In her (2005) added commentary to the re-released film An Angel at My Table (1990), director Jane Campion agrees with the subject of her biopic, New Zealand-born author Janet Frame (1924-2004), that "almost everything we do is imagined; it's only your interpretation that makes it real." Campion's biopic was among the first films to experiment with a subjective cinematic technique in order to convey the lived experience of disability, a category of films that now includes Richard Eyre's Iris (2001) and Steven Shainberg's Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006). All share a similar tendency to combine female subjectivity, memory, and disability through the eyes of their film's respective protagonists, employing an innovative approach that blends movement and time with disability and subjectivity.

In her (2005) added commentary to the re-released film An Angel at My Table (1990), director Jane Campion says that she agrees with the subject of her biopic, New Zealand-born author Janet Frame (1924-2004), that "almost everything we do is imagined; it's only your interpretation that makes it real." Campion's film depicts the life of Janet Frame who was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with electroshock therapy when she had a nervous breakdown at the age of 21. Campion attempts to recreate Frame's subjective experience of lived reality, inclusive of her disability. Similarly, Iris (2001), directed by Richard Eyre and Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006), directed by Steven Shainberg, subjectify disability in their representations of the talent and imagination of their respective artists. 1 Eyre explores the dramatic shift in novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch's (1919-1999) subjectivity when she contracts Alzheimer's disease near the end of her life. Despite increasing challenges caused by her memory impairment, Iris Murdoch manages to interpret, imagine, and intuit her ever-changing realities. Steven Shainberg in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006) similarly explores a transformative experience in the life of his subject, photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971). Shainberg employs a backdrop of visual cues to suggest physical, emotional, and psychological disorientation as Arbus gradually comes to know a man with a disfiguring (and ultimately fatal) condition. In their respective films, Campion, Eyre, and Shainberg interrelate the psychic impulses of Frame, Murdoch, and Arbus with aspects of their environment and culture to create multileveled representations of material reality. In addition, these directors relate subjectivity and disability with female artistry so as to align the audience with the creative impulses of historical figures. In so doing, they convey a sense of disability in a continuum with ability, a sense that can be explicated by recourse to poststructuralist ideas of difference.

Disability and Difference

I draw on the philosophers Elizabeth Grosz, Giles Deleuze, and Henri Bergson for a theory of difference that helps destabilize previous constructions of disability and gendered subjectivity, that goes beyond the perceived polarities of nature versus culture or biology versus socialization. For Grosz,

Difference is not a concept bound up with units, entities, or terms. It characterizes fields, and indeed reality itself. Difference is an ontological rather than a logical, semiological, political, or historical category. It is a relation between fields, strata and chaos. It is a movement beyond dualism, beyond pairs, entities or terms. Difference is the methodology of life, and indeed, of the universe itself. Things in their specificity and generality, and not just terms, are the effects of difference, though difference is not reducible to things insofar as it is the process that produces things and the reservoir from which they derive. ("Bergson, Deleuze" 6)

Difference is both a process and product; it characterizes how we process reality as well as how exterior forces and energies work upon us. In this vein, one can perceive disabilities as ever changing forces rather than as fixed structures, in a relationship of reciprocity and agency rather than inequality and predetermined response.

The popular conception of difference, namely diversity, does not equally incorporate all forms of difference. One of the more disturbing discursive treatments of disability persists: certain impairments hint at mortality and deter "worthwhile experience" (Harris 97); they are aligned with death rather than life. A useful definition of impairment for this discussion is any "restriction […] of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function" (Thomas 42). In most if not all lifetimes, people move within a continuum of these three types of impairments, often overlapping. What typically restricts people with impairments are real and symbolic barriers—limiting perceptions and physical structures—rather than the said impairments in and of themselves. As Jackie Leach Scully points out, "the bad thing about [… ] impairment is not the particular deprivation other people say it is, but something else" (20). This is not to say that optimistic public sentiment can replace biomedical and social advancements, rather, that individual actions and interventions must nonetheless accompany a changing public sentiment in which people see themselves moving in and out various lines of becoming and affected by various forces. Such random and intentional forces, Grosz maintains (4-13), can be likened to another consideration of Bergson's philosophical conception of difference, namely that "every image is [contained] within certain images and without others; but [also] of the aggregate of images [for] we cannot say that is it within us or without us, since interiority and exteriority are only relations among images" (Mind 25). Virtual and actual images create our conception of time and space, and become the way we interpret our present realities, our past experiences, and our future selves. Bergson was one of the first philosophers to ask "whether the universe exists only in our thought or outside of our thought," but by this very placement he puts "the problem in terms that are insoluble" (Mind 25). Such a theory has a particular application for historically based films, where virtual and actual realities make up the real and imagined life of artists who in turn have recreated their imagined realities in their own works of art.

In his book titled Bergsonism, Giles Deleuze recoups Bergson to enhance the notion of difference that is comprised in equal degree by both virtual and actual realities. Drawing from Bergson's Matter and Memory to substantiate his theory of a radical play of time and spatial forces, Deleuze notes, "The universe is made up of modifications, disturbances, changes of tension and energy, and nothing else" (76). In sympathy with this view, a variant way of thinking about difference and disability is suggested by Phil Moon: the notion that people without disabilities can be considered "'tabs'—temporarily able-bodied" (158). Seen in the light "relations between fields," difference allows for ready-made transparency in its avowal of space and time configurations, particularly for those who are 'temporarily able bodied' but who will one day experience other types of relations between fields of disability. This concept is seen in the three films An Angel at my Table, Iris, and Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, wherein distinctions between those with disabilities and those 'temporarily without disabilities' are blurred and forces of space and time work to create shifting subjectivities.

In the most popular cinematic constructions of disability, many forms of impairments are equated with disability, "normal" is equated with not being disabled, and social and medical institutions are granted normalizing standards of desired emotional, physical, and mental states, of being "abled." In addition, as Rosemarie Garland-Thomas alludes to in her article "Feminist Disability Studies," disability and the female gender typically are grouped together under the auspices of lack or loss according to psychoanalytic models of subjectivity (1557-1587). Effectively countering the cultural notion of woman as lack, the three directors considered here emphasize circularity, one particular presence or force ascribed to femaleness. Both An Angel at My Table and Iris employ many flashbacks and flashforwards, disturbing the prominence of the (traditionally masculine) linear narrative. Iris also evokes circularity through its recurrent scene in which the young Iris (Kate Winslet) swims nude underwater. The opening scene in Shainberg's Fur depicts a bus journey to a mysterious destination, reconfirmed at the film's conclusion as a nudist colony where Diane Arbus, having discovered her life's work, has gone to photograph her willing artistic subjects. In these biopics, life embodies moments of continued renewal, of self-creation by women artists under difficult circumstances, and of artistry created by personal experiences of disability.

Biographical films (biopics) about artists have been something of a staple of the international cinema, although the depiction of male artists has predominated (Custen 2). A few of these artist subjects have also been disabled; one thinks of the 1952 Moulin Rouge, about Toulouse-Lautrec, or My Left Foot, about the Irish painter and poet Christy Brown. Films about women artists affected by psychological conditions or physical disabilities have been rarer still, although one can name Hilary and Jackie (1998), about the cellist Jacqueline du Pré whose career is ended by multiple sclerosis, or Frida (2002), about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo who lived with the after-effects of an impairing accident. 2 The three films considered here all depict women artists who suffer from disabling psychological conditions and/or identify with the disabled. Considerations of gender figure in these films in different ways. In An Angel at My Table, the only one of these three films to be made by a woman director (one who specializes in feminist narratives), Campion portrays writer Janet Frame's romantic infatuation with a male doctor as the very reason she elects to remain in the psychiatric hospital—he shows her a medical text and points out that her "mental symptoms" are similar to those describing schizophrenia. Janet's submissiveness to men continues in Europe when she gives her heart to a fellow artist in Spain while there writing poetry on a state grant. When she uncovers the sad truth about the man, that he only uses her for sex, Janet refuses to see him again. Afterwards, she becomes more determined to pursue her writing and does so until the end of the film, alone. True to Frame's own autobiography, the artist never marries. The biographical subject of Richard Eyre's Iris is a woman author of great distinction, but her depiction is complicated in that it is filtered through a male-authored memoir, that of her husband John Bayley. Elaine Showalter has criticized the film on this basis, contending that "we rarely see Iris Murdoch alone throughout the film; her life is refracted through Bayley's feelings, memories, and problems […] Iris is either the independent, sexually active young woman who seduces [Bayley] or the broken old woman who chains him." Reviewer Ginny Dougary on the other hand found that director and co-screenplaywriter Richard Eyre approached the subject of Murdoch's loss of mental faculties (which have an added poignancy perhaps in one who had thrived on her verbal imagination) with unusual insight and sympathy. Eyre's mother had suffered similarly and while he saw little change in her between his monthly visits, her caregivers knew otherwise: "the soul does remain […] the human spirit that goes on until their death." Eyre's film conveys such glimmers of perception in Murdoch's condition. Finally, in Steven Shainburg's Fur, photographer Diane Arbus is at first prevented from following her own artistic path by what her parents, husband and she herself consider to be approved roles for women. Early on she says, "I planned on going so many places [. ..] and instead I was my husband's assistant." In a sense being a (late 1950s) housewife is her disability, imposing obstacles which paradoxically she overcomes by identifying with a physically disfigured man and his sideshow freak friends who will become the subjects of her photographic portraits.

In these three films, the inner lives of these artists are explored in ways that expand the cinematic lexicon to include "the many inflections of identity that produce multiple subjectivities and subject positions" (Garland-Thomson, 1559). In Campion's An Angel at my Table, for example, as the young Janet Frame travels from northern to southern New Zealand, she looks at a train platform where an impaired man looks back at her. Their mutual gazes combine mutual forces, mutual energies. Her glance of befuddlement is equal to his; Janet has little knowledge about where she is headed, nor does he. She is on the move but constrained by the desires of her family, even as his movement is constrained by his disability, while anchored on the station landing. In Richard Eyre's Iris, the young Iris Murdoch watches her husband play the village idiot in front of their friends. This flashback to herself as a young woman drinking in an Oxford pub takes place from the vantage point of her advancing age, one that however is marked by her impaired memory. The older, impaired Iris sits on the stairs thinking about her foolish young husband who does not intuit, as she does, that he is the butt of the cruel satire of their associates. Iris stands by her man at an earlier moment in time, while in the now of the cinematic moment, she waits for him on the steps. In Shainberg's film Fur, Diane Arbus walks up several flights of stairs to see the mysterious Lionel for the first time. Her lingering glances are continually framed by the camera's eye to perceive the many steps, doorways, landings, and peepholes along the way; these spaces symbolically represent the changing points of view that Diane will experience and that her still camera will capture artistically (we see her camera in close-up by her side). The steadfast materiality of her ascending steps prefigures the awakening of her imagination. For Diane, Iris, and Janet, experience involves a multiplicity of conflicting forces, embodiments of new and old lines of thought that become the way these artists counter existing inhibitions and recreate themselves.

"So what artists do is create qualities from these forces that also have effects on the world," Grosz affirms ("Feminism" 247). For Grosz, art evokes the mediation of a subject and its real world respective to material forces. Accordingly, these films emphasize the multi-faceted nature of the influences, particularly the socially constructed forces, these artists experience, as well as their artistic response to them. In An Angel at My Table, Campion creates a vivid, often disorienting picture of writer Janet Frame whose autobiography draws on her marginalized life in rural New Zealand, her experience at the psychological institution at Seacliff, and her journey to the UK. In Iris, Eyre, while dramatizing Iris Murdoch's heartbreaking confrontation with Alzheimer's disease, portrays Iris Murdoch's philosophy of memory that infused her life as well as her novels and philosophical writings. Finally, in Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, Shainberg takes a focused, somewhat surreal approach to the life of photographer Diane Arbus as she begins to encounter and then embrace the alternative world of sideshow freaks, social outcasts and the physically impaired.

An Angel at My Table

In An Angel at My Table, Jane Campion seeks to make disability a companion to her subject's artistry. Of Campion's second major cinematic effort, Kathleen McHugh writes that Campion found her aesthetic as a director: "Campion knew Frame's work well, having read her novels as a teenager and her autobiography during her years in film school….[the] time, setting, and subject of her [Frame's] autobiographies bridged her [Campion's] own creative development" (66). In an approach more ethnographic and less sentimental in character, Campion explores the tension of two extremes: Frame's own withdrawn nature that is exacerbated by her family's poverty and those responding negatively to it; and Frame's expansive desire to write and her family's promotion of her talent. This dual challenge of the film's plot is reinforced cinematographically in the lush New Zealand landscape juxtaposed with close-in shots of Janet's immediate environment.

Drawn from Frame's three originally separate memoirs To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984), and The Envoy from Mirror City (1985), Campion's An Angel at My Table shows how her protagonist uses a medical diagnosis of schizophrenia and an institutional stay of eight years, in part, as a way to deal with the pain of excruciating shyness. In her autobiography, Frame admits that early in her life she lacked confidence to do what she really wanted to do, write. Upon leaving "the hospital" after a year's duration, Frame voluntarily returns, suggesting the underlying belief that one seeks comfort in knowing one's oppressors but also that Frame sought to understand her psychological impairments. Frame was administered weekly shock therapy treatments to help her with her self-diagnosis of schizophrenia, but luckily, one of her doctors saved her from a lobotomy after becoming aware of a collection of her published stories, The Lagoon. Campion relates Frame's tale of a tight-rope walk with psychological disability that was as much a part of her nature as the society surrounding her. Campion's film minimizes Frame's claim in her autobiography in which she discusses her desire for disability: "I was never withdrawn from the 'real' world; however, although I was convincingly able to 'use' this symptom when the occasion required […] I perceived that in a world where it was admirable to be brave and noble, it was more brave and noble to be writing poems if you were crippled or blind than if you had no disability" (201-202; 78-79). 3

A variety of factors, including the multitude of polio victims in New Zealand at the time; the return of World War I and II veterans; her parents' continued attention to her brother's epilepsy; and her retreat into the world of books, in part because of her shyness, led her to a belief that disability was not merely equated with feeling extraordinary but with becoming extraordinary. An early scene in the film establishes Janet's connection to disability. When the Frame family moves the first time from northern to southern New Zealand, Janet peers out the train window and is fascinated (as mentioned above) by a disabled man sitting on the station platform near Seacliff, the institution that would house Janet later in life. In Frame's autobiography, she reports that her mother tells her repeatedly that her brother is destined for greatness because of his epilepsy and that her [mother's] blind friend published a book of poems entitled Kowhai Blossoms, "A fact that Mother cherished, using it once again to demonstrate that handicaps could be overcome and glory achieved" (117). Campion's film reverberates with Frame's claim (in her autobiography) that she is inextricably drawn to disability, that when one is talented one will also have a disability: "All three [Van Gogh, Hugo Wolf, and Schumann] were named as schizophrenic, with their artistic ability apparently the pearl of their schizophrenia. Great artist, visionaries…." (200).

According to Sue Gillet, "Campion creates a visual language to match Frame's literary preoccupation with seeing herself from both within and without and placing herself within those frames of vision" (1). Frame's version of subjectivity affords her the requisite distance to be mindful of "socially imposed identities" (3). Campion positions the viewer to encompass the distinctiveness of difference in the way she shot the film from one of the three tripod heights (mimicking the ages of the three Janets) and moving the camera very little. 4 The scenes the younger, shorter Janet experiences are shot in such a way that the viewer begins to imagine the impact of them on the young child. When Janet is required to stand in front of the classroom all day for not admitting to having taken her father's foreign coins (in order to buy the entire class sticks of gum), we imagine alongside Janet that it might be possible to wait out any situation. Such a focus on character imagination is equally echoed in the film's cinematography. Janet is typically placed in small enclosures so that the viewer is aligned immediately with Janet's facial expressions. There is little gap between experiences that happen to Janet, Janet's registering of them, and our simultaneous perception. Janet's placement within small enclosures, though, is alternated with placements of her in vastness. 5 The power of the landscape lies below the surface at first, but as Janet ages, she comes to orient her memories with the images of past experiences and she becomes empowered by these same memories. For instance, when the adult Janet sails off in an ocean liner to the "Home-land" (England) to pursue her livelihood as a writer, the camera pans alongside the cliffs overlooking the vast sea. This scene is juxtaposed in our minds with an earlier scene evoking happy memories we have already viewed; sitting atop the sea are the young Janet Frame with her three sisters, delighting in the sun, wind, and their freedom of spirit as they gaze out on the ocean. This layering of shots, now for the second time, where Janet is actually (cinematically in the present) on the ship, captures the sentiment of her imaginative vision of herself, traveling to England to pursue her art.

This moment emphasizes the significance of the voyage, as Janet's quest to become a writer has materialized. In addition, Janet's triumphant spirit captures the hopes and dreams of her youth and those of her three sisters, even though by this point two of them have died tragically. Finally, there is yet another layering or palimpsest of subjectivities, a third scenic rendition, when Janet returns to New Zealand and stands triumphant with immense joy at the same cliff one more time. This moment also embodies Janet's knowledge that she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, having checked herself into a clinic in England to uncover the nature of her physiological impairment. Janet returns home to New Zealand bringing her past hopes, dreams, and aspirations into a continually evolving present that is affected by the persistent forces of her time, including both random events and imaginative intentions. While she admits in her biography she was affected by eight years of both voluntary and mandatory hospitalization, she must uncover in her life how the random turn of events she experienced in her earlier years will affect her future imaginings of herself. Ultimately, Jane Campion conflates disability and difference within the mix of life and artistry of her subject, rather than portraying disability as a condition Janet is trying to avoid, deny, or escape.


Iris (2001), the first cinematic effort by Richard Eyre (who is noted most prominently as a director for the stage), likewise explores difference with respect to female artistry and disability. Eyre's film focuses on the changing nature of novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch's mental capacity near the end of her life as a result of Alzheimer's disease. Like Campion, Eyre admits a particular affinity towards his subject: "My mother also had Alzheimer's disease and she died in 1992, but unlike Iris Murdoch, whose decline was over a period of two years, my mother's was over twenty" (Screenplay X). Drawing on memoirs written by John Bayley, Murdoch's husband of more than forty years (Elegy for Iris [1999], Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch [2000], and Iris and the Friends [2001]), Eyre assembles a screenplay that acknowledges and explores the many forces inhering in Iris Murdoch's life. Eyre, like Campion, interrogates the notion of impairment through the layering of various subjectivities. While Campion relies on juxtapositions of wide and close shots to embody Janet Frame's increasingly complex subjectivity, Eyre relies on juxtapositions of two time periods that are united thematically to embody Iris Murdoch's increasingly more impaired subjectivity. These scenes are preceded by short, lyrical scenes of the older or younger Iris swimming under the water. In the present of the film, the water imagery metaphorically conflates two minds, two voices, and two sets of experiences into one shared memory: that of the older Iris (Judy Dench) disoriented by Alzheimer's disease and the younger one (Kate Winslet) who is full of joie de vivre.

By recalling the past through the circumstances of the present, Iris processes the demands of her life, though she clearly experiences increasing frustration at the challenges her mental impairment poses. Throughout the film, Eyre employs images of Iris Murdoch swimming below the surface of a body of water (as noted above) to suggest that despite her impairment, her memory retains its (almost literal) fluidity. Her memory is shown to be a complex faculty that allows for the older Iris to make sense of the present life she lives with her husband John by recalling images of their initial courtship. John for his part feels overwhelmed by the continued mystery that life with Iris entails. His relationship with Iris was a struggle initially when he did not yet understand her, and now that Iris has Alzheimer's disease, his relationship with her is again a struggle. John Bayley admits in his first memoir: "The more I got to know Iris during the early days of our relationship, the less I understood her. Indeed, I soon began not to want to understand her" (73). In much of his writing that is devoted to her, Bayley refers to ways that Iris Murdoch evaded interpretation. She did not organize her life by conventions, Bayley writes: "she told me that the question of identity had always puzzled her. She thought she herself hardly possessed such a thing, whatever it was. I said that she must know what it was like to be oneself. Even to revel in the consciousness of oneself, as a secret and separate person—a person unknown to any other. She smiled, was amused, looked uncomprehending. It was not something she bothered about." (64)

Bayley reveals numerous times when Iris perceives identity in terms of instability. Accordingly, in an early scene in the film where the older John takes Iris to the neurologist to analyze her mental condition, she recognizes what is happening to her and tells the doctor

(Iris) I know what it is and it doesn't surprise me and that's just as bad because that's it winning, isn't it?

(John) Oh n-n-n-no…it's not, it w-w-w-won't win….

(Neurologist) It will win.

[As John gasps in denial, Iris takes hold of his hand.]

(Iris) It will win. There.

The scene ends as they walk silently down a hallway, holding hands. Iris is the one who shows a command of the situation, not John, who feels a lack of control. This hospital scene is then followed by a flashback scene where the young Iris and John pedal quickly on their bicycles down a steep hill. Again, John feels out of control in his surroundings and depends on Iris to comfort him:

(Iris) Keep hold of me and it will be all right!

(John) You won't keep still!

(Iris) I can't keep still!

(John) I can't catch up with you!

(Iris) Speed up!

[Iris and John disappear into a sunlit tunnel of trees.]

The first scene works imaginatively in Iris's mind so as to create meaning in the following one, but the second scene also appropriates meaning from the former because both complicate the notion of disability as difference: a continuum of stable and instable forces. In the first instance, John and Iris are riding too fast as they bicycle down the steep hill, although it is clearly Iris's choice to do so. In the second, their lives are rapidly moving out of control because of the rapid deterioration of Iris's mental faculties. Complex states of affect, the feel of freedom and the lack of control that are explored in past and present juxtaposed instances, suggest that the portrayal of memory in the film is Iris' and not John's, although many movie critics have misread the flashbacks as belonging to John. 6 As in Bergson's theory of memory, imagination and invention play a larger role than mere recall. Past images are appropriated from past experience and integrated to the present time, as the mind meshes virtual and actual reality. This process goes beyond mere dialectical operations as it creates and recreates perception of self and others and projects them into the future (Bergson Mind 35).

Near the end of the film, Iris sings an Irish song, "A Lark in the Clear Air," that shows she understands John's frustration with her memory loss. John is astounded by Iris's ability to recall the lyrics. At this point, his understanding and ours coalesce. Despite the fact that John is utterly exhausted, he is relieved because what he has told himself, Iris, and others all along is true: there is something going on up there [in her mind]. When John then recalls when Iris initially sang the song, at a pub where he sang and made a fool of himself, his memory becomes complete. Ironically, it is John, not Iris, who struggles here with imagination and invention, faculties that are necessary for one to constantly recreate oneself in life. Once again, Iris is in command of the situation. In the final flashback/flash-forward pairing of the film, John is crying, and Iris shows him by her warm smile that she understands how he feels.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

In Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006), Steven Shainberg blends subjectivity, a woman's artistry, and disability in his representation of a key transitional time in 1958 when photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971) began her career. For Shainberg, who grew up knowing Diane Arbus through an uncle and by the photographs that were strewn in dresser drawers all around his home, Arbus "was an aesthete of the highest order….It was desperately important for her to directly and intimately experience and to make contact with a world that she had felt shut off from" ("Director's Commentary"). Shainberg locates Arbus' evolution as an artist in the period of time when she became aware of competing forms of knowledge, embodied by her husband and his conventional, commercial photographic subjects on the one hand and on the other, a mysterious man named Lionel who moves in upstairs and offers a whole different world of possible photographic subjects (Lionel is a fiction invented for the purpose; as the opening title card expresses it the film, "invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus's inner experience on her extraordinary path"). In her portraiture, Arbus would evoke the tensions embodied in ordinary and extraordinary subjects but also those same forces that inhered in herself. She photographed individuals from the margins of society: transvestites, prostitutes, circus performers; but she also reinterpreted the world of the ordinary, the titles of her photographs belying their visual intensity: 'woman with bangs,' 'man and boy on bench in central park,' 'young man in baggy suit' (Reyes).

In the film, Diane Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman), is first guided away from the conventional gender roles expected of her by her husband — wife, mother, and (his) photographic assistant—toward her building's literal and metaphorical basement by Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr.), a member of society marginalized because of his hypertrichosis, a congenital disorder that causes excessive growth of body hair. In the basement storage area, Diane sees Lionel's circus sideshow paraphernalia (he had played the role of a "dog-faced boy") being dusted off by the armless Althea (Mary Duffy), who casually grasps a feather duster with her feet. When Lionel's hair clogs the plumbing in Diane's apartment, he further lures her into his world by sending her an old-fashioned key (the key will later open a little door as part of an Alice in Wonderland motif). She throws this key away, but the secret that unlocks Diane's understanding of her self-worth begins to unfold when she retrieves the key from the trash on the busy Manhattan street. The motif of the secret continues in the repeated exchanges (between Diane and her husband, and Lionel, and a nudist at the end of the film) that begin, "I'll tell you a secret if you tell me yours."

Diane's decision to go upstairs and meet Lionel is coincident with her decision to finally unwrap the Rolleiflex camera her husband had given her and strike out on her own; she ascends the stairs to Lionel's place intending to photograph him. The first time she climbs the stairs she holds the camera limply at her side; the second time the camera is slung around her neck and fitted quite literally and figuratively onto her heart, symbolizing that her perspective is rooted in equal measure in her ability to feel and to take action. As she ascends to the top landing, its walls painted in heavenly cerulean, one feels she is moving towards something new, towards knowledge that does not presume to have answers. As Shainberg notes in his director's commentary, "She's gone up stairs, a few flights of stairs but when she's approaching Lionel's door she's entered more of a fairy tale world, more of an unconscious world, more of an inner world. In that sense the journey of the film is […] as if she's traveled long distances to find this person who will open up and change her life."

Once in Lionel's apartment, the film evokes archival memory in the form of film clips of the sideshow act that Lionel shows to Diane and in the black and white photographs on his walls (by Diane's predecessors that influenced her, such as Weegee) that reveal the true secret of the marginal members of society. They are oppressed—for their lack of conformity to standards of normalcy—but she can counter that oppression with the infusion of her own worth (Lionel will later in effect call Diane a 'freak', one of 'us').

Diane sees qualities of herself in the freaks (Lionel, Althea, a giant man, little people and other outsiders such as drag queens), yet they do not disturb her or make her want to define herself in relation to them (it helps, as Shainberg says on the DVD commentary, that Lionel is attractive, intelligent, and seductive rather than defeated and morose). Such ethnography of commonality and difference in the film establishes an impulse that Leo Rubinfien has located in Arbus's artistry as "'intensely subjective' […] [Her photographs] look not into, but out of her life, at a world of happenstance" (71). In the film, Diane never in fact photographs the people who fascinate her; she longs first to make connections with them. When her husband develops and prints the films she had hidden away, he finds that she had only photographed the stairs and landing, the approach to Lionel. At the end of the film a nudist asks if Diane intends to photograph her and she replies (also naked), "No, not yet," and then puts the camera down.

Shainberg goes beyond the stereotypical rendition of cultural "othering" of disabled persons that is based on fear and instead creates a multi-valenced perspective based on the more attractive possibilities contained in the unknown, one that in effect exhibits a "fusional continuum that marks differences in nature and differences of degree" (Grosz, "Bergson" 8). Shainberg's film likewise rejects the notion of "heroes of assimilation," defying the politics of assimilation as outlined by Stiker, Goffman, Riley, and Mitchell. 7 Diane is not merely attracted society's marginal elements, she is attracted to rebellion, electing not to be defined by any one person, object, place, or ideology. Paradoxically, Diane chooses to experience life among those who are typically devalued so that she can claim her own value, and by extension, theirs. Vis-à-vis this symbiotic formula, she openly claims and deflects the stigma of her new "friends" as she draws them into her "conventional" life in her Manhattan apartment. In a telling scene, her new friends come to her apartment from Lionel's through a trap door to attend her birthday party. Lionel, the dwarf, the giant, and the others, society's misfits, descend through the Arbus's attic door and staircase to be with Diane, her husband, and her parents. Diane's dual action of refusal—she defers to society's margin and defies her family's social code—serves as the key transgressive moment of the film. As Mitchell notes in Narrative Prosthesis, "the power of transgression always originates at the moment when the derided object embraces its deviance as value" (35-36). Diane assesses her self-value more in terms of her new friends than her family. She chooses to complicate her destiny, and by this choice, unlocks the artistic potential inside her.


In the films under discussion that are adapted from different types of texts—autobiography, biography, and memoir—female artistry unfolds in a maze of determination, chance, and challenge, conditions that encourage genius, gender equality, and formulations of disability that challenge stereotypical preconceptions. These recent biopics challenge simple notions of disability as "helplessness, innocence, or blighted opportunity" and instead pose imaginative renderings of disability in relation to artistic creativity. The movie makers thus render fluid, multiple subjects, whose journeys of artistic expression compel them to simultaneously resist and embrace internally and externally imposed impairments and adopt a continued motion of becoming. Such a psychic process, where experience and capacity are infused with evolving perspective, suggests that the artistry of difference deserves a place in the theory and practice of disability.

My special gratitude goes to Paul Acker for his expert eye in helping me with this piece; caro, molto grazie a lei. I also am grateful to the pair of anonymous readers of DSQ for their many helpful suggestions.

Works Cited

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  1. Disability as a category is a contested site, as Paul Riley explains for many reasons: a) the statistical magnitude of the problem-one in five persons has a disability, b) the fact that media stereotypes continue to simplify and misrepresent key issues, and c) the ambiguous language in the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), which states that "The term 'disability' means with respect to an individual (a) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; (b) a record of such an impairment; (c) being regarded as having such an impairment". Riley goes on to suggest that the growing consumer appropriation of disability for more products, television shows and films has actually created setbacks for the movement (1-10).
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  2. See my article on Frida, published in this journal.
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  3. Campion clearly suggests that the culture that has bred Frame is culpable, supporting Henri-Jacques Stiker's contention that "the 'management' of disability is a preoccupation of nearly every cultural domain—from literature to policy—the work moves between these institutional perspectives in a Foucauldian effort to trace out the disciplinary construction of disability as a category of deviant exceptionality" (viii).
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  4. Kerry Fox, who played the adult Janet, says she tried to be as "truthful" as the other two actors playing Janet were by borrowing their "gestures" and capturing the "essences of themselves" (Angel DVD Commentary).
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  5. Campion says that "New Zealanders see themselves in the context of their landscapes … whenever we went out we tried to capture some elements of that … . The first time we see the teenage Janet, we see her in the context of this big sweeping seascape." (Director's Commentary).
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  6. Peter Keogh's review of Eyre's Iris is one of the more severe critiques. He writes that "The juxtapositions seem obvious but arbitrary. Are they meant to depict Murdoch's illness-addled consciousness? Underscore the pathos of Bayley's loss and sacrifice? Are they a commentary on the ephemerality of experience, the capriciousness of memory, the vanity of human efforts to preserve beauty or understand it? At times, the cruel contrasts seem like punishment for a woman's hubris, if not her sexuality. [Iris Murdoch was bisexual.] Those whom the gods would punish they first make mad. Then they make their lives into movies" ("Iris").
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  7. For more on the power of self-naming and of taking on the hypocrisy of dominance, see Henry-Jacques Stiker's A History of Disability (132); Erving Goffman's Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (123, 124); and Charles Riley's Disability and the Media: Prescriptions for Change (22).
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