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#DisabilityToo: Bringing Disability into a Modernist #MeToo Moment

In the original “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” Modernism/modernity cluster, Erin Templeton suggests an imbrication of gender and mental disability foundational to the creation of The Waste Land through her analysis of Vivien Eliot’s contributions to “A Game of Chess.”[1] Templeton observes that as Eliot’s incorporated Vivien’s marginal notes, the poem came to “[feature] material traces left by an actual female hand.” More specifically, though, such traces are left by a disabled female hand, the hand of a reader and collaborator for whom experiences of gender, sexuality, and mental and physical health were inextricably linked. Following on Templeton’s work of making visible the corporeality of women as characters and creators in modernist literature, this essay applies a #MeToo framework to canonical modernist narratives in which sexual abuse and disability collide.

In her introduction to the cluster, Megan Quigley writes of modernist texts that represent sexual assault: “for many of these other texts, brutality against women seems a side note, a plot device, a narratological tick, a given aspect of modernity and changing gender roles in the twentieth century. Assaults and harassment against women in literature: it’s just a notion I am used to.” Quigley’s call to make visible the taken-for-granted abuse of women in literature—abuse that many of us learned to read as metaphorical or subordinate to the development of male characters—recalls David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s work on how representations of disability in literature are both constantly visible and constantly ignored. Mitchell and Snyder argue:

While other identities such as race, sexuality, and ethnicity have pointed to the dearth of images produced about them in the dominant literature, disability has experienced a plethora of representations in visual and discursive works. Consequently, disabled people’s marginalization has occurred in the midst of a perpetual circulation of their images.[2]

In Narrative Prosthesis, they suggest that when disability is used as a narrative device facilitating representations of difference and normalcy, these representations prevent audiences from recognizing disability as an identity, instead associating it with individual struggle or stigma. Narrative prosthesis takes place in “A Game of Chess,” as the section circulates images of disability, including neurosis, war trauma, and the side effects of abortion pills, while marginalizing and pathologizing disabled female characters (and, per Templeton, disabled female coauthors).

What if we used the #MeToo movement as an opportunity for scholarship that challenges this marginalization, not just in The Waste Land, but in modernist texts more broadly that use representations of disability and sexuality as metaphors or “narratalogical ticks”? What if the #MeToo lens elevated the work of disabled scholars and scholars writing on disability and acknowledged the centrality of their work on modernism and the body to our understandings of gender, sexuality, assault, and trauma? This essay reads two depictions of sexual assault in modernist literature through a narrative prosthesis lens. In addition to noting that assault and disability have in common the feature of being constantly present and constantly erased and explained away in literature, I suggest that reading at this intersection opens up more inclusive and materially grounded analysis for #MeToo modernism.

Disability and the Sexual Gaze in “Nausicaa”

The most well-known intersection of disability and sexual harassment in modernist literature may be Leopold Bloom’s masturbation while watching Gerty McDowell in “Nausicaa.” Recent disability studies work on this chapter resists interpretations that have posited that Gerty’s association with disability reinforces her victimhood by the patriarchy, sometimes arguing instead that reading Gerty through a lens of disability affirms her empowerment and ownership of her sexual desire. For example, Dominica Bednarska suggested in 2011: “To understand Gerty’s desire, one must also understand the extent to which disabled bodies are frequently de-eroticized and become subjects of the medical, rather than sexual, gaze.”[3] More recently, Jeremy Colangelo has argued that visible disability serves to “free Gerty of the stereotypes implied by the language of the chapter.”[4] Both Bednarska and Colangelo follow Maren Linett in Bodies of Modernism, persuasively demonstrating that readings of Gerty’s limp as a metaphor for the “limitations” of her romanticized perspective or of Bloom’s sexual development are both ableist and over-simplifying.

Artificial left leg, London, England, 1861-1920.
Fig. 1. Artificial left leg, London, England, 1861-1920. Wellcome Collection, Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

At the same time, though, readings that recuperate Gerty’s sexual agency through her disability retain a moral relativism about Bloom’s use of her as masturbation material, for example, by referencing his position “outside normative heterosexual masculinity” as a potential connection with Gerty, that sits uncomfortably within a post-#MeToo feminist critical landscape (Bednarska “Cripped” 74). An approach at the intersection of “#MeToo” and disability studies might begin by deviating from the binary opposition of desexualized disabled body vs. empowered disabled body. It is possible to acknowledge Gerty’s satisfaction with her own body, as Bednarska does, without suggesting that appreciation must correlate with consent to her position relative to Bloom in this scene. Indeed, contemporary statistics state that disabled women are at least three times as likely as non-disabled women to experience sexual assault; Joyce even evokes this differentiation when Gerty notes that she cannot run as fast as Cissy Caffrey, putting her in increased danger from potential predators like Bloom. Moreover, Bloom’s language is most potentially threatening in his internal dialogue just after his realization of Gerty’s disability: “A defect is ten times worse in a woman. But makes them polite. . . . Hot little devil all the same.”[5] The concept that a woman must be “made polite” juxtaposed with the implication that Gerty’s “hotness” transcends her disability indicts Bloom in this scene, creating a discomfort that prevents the erasure of the woman’s body into pure fantasy, at the same time making space for Gerty’s pleasure in her own body without connecting that pleasure to Bloom’s gaze.

Artificial lower leg. London, England, 1861-1920.
Fig. 2. Artificial lower leg. London, England, 1861-1920. Wellcome Collection, Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Disability and Sexual Autonomy in “Good Country People”

Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” contains a representation of disability that is unrecuperated from stereotypes of undesirability; indeed, O’Connor’s satirical treatment of Hulga Hopewell affirms the absurdity of her desire to be a sexual object/subject. Linett argues in Bodies of Modernism that “disability stands in for sexuality” in this story—certainly, the steps that Manley Pointer takes to isolate and undermine Hulga before stealing her wooden leg reflect steps that might lead up to a rape.[6] Ultimately, Manley wants Hulga’s leg, not to have sex with her; Sara Hosey has suggested this reversal “confirm[s] that Hulga is not desirable . . . and that she has been mistaken in thinking herself so” (Quoted in Linett, Bodies, 40). Inverting Joyce’s disruption of readerly expectations in having Bloom declare Gerty a “hot little devil” after seeing her limp, O’Connor initially implies that Manley finds Hulga attractive, then reveals her hand in making him a con man who affirms readers’ assumptions about her unattractiveness, her hubris in thinking she has a unique perspective, that she is “one of those people who see through to nothing.”[7]

O’Connor tells us that Hulga thinks “she had seduced him without even making up her mind to try” (O’Connor, “Country,” 191-92). However, of course, it is Manley who is seducing and victimizing Hulga in this scene, and his abuse of her vulnerability and pride might productively be read as a commentary not on her, but on him, and on the readers’ (and possibly the writer’s) willingness to accept abuse as humorous or clever when it’s perpetrated on certain kinds of women—overeducated women, “uppity” women, disabled women, unattractive women. O’Connor explains Hulga’s first kiss is with Manley, a detail that seems particularly telling when we consider that Hulga may have been made vulnerable to Manley’s manipulation not only by her assumption that he is “good country people,” but also by the desexualization of disabled women that has left her isolated and perhaps uneducated about sex. Rather than explore this possibility, though, O’Connor’s narration turns on Hulga’s self-delusion about her entitlement to both romance and respect; in a use of what my Introduction to Disability Studies students immediately identify as an example of Mitchell and Snyder’s narrative prosthesis, the story depicts her difference from other women as precipitating her role as a victim of sexual abuse. I’m reminded of Sumita Chakraborty’s point, “The domain of the ambiguous has largely been granted to perpetrators: those who argue that ‘no’ has not been said loudly enough or has been countered by implications of dress or mannerism, those whose lyrics are about blurred lines, those who seek to disprove and discredit.” Like the perpetrators Chakraborty describes, Manley’s character benefits from textual ambiguity that opens up a reading of him as a trickster figure, one who has “been believing in nothing since I was born” (O’Connor, “Country” 195). A disability-conscious #MeToo lens, however, suggests a reading of Manley simply as another manifestation of an ableist patriarchy, himself a “narratalogical tick” of a culture determined to grant perpetrators the benefit of the doubt. Correspondingly, this reading offers the possibility that Hulga isn’t “mistaken” in thinking herself desirable and worthy of love, since it removes from Manley the power of making that determination.

The #MeToo project of drawing our attention to women’s corporeal realities in moments of assault and harassment in this period’s literature can only be elevated by an intersecting attention to disabled bodies, which so often serve as plot devices in the stories of nondisabled people even as they are subject to the power imbalances the #MeToo modernism project targets. Our scholarship must highlight representations of disabled people’s sexual agency and experiences of harassment in modernist literature as part of a #MeToo reconsideration of that literature, in order to avoid reenacting their historical marginalization in the texts as well as in the classroom.


[1] The hashtag #DisabilityToo was developed in a 2018 collaborative video created by the organizations Rooted in Rights and the Disability Visibility Project.

[2] David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 6.

[3] Dominika Bednarska, “A Cripped Erotic: Gender and Disability in James Joyce’s ‘Nausicaa,’” James Joyce Quarterly 49.1 (2011), 78.

[4] Jeremy Colangelo, “Punctuations of the Virtual: Spectating Sex and Disability in Joyce’s ‘Nausicaa.’” Modern Fiction Studies 65.1 (2019), 114.

[5] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Corrected Text. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler (London: Bodley Head, 1986), 13.772.

[6] Maren Tova Linett, Bodies of Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), 39.

[7] Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People,” in A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (New York, Harcourt Brace, 1977), 191.