Twerking the Revolution: A Note on Accessibility and Audiencing

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At the March 27 event, “Films You Cannot See Anywhere Else: Disability Film Screening and Panel Discussion,” Prof. Jennifer Natalya Fink from Georgetown University gave some remarks about the importance of inclusion in film.


[Say Hello in sign.] HELLO!

Thank you so much for those amazing films. Thank you, Professor Bernadette Wegenstein, for inviting me here today. And thank you so much, audience, for joining us.

It’s you, the audience, who I want to address today.

We just saw amazing films that, as the advertising notes, are films you cannot see anywhere else.  Well, why can’twe see them anywhere else, why can’t we see them everywhere? And why is seeing the ocularcentric trope we use to talk about experiencing cinema? We are so grateful to the organizers for making these films accessible to us, but why aren’t they available everywhere? And if these aren’t just amazing films about disability, or films that contribute to disability culture, but also simply great films, why can’t they be experienced in the larger world?

I’m not going to answer that.

Instead, let me tell you a story.

I often take my daughter, who is autistic, to the movies. She loves movies. Lego movies, princess movies, superhero movies, animals-that-are-really-wizards movies, princesses-that-are-really-animals-that-are-really-lego wizards movies. You know: the movies that most kids love. Now, there are special ‘sensory friendly’ movie screenings about once a month in our area, and we always go to those. It’s a great chance to connect with other families with kids with sensory issues, to feel the solidarity and community that come with that, and to feel like for once, everyone in the movie theater is watching the movie instead of watching us.

But here’s the thing. My daughter does not actually need the sound turned down, the lights turned up. She doesn’t have issues with the normative sensory movie experience. What she does is a little wiggling, a little hand-waving, a little of what we might in another context call twerking. Basically, a lot of harmless stimming behaviors. And she laughs at things that are funny to her, which maybe aren’t funny to the rest of the audience. But when we go to the ‘regular’ –not sensory friendly—movies, other people—no let’s be clear, other parents, stare at us and even reprimand us for these behaviors. Parents whose neurotypical kids are shrieking, running around,  and spilling things, stare at us. There are babies crying (demonstrate), toddlers arguing (demonstrate), and all kind of behaviors going on that are deemed acceptable even though they are actually more intrusive to myfilm going experience than my daughter’s stimming.  I take her to these non-sensory-friendly regular-kid films because we want more than a once-a–month live, group film experience, and because I think she has a right to be there, twerking and flapping, ‘inappropriately’ laughing right beside the screaming babies and arguing toddlers.

And I think the world had better get used to including and accommodating all of us, not just in a segregated space. Not just once a month. At the same time, I don’t want to give up our monthly quirk and twerkfests. Our time at the sensory friendly movies are valuable because they offer us a disability space and culture. Disability culture is both a safe space for us to let down our hair, to twerk and quirk as we like, and a vital and unique site of cultural production.  It’s a site of community building, where we recognize and support each other. And it’s a site for culture-building, where we make innovations  and interventions into old ableist art forms like film.

Film is a particularly ripe site for both disability culture and inclusion . It separates sight and sound, allows for repetition, and, unlike live theater, film lets the audience control the viewing experience. It is collaborative in nature and spectacular in scale. Film can shift viewpoint, focalize via non-normative perspectives, and take you into a world that reflects yours. It can also challenge you to perceive the world through bodies and minds far different from your own. At the movies, we guzzle soda and consume mass quantities of popcorn together, across our differences. The movie theater is a public space to which everyone deserves equal access, all the time. Not just once a month. Not just today.

The films you just saw use diverse narrative, acoustic, and sensory techniques, and come from multiple viewpoints. They range wildly and beautifully in tone, viewpoint, and genre. From a rom-com with a deaf-gay twist, to a documentary about a wheelchair-using designer of a sort of steam-punk helicopter, to a charming black & white avant-garde film spanning sibling, transcultural, and deaf-blind relationships, to an exploration of cochlear regeneration and its discontents, these films explore the full spectrum of human experience and its multiple modes of cinematic representation. Like all good works of art, these films are both precisely observed, located in the specifics of disability and disability culture, and universal in their scope and appeal. They deserve and demand audiences as diverse as us. As you.

So I hope that these films you don’t see anywhere else will soon be seen and heard and sensorily perceived everywhere, by all of us. Together, in public.

The disability revolution may not be televised, but it will filmed.  I can’t wait to hear and read your responses. Please make sure to sign and laugh and deafspeak and wheel and flap and quirk and twerk  to your heart’s content as we continue the conversation. Thank you (sign thank you).