I hope you are all doing well, and that everyone who celebrated Halloween had a great time. This year I haven’t celebrated as much as I normally do, because chronic illness can take one look at my plans and throw ’em out the window. My ME is flaring up as of late, and my scoliosis pain is overbearing at times, so I haven’t had the spoons to brainstorm, plan, write, and edit a blog post to publish. But I’m here now…to talk about something highly relevant, and which has been weighing on my noggin’ for quite some time:
‘the appropriation of disability for the sake of monetary gain or comedic purposes’.
Disclaimer: my opinions are entirely my own, however, I do not own the images and products which I will be referencing in this post – but all information is readily available on the internet at the time of publishing. Sources linked below.
CW: mental health discrimination, eating disorder, abuse
As I was sitting back in my armchair at home, scrolling through Instagram with a cup of tea beside me and my heat pad switched to the highest setting, I saw a post by someone I followed – an individual with a large fanbase (primarily in the LGBTQ+ community), who gained fame after starring in S7 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and who’s tour I attended earlier this year. This person is Trixie Mattel, a drag queen who recently won S3 of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars.
They were wearing their Halloween costume for the Boulet Brothers party, dressed in all pink as per usual. But then I saw the wheelchair and the mocking pose, and I realised…they had dressed up as Gypsy Rose Blanchard.
If you don’t know who Gypsy Rose is I shall warn you now, her story could be triggering as it includes physical and psychological abuse, trauma, and death. However, to provide context I will link a detailed source which will give you further information as to why I am so truly disgusted by Trixie’s actions.
At the time, the post seemed to contain minimal negative comments in response to this blatant attention grab, however once word got out to disabled activists that such a public figure had pulled this stunt at the expense of disabled folk and abuse victims, Trixie received many comments from those – like myself – who are outraged by someone appropriating disability aids and mocking the harrowing experiences Gypsy Rose faced at the hands of her mother; and thank goodness! The perpetuation of these ableist attitudes in the name of comedy or a seasonal holiday is complete bollocks and it’s a Western societal construct we need to unite against to dismantle.
“But why is it so wrong? It’s just a joke!”
Jokes are supposed to be funny, and context matters. The context of this image was someone abusing their power by sharing an image of themselves dressed as Gypsy Rose Blanchard in a wheelchair. Disability cannot be worn like a costume, and unlike Trixie, the chronically ill cannot just pack a disability away once Halloween is over, and swap it out for a pair of pink stilettos. It’s not cute, and it’s NOT acceptable.
I later discovered a video online of Trixie performing onstage, in the wheelchair…as Gypsy. The song she lip-synced to was ‘defying gravity’ from the musical Wicked. The character Elphaba was an outcast, and after her friend convinced her that the Wizard and Oz’s rule was unjust, she decided to make it on her own and break the rules, and be who she was destined to be, knowing she could no longer return to the life she had before. Rakaputra Paputungan from the Jakarta Performing Arts Community described the song as “(…) an anthem of empowerment and revolting against unjust status quo/authority.”
However, Trixie is not the only person to dress as a disability/illness for Halloween. Every year I see mental health activists and organisations calling out costume companies who sell, you guessed it…costumes, which serve as a medium to stigmatise an illness by dressing as a stereotyped depiction of said illness.
After a quick google search, I found the following costumes which I would like to discuss and explain why they are so distasteful, ableist, and unacceptable – and how despite the obvious difference of subtly, how it doesn’t differ much from Trixie’s stunt.
History of the asylum
In short, the term mental asylum was used to describe what was previously referred to as ‘madhouses’ – home-based or church-based solutions to sheltering those with mental illness. Families turned to private institutions to secure secrecy due to the stigma surrounding those with mental illness, and consequently their families.
However once the economy grew in the 17th and 18th century, we saw the rising popularity for ‘lunatic asylums’. Mental illness was far from being understood, and anything which differentiated from the expected norm was to be feared. The symptoms of untreated mental illness were perceived as being dangerous, so people were imprisoned – or hidden from the outside world.
Patients could say goodbye to their futures as here is where they would spend the rest of their days.
This resulted in the use of painful and quite frankly, unnecessary preventative restraints – such as straight jackets, and cruel punishments if patients didn’t abide by the asylum rules. In exhibit A we can see the stereotypical insane psychiatric patient in restraint clothing, and as mentioned, this is why appropriating mental illness by dressing in a straight jacket makes a mockery of the pain and trauma patients endured at a time when mental illness was mistaken as something to fear, and which needs to be punished.
Although in exhibit B we see a terrible depiction of mental illness, in this case, I believe it to be dementia – or a form of disability affecting cognitive function. ‘Baby doll therapy’ is used to help calm patients with such conditions (in particular dementia) when they are experiencing distress. So when we take this and apply it to a context like the one pictured, I find this to be such a horrific display of heedlessness and ignorance towards the past experiences of those suffering from mental illness, and the effects of a present subtle/not-so-subtle ingrained societal stigma surrounding those with illness, and the ‘hopeless’ nature of their situations.
These costumes depict the product of a societal stigma we have worked so hard to move past. They cause people to feel ashamed, burdensome, and fearful of their future prospects due to the promotion of dated and harmful narratives that depict sufferers as crazy, insane, delusional, and scary.
The infamous ‘Anna Rexia’
You may have seen it floating around the internet before, or were present on the internet when it sparked outrage amongst online communities. The item in question is this Halloween costume, which I wasn’t able to find yet I believe it’s important to include in this blog post to further highlight and prove the point I’m trying to make.
Anna Rexia – a costume for women to wear for one day of the year, which plays off of a stereotyped appearance of an anorexic (thinness). It serves as a sexualised caricature of a mental illness which has devastating effects on sufferers; profiting from the perpetuation of stereotypes and as a result ridiculing the harrowing reality of the disorder. Anger encouraged many people to speak against the costume, and it’s why Jessi Davin wrote a blog post detailing her E.D. journey. An exert of said blog post resides on a Buzzfeed News article – which can be read below. The extract was so beautiful and pertinent that I couldn’t just choose a few quotations.
“-4 years of hospitalization”
“-A nasogastric feeding-tube because you’ve starved yourself so much that your body doesn’t recognize food as a good thing and tries to attack itself.”
“-A father crying and pleading on his knees begging for you to get help”
“-A mother who cries every time she sees you because you look and SMELL like death.”
“-Holidays missed, birthdays crying in a hospital.”
“-A shower chair – because you can’t stand in the shower because you’re too weak and the warm water could make you pass out.”
“-A wheelchair, because you are too weak to walk and it could make you go into cardiac arrest.”
“-And if you don’t get help like I do, or even if you do, a coffin. Because I’ve lost more friends to this eating disorder then anything I’ve ever faced.”
Anorexia is not a costume, and I know this all too well. If you follow my blog or have read some of my previous posts you’ve likely heard that I have suffered from an eating disorder for 4 years now. I am in remission now and would consider myself to be maintaining my recovery well, however that doesn’t mean I have forgotten about the pain and distress one experiences when an eating disorder sinks it’s nasty claws into you and drags you under the surface. We never do.
Nobody with an eating disorder wants an eating disorder, so if only we could take it off and have it sent to the dry cleaners for next Halloween.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please see the bottom of this post for information on organisations which can provide advice and support.
In conclusion, the actions from the likes of Trixie Mattel have shown that many people still consider the appropriation of mental illness and abuse victims is acceptable when applied to any comedic context – yet when we look back in history and reflect upon the nature of institutions and the secrets which lay inside of their walls, we must realise that parodying the conditions which victims were subject to, for the sake of horror or a cheap laugh, stalls our progress towards a time in which we no longer view people like me as scary, or crazy; and a time when the disabled have our needs properly acknowledged. Those with the privilege of a large following should use their privilege to spread a healthy and positive message – rather than make a mockery of the troubling story of an individual.
I don’t want this blog post to come off as doom or gloom, therefore I want to include some information which can help resolve the problem at hand. I decided to write an open letter to companies who sell the costumes included as well as similar items, which depict mental illness in a damaging light.
If you wish to let said companies that you are unhappy with this and WHY follow the link this google doc, please follow the instructions listed in the document to contact the stockists via email.
Sending love and hugs,
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- A catch-up w/ Ana and Ed
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If you or someone you know suffers from mental illness (including an eating disorder), please see the list below of helpful organisations which offer support and advice.
- Samaritans – contact information, if you’re worried about someone else
- Mind UK – contact information, helping someone else
- BEAT (eating disorder) – contact information, help and treatment, support services, worried about someone else
- Citizens Advice – information on organisations which support victims of abuse