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Let’s be honest. Starting out in stand-up comedy is tough work. You have five minutes (if you are lucky) to get a roomful of strangers to find you funny enough to not tear you to shreds. Doing stand-up comedy as a woman only adds to the difficulty. This is the point at which I respect the recently deceased Joan Rivers. She started out in the mid-1960s, at a time when the only other prominent female comedians were Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, and Lily Tomlin. Much of her humor centered around poking fun at herself as a graduate from Barnard (one of the Seven Sisters colleges) doing stand-up comedy because that was not something that “nice girls” did.
And then something happened to her along the way. Maybe it was her break with Johnny Carson, or the failure of her late-night talk show, or the suicide of her husband. But she shifted from the nice girl in pearls cracking wise at herself to insult comedy turned toward other people, often based solely on their appearance, and without any provocation on their part. That is the point at which I have no love lost for her.
The jester’s role is to point out the foibles of humanity. To allow us to laugh at public figures who have done or said something foolish or silly. In that sense, jokes at other people are perfectly acceptable (and let’s face it, Jon Stewart would not be where he is today were it not for prominent people providing him with endless fodder). But Rivers’ “fuck’em if they can’t take a joke” attitude toward the targets of her insults for having the *gall* to merely exist rankles me to no end. That is not making jokes at the expense of the foolish. It is bitter cruelty.
My beloved Himself is an actor. I have told him, flat out, that if he ever gets to the point where he would be walking the red carpet, he can rent a date for the evening. I won’t do it. And a big part of that has always been because of Joan Rivers. I am painfully aware that I would be the perfect target for her brand of red-carpet humor, not just because of my weight, but of course because of the visible skin issue. I struggle enough with my own insecurities about it already — having them confirmed in front of millions of viewers for the laughs is nothing short of turning me into little more than the punchline for one of Rivers’ “can we talk…” insults.
And so, Joan, I salute you for your start in the business. But if you think for one minute that I should find your mocking people simply for existing is remotely funny and that I just need to lighten up? Fuck that. And by the way? Fuck you.
I spend a great deal of time in this blog talking about how NOT to approach me about my disability. Every now and again, I will get the exact opposite reaction. Even more rarely, I will get both in the same day, which serves to remind me of how a simple change in words and tone can make all the difference.
Scene 1: Fully packed waiting room of a radiology lab. I was waiting to get my head examined (no really, a CAT scan in preparation for sinus surgery). It was a hot day, and the AC was doing next to nothing to cool down the room. The staff was working at a snail’s pace, so everyone was hot, cranky, and packed in like sardines.
I managed to squash myself into a corner, but I must move whenever the door opens in order not to block people from coming in and out. The door opened, so I moved aside. An older woman, still in the doorway, came to a stop to loudly proclaim “WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU????” The entire room of people turned to see what she was talking about. Which was, of course, yours truly. And…cue me as the Sideshow Freak.
Scene 2: Later the same day. Having wasted four hours at the radiology lab for what was meant to be a one-hour appointment, I finally pulled into the Trader Joe’s parking lot to do the shopping. As I was leaving (still in a bad mood from Scene 1), a woman coming into the store said, without breaking stride, “Oh, I feel for ya, sista! Gonna get better, right? Gotta get better!” And continued on past me into the store.
Yanno what? She was absolutely right. It did get better. Because of her.
By now, most of you have probably heard all about the little girl allegedly kicked out of a KFC due to her scars as a result of a pit bull attack. After KFC pledged $30,000 and other cash donations and offers of free surgeries came pouring in, it turned out that the story was most likely a hoax, perpetrated by the family to raise money to pay for her medical care (as an aside, props to KFC for keeping their monetary pledge).
I will be the first to admit that at first I was angry on that little girl’s behalf because I also have been asked to leave business establishments due to my disability. However, in light of the results from the KFC investigations, I was again angry on her behalf. But this time for how badly she was exploited by those people who were supposed to be looking out for her best interests.
The saddest part in all of this, however, is that this girl’s family has just made it that much harder to believe any future stories that come out about businesses discriminating against people with disabilities: “I call shenanigans! Just like that KFC girl! Obviously running a scam!”
And at some level, I cannot say as I would blame people for saying that. I mean, fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice…
But those of us with visible disabilities have probably at some time or another been treated just as this little girl’s family claims she was treated. And just because we say something about how we are treated does not mean we are looking to be handed a big payout (or any payout really). We just want to be treated like anybody else.
Now this little girl will have to live with both the physical scars from the attack and the emotional scars from being exploited as little more than a sympathy ploy or a cash cow. She deserves better. Those of us with visible disabilities all do.
This week, I had to get a root canal. What was already going to be an unpleasant procedure took a left turn into Comedy of the Absurd. The endodontist came in, looked at the x-rays of the culprit tooth in question, then turned around to say hello.
And he lit up like a 150-watt bulb: “Oh my! Do you mind if I take some pictures??” As he gestured at my legs.
I must have looked suitably puzzled because he went on to explain that his daughter was finishing up a double residency in dermatology and internal medicine, and she would be very interested in seeing some pictures. He was so enthusiastic that I figured anything that made him that happy would make a better experience for me, so I agreed.
He took some pictures with his cell phone, then set it down on the counter and we got down to business. Just as the novocaine hit, his phone buzzed. It was his daughter, asking questions, which he then relayed to me.
Now by this point, I was laying back in the exam chair, with a plastic frame thing, draped in sterile latex, holding my mouth open. And the dentist was asking me questions that required more than a yes or no answer. The only sound I could make was somewhat akin to that of Frankenstein’s monster, and the entire right side of my mouth was completely numb.
You try answering questions about your medical history under those conditions and see how you do. What ensued was a frantic sort of pantomime on my part, with the dentist and his assistants making guesses as to what my wild gesticulations could possibly mean.
If they guessed correctly, I gave them the thumbs-up, and he then relayed my answers back to his daughter. This back and forth game of charades went on for a good 20 minutes as he drilled out the tooth, and cleaned and filled it. At the end of the process, I had a filled tooth and the dentist was pleased that I was willing to help.
At least it kept me entertained while the dental drill was going.
Several weeks ago, a friend linked to this Robot Hugs cartoon as a primer on how those with privilege should treat those without. It sparked a rather lively debate, including one person who took great offense at the notion that they should be told to “shut the fuck up” if they are in a position of privilege. They felt that it was better to politely ask them to keep quiet, rather than needing to be so confrontational.
Here’s the problem with that. If somebody is going to question my health status, they have already decided that they have privilege before they even say anything to me because my disability is visible. Which leaves me in the more than a bit awkward position of hiding myself.
Anybody who has even casually read this blog knows how I feel about being forced to hide my disability in order not to offend other people.
If somebody has taken offense to my presence before even saying anything to me, I am left with little option but to tell them to shut the fuck up if they use their outside voice to ask about my health status. And at that point, I have little interest in hiding myself so as not to offend their delicate sensibilities.
Ultimately, I am not responsible for your hurt feelings over my disinterest in sugar-coating the fact that my health status is not fodder for public debate. If you cannot understand that, then yes, you DO need to sit down, shut the fuck up, and pay attention.
We are going to visit friends over Memorial Day Weekend. Our friends with whom we are staying have two young girls. As they have only recently moved to California, we have not met the girls before.
Their mother contacted me today for advice on how to handle the potentially thorny issue of what the girls might ask when they meet me for the first time.
I actually find that most young children are pretty easy to handle in this regard. I have a pretty standard script I run through:
Child: Why does your skin look like that?
Me (with a smile): Well, why is your hair brown/blond/red/black?
Child: I dunno. I guess it’s just me.
Me: Well, my skin is like that. It’s just me.
And then we can proceed to more important matters, such as what the child is going to dress up as for Halloween, or what they did at Disneyland last weekend. And the mortified parent goes from mortified to grateful. I’ve gotten more than one mouthed “Thank you!”
One little girl fished a small, pink, plastic, glittery turtle toy out of her pocket and presented it to me as something she got in a birthday goodie bag at a friend’s party. She told me all about the cake and the balloon clown. When I handed her back the turtle as she and her mother were leaving, she insisted I have it because it matched my hair (I was sporting giant fuchsia streaks in my hair at that time).
I only wish grown-ups were half as understanding as that little girl.