminity and popular culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J.-B. (1988). The language of psychoanalysis. London: Karnac Books.

Morgan, K.P. (1998). Women and the Knife. Cosmetic surgery and the colonization of women’s bodies. In: Weitz, R. (Ed.). The politics of Women’s bodies. Sexuality, Appeareance and Behaviour. New York: Oxford University Press.

Richardson, L. (2000). Writing Strategies. In Denzin and Lincoln (Eds.). Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd edition. London: Sage.

Novedades Venezuela: Vanessa Peretti. En boca de todos. (2006). [On the spotlight] Accessed on March 8th. Available at: http://www.sitiodesordos.com.ar/otr_ven_novedades.htm.

Van Lenning, A and Vanwensenbeeck, I. (2008). The ever-changing female body: Historical and Cultural differences in Playmate’s Body Size. Feminism and Psychology.  10, 4, 538-543.



Biographical note:

Carla De Santis teaches psychology at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, Venezuela. She also works as a family therapist at INVEDIN - Instituto Venezolano para el Desarrollo Integral del Niño, Venezuela. She has an MSc in Psychology and Disability from Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.  carladesantis@gmail.com