In a Dutch magazine, I saw a young kid who lost a leg to cancer call Alex Zanardi his idol. Zanardi is a two times Indy Cart champion and former Formula 1 race driver who lost both his legs in a race crash in 2001. He’s still a race driver, and as a handcyclist he won a gold at the London Paralympics.
Cherry Darling is a character in zombie movie Planet Terror (2007), whose right leg was torn off by these creatures. She uses a special prosthetic in the form of a high powered machinegun. An amputee friend of mine describes her as my strong bad ass woman idol.
We all have idols, and they represent something we admire or look up to, often while possessing something we’ve been dealt with ourselves. In the latter case, identification plays an important part. And with respect to that, not only idols enter the stage then. In her most recent blog, we saw Alicia respond to Mattel’s latest release of Barbie Dolls, by breaking off her own Barbie’s leg and make her an ‘Amp Barbie’. We can safely expect Alicia to be past the stage of playing with Barbie dolls, her symbolic deed nonetheless represents something that’s in line with what I’m argueing here. Identification helps you see the way you happen to look as accepted by others. And likely it’s most important for small children, adolescents are not excluded from it.
In the example of Cherry Darling, I’d call the sheer fact of a fictional character being ‘allowed’ to be an amputee meaningful. More importantly, Cherry Darling is not a helpless one-legged girl, far from. In fact, her special prosthesis is the very thing that makes her powerful. Of course this is science fiction-ish fantasy, but again: it’s the fact of film producers and scenario writers making a choice to let a character be a powerful amputee that counts.
Next to Cherry Darling, we’re also seeing real examples. Viktoria Modesta is often posted as the world’s first amputee pop star. Like Cherry Darling, she uses special prostheses to let her amputation be part of an image; in her case a highly stylized power-glamour image, with artistic prosthetic designs to match. But the message is the same. And it’s strong and confident.
Dutch Paralympic athlete Marlou van Rhijn – she’s a bilateral below the knee amputee – was the first paralympic athlete to feature in a Nike commercial in 2015. Her ‘Speed of Light’ commercial is one sheer demonstration of power. If you wouldn’t believe me: watch this on full volume and be convinced.
In Marlou van Rhijn’s case, we’re seeing a direct relation between fame and disability. Her nickname Blade Babe even refers to it. And if you’re the world’s fastest woman on blade prostheses, it should be mentioned, and it is.
Viktoria Modesta is a different case. As such, ‘amputee pop star’ should actually be called a discriminatory qualification. Unlike in being a top athlete, Viktoria’s missing a leg has nothing to do with her being a singer and pop star. Comparably, Itzhak Perlman is considered one of the world’s top violinists of this time. Perlman also contracted polio as a child. But here too, it has nothing to do with the man’s exceptional talent in letting a three hundred year old Stradivarius move millions of people around the world, and for decades already. Michael Caines, a British Michelin star chef, lost an arm in a car crash. He’s still a chef, a bloody good one too, and again his being an amputee is not related to possessing the exceptional palate and gastronomic knowledge to be a great chef. And we can go on, I’d say the point seems clear.
There’s two sides to this point however. On the one hand, there’s societal perception of amputees. On the other, there’s the role model aspect for amputees themselves. And while emancipation of the disabled likely thrives best by leaving ‘irrelevant disability’ unmentioned, role model and identification aspects for e.g. amputees rather requires that they be shown, shown and mentioned with self evidence.
In Holland – where I’m from – there’s a few interesting examples of that. Fashion model and arm amputee Debbie van der Putten features in Bijenkorf’s – a higher end chain of department stores – fashion catalogue. She features like the other models, meaning her having one arm isn’t considered relevant, nor a reason for a big commercial business to not expect her to be able to recommend clothing they want to sell.
The above mentioned Marlou van Rhijn also features in a tv commercial for M-Line mattrasses, not something you’d swiftly associate with a top paralympic athlete, but M-Line made a well-reasoned choice. The commercial links product innovation in prosthetics to that in high end bed hardware. And more importantly with respect to societal acceptance of amputees: M-Line apparently considered the specific strength of a paralympic athlete to be the best way to recommend their product.
There’s a delicate balance in transferring this to an erotic context, and it’s not the least because of the devotee phenomenon. Devotees like to see themselves as the front runners of acceptance of ‘different beauty’, but I’d rather say their fetishising it is not helping. Amputees themselves often have an issue with it – and rightly so – and it may well be a stand in the way of any acceptance not feeding on specific erotic likings.
The thing to strive for, I think, is to let different beauty and its erotic significance be as accepted as any other beauty. It’s the missing leg or arm being a less common and nonetheless attractive body part we need to head for. What we need is ‘normal’ erotic acceptance of the stump, stripped of unnecessary qualifications of disability, replaced by a fetish free appreciation of its uniqueness, including a mutual erotic enjoyment of ‘new opportunities’ offered. I’m obviously filling in here, but I’m guessing an amputee will only feel genuinely free if her stump is unburdened by the objectifying loadenness of fetish.
On our way to that, we need idols. Not just amputees do, we all do. Perhaps we need them more than amputees would. And it’s amputees modelling and being professionally active like any other who are the front runners, not the devotees. They themselves are the ones making the shift towards their own acceptance, including their ‘aesthetic acceptance’. By not letting their amputation be a reason not to follow professional ambitions, and by presenting the world with role model examples.
I’ve said it before: we’re creatures of habit; we need to see things often to consider them normal. Normality is influenced by frequency of occurrence, and more amputee (role) models are bringing normality closer. And in this blog I’m rather carelessly leaving that largely out: society should also give them a chance to bring that closer. Personal ambition is a necessary condition, sadly it’s not a sufficient one, and in that respect there’s still a hell of a lot that needs to change.
That leaves us then with defining when we should call the amputee’s different beauty societally accepted. I thought about it, and came up with the answer pretty quickly.
Yes, indeed: an amputee Bond girl.