Charity, it's fair to say, is one of Disability Studies' bad objects. The field's efforts to advance an understanding of disability as a distinct social identity have largely been built upon an explicit rejection of charitable representations of disability as an experience of private tragedy and individual suffering. Over the past several decades, scholars and activists have offered bracing critiques of the poster child, "inspiration porn," and other charity-generated clichés that have served to efface the experiential complexity and subjective interiority of disabled peoples' lives. Sheila C. Moeschen's Acts of Conspicuous Consumption: Performance Culture and American Charity Practices wades headlong into the political morass that surrounds the history of charitable "benevolence" toward the disabled. She proposes that the shifting meanings of disability from the early nineteenth century to the present have been forged in the crucible of this most public of sentiments. In the process, her book reveals that (whether we like it or not) disability cannot be separated from the charitable discourses that have long been speaking on its behalf, often in the most dehumanizing of terms. By studying the potent mélange of pity, sympathy, and melodrama that makes up charity's affective terrain, Moeschen identifies charitable benevolence as a powerful, and largely unrecognized, ideological undercurrent in American political life, one that continues to shape the way bodily difference and vulnerability are culturally encoded and charged with emotional significance. It is not enough to simply dismiss American charity's disability narratives, Moeschen shows, when we have not yet come to grips with how pervasive its structures of feeling really are.

Moeschen's book also makes a significant contribution to the growing scholarly cross-pollination between Performance Studies and Disability Studies. Excavating the performative dimensions of charity in a wide range of cultural practices—including nineteenth theatrical melodramas, high-society charity balls, midcentury telethons, and recent reality television programs—Moeschen attends to the "inherently manufactured quality of charitable sentiment," which she argues "makes the tension between ideology and identity, between representation and social reality, palpable" (8). Though these sorts of disjunctions have been extensively scrutinized within Disability Studies, Moeschen's thesis, and her emphasis on charity as a performative and frequently theatrical undertaking, offers new insights into the management of public sentiment regarding disability and debilitating illness by emphasizing the importance of liveness, spectatorship, gesture, and bodily proximity to the magnetizing social force exerted by feelings of charitable benevolence. Moeschen convincingly describes how different aspects of what she calls "performance culture"—"the organizing systems of devices, properties, instruments, and conventions that support the creation and dissemination of theatrical events" (11)—have been enlisted by charity-minded individuals and organizations to organize public attention and generate specific emotional responses. In so doing, the book opens productive new terrain for investigating the relationship between performance, theatricality, and the politics of emotion. Indeed, Acts of Conspicuous Consumption might be read as a genealogy of American benevolence as a public feeling: drawing in part from Lauren Berlant's work on compassion as "a social and aesthetic technology of belonging," 1 Moeschen is interested in exploring how charity has functioned as a "political apparatus" for the production and regulation of civic bonds (6). By offering an account of charity as "a cultural practice instigated by and made intelligible through the production of different affective, rhetorical, and visual signs" (6), her attention to the dramaturgy and stagecraft of public benevolence reveals how charity depends upon and often theatricalizes the distinction between the (nondisabled) donor's heroic generosity and the (disabled) recipient's pitiable suffering. Yet this schema, Moeschen suggests, is unstable, fractured by shifting arrangements of sentiment across lines of class, race, and gender and vulnerable to both suspicion and cynical exploitation. If charitable benevolence is a political emotion that helps organize social worlds and makes them legible, its effects are equally shaped by anxieties about maintaining and reproducing a highly stratified social order.

The book's four chapters are organized chronologically. The first chapter offers an insightful study of disability in nineteenth-century "sentimental culture," examining the relationship between popular theatrical melodramas and the contemporaneous reform movements advocating for the education of the blind and the "deaf and dumb." Moeschen demonstrates that the representation of disabled characters in the melodramas that dominated the early republic's popular theater circuits reflected an emerging civic culture built upon newly democratic concepts of moral sentiment and "fellow-feeling," whose origins Moeschen traces to the eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume. Through their use theatrical conventions to evoke spectators' sympathy for the plight of fellow citizens, popular melodramas became a crucial site for the cultivation of benevolence as a public sentiment. The popular dramas that Moeschen considers historically coincided with the emergence, during the Antebellum Period of a distinctively gendered reform culture, which viewed the "affective, sentimental, and spiritual work of benevolence" as the provenance of women—and specifically of white women of sufficient economic standing. Indeed, the foundational importance of benevolent feeling to nineteenth-century sentimental culture has continued to shape the gendered, racialized, and classed dimensions of charity as a cultural practice. Moeschen's attention to the theatrical and performative origins of chartable sentiment also allows her to discuss the way benevolence was gradually secularized, as the explicitly religious imperatives that motivated early American charity initiatives were transformed by a developing civic culture structured by highly gendered moral and emotional economy.

The subsequent chapter turns its attention to the 1930s and 1940s, focusing on the "war on polio" campaigns undertaken by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), an organization founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt—arguably most prominent American figure with a disability. Moeschen focuses her analysis on NFIP's extravagant charity balls, which featured theatrical pageants staged by upper-class white women for wealthy attendees, and suggests that the benevolent sentiments these events were designed to cultivate produced consequential "meanings about disease, health, and most importantly nationhood" (60). The combination of spectacle and triumphant narrative that the pageants presented communicated "distinctive American ideals, which, according to the pageant's rhetoric, depended upon polio's eradication for their realization" (60). Moeschen's intriguing research into early twentieth century pageants reveals many noteworthy aspects of the period's performance culture, and allows her to situate charity pageants alongside the other sites of popular exhibition and display—including World's Fairs, carnivals, local historical societies, and an emergent museum culture—where the reform-minded civic energies of the Progressive era were given embodied, communal form. She offers a vivid discussion of the NFIP's first President's Birthday Ball, an elaborate fundraiser held in 1934 at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel to benefit Warm Springs, the Georgia retreat center where Roosevelt had spent time recuperating from polio and which he eventually purchased in 1926 and transformed into a sought-after "destination for polio patients and their families searching for new methods to manage and potentially cure the disease" (58).

Describing the elaborate Birthday Ball pageant, which culminated in the presentation of a fifteen-foot long birthday cake by sixteen costumed debutantes, Moeschen focuses on the way the performance was organized around "messages of patriotism and robust masculinity" (63) in order to "emphasize principles such as physical health, productivity, prosperity, and independence, critical to the American character and ironically embodied through a president who was physically disabled" (63). Her reading offers a compelling case study of the way charitable benevolence toward children with polio functioned as a powerful affective undercurrent that shaped the nation's evolving civic culture. She also reveals how the NFIP made use of the emerging media markets made possible by cinema, radio and, eventually, television to enlist the public's chartable feelings and enfold illness and disability into World War II-era narratives of resilience, health, and industriousness. The chapter closes with a fascinating early history of the public service announcement and the charity "poster child." Moeschen explores how the NFIP's strategic advertising campaigns featuring images of polio-stricken children under banner headlines ("Help me walk again…") and celebrity-laden PSA's featuring stars like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Lucille Ball positioned chartable sentiments at the heart of the nation's emerging media culture.

Moeschen's third chapter offers a provocative re-reading of Jerry Lewis's infamous annual telethons benefitting the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), which ran from 1966 through 2010. Building on previous scholarship on the telethon, Moeschen reads the programs as performances in order to explore "how and why its representational politics remain especially effective" (90). The most innovative aspect of her discussion focuses on the tension between Lewis's distinctly comic modes of performative embodiment and the melodramatic sentimentality with which the telethons represented disabled subjects as needy and worthwhile charitable subjects. Departing from the way other disability scholars and commentators have criticized Lewis's uncomfortable and frequently bizarre hosting style, Moeschen offers a subtle reading of the complex emotional relay that structures the telethons' visual representation of bodily difference. She argues that Lewis's slapstick antics, which have struck many viewers over the years as paragons of a faded celebrity's narcissism and bad taste, play a crucial role in modulating the audience's visual attention and emotional involvement with the telethon's cause, and proposes that "Lewis's ungovernable body not only supplies temporary discharge from the scene of physical difference but also relieves the spectator from contemplating the return of the disabled person's looks" (91). The telethon's oscillation between Lewis's "comic anarchy" (112) and pathos-laden "telemonial" segments featuring muscular dystrophy patients and their families produced a uniquely compelling and effective viewing experience. The telethons, Moeschen suggests, were so effective precisely because of their deliberately choreographed admixture of pitiable sentiment and the hyperkinetic visual surprise supplied by Lewis's volatile body. At the close of the chapter, Moeschen examines the political critiques of the MDA telethons that disability activists began to articulate in the early 1980s, and considers how the growing "disconnection between Lewis and the population he purported to serve" (123) became increasingly palpable with the emergence of disability self-advocacy movements in recent decades. The disability rights protests and boycotts of the telethons expose the forms of contrivance and emotional exploitation that have been used to manufacture feelings of charitable benevolence, even as they provide evidence of the way charity's performative dimensions have provided "a mutable framework for individuals to intervene in, conform to, resist, and reshape critical attitudes and behaviors" (124). Though she does not explicitly engage with recent critical attention to the capitalist aesthetics of slapstick and other "zany" performative styles, Moeschen's analysis of Lewis's telethons offers a provocative case study of the affective and political work performed by the kinetic body. 2

In its final chapter, the book excavates the forms of benevolent sentiment that saturate the contemporary media landscape of reality television. Concentrating on ABC's popular Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Moeschen explores how reality TV's documentary-style aesthetics of radical, life-changing transformation provide a powerful forum for the corporate branding of benevolence as "conspicuous compassion." Extreme Makeover, Moeschen suggests, is a twenty-first century update of earlier television programs in which real-life contestants were given material rewards "based on their ability to relay their most pathetic, miserable, heart-tugging stories" (129). Each episode features a family stricken by hardship—most often involving a debilitating disease—whose members are rewarded at the episode's conclusion with a fantastically renovated "dream house" outfitted by the show's team of celebrity homebuilders and designers. Moeschen convincingly demonstrates how the show deploys the aesthetic conventions of reality TV, including cinema-vérité-style camerawork and a race-against-the clock narrative structure, in order to exert its emotional pull by producing a heightened sense of the "real." In effect, the show offers a compulsively watchable, highly mediated dramatization of the promise of radical transformation, conversion, and spiritual transcendence that has been at the core of American charity practices since the nineteenth century. Extreme Makeover manipulates "the public's proclivity for witnessing the spectacle of distress only to be released from such exhibitions by charitable interventions" (129); the dramatic "reveals" at the end of each episode, coupled with the family's inevitably over-the-top performances of gratitude and redemption, draw their emotional power from deeply rooted narratives of American Protestant secularism, linking personal hardship to saving grace through the compassionate intervention of charity. Moeschen also notes that the canny integration of corporate sponsorship and product placement into charity-minded reality television programs raises troubling ethical questions about such spectacular displays of compassion "in the wake of a perilously diminished public welfare state" (16). Yet if the program's corporate sponsors leverage the emotional payoff promised by the promise of radical transformation, Moeschen also argues that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition indicates something about "the public's changing attitudes toward benevolence" (pg citation); in the face of a protracted period of economic instability and unease, the show offers a form of emotionally compressed "instant gratification" that reassuringly conforms to deep-seated American myths of communal enterprise and personal homeownership. The end of this final chapter and the book's conclusion address the way charitable sentiment has increasingly been coopted by the spheres of entertainment and leisure, as evidenced by the recent trend toward celebrity-driven campaigns powered by public declarations of support on social media or the wearing of charity bracelets, such that the "display and affirmation become virtues over moral or civic obligation" (16).

Acts of Conspicuous Consumption reveals how American charity practices make strategic use of performance and media to produce and commodify public sentiment in ways that, intentionally or not, obscure and objectify the complex experiences of people with disabilities. Yet the book is not a wholesale rejection of charity practices and the benevolent sentiments they generate: in her conclusion, Moeschen describes several recent examples of chartable projects and events in which "individuals stage their participation in benevolence" (157), suggesting the possibility that the public display of need might be productively reshaped and democratized by the active participation of communities and individuals requesting financial assistance and political solidarity. Moeschen's cautious optimism that charitable sentimentality can be reformulated in ways that avoid the damaging mystifications that have defined the history of American benevolence toward disability is leavened by her ongoing apprehension about the mainstream representation of disability in "a society obsessed with hyperidealized bodies" (17). In the face of the ongoing assaults upon the infrastructures of social welfare that have made the lived experience of disability increasingly precarious, Moeschen's nuanced and deeply researched account of the crucial ways that charitable practices have shaped public sentiment toward bodily difference is an especially vital contribution.


  1. Lauren Berlant, Compassion: The Cultural Politics of Emotion (London: Routledge, 2004), 5.
    Return to Text
  2. See especially Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).
    Return to Text
Return to Top of Page