Volume Nine, Issue 1
Emi and Isa: A dialogue between
Feminism and Disability
This article presents a short debate between
discourses of feminism and disability studies. Through fictional
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
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.
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
Isa: Did you watch the ‘Miss Venezuela’ pageant last night?
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
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: 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
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”. 
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
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
). Hence, I think this effect
is present in any girl or woman in Caracas, who wishes -- or not -- to
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
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
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
). 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 &
Isa: Ok. You don’t have to lecture me again. I understand that you
don’t like the competition (Yelling
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
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
Emi: Give me the newspaper! (Isa
gives her the newspaper and Emi goes
through it, turning its pages quickly. Isa seems confused
go! Is this the girl?
Emi: Look at the picture:
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
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
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 
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
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
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
(2008) evaluated the average measurements of the ‘playmates’ of
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
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
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”.
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)
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
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.
 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).
 For a detailed review see www.missvenezuela.com
 For a detailed review see www.missvenezuela.com
 For a detailed review, see www.sitiodesordos.com
 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).
Aramayo, M. (2005). La Discapacidad. Construcción de
teórico venezolano (Disability. Construction of a
Theoretical Model). Caracas: Fondo Editorial de la Facultad de
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
Psychology. 18, 1,
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
Gilligan, C.,Lyons, N
and Hanmer, T. (1989). The relational
adolescents girls at Emma Willard School. Cambridge: Harvard
Hollow, J. (2000). Feminism, feminity and popular culture.
Laplanche, J. and
Pontalis, J.-B. (1988). The language
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
Richardson, L. (2000).
Writing Strategies. In Denzin and Lincoln (Eds.).
Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd edition. London: Sage.
Venezuela: Vanessa Peretti. En boca de todos. (2006). [On the
spotlight] Accessed on March 8th. Available at:
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body: Historical and Cultural differences in Playmate’s Body Size.
Feminism and Psychology.
10, 4, 538-543.
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.