Mad Women Project Explores Prejudices

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, Scripps College hosted University of Michigan professor Tobin Siebers via Skype call at Garrison Theater. Siebers, who was awarded a Pushcart Prize in 1999 for his account of growing up with polio, spoke about “The Aesthetics of Human Disqualification,” or, in other words, how the appearance of the physically or mentally disabled produces prejudice and discrimination in our society. His lecture was part of the Scripps College Humanities Institute’s ongoing series “Performing the Body Politic: Transgressions, Interventions, and Expressive Culture,” which has hosted a diverse group of speakers and performers since the beginning of last year’s spring semester.

Humanities Institute Student Fellow Isabella Hendry SC ’14 said she found Siebers’s presentation “refreshing, because he wasn’t afraid to be un-politically correct.” She was referring to Siebers’s extensive use of the phrase “crazy bitch,” which he said people in Western society use to label women who challenge the “patriarchal power structure.” In order to illustrate this point, Siebers shared photographs of Korean photographer Park Young-Sook, whose “Mad Women Project” featured a series of women whom Siebers said would be “disqualified” by modern society as “crazy bitches” because of their physical appearance.

Andrea Kozak SC ’12, a gender studies major, said, “From a feminist perspective, I think that in patriarchal society there’s such an emphasis on reason and rationality that highly emotional people, especially women, are susceptible to being targeted as ‘crazy.’ This label is used against women as a form of social control and censure, and serves to warn all women not to express themselves in healthy and necessary ways.”

Although Siebers later admitted that the women in Young-Sook’s project were models, he said that the point—that our society categorically dismisses disabled people based upon their appearance alone—was still valid.

On this point, Hendry disagreed with Siebers, calling his analysis “somewhat superficial.” Although the overall reaction to Siebers’s work seemed positive, Student Fellow Julia Scheibmeir SC ’12 was also somewhat critical of Siebers’s message. “Personally, I found it uninspiring. To state repeatedly that people with disabilities are disadvantaged in society and therefore disqualified as inferior is a well-known issue.”

Siebers said he hoped that by drawing attention to the subject, “We can overcome the historical neglect of the mentally disabled among almost all the humanities.” However, Scheibmeir said she had hoped for a little bit more from the talk. “He didn’t address how people can overcome that natural, initial disgust [that they have for people with disabilities.]”

According to Scripps College Psychology Professor Jennifer Ma, who is particularly known for her work on stereotypes, disability research has been largely neglected in her field. She said that one of the only studies with which she was familiar that investigated discrimination against those with disabilities found that mentally disabled individuals faced even more discrimination than black women, a traditionally disenfranchised demographic.

Hendry said that Siebers’s lecture made her think about how students with disabilities were treated in the Claremont Colleges community.

“I think it’s something that’s not talked about often enough.”

Moya Carter, Pitzer College’s Dean of Students, said that the Claremont Colleges have made huge strides in improving disability access in the past ten years.

“Particularly since President Laura Trombley has been here, we have done a lot to accommodate the needs of disabled students.” She added, “Helping students with mental disabilities can be more challenging [than helping those with physical ones], but I think we’re doing a good job.”

Although most of the presenters for the Humanities Institute’s ongoing series have been university professors from around the country, the series has also had such colorful groups as “Mariachi Mujer,” an all-women mariachi group that performed at the Summer Olympics in China. Humanities Institute Student Fellow Gillian Varney SC ’13 was very positive about her experience in the program. She said, “Being able to have dinner with the speakers and then host them in class has been really amazing.”

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