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Crip Theory attends to the contemporary cultures of disability and queerness that are coming out all over. Both disability studies and queer theory are centrally concerned with how bodies, pleasures, and identities are represented as “normal” or as abject, but Crip Theory is the first book to analyze thoroughly the ways in which these interdisciplinary fields inform each other.

Drawing on feminist theory, African American and Latino/a cultural theories, composition studies, film and television studies, and theories of globalization and counter-globalization, Robert McRuer articulates the central concerns of crip theory and considers how such a critical perspective might impact cultural and historical inquiry in the humanities. Crip Theory puts forward readings of the Sharon Kowalski story, the performance art of Bob Flanagan, and the journals of Gary Fisher, as well as critiques of the domesticated queerness and disability marketed by the Millennium March, or Bravo TV’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. McRuer examines how dominant and marginal bodily and sexual identities are composed, and considers the vibrant ways that disability and queerness unsettle and re-write those identities in order to insist that another world is possible.

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Crip Theory

General Editor: Michael Bérubé
Manifesto of a Tenured Radical
Cary Nelson
Bad Subjects
Political Education for Everyday Life
Edited by the Bad Subjects Production Team
Claiming Disability
Knowledge and Identity
Simi Linton
The Employment of English
Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies
Michael Bérubé
Feeling Global
Internationalism in Distress
Bruce Robbins
Doing Time
Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture
Rita Felski
Modernism, Inc.
Body, Memory, Capital
Edited by Jani Scandura and Michael Thurston
Bending over Backwards
Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions
Lennard J. Davis
After Whiteness
Unmaking an American Majority
Mike Hill
Critics at Work
Interviews 1993–2003
Edited by Jeffrey J. Williams
Crip Theory
Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability
Robert McRuer

Crip Theory
Cultural Signs of Queerness
and Disability

Robert McRuer
Foreword by Michael Bérubé

New York and London

New York and London
© 2006 by New York University
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
McRuer, Robert, 1966–
Crip theory : cultural signs of queerness and disability / Robert
p. cm. — (Cultural front)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN–13: 978–0–8147–5712–3 (cloth : alk. paper)
ISBN–10: 0–8147–5712–X (cloth : alk. paper)
ISBN–13: 978–0–8147–5713–0 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN–10: 0–8147–5713–8 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Sociology of disability. 2. Homosexuality—Social aspects. 3.
Heterosexuality—Social aspects. 4. Marginality, Social. 5. Culture. I. Title. II. Cultural front (Series)
New York University Press books are printed on acid-free paper,
and their binding materials are chosen for strength and durability.
Manufactured in the United States of America
c 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
p 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


Foreword: Another Word Is Possible,
by Michael Bérubé
Introduction: Co; mpulsory Able-Bodiedness and
Queer/Disabled Existence




Coming Out Crip: Malibu Is Burning



Capitalism and Disabled Identity: Sharon Kowalski,
Interdependency, and Queer Domesticity


Noncompliance: The Transformation, Gary Fisher,
and the Limits of Rehabilitation


Composing Queerness and Disability: The Corporate
University and Alternative Corporealities


Crip Eye for the Normate Guy: Queer Theory,
Bob Flanagan, and the Disciplining
of Disability Studies


Epilogue: Specters of Disability




Works Cited




About the Author






Another Word Is Possible
Michael Bérubé

I’ve admired Robert McRuer’s work for some time now, and
Crip Theory gives me all the more reason for admiration. Although over
the past couple of years the overdue conversation between queer theory
and disability studies has begun to produce new work that expands the
parameters of both fields, most people—myself included—still find it exceptionally difficult to theorize multiple forms of identity, and multiple
strategies of disidentification, in conjunction with each other.
At times, it has been tempting for left cultural theorists to approach
this difficulty by way of the “excluded-here-is-any-account-of” gambit: in
response to, say, one critic’s groundbreaking account of race and class in
Southern labor movements, another critic can reply, “X’s account of race
and class in Southern labor movements may be groundbreaking, but excluded here is any account of gender and sexuality that might complicate
the analysis further.” Very rarely is disability invoked in such circumstances. But at its best, the gambit is salutary, urging liberal, progressive,
and left social critics to take account of intersecting cultural formations
in all their vivid and contradictory complexity. Occasionally, however, it
invites an “additive” approach, in which identity categories are checked
off one by one as they are “accounted” for theoretically. I remember
vividly a colleague rereading, after twenty-odd years, the Combahee
River Collective’s famous statement on the liberation of black women,
one passage of which reads, “if Black women were free, it would mean
that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression” (278), and saying


viii | Foreword

to me, only half in jest: “You know, they forgot about sexuality and disability—they only got to two systems of oppression, maybe three.”
The remark was only half in jest, though, precisely because lines of inquiry that fail to attend to one thing or another—gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, age, historical context, nation, and ethnicity (and I hope
I have unwittingly left out something, so as to prove the point by example)—inevitably do wind up producing an incomplete or partly skewed
analysis of the world. The freedom of black women would not necessarily entail the freedom of women living under shari’a law; what is true of
black men is not necessarily true of black gay men, and not necessarily
true of white lesbians anywhere; what is true of Chicano/a communities
and class relations may not hold for Chicanos/as with disabilities and
class relations. Indeed, for many reasons, disability (in its mutability, its
potential invisibility, its potential relation to temporality, and its sheer variety) is a particularly elusive element to introduce into any conjunctural
analysis, not because it is so distinct from sexuality, class, race, gender,
and age but because it is always already so complexly intertwined with
everything else. Matters become still more complicated when disability is
mobilized—so to speak—as a trope within what Robert McRuer (following Michael Warner, following Erving Goffman) calls “stigmaphobic” sectors of identity communities. When that happens, you find people scrambling desperately to be included under the umbrella of the “normal”—and scrambling desperately to cast somebody else as abnormal,
crazy, abject, or disabled. Thus, in his remarkable chapter on Karen
Thompson and Sharon Kowalski, whose story involves disability, longterm care, and the divide between advocates of gay marriage and advocates of queerer arrangements, McRuer writes: “The stigmaphobic distancing from more stigmatized members of the community that advocates
for gay marriage engage in is inescapably a distancing from disability.
This is indeed literally true in one sense: commentators (such as [Gabriel]
Rotello) on domesticity and marriage offer marriage (for gay men, at
least) as an antidote to AIDS.” As an antidote to stigmaphobia, then,
McRuer offers a rigorous conjunctural analysis that leaves no form of
identity behind:
Queer communities could acknowledge that the political unconscious of
debates about normalization (including debates about marriage) is
shaped, in large part, by ideas about disability [and] . . . disability communities, primed to enter (or entering already) some of the territory re-

Foreword | ix

cently charted by queers, could draw on radical queer thought to continue forging the critical disability consciousness that has emerged over
the past few decades.

As Crip Theory shows time and again, there aren’t too many people
who are as inventive and as rigorous as McRuer when it comes to reading these kinds of conjunctures. In his noncompliant chapter on “noncompliance” in the work of Gary Fisher and in Susana Aikin and Carlos
Aparicio’s documentary film The Transformation, McRuer takes disability activists’ critiques of regimes of rehabilitation and uses them to find a
“problematic rehabilitative logic” that “governs contemporary understandings of and responses to what we should still call the AIDS crisis.”
He does so, moreover, by attending to scenes of “degradation” that range
from Gary Fisher’s S/M fantasies to Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. In
the course of articulating Henri-Jacques Stiker’s A History of Disability
to Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied, McRuer does not fail to note that conjunctural analysis can produce severe identity trouble: “The proud and
sustaining consolidation readable in ‘black’ at the end of the twentieth
century could be understood as inimical to the disintegration put into motion by Fisher’s self-proclaimed ‘queer’ and ‘sociopathic’ identities.” The
subject in question here is a subject who, like Fisher, cannot quite be accommodated or rehabilitated, and whose moments of consolidation and
disintegration render it impossible to read assertions of identity “pride”
as simple repudiations of identity abjection. Following Robert ReidPharr, who in Black Gay Man argues that “even as we express the most
positive articulations of black and gay identity, we are nonetheless referencing the ugly historical and ideological realities out of which those
identities have been formed,” McRuer writes, there is “no way of saying
‘disabled without hearing ‘cripple’ (or freak, or retard) as its echo.” And
yet, he adds, “that there is no way of speaking the rehabilitated self without hearing the degraded other, however, is not a univocal fact. It is, instead, a fact in multiple ways”—some of which can be recuperated, if not
quite rehabilitated, by the projects of a postidentity politics. Here, then,
is an analysis of black pride and disability activism that has been invigorated and complicated by the politics of gay shame, and that retains
through it all a lively awareness of the multiaccentuality of the sign.
When McRuer turns his attention to popular cultural phenomena—
and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the James L. Brooks film As

x | Foreword

Good As It Gets are nothing if not phenomena: the former for its comedic
metrosexualization of masculinity, and the latter for its creepy (and therefore Academy Award–worthy) rendering of disability—the result, I think,
is cultural criticism that really is just about as good as it gets. Indeed, if
there’s anything better than McRuer’s reading of As Good As It Gets,
teasing out the symbiotic relation between the narrative in which a gay
man becomes disabled and the narrative in which he facilitates the consolidation of a heterosexual family (and, in so doing, helps to ameliorate
disabilities in that family), it would be McRuer’s cripping of Queer Eye
for the Straight Guy, in which he elaborates Rosemarie GarlandThomson’s foundational work on disability images while scoring the Fab
Five for their casual denigration of “mental institution chic” and “retarded” straight guys and proceeds to offer us some seriously subversive
A crip eye for the normate guy, I propose, would not just be a disability
version of the Bravo hit, no matter how much pleasure imagining such a
show has given me: “Sweetie, your university is an accessibility nightmare! Don’t worry, honey, it is your lucky day that disabled folks are
here to tell you just what’s wrong with this place!” Rather, a crip eye for
the normate guy (and because we’re talking about not a real person but
a subject position, somehow “normate guy” seems appropriate, regardless of whether he rears his able-bodied head in men or women) would
mark a critically disabled capacity for recognizing and withstanding the
vicissitudes of compulsory able-bodiedness.

The biting humor of this passage is distinctively McRuerian, a term I expect will win wider currency once the full measure of this book is taken.
But just as important, I think, is its dense and savvy allusiveness: listen
again, and you can hear echoes and evocations not only of the Fab Five
(tonally perfect, I might add) but also of Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, and
Adrienne Rich, all of whom are being mobilized—so to speak—for
wholly new ends, in the service of an analysis that each of them helped to
enable but none of them imagined being deployed in the context of
McRuer closes this book with an optimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will: troping off the truism that each of us will become disabled if we live long enough, McRuer points us to a disability yet to come
that is also a democracy yet to come. Along the way, as he moves from

Foreword | xi

Hollywood films to the Mumbai World Social Forum, from college composition programs to the debate over gay marriage, and from FOX’s neofreak show The Littlest Groom to Bob Flanagan’s neo-freak supermasochism, Robert McRuer shows us that another world is possible, that
another world is accessible, and that there’s yet another way of getting
there. Unlike much utopian thought in the contemporary humanities,
McRuer’s is grounded in materiality of the world as we know it—even as
it points to a spectral world we do not yet know. Just when you thought
you’d heard the last word on forms of identity and theories of cultural
justice, Crip Theory comes along to show that another word is possible.


I am especially grateful to Joseph Choueike and Tom Murray;
and to Kim Q. Hall, Angela Hewett, Dan Moshenberg, Craig Polacek,
and Abby L. Wilkerson. Their generosity and love are at work in this
book, and this simple acknowledgment cannot begin to do justice to the
ways in which they have sustained me and kept me focused on the simple
fact that another world is possible. When Joseph (and so many others)
can finally move freely, they all know I hope to thank them more properly in Rio de Janeiro.
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson may not remember saying “you know,
this is disability studies,” as we rode the elevator up to a conference room
in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in late 1998,
where we were going to discuss AIDS cultural theory with a Washington,
D.C., reading group focused on theories of the body. The writing of Crip
Theory, however, in some ways commenced with that moment. Obviously, disability theory and disability liberation would not be where it is
without Garland-Thomson’s foundational work. My own project, likewise, would not exist were it not for her scholarship and friendship. I am
particularly grateful, as well, to the other members of that body theory
reading group, including Debra Bergoffen, Carolyn Betensky, Bill Cohen,
Jeffrey Cohen, Ellen Feder, Katherine Ott, and Gail Weiss. Jeffrey Cohen,
in particular, has read significant portions of this book at every stage, and
I have benefited immensely from his input.
The friendship and support of my other colleagues in the department
of English at George Washington University have been invaluable; thanks
especially to Patty Chu, Kavita Daiya, Gil Harris, Jennifer James, Meta
DuEwa Jones, Jim Miller, Framji Minwalla, Faye Moskowitz, Ann
Romines, Lee Salamon, Chris Sten, and Gayle Wald. I could single out
each of them for large and small things: Jennifer James, for instance,
knows equally well when to engage me in rigorous conversations about


xiv | Acknowledgments

disability studies and intersectionality and when to send yellow tulips to
my apartment. Jennifer DeVere Brody and Stacy Wolf left GWU long ago,
but I continue to miss them; their ideas helped shape my thinking for this
book as well. My students at GWU continually challenge me, and I acknowledge, in particular, Michael Bennett, Mara Berman, Jacob Blair,
Yael Boloker, Evan Brustein, Andrea Cerbin, Joel Englestein, Keith Feldman, Robert Felt, Paige Franklin, Miriam Greenberg, Emily Henehan,
Joe Fisher, Tim Nixon, Almila Ozdek, Myra Remigio, Niles Tomlinson,
Aliya Weise, and Nathan Weiner. Finally, Connie Kibler gets thanked so
often, it seems, in queer studies books, but I do want to acknowledge her
influence. She seems to have some new idea for (or about) me with each
turn of the calendar.
The more openly Marxist Expository Writing Program at GWU has
been replaced with, or disciplined by, an efficient and more corporate
University Writing Program, but the full and parttime members of that
program know that they have my solidarity as they struggle both to sustain a critical cultural studies pedagogy and to access more just working
conditions for academic laborers (including full and guaranteed health
care). I am particularly grateful, again, to Abby L. Wilkerson, but also to
Eric Drown, Gustavo Guerra, Randi Kristensen, Mark Mullen, Pam
Presser, Rachel Riedner, and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder. Many of these colleagues have read and commented on various drafts or chapters of this
book. Beyond this, Gustavo Guerra and Heidi Guerra have pulled me
away from this book and toward celebratory affirmations of non-workrelated aspects of life as often as anyone else, and they know how vital
those times have been, for me and for Joseph.
Several colleagues listed above have also been involved in a
Washington-area reading group on disability studies since the late 1990s;
I thank as well my other friends in that group: Megan Davis, Lisbeth
Fuisz, Susan Goldberg, Joyce Huff, Julia McCrossin, Julie Passanante,
Todd R. Ramlow, Claudia Rector, and Nolana Yip.
Kim Q. Hall and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson were among those involved in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Disability Studies, held in 2000 at San Francisco State University. All those connected to that transformative event have had an influence on this book; I especially thank Sumi Colligan, Jim Ferris, Ann
Fox, Diane Price Herndl, Martha Stoddard Holmes, Cathy Kudlick,
Paul Longmore, Cindy LaCom, Carrie Sandahl, Sue Schweik, and Linda

Acknowledgments | xv

Many others in queer and disability movements (broadly understood,
and in and out of the academy) have at various points given me encouragement, feedback, and community: Stacy Alaimo, Tammy Berberi,
Michael Bérubé, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, Saralyn Chesnut, Sarah E.
Chinn, Sally Chivers, Eli Clare, Michael Davidson, Lennard J. Davis,
John D’Emilio, Shifra Diamond, Carolyn Dinshaw, Lisa Duggan, Jill
Ehnenn, Nirmala Erevelles, Beth Ferri, Anne Finger, S. Naomi Finkelstein, Chris Freeman, Terry Galloway, Noreen Giffney, David M.
Halperin, Kristen Harmon, Jason Hendrickson, Mark Jordan, Alison
Kafer, Ann Keefer, Joe Kisha, Georgina Kleege, Christopher Krentz, Petra
Kuppers, Riva Lehrer, Kristin Lindgren, Simi Linton, Nicole Markotic,
Vivian May, Ken McRuer, Madhavi Menon, David Mitchell, Anna Mollow, Sammie Moshenberg, Tom Olin, Michael O’Rourke, Ken Quandt,
José Quiroga, Ellen Samuels, Dylan Scholinski, Barb Sebek, David Serlin,
Tobin Siebers, Sharon Snyder, Marc Stein, Gayle Bozeman Van Pelt,
Tamise Van Pelt, Priscilla Wald, Greg Walloch, and Cynthia Wu.
Finally, Michael Bérubé’s editorial acumen and friendship have helped
nurture this project to completion. I am grateful to NYU Press more generally, but especially to Eric Zinner and Emily Park, both for their enthusiasm and support for this project and for the critical and ongoing work
they have done to support queer and disability studies.
There is a tradition on this continent that perhaps reaches back to
Anne Bradstreet’s Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America (1650) and
that is highly developed in the acknowledgments sections of academic
books in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This tradition
consistently suggests that others, while they might have contributed to the
successful aspects of the project, are not to be held accountable for a
book’s “main defects” (to adapt Bradstreet). From where I sit, writing at
the turn of the millennium and 350 years after Bradstreet, this strikes me
as a tradition worth inverting. If there is anything disabled, queer, or crip
about this book, it has come from my collaborative work with those
named above, and many others. I take responsibility, however, for the
moments when crip energies and ideas are contained or diluted in what
follows, and I know that others will continue to push the work of this
book, and the movements that made it possible, beyond those moments
of containment.
Portions of the introduction appeared previously as “Compulsory AbleBodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence,” in Disability Studies: En-

xvi | Acknowledgments

abling the Humanities, edited by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, MLA Publications (2002); and
as “As Good As It Gets: Queer Theory and Critical Disability,” in GLQ:
A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1–2 (2003):79–105. Reprinted
here with permission from MLA Publications and Duke University Press.
An earlier version of chapter 4 appeared as “Composing Bodies; or,
De-Composition: Queer Theory, Disability Studies, and Alternative Corporealities,” in JAC: A Quarterly Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study
of Rhetoric, Culture, Literacy, and Politics 24.1 (2004):47–78. Reprinted
here with permission.
A much shorter version of chapter 5 appeared as “Crip Eye for the
Normate Guy: Queer Theory and the Disciplining of Disability Studies,”
in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America
120.2 (2005), 586–592. Reprinted here with permission.

Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and
Queer/Disabled Existence

In queer studies it is a well-established critical practice to remark on heterosexuality’s supposed invisibility.1 As the heterosexual
norm congealed during the twentieth century, it was the “homosexual
menace” that was specified and embodied; the subsequent policing and
containment of that menace allowed the new heterosexual normalcy to
remain unspecified and disembodied.2 As early as 1915, Sigmund Freud,
in his revised “Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex,” declared that
“the exclusive sexual interest of the man for the woman is also a problem
requiring an explanation, and is not something that is self-evident and explainable on the basis of chemical attraction” (560), but such observations remained—indeed, as Freud’s comments literally were—mere footnotes in the project of excavating deviance. Heterosexuality, never speaking—as Michel Foucault famously said of homosexuality—“in its own
behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged”
(History of Sexuality 101), thereby passed as universal love and intimacy,
coextensive not with a specific and historical form of opposite-sex eros
but with humanity itself. Heterosexuality’s partners in this masquerade
have been largely identified; an important body of feminist and antiracist
work considers how compulsory heterosexuality reinforces or naturalizes
dominant ideologies of gender and race.3 However, despite the fact that
homosexuality and disability clearly share a pathologized past, and despite a growing awareness of the intersection between queer theory and
disability studies, little notice has been taken of the connection between
heterosexuality and able-bodied identity. Able-bodiedness, even more
than heterosexuality, still largely masquerades as a nonidentity, as the
natural order of things.4


2 | Introduction

Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability emerges from
cultural studies traditions that question the order of things, considering
how and why it is constructed and naturalized; how it is embedded in
complex economic, social, and cultural relations; and how it might be
changed.5 In this book, and in this introduction in particular, I thus theorize the construction of able-bodiedness and heterosexuality, as well as
the connections between them. I also locate both, along with disability
and homosexuality, in a contemporary history and political economy of
visibility. Visibility and invisibility are not, after all, fixed attributes that
somehow permanently attach to any identity, and it is one of the central
contentions of this book that, because of changing economic, political,
and cultural conditions at the turn of the millennium, the relations of visibility in circulation around heterosexuality, able-bodiedness, homosexuality, and disability have shifted significantly.
I put forward here a theory of what I call “compulsory ablebodiedness” and argue that the system of compulsory able-bodiedness,
which in a sense produces disability, is thoroughly interwoven with the
system of compulsory heterosexuality that produces queerness: that, in
fact, compulsory heterosexuality is contingent on compulsory ablebodiedness, and vice versa. The relatively extended period, however, during which heterosexuality and able-bodiedness were wedded but invisible
(and in need of embodied, visible, pathologized, and policed homosexualities and disabilities) eventually gave way to our own period, in which
both dominant identities and nonpathological marginal identities are
more visible and even at times spectacular.6 Neoliberalism and the condition of postmodernity, in fact, increasingly need able-bodied, heterosexual subjects who are visible and spectacularly tolerant of queer/disabled
Throughout Crip Theory, I take neoliberal capitalism to be the dominant economic and cultural system in which, and also against which, embodied and sexual identities have been imagined and composed over the
past quarter century. Emerging from both the new social movements (including feminism, gay liberation, and the disability rights movement) and
the economic crises of the 1970s, neoliberalism does not simplistically
stigmatize difference and can in fact celebrate it. Above all, through the
appropriation and containment of the unrestricted flow of ideas, freedoms, and energies unleashed by the new social movements, neoliberalism favors and implements the unrestricted flow of corporate capital. International financial institutions (IFIs) and neoliberal states thus work

Introduction | 3

toward the privatization of public services, the deregulation of trade barriers and other restrictions on investment and development, and the
downsizing or elimination (or, more insidiously, the transformation into
target markets) of vibrant public and democratic cultures that might constrain or limit the interests of global capital. These cultural shifts have inaugurated an era that, paradoxically, is characterized by more global inequality and raw exploitation and less rigidity in terms of how oppression
is reproduced (and extended).
Considering how these shifts have directly influenced the contemporary social construction and subordination of homosexuality and disability, my introduction thus examines the emergence of a more “flexible”
heterosexual and able-bodied subject than either queer theory or disability studies has fully acknowledged. After a basic overview of the ways in
which compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness are
intertwined, I consider how this subject is represented in James L.
Brooks’s 1997 film As Good As It Gets, which in many ways crystallizes
current ideas about, and uses of, disability and queerness. Setting the
stage for the chapters to come, the introduction concludes by turning to
the critically disabled and queer perspectives and practices that have been
deployed to resist the contemporary spectacle of able-bodied
In chapter 1, attesting to the ways in which crip culture is coming out
all over, I name these perspectives and practices “crip theory.” Examining
a series of global and local examples or snapshots of coming out crip, I
put forward in chapter 1 a series of contingent principles that situate the
project of crip theory in relation to disability and lesbian, gay, bisexual,
and transgendered (LGBT) identity politics, to queer histories of coming
out, and to a focused and expansive notion of access. Such a notion of access should be at work in the counterglobalization movements that have
in part inspired this project, but—I argue—often is not, given that disability is so useful, for many who would oppose corporate capitalism and
corporate globalization, as the object against which an imagined future
world is shaped. Cripping that future world, in chapter 1 I both interrogate and attempt to move beyond literal and theoretical efforts to locate
disability (and queerness) elsewhere.
In the remainder of the book, through a series of case studies, I survey
the primary institutional sites where compulsory able-bodiedness and
heterosexuality are produced and secured and where queerness and disability are (partially and inadequately) contained. I understand “institu-

4 | Introduction

tion” here both in the very specific sense, as institutions such as the World
Bank and my own university will be interrogated in the pages that follow,
and in the more abstract sense, whereby “institution” marks the dominant understanding of a significant and structuring cultural concept: domesticity, for instance, or rehabilitation (and, of course, the specific and
more abstract senses of the term are mutually constitutive). The institutions in question are domestic and legal in chapter 2; religious and rehabilitative in chapter 3. Chapter 4 is centered on educational institutions
and chapter 5 on media and financial institutions.
Through readings of John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity,”
the Sharon Kowalski incident (in which custody was granted, for more
than a decade, to the parents and not the lover of a Minnesota woman
who experienced a disabling accident), and two AIDS narratives concerning African American and Latino men, chapters 2 and 3 focus on efforts to queer or crip domesticity and argue that LGBT subjectivities are
currently forged in the contradictory space between a cult of ability (centered on discipline and domesticity) and cultures of disability (centered
on networks of interdependency). In chapter 2, I begin by considering
queer critiques of marriage and domesticity in order to raise questions
about compulsory, able-bodied family forms. Through an examination
of Karen Thompson and Julie Andrzejewski’s memoir Why Can’t Sharon
Kowalski Come Home?, I contend that Thompson (Kowalski’s partner)
successfully challenged able-bodied ideologies of domesticity because of
her engagement with queer/disabled feminist identities in alternative (and
public) spaces. In chapter 3, I survey disability critiques of rehabilitation
to highlight the processes through which certain locations or identifications are made safe while others are cast as dangerous and intolerable,
beyond rehabilitation. The chapter juxtaposes the will to racial and sexual degradation in the journals of Gary Fisher, an African American
queer writer who died in 1993, and the rehabilitative agenda represented
in The Transformation, a documentary about Sara/Ricardo, who—before her/his death in 1996—moves from a transgendered Latina/o street
community in New York to a Dallas Christian ministry and heterosexual
married life. Chapter 3, without question, is working at the margins of
disability studies, but it is the center of Crip Theory in more ways than
one: the crip theory of noncompliance particularly at work in Fisher’s
writing (and in his collaboration with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who
edited his journals) could be traced in any of the other cases this book

Introduction | 5

Overviewing some of the ways in which crip theory has been generated
within and around the corporate university, chapter 4 focuses on a range
of issues, including the politics of contingent academic labor, the pedagogies that have emerged as queer and disability studies have taken hold in
the academy, and critically queer/disabled responses to the Human Rights
Campaign’s Millennium March on Washington. Cripping composition
theory, I identify the ways in which the cultural demand to produce students who have measurable skills and who write orderly, efficient prose
(a demand that is evidenced by the rhetoric of crisis that perpetually circulates around writing classrooms and programs) is connected to the demands of compulsory heterosexuality/able-bodiedness that we inhabit orderly, coherent (or managed) identities. “De-composition” emerges in
chapter 4 not as the failure to achieve that coherence or managed difference but as a critical practice through which cultural workers resist such
corporate demands and position queerness and disability as desirable.
The financial and media institutions (including the World Bank) that
globally disseminate marketable images of queerness and disability are
the focus of chapter 5. The chapter engages Rosemarie GarlandThomson’s “Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography” in order to critique contemporary (tele)visual rhetorics
of queerness, especially as those are captured in Bravo Television’s series
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I argue that the normalizing LGBT historical moment that makes possible Queer Eye for the Straight Guy depends on identifying and disciplining disability; I then consider some of
the dangers that likewise attend the normalization of disability. The normalization of disability works through both visual rhetorics and (facilitated by those rhetorics) incorporation into the global economic disciplines of neoliberalism. Because he offered alternatives to these processes,
I consider in chapter 5 the crip artistic practices of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. Flanagan, who had cystic fibrosis and who died in 1996, made
use of the accoutrements of both disability and sadomasochism in his performance art and installations. The chapter analyzes the ways in which
Flanagan’s crip notions of futurity exploded a range of disability
mythologies, including the spectacular mythologies that would target us
all for a compromised and predictable development. Flanagan’s work, I
contend, set in motion signs of queerness and disability that others have
taken up and extended in the interest of resisting normalization.
Finally, in an epilogue conjuring up what I call, invoking Jacques Derrida, “specters of disability” and “the disability to come,” I briefly extend

6 | Introduction

the reflections on futurity from chapter 5 and return, once more, to the
critique of neoliberal globalization that subtends this book.

Able-Bodied Heterosexuality
In his introduction to Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society,
Raymond Williams describes his project as
the record of an inquiry into a vocabulary: a shared body of words and
meanings in our most general discussions, in English, of the practices
and institutions which we group as culture and society. Every word
which I have included has at some time, in the course of some argument,
virtually forced itself on my attention because the problems of its meaning seemed to me inextricably bound up with the problems it was being
used to discuss. (15)

Although Williams is not particularly concerned in Keywords with feminism or gay and lesbian liberation, the processes he describes should be
recognizable to feminists and queer theorists, as well as to scholars and
activists in other contemporary movements, such as African American
studies or critical race theory. As these movements have developed, increasing numbers of words have indeed forced themselves on our attention, so that—as Adrienne Rich’s famous essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” exemplifies—an inquiry into both the marginalized identity and the dominant identity has become necessary. The
problem of the meaning of masculinity (or even maleness), of whiteness,
and of heterosexuality has increasingly been understood as inextricably
bound up with the problems the term is being used to discuss.
One need go no further than the Oxford English Dictionary to locate
problems with the meaning of heterosexuality—problems, as it were,
from heterosexuality’s very origins. In 1971 the OED Supplement defined
heterosexual as “pertaining to or characterized by the normal relations of
the sexes; opp. to homosexual.” At this point, of course, a few decades of
critical work by feminists and queer theorists have made it possible to acknowledge quite readily that heterosexual and homosexual are in fact not
equal and opposite identities. Rather, the ongoing subordination of homosexuality to heterosexuality allows for heterosexuality to be institutionalized as “the normal relations of the sexes,” while the institutional-

Introduction | 7

ization of heterosexuality as the “normal relations of the sexes” allows
for homosexuality to be subordinated. And, as queer theory continues to
demonstrate, it is precisely the introduction of normalcy into the system
that introduces compulsion: “Nearly everyone,” Michael Warner writes
in The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life,
“wants to be normal. And who can blame them, if the alternative is being
abnormal, or deviant, or not being one of the rest of us? Put in those
terms, there doesn’t seem to be a choice at all. Especially in America
where [being] normal probably outranks all other social aspirations”
(53). Compulsion is here produced and covered over, with the appearance
of choice (sexual preference) mystifying a system in which there actually
is no choice.
A critique of normalcy has similarly been central to the disability rights
movement and to disability studies, with—for example—Lennard J.
Davis’s overview and critique of the historical emergence of normalcy or
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s introduction of the concept of the “normate” (Davis, Enforcing Normalcy 23–49; Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies 8–9).8 Such scholarly and activist work positions us to locate the problems of able-bodied identity, to see the problem of the meaning of able-bodiedness as bound up with the problems it is being used to
discuss. Nearly everyone, it would seem, wants to be normal in the ablebodied sense as well. Consequently, the critical interrogation of ablebodiedness has not always been well received. An extreme example that
nonetheless encapsulates a certain way of thinking about ability and disability is a notorious Salon article attacking disability studies that appeared online in the summer of 1999. In “Enabling Disabled Scholarship,” Norah Vincent writes: “It’s hard to deny that something called normalcy exists. The human body is a machine, after all—one that has
evolved functional parts: lungs for breathing, legs for walking, eyes for
seeing, ears for hearing, a tongue for speaking and most crucially for all
the academics concerned, a brain for thinking. This is science, not culture.” In a nutshell, either you have an able body, or you don’t.9
Yet the desire for definitional clarity might unleash more problems
than it contains; if it’s hard to deny that something called normalcy exists, it’s even harder to pinpoint what that something is. The OED defines
able-bodied redundantly and negatively as “having an able body, i.e. one
free from physical disability, and capable of the physical exertions required of it; in bodily health; robust.” Able-bodiedness, in turn, is defined
vaguely as “soundness of health; ability to work; robustness.” The paral-

8 | Introduction

lel structure of the definitions of ability and sexuality is quite striking:
first, to be able-bodied is to be “free from physical disability,” just as to
be heterosexual is to be “the opposite of homosexual.” Second, even
though the language of “the normal relations” expected of human beings
is not present in the definition of able-bodied, the sense of “normal relations” is, especially with the emphasis on work: being able-bodied means
being capable of the normal physical exertions required in a particular
system of labor. It is here, in fact, that both able-bodied identity and the
Oxford English Dictionary betray their origins in the nineteenth century
and the rise of industrial capitalism. It is here as well that we can begin to
understand the compulsory nature of able-bodiedness: in the emergent industrial capitalist system, free to sell one’s labor but not free to do anything else effectively meant free to have an able body but not particularly
free to have anything else.10
Like compulsory heterosexuality, then, compulsory able-bodiedness
functions by covering over, with the appearance of choice, a system in
which there actually is no choice. And even if these compulsions are in
part tied to the rise of industrial capitalism, their historical emergence and
development have been effaced. Just as the origins of heterosexual/homosexual identity are now obscured for most people so that compulsory
heterosexuality functions as a disciplinary formation seemingly emanating from everywhere and nowhere, so, too, are the origins of ablebodied/disabled identity obscured, allowing what Susan Wendell calls
“the disciplines of normality” (87) to cohere in a system of compulsory
able-bodiedness that similarly emanates from everywhere and nowhere.
Michael Bérubé’s memoir about his son Jamie, who has Down syndrome (Life As We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional
Child), helps exemplify some of the ideological demands that have sustained compulsory able-bodiedness. Bérubé writes of how he “sometimes
feel[s] cornered by talking about Jamie’s intelligence, as if the burden of
proof is on me, official spokesman on his behalf.” The subtext of these
encounters always seems to be the same: “In the end, aren’t you disappointed to have a retarded child? . . . Do we really have to give this person our full attention?” (180). Bérubé’s excavation of this subtext pinpoints an important common experience that links all people with disabilities under a system of compulsory able-bodiedness—the experience
of the able-bodied need for an agreed-on common ground. I can imagine
that answers might be incredibly varied to similar questions: “In the end,
wouldn’t you rather be hearing?” and “In the end, wouldn’t you rather

Introduction | 9

not be HIV positive?” would seem, after all, to be very different questions, the first (with its thinly veiled desire for Deafness not to exist) more
obviously genocidal than the second. But they are not really different
questions, in that their constant repetition (or their presence as ongoing
subtexts) reveals more about the able-bodied culture doing the asking
than about the bodies being interrogated. The culture asking such questions assumes in advance that we all agree: able-bodied identities, ablebodied perspectives are preferable and what we all, collectively, are aiming for. A system of compulsory able-bodiedness repeatedly demands that
people with disabilities embody for others an affirmative answer to the
unspoken question, “Yes, but in the end, wouldn’t you rather be more
like me?”
It is with this repetition that we can begin to locate both the ways in
which compulsory able-bodiedness and compulsory heterosexuality are
interwoven and the ways in which they might be contested. In queer theory, Judith Butler is most famous for identifying the repetitions required
to maintain heterosexual hegemony:
The “reality” of heterosexual identities is performatively constituted
through an imitation that sets itself up as the origin and the ground of
all imitations. In other words, heterosexuality is always in the process of
imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing. Precisely because it is bound to fail, and yet endeavors
to succeed, the project of heterosexual identity is propelled into an endless repetition of itself. (“Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 21)

If anything, the emphasis on identities that are constituted through repetitive performances is even more central to compulsory able-bodiedness—
think, after all, of how many institutions in our culture are showcases for
able-bodied performance. Moreover, as with heterosexuality, this repetition is bound to fail, as the ideal able-bodied identity can never, once and
for all, be achieved. Able-bodied identity and heterosexual identity are
linked in their mutual impossibility and in their mutual incomprehensibility—they are incomprehensible in that each is an identity that is simultaneously the ground on which all identities supposedly rest and an
impressive achievement that is always deferred and thus never really
guaranteed. Hence Butler’s queer theories of gender performativity could
be reinscribed within disability studies, as this slightly paraphrased excerpt from Gender Trouble might suggest (I substitute, by bracketing,

10 | Introduction

terms having to do literally with embodiment for Butler’s terms of gender
and sexuality):
[Able-bodiedness] offers normative . . . positions that are intrinsically
impossible to embody, and the persistent failure to identify fully and
without incoherence with these positions reveals [able-bodiedness] itself
not only as a compulsory law, but as an inevitable comedy. Indeed, I
would offer this insight into [able-bodied identity] as both a compulsory
system and an intrinsic comedy, a constant parody of itself, as an alternative [disabled] perspective. (122)

In other words, Butler’s theory of gender trouble might be resignified in
the context of queer/disability studies to highlight what we could call
“ability trouble”—meaning not the so-called problem of disability but
the inevitable impossibility, even as it is made compulsory, of an ablebodied identity.11

Reinventing the Heterosexual
The past few decades have seen plenty of ability trouble, both contingent
on and fueling the gender trouble Butler traces. An example from an earlier decade in the twentieth century can demonstrate some of the ways in
which able-bodied heterosexuality has changed or adapted. In his essay
“Tearooms and Sympathy; or, The Epistemology of the Water Closet” (in
Homographesis), Lee Edelman analyzes the popular representation of a
sexual crisis involving a prominent member of Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and provides thereby a snapshot of dominant attitudes in the
mid-twentieth century. On October 7, 1964, Walter Jenkins, Johnson’s
chief of staff, was arrested for performing “indecent gestures” with another man in a Washington, D.C., men’s room. The arrest was made after
Jenkins entered the same restroom where five years earlier he had been arrested and charged with “disorderly conduct (pervert).” That the earlier
arrest had not been detected as Jenkins rose to prominence in the White
House only compounded the scandal in 1964, given the widespread acceptance at the time of beliefs such as that expressed in a New York Times
editorial: “There can be no place on the White House staff or in the upper
echelons of government . . . for a person of markedly deviant behavior”
(Edelman 148–149). Edelman’s essay thoroughly considers how the

Introduction | 11

events surrounding the Jenkins scandal codified contemporary anxieties
about masculinity, homosexuality, American national identity, and national security during the Cold War. Jenkins resigned his position on October 14, 1964 (Edelman 148–151).
Edelman contends that the response to the midcentury arrest of Jenkins and many others for indecency, deviance, or perversion took at least
three forms. First, the individual involved could be defined and contained
as a “homosexual.” This figure was understood as a distinct type of person, whose difference was legible on the body. Second, sometimes in contrast to and sometimes in tandem with the strategy of making visible an
embodied “homosexual,” the individual could be understood as disabled
in some way; that disability, again, was supposedly legible on the body.
Although Edelman himself does not use the term “disability” to describe
this second strategy, he clearly invokes mental and physical differences
from a healthy, fit, and able norm. In 1964, for example, Jenkins could be
viewed “as the victim of some illness, physical or emotional, whose transgressive behavior did not symptomatize his (homosexual) identity but
rather bespoke an exceptional falling away from his true (heterosexual)
identity” (Edelman 162–163). This passage is notable for its twofold suggestion that, for Jenkins’s contemporaries, “transgressive behavior” was
a virtual property of physical or emotional difference and that health and
ability were naturally linked to heterosexuality. Edelman’s parentheses,
moreover, are also significant, suggesting that the second strategy did not
need, of necessity, to speak directly to either homosexuality (which could
simply pass as “transgressive”) or—even more—heterosexuality (which
could simply pass as the “true” identity naturally attending the disappearance of “symptomatic” behavior).
Third, the crisis could foreground “a category-subverting alterity
within the conceptual framework of masculinity itself” (Edelman 163). In
other words, the contradictions inherent in the masculinity that undergirds a system of compulsory heterosexuality (whereby deviance is simultaneously desired and disavowed) could be exposed. In scandals like
the Jenkins affair, this third response was, not surprisingly, the least acceptable. The spectacle of sexual, bodily, or mental difference was preferable to that of a visibly threatened masculinity or heterosexuality requiring deviance to define and sustain itself. In 1964 the first two responses
prevailed: queerness and disability came together in, and were expunged
from, the upper echelons of government, effectively facilitating the invisibility of compulsory heterosexuality and able-bodiedness.

12 | Introduction

Aspects of the Jenkins affair remain imaginable at the beginning of the
twenty-first century, but the assumptions driving the scandal are arguably
residual.12 Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, increasingly vocal liberation movements made disability and homosexuality spectacular in new
ways; LGBT people, people with disabilities, and their allies attempted to
define sexuality and bodily and mental difference on their own terms.13
Indeed, the dominant attitudes Edelman interrogates from the 1960s undoubtedly fueled the depathologizing movements of the 1970s and
1980s.14 Feminists and gay liberationists named it “compulsory heterosexuality,” and thus began the process of exposing heterosexuality’s passing as the natural order of things.
Its exalted status newly in jeopardy, heterosexuality continued to be
defined against homosexuality, but the identity-constituting disavowal, in
the last third of the twentieth century, was made explicit. “The coming
out of the homo,” as Jonathan Ned Katz explains, “provoked the coming out of the het” (“Invention of Heterosexuality” 24). However severely critiqued lesbian and gay coming-out stories have been for simply
replicating—in fact, demanding—the same old story of self-discovery, the
anxious heterosexual coming-out story from the end of the century owes
its existence to, and was necessitated by, that seemingly endless proliferation of lesbian and gay stories.15 Snapshots from this period might include the picture of New York mayor Ed Koch declaring, “I’m heterosexual,” and of Magic Johnson insisting on The Arsenio Hall Show, after
revealing his HIV-positive status, that he was “far from being a homosexual.” These and other heterosexual coming-out stories helped reassure
and consolidate a newly visible “heterosexual community.”16
The cultural representation of that reassurance and consolidation is
my subject in the rest of this introduction. Following Emily Martin and
David Harvey, I am concerned with the production and reproduction, at
the end of the twentieth century, of more flexible bodies—gay bodies that
no longer mark absolute deviance, heterosexual bodies that are newly on
display. The out heterosexual works alongside gay men and lesbians; the
more flexible heterosexual body tolerates a certain amount of queerness.
The more flexible gay or lesbian body, in turn, enables what I call “heteronormative epiphanies,” continually making available, to the out heterosexual, a sense of subjective wholeness, however illusory. As I flesh out
and critique the contours of that epiphanic process, my central argument
is that compulsory able-bodiedness is one of the key components of it.
Precisely because of their successful negotiation of the contemporary

Introduction | 13

crises surrounding heterosexuality, flexible heterosexual bodies are distinguished by their ability. Distinguished by their ability, these bodies are
often explicitly distinguished from people with disabilities. Thus I argue
that heteronormative epiphanies are repeatedly, and often necessarily,
able-bodied ones. However, as my concluding discussion of queer theory
and critical disability (as well as the remainder of Crip Theory) demonstrates, such a consolidation of power is not, to say the least, the only resolution imaginable.

Able-Bodied Sexual Subjects
The spectacle of homosexuality or disability may have obscured a potentially fracturing masculinity or heterosexuality in 1964, but the situation
had changed considerably by the late 1990s. Indeed, 1998 might be seen
as the Year of the Spectacular Heterosexual. The ex-gay movement, previously a marginal movement at best within the Christian Right, suddenly
achieved national prominence, not only with the placement of full-page
ads promoting its agenda in newspapers such as the New York Times and
the Washington Post (the ads depicted men and women “cured” of their
homosexuality), but with unprecedented coverage (of the ad campaign
and the movement in general) in the mainstream media. Newsweek, while
insisting that “few identities in America are more marginal then ex-gay,”
did its part to end that marginalization with a cover story on “married
couple John and Anne Paulk” and other ex-gays (Leland and Miller).
John Paulk himself published a book about his amazing conversion to
heterosexuality: Not Afraid to Change: The Remarkable Story of How
One Man Overcame Homosexuality. Despite naming only “homosexuality” in his book title, Paulk, and other ex-gays who told their stories, relentlessly focused on a newly visible heterosexuality. Indeed, Paulk described himself as “a heterosexual who has come out of homosexuality”
(qtd. in Marble 28).
From the pages of the New York Times to the Oval Office itself, heterosexuality was on display, with at least one performance of spectacular
heterosexuality leading to the impeachment of a president. John and
Anne Paulk, after all, were not the only heterosexual couple to make the
cover of Newsweek or Time that year. Despite the national crisis occasioned by the heterosexuality practiced in the Oval Office by Bill Clinton
and Monica Lewinsky, however, it remained clear in 1998 that the spec-

14 | Introduction

tacular heterosexual would survive. In and through Clinton’s confession
to the nation and apology to his wife and daughter, in and through the
impeachment and its coverage, “proper” (married, monogamous) heterosexuality was restored and made visible—ironically, not unlike the
way in which “natural” heterosexuality was restored in and through the
ex-gay campaigns. The Clinton crisis did not, at least obviously, present
itself as a panicked moment in which heterosexuality needed to be explicitly named in order to be shored up. Nonetheless, the Clinton affair
can be seen as part of the larger crisis of the past few decades in which
hegemonic (hetero)sexuality has been increasingly questioned and threatened. A dominant strategic response to that threat has been to make visible, in order to resolve, a crisis. Despite their extreme differences (the exgay movement, for instance, sustained an older demonization of homosexuality while the Clinton administration included and affirmed dozens
of openly LGBT appointees), the contemporaneous Clinton and Paulk affairs were both thoroughly saturated with a rhetoric of healing that ostensibly restored heterosexuality to its rightful place.17
In this larger context, in the midst of the compulsion to impeach improper sexuality and to make visible a “healed” heterosexuality, it is perhaps not surprising that the Oscars for best actor and best actress that
year went to an onscreen (heterosexual) couple in As Good As It Gets.
For her performance as the long-suffering waitress Carol Connelly, Helen
Hunt took home her first Oscar. For his performance as Melvin Udall, an
obsessive-compulsive romance novelist who lives in the Manhattan
neighborhood where Carol works, and whose behavior—often accompanied by sexist, racist, and homophobic comments—isolates him from almost everyone, Jack Nicholson took home his third. After Hunt and
Nicholson had received their Oscars, their performances were validated
even more as a large set of bleachers filled with Oscar winners from previous decades was spun onto the stage and Hunt and Nicholson were
asked to join, together, that special group. Greg Kinnear, who played
Melvin’s gay neighbor, Simon Bishop, was nominated for best supporting
actor but lost to Good Will Hunting’s Robin Williams.
As Good As It Gets itself, despite being nominated for best picture,
was sunk as far as the main award of the night was concerned, since its
competition was James Cameron’s Titanic, the biggest box-office success
of the century. In the Year of the Spectacular Heterosexual, however, it
was perfectly appropriate for Titanic to win, since it overlaid an epic tale
of heterosexual romance onto the shipwreck. Although the female pro-

Introduction | 15

tagonist (Rose Dewitt Bukater, played by Kate Winslet as a young woman
and Gloria Stuart as an old woman) loses the love of her life (Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) in the disaster, she remains forever
true to him and tells the story of their passionate affair to a small group
salvaging whatever it can from the wreckage. The divers fly her to the
scene of the shipwreck to help piece together the details of what happened
that night; they hope to recover a priceless necklace Rose once wore, but
end up recovering much more. Titanic suggested that the problem of the
century had not been—as W. E. B. DuBois predicted it would be in
1903—the color line, or even the class line, cartoonish depictions of
bawdy working-class parties in Titanic notwithstanding. No, the problem
of the twentieth century, symbolically resolved in its final years by this
film, had been heterosexual separation and reunification. “What a
shocker,” queer theorist Madonna acerbically opined as she presented the
Oscar for Best Original Song to Celine Dion, whose megahit “My Heart
Will Go On” underscored heterosexuality’s permanence. Across the century and despite catastrophe (including eighty-odd years of separation
and, amazingly, death), heterosexuality prevails:
Near, far, wherever you are
I believe that the heart does go on
Once more you open the door
And you’re here in my heart
And my heart will go on and on.

The supposed timelessness of the sentiment represented by Dion’s song
and Titanic in general covered over how the film was implicated in other
late-twentieth-century performances of heterosexuality.18
With such spectacular competition at the Academy Awards, As Good
As It Gets—marketed not as a Titanic-like epic but as a mere romantic
comedy—was lucky to take home any award. At the same time, it has
some uncanny similarities to Titanic. On a much smaller scale, it is about
heterosexual separations and reunifications. Beyond that, however, it is
virtually a textbook example of how heteronormative epiphanies are necessarily able-bodied ones. Indeed, I read the prize-winning moment of the
film’s male and female leads as the culmination of an epiphanic process
that begins onscreen, in the narrative of the film itself.
Although epiphany, as an artistic device, may seem to have had its
(high modernist) heyday and to have now been superseded by a repeated

16 | Introduction

(postmodernist) exposure of how epiphanies are always illusory or ineffective, the process retains wide currency, and Hollywood films in particular represent (and continue to produce) an intense desire for epiphany.
The epiphanic moment (whether in high modernism or contemporary
Hollywood film), despite its affinity with ecstatic religious experiences in
which an individual is said to lose himself or herself briefly, tends to be a
moment of unparalleled subjectivity. As the music swells and the light
shifts, the moment marks for the character a temporary consolidation of
past, present, and future, and the clarity that describes that consolidation
allows the protagonist to carry, to the close of the narrative, a sense of
subjective wholeness that he or she lacked previously.
The cultural representation of this epiphanic moment requires what
Martin calls “flexible bodies,” in two senses. First, the bodies experiencing the epiphany must be flexible enough to make it through a moment
of crisis. Flexible, in this first sense, is virtually synonymous with both
heterosexual and able-bodied: the bodies in question are often narratively
placed in an inevitable heterosexual relationship and visually represented
as able. Second, and more important, other bodies must function flexibly
and objectively as sites on which the epiphanic moment can be staged.
The bodies, in this second sense, are invariably queer and disabled—and
they, too, are visually represented as such.
Martin’s own interest in flexible bodies and the trope of flexibility crystallized when an immunology professor in a graduate course she was taking began to talk about the “flexibility” of the immune system: “In my
mind, this language crashed into contemporary descriptions of the economy of the late twentieth century, with a focus on flexible specialization,
flexible production, and flexible, rapid response to an ever-changing market with specific, tailor-made products” (93). The awareness of this discursive overlap leads Martin to trace flexibility’s deployment across discourses of not only immunology and economics but also New Age philosophy, government organizations, psychology, and feminist theory
(150–158). She consistently foregrounds the well-nigh universal pride of
place given to flexibility in neoliberal economic discourses. She quotes,
for instance, management guides and vision statements from companies
like Hewlett-Packard: “We encourage flexibility and innovation. We create a work environment which supports the diversity of our people and
their ideas. We strive for overall objectives which are clearly stated and
agreed upon, and allow people flexibility in working toward goals in
ways which they help determine are best for the organization” (144).19

Introduction | 17

The flexibility Martin describes is, in a sense, what Harvey elsewhere
terms the condition of postmodernity. The economic and cultural crises
of the 1970s engendered “a period of rapid change, flux, and uncertainty,” and, for Harvey, “the contrasts between present politicaleconomic practices and those of the post-war boom period are sufficiently
strong to make the hypothesis of a shift from Fordism to what might be
called a ‘flexible’ regime of accumulation a telling way to characterize recent history” (124). In other words, if the postwar period was largely
characterized by mass production and some officially codified protections
for Western workers under New Deal legislation and the modern welfare
state, the period of flexible accumulation inaugurates the demise of this
tenuous consensus: on the production side of the process, labor pools and
practices are positioned as flexible, mobile, replaceable; on the consumption side, smaller and smaller groups, around the globe, are both generated and targeted, with products geared, again flexibly, to their specific
desires. As numerous theorists of neoliberalism have argued, even as new
social movements were calling for an expansion of economic and social
justice, these dramatic changes in the processes of production and consumption essentially reined in or curtailed it, marking the beginning of
the largest upward redistribution of wealth and other resources that the
world has ever known. Culturally, these changes were facilitated by the
well-nigh universal valuation of flexibility.20
Flexibility in the late capitalist context that both Harvey and Martin
identify may seem, on the surface, to militate against subjective wholeness—a corporation like Hewlett Packard would seem, in contrast to the
subjective wholeness associated with the epiphany, to value multiple subjectivities, even a certain (postmodern) fragmentation of subjectivity. I
would argue, however, that this is not the case; the flexible subject is successful precisely because he or she can perform wholeness through each
recurring crisis. Under neoliberalism, in other words, individuals who are
indeed “flexible and innovative” make it through moments of subjective
crisis. They manage the crisis, or at least show that they have management potential; ultimately, they adapt and perform as if the crisis had
never happened. Attention must be drawn to the crisis in order for the
resolution to be visible, but to draw too much attention to the subjective
crisis, and to the fragmentation and multiplicity it effects, would be to
perform—or act out—inflexibility. Past, present, and future are thus constantly reconsolidated to make it seem as if a subject or worker is exactly
suited to each new role.

18 | Introduction

Martin is well aware of the double-edged nature of the trope:
On the one hand, [flexibility] can mean something like freedom to initiate action: people set goals as they think best for the organization. . . .
On the other hand, it can mean the organization’s ability to hire or fire
workers at will, as in [the Los Angeles Times article] “Schools to Send
Layoff Notices for ‘Flexibility,’” which describes how twenty-one hundred employees in Los Angeles were to be laid off. In this case, flexibility
resides in the schools, and the employees have little choice but to comply. The powerful school system flexibly contracts or expands; the powerless employee flexibly complies. (145)

It is precisely the double-edged nature of flexibility that I find useful for
reading heteronormative, able-bodied epiphanies and this moment in the
history of compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory able-bodiedness.
The successful able-bodied subject, like the most successful heterosexual
subject, has observed and internalized some of the lessons of liberation
movements of the past few decades. Such movements without question
throw the successful heterosexual, able-bodied subject into crisis, but he
or she must perform as though they did not; the subject must demonstrate
instead a dutiful (and flexible) tolerance toward the minority groups constituted through these movements. If a residual model (such as the model
Edelman identifies from the 1960s) explicitly demonizes queerness and
disability, currently dominant and emergent models of heterosexual, ablebodied subjectivity implicitly or explicitly stress—as in Hewlett-Packard’s
support of “the diversity of our people and their ideas”—working with
people with disabilities and LGBT people. Martin’s understanding of flexibility, however, allows us to read those more tolerant models of subjectivity critically. In many cultural representations, disabled, queer figures
no longer embody absolute deviance but are still visually and narratively
subordinated, and sometimes they are eliminated outright (or perhaps—
in the flexible new parlance—laid off). Flexibility again works both ways:
heterosexual, able-bodied characters in such texts work with queer and
disabled minorities, flexibly contracting and expanding, while queer, disabled minorities flexibly comply. Because all of this happens in a discursive climate of tolerance, which values and profits from “diversity” (a climate that even allows for the actor playing the gay character to be nominated for an Academy Award), the heterosexual, able-bodied subject, as
well as the posmodern culture that produced him or her, can easily dis-

Introduction | 19

avow how much the subjective contraction and expansion of able-bodied
heterosexuality (and, as I underscore in the conclusion to this introduction, neoliberal political and economic logics more generally) are actually
contingent on compliant queer, disabled bodies.

Able-Bodied Heterosexuality: As Good As It Gets?
For LGBT communities and for people with disabilities, such subordination, in a contemporary context that supposedly values diversity, is often
as good as it gets. So it would seem, certainly, if we judge by the film itself, which I take here as representative of a whole range of contemporary
texts.21 Queering disability studies or claiming disability in and around
queer theory, however, helps create critically disabled spaces overlapping
with the critically queer spaces that activists and scholars have shaped
during recent decades, in which we can identify and challenge the ongoing consolidation of heterosexual, able-bodied hegemony.
As Good As It Gets is a romantic comedy that tells the story of the
budding and conflicted love affair between Melvin Udall and Carol Connelly. Simon Bishop and his dog, Verdell, inadvertently facilitate the affair, accompanying Melvin and Carol through a series of separations and
reunifications. Simon, initially represented as able-bodied, is attacked in
his home by burglars and, after being hospitalized for several weeks (during which Melvin is forced to care for Verdell), ends up using a wheelchair
and cane for the remainder of the film. It is through the crises surrounding Simon and another character with a disability—Carol’s son Spencer
(Jesse James)—that Carol and Melvin’s relationship develops. “Spence,”
according to Carol, has “gotta fight to breathe. His asthma can just shoot
off the charts, he’s allergic to dust, and this is New York, so his immune
system fails on him whenever there’s trouble. . . . An ear infection, whatever, sends us to the emergency room five, six times a month.” As Carol
and Melvin are placed in various situations in which they individually or
together must care for Spence or Simon (or Verdell, during Simon’s hospitalization), their affection and love for each other are ultimately and inevitably consolidated.
Melvin lives in a Manhattan apartment and, at the beginning of the
film, is established as an unlikable character—in fact, the very first scene
shows a neighbor emerging from her apartment with a light, cheery mood
(“I’m so happy,” she says to someone inside) that quickly changes to hos-

20 | Introduction

tility (“son of a bitch”) when she sees Melvin in the hallway. Her reaction, we learn, is due to Melvin’s irritability and general meanness. As the
scene continues, Melvin attempts to entice Simon’s dog out of the building; when he fails, he simply picks the dog up and stuffs him down the
trash chute. (Verdell is later rescued by a maintenance worker.) Melvin’s
irritability usually translates into explicit bigotry: until almost the end of
the film he makes antisemitic, racist, sexist, and homophobic comments.
His bigotry encompasses people with disabilities as well; at one point he
vocalizes what John Nguyet Erni describes as “a fantasy structure of morbidity” (42). Erni is delineating cultural fantasies about AIDS in particular, but some of the cultural assumptions that he identifies—that AIDS is
“invariably fatal” and people with AIDS are in some ways already dead
or better off dead—circulate around other people with disabilities, who
find that their bodies are read in ways that only confirm the ableist notion
that such bodies face “imminent deterioration” (41). Similarly, after overhearing Carol talking with her coworkers in the restaurant about caring
for her son, Melvin offhandedly remarks, “Well, we’re all going to die
soon—I will, you will, and it sure sounds like your son will.” Melvin’s
banal observation about the inevitability of death depends on the assumption that Spence, because of his physical differences, will die much
sooner than most.
That Melvin is played by Nicholson, a major star who can be read as
portraying one of the outrageous characters he is famous for, makes it
possible for the film to pass Melvin’s behavior off as individual eccentricity. (If Melvin had been played by an unknown actor, he would not stand
out so visibly as an eccentric or outrageous individual.) This construction
of the “outrageous character” allows the audience—which, supposedly,
does not identify with Melvin but nonetheless laughs at the scenes in
which he makes bigoted wisecracks—to indulge without avowing its own
racist, sexist, homophobic, and ableist fantasies. Melvin’s bigotry is more
complicated, however, than individual eccentricity, because Melvin himself is established from the start as someone living with a disability of
sorts, explicitly identified later in the film as obsessive-compulsive
Obsessive-compulsive disorder pulls Melvin into the orbit of medical
and psychiatric institutions designed to guarantee the production of
“docile bodies.” As Foucault explains: “A body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved” (Discipline and Punish136).
Such bodies come into existence because of the modern era’s “disciplinary

Introduction | 21

methods,” which make possible “the meticulous control of the operations of the body [and have] assured the constant subjection of its forces
and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility” (137). In other
words, during the last two or three centuries bodies have been monitored
(by disciplinary institutions and by increasingly compulsory self-policing)
for signs of behavioral and physical difference that might impede their
productivity; these signs of difference have been duly marked and, if possible, “transformed, and improved.” Because Melvin’s behavioral differences position him outside of relations of docility-utility, he is of necessity
caught up in objectifying and taxonomic discourses that would “fix” him
as obsessive-compulsive.
Of course, Melvin is very different from many people living with disabilities. He is certainly not one of those involved in the movement to develop a minority consciousness among people with disabilities (a reverse
discourse of disability that speaks back to, or stares back at, dominant
understandings of disability), and those marked as obsessive-compulsive
have not yet been near the forefront of such a movement.22 Indeed, the
crisis Melvin experiences can be read as ultimately reinforcing—through
its resolution—both compulsory able-bodiedness and compulsory
Whether or not Melvin is a good representative of a person with disability, however, he is undeniably linked to other people with disabilities
in at least four ways. First, from the beginning of the film, the audience is
encouraged, even obliged, to see behavior that sets Melvin apart from
others and from unacknowledged norms. As the opening scene ends and
the opening credits begin, Melvin retires to the private space of his apartment, and the audience sees some of the behavior that later buttresses the
diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder: he ritualistically locks and
unlocks the door five times (the odd number would confirm that the door
was indeed locked), turns the lights on and off five times, and then proceeds to the bathroom. After dispensing with the gloves that he wears to
protect himself outside the apartment, Melvin opens the medicine cabinet, which is filled with two kinds of soap, meticulously arranged on two
different shelves. Melvin washes his hands under intensely hot water—
saying to himself “Hot, hot!” as he does so—and, after throwing out the
first bar of soap, repeats the ritual with a second bar.
Opening credits often provide filmmakers with a space in which to present “background information” efficiently; as the credits roll, many films,
for instance, give the audience a sense of the setting by moving through

22 | Introduction

different locations in the city or region where the story takes place.
Melvin’s behavior is thus flagged as something that the audience should
note in order to understand fully the story it is about to see. Later his behavior is specifically differentiated from other people’s as he leaves his
apartment and heads to breakfast at the restaurant where Carol works—
a journey he takes, again ritualistically, every day. Along the way, he is
careful not to step on cracks in the pavement and to avoid physical contact with others (“Don’t touch,” he says nervously as he moves through
the crowds). Melvin brings his own silverware to the restaurant and will
eat only at a particular table in Carol’s section. In one scene, she draws
attention to his behavior (and to the usually unacknowledged norm) by
saying, “I’m finally gonna ask—all right, what’s with the plastic picnicware? . . . Give yourself a little pep talk: ‘Must try other people’s clean
silverware as part of the fun of dining out.’”
Second, Melvin’s behavioral differences congeal beneath a label that is
both institutionally imposed and offered to the audience as a comprehensive explanation for his actions. At one point Melvin, clearly distressed, enters a building with the sign Fifth Avenue Psychiatric Group on
the wall. He storms into his doctor’s office and yells, “Help!” When the
doctor (Lawrence Kasdan) insists that he “take responsibility for his actions” and make an appointment, Melvin responds, “Doctor Green, how
can you diagnose someone as an obsessive-compulsive disorder and then
act as if I had some choice about barging in?” The audience later learns
that Doctor Green has prescribed drugs to alleviate Melvin’s condition.
Melvin is thus “fixed” (contained, stilled, defined) by an institution that
then offers to “fix” him in the Foucauldian sense (transform, or improve).
The scene in the psychiatrist’s office is not a major scene (in terms of
length), but it does not have to be: its function is to mark as natural modern culture’s division of bodies into discrete categories (able-bodied, disabled) and the message works most effectively by simply repeating, not
spelling out at length, that cultural common sense. At the same time, the
end of the scene confirms its importance by invoking the film’s title. Frustrated in his attempt to gain a session with his doctor, Melvin reemerges
into the waiting room and says to the roomful of patients: “What if this
is as good as it gets?”
Third, Melvin is located in what Martin F. Norden calls “the cinema
of isolation.” Norden’s comprehensive history of physical disability in
film demonstrates how “most movies have tended to isolate disabled

Introduction | 23

characters from their able-bodied peers as well as from each other” (1).23
In As Good As It Gets, Melvin’s apartment is the scene of his isolation.
The ritualistic locking represents that isolation as chosen, while the bigotry represents that isolation as deserved.
This leads me to a fourth, and perhaps most important, way in which
the depiction of Melvin parallels other cultural representations of people
with disabilities: his disability (the anomalous behavior for which he has
been diagnosed and which sets him apart from other people) is conflated
with his character flaws (his bigotry). The film marks no separation between Melvin’s disability and his bigotry; on the contrary, they are repeatedly linked, narratively and visually, and the link is naturalized. As
Good As It Gets and ableist ideologies in general cannot comprehend it,
of course, but there is nothing natural about this link: an obsession with
order and cleanliness that translates into ritualistic behavior that is uncomfortable for people around him (and for Melvin himself) need not simultaneously translate into bigotry. Indeed, for most people diagnosed
with obsessive-compulsive disorder, it does not.24 The film is concerned
not with truth or falsity, however, but with truth effects: the message that
does not need to be sent, because it has already been received, is that there
is no material separation between disability and serious flaws in character.
A key scene in the film lays bare this conflation. Significantly, it was
one of the scenes used to market As Good As It Gets in previews. Melvin
and Carol are at a restaurant together for the first time, and after she
threatens to leave because of his constant wisecracks, he tries to fix things
by saying, “I’ve got this, what, ailment? My doctor—a shrink that I used
to go to all the time—he says that in 50 or 60 percent of the cases a pill
really helps. I hate pills. Very dangerous things, pills. Hate. I’m using the
word hate about pills. Hate.” Melvin then reminds Carol of an earlier
evening when she told him that she would never sleep with him. “The
next morning,” he says, “I started taking the pills.” When she fails to see
his point, he explains, “You make me want to be a better man.” The scene
slides seamlessly from a discussion of Melvin’s disability and ways to deal
with it to a discussion of his character and ways to improve it. The assumption is that overcoming his disability would improve his character;
his sexism, ableism, homophobia, and racism can be treated with a pill.
By representing Melvin’s disability or “ailment” as his character flaw, the
scene positions his story firmly in already pervasive cultural discourses of

24 | Introduction

All four of these links to representations of other people with disabilities dissolve, however, as Melvin experiences a heteronormative
epiphany: as his love affair with Carol develops, the behavior audiences
have been encouraged to look at slowly disappears, meaning that diagnosis of his condition is no longer relevant. The romance ends his isolation, of course, and he is represented at the end of the film not as a bigot
but as a romantic with a heart of gold. During the film, in short, Melvin’s
identity flexibly contracts and expands. Able-bodied status is achieved in
direct proportion to his increasing awareness of, and need for, (heterosexual) romance.
Both disability and nonheterosexual identity must be visually located
elsewhere to allow for this subjective contraction and expansion, and the
need for such a relocation or containment of difference to be visible helps
explain the complex supporting role played by Simon, Melvin’s gay
neighbor. As lesbian existence is deployed, in Rich’s analysis, to reflect
back heterosexual and patriarchal “realities” or relations (178),
queer/disabled existence can and must be deployed to buttress compulsory able-bodiedness. Since queerness and disability both have the potential to disrupt the performance of able-bodied heterosexuality, both must
be safely contained—embodied—in others. Because of the recent historical emergence of queer/disabled subjects unwilling to acquiesce to their
own abjection, however, these others are now tolerated. Indeed, even in a
film that gives voice to two-dimensional homophobic and ableist sentiments, and that continues to conflate disability and character flaws, tolerance of queer/disabled existence nonetheless emerges as a necessary
component of successful heterosexual and able-bodied subjectivities.
Simon, in fact, is so important to the film that he provides what might
be seen as its thesis. Simon is a painter who is shown, in an early scene,
working with a model whom one of his friends has recruited from the
street. (It is this model and his own friends who later burglarize Simon’s
home.) Trying to find just the right pose with this model, Simon—with
soft music breaking in to accompany his speech—provides viewers with
his philosophy as a painter:
What I do is I watch. You ever watch somebody who doesn’t know that
you’re watching them? An old woman sitting on a bus or kids going to
school or somebody just waiting—and you see this flash come over them
and you know immediately that it has nothing to do with anything ex-

Introduction | 25

ternal because that hasn’t changed. And when you see it, they’re just sort
of realer and they’re more alive. I mean, you look at someone long
enough, you discover their humanity.

This insight changes everything (momentarily) for the model, who suddenly understands and accidentally falls into a thoughtful pose that
Simon finds ideal. More important, this scene is offered as a context for
Melvin’s story. As the music suddenly shifts to a fast-paced, even anxious
clip, the audience sees his legs moving through the streets of New York.
The audience has already seen Melvin jumping around on the sidewalk to
avoid the cracks, but the focus on his legs, by reducing him to his body
parts, more efficiently objectifies him and highlights his condition. It also
shows more dramatically the disruptive effect of his behavior on other
people (it even causes one man to fall off his bicycle). In the context of
Simon’s speech, the implication is threefold. First, Melvin’s humanity is
not visible at this point; second, his disability, and not his bigotry, is the
sign of his inhumanity; but third, a transformation can and will come: the
audience will see even Melvin’s humanity by the end of the film. The
transformation comes as Melvin moves away from disability to a pictureperfect (heterosexual, able-bodied) Hollywood ending.
This transformation happens over and through disabled bodies—most
visibly Simon’s, but also Spence’s. Spence requires so much care that
Carol begins to miss work. Since the break in his routine is so distressing,
Melvin arranges to pay for Spence’s medical services, including a personal
physician at Carol’s home. Meanwhile, because Simon’s own medical
bills are so large following the break-in, and because it has broken his
spirit so badly that he can no longer work, his friends convince Melvin to
drive Simon to Baltimore to petition his parents for money. Because Carol
feels obligated to Melvin, she can’t refuse when he asks her to accompany
The literal transfer from New York to Baltimore is only one of a series
of epiphanic transfer scenes between Melvin and Simon. The most important one precedes the Baltimore trip. Upset over an encounter in
which Carol informs him that she will not have sex with him, Melvin—
unable to sleep—brings Simon some Chinese soup, and the two of them
sit on a bench in Simon’s apartment. The men are positioned on either
side of the screen: Simon, facially disfigured, wearing a cast, and using a
cane, on the left; Melvin, whose body is not visibly marked as different,

26 | Introduction

on the right. Melvin begins to talk about how distressed he is: “I haven’t
been sleeping. I haven’t been clear in my head or felt like myself. I’m in
trouble. It’s not just the tiredness. Boy, it’s. . . .” Simon chimes in and completes the thought, “—sick . . . nauseous.” “Sleepy,” Melvin adds, but
Simon has taken over the conversation. With a pained expression, he continues: “Where everything looks distorted and everything inside just kind
of aches and you can barely find the will to complain.” His insight completes a transfer; whatever Melvin was experiencing when he entered the
apartment, it is clearly Simon who is experiencing it now. Simon’s insight
somehow enables Melvin to get up from the bench, refreshed, and say
(oblivious to the pain Simon continues to feel): “Yeah, I’m glad we did
this. Good talking to you.” As the scene opens, the two men are clearly
in sync; they work together to make sense of their anomalous feelings,
which are grounded, for both men, in their bodies. However, Melvin progressively sheds his sense of physical difference, so that by the end of the
scene difference is wholly located in, and embodied by, Simon.
The audience “discovers Melvin’s humanity” as he works with Simon
through such epiphanic scenes, and as Simon flexibly complies. The extreme homophobia that Melvin exhibits early in the film subsides; he
learns to be tolerant of the difference Simon embodies—or rather, of the
differences Simon embodies as he comes to be the main representative not
only of homosexuality but of disability. No one in the film, however, comments on the shift Melvin experiences. As I have suggested, the successful
heterosexual subject performs as though there were no crisis and no shift,
as though he or she were exactly suited to the new role of working with
rather than against queerness and disability.
Ironically, Simon experiences a temporary heteronormative, ablebodied epiphany of his own and, through that heterosocial, if not heterosexual, experience, teaches Melvin about the flexibility that he needs
to succeed with Carol. Tired of Melvin’s jabs and gaffes at the restaurant
in Baltimore, Carol leaves and storms into Simon’s hotel room, informing
him that Melvin will not come looking for her if she stays there. As he
watches Carol draw her bath, Simon suddenly is inspired to draw again.
She at first resists, but soon the two are laughing together, surrounded by
his new drawings. Simon is so exhilarated that he rips off the cast (although he uses a cane for the rest of the film).
Simon’s epiphany angers Melvin but also demonstrates to him what he
needs to do. As Carol tells him in the morning, when he demands to know
whether she and Simon had sex: “To hell with sex—it was better than sex.

Introduction | 27

Relocating disability: Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear) and Melvin Udall (Jack
Nicholson) in As Good As It Gets.

We held each other. What I need, he gave me, great.” Ultimately, Melvin
learns the lesson, and he too works with Simon as the film moves rapidly
toward its conclusion. Simon’s apartment has been sublet, so after the
threesome returns to New York, Melvin sets up a room for him in his own
apartment. The stage is thus set for a final scene between the two men, and
what Melvin needs, Simon gives him, great. After Carol calls to tell Melvin
that she is sorry for getting angry with him but also is not sure if she
should see him again, Melvin demands that Simon help him. “You people
are supposed to be sensitive and smart,” he sarcastically comments. As
Simon, hobbling with his cane, follows Melvin around the apartment, he
convinces him that going over to Carol’s is the best thing to do. Simon, in
his very last lines, facilitates the affair between Carol and Melvin, telling
Melvin to “go over there, do this, catch her off-guard.” Having served
their purpose, Simon, disability, and queerness are then all hustled offstage together. As Melvin turns to leave the apartment, he realizes that he
has changed: he has forgotten the ritualistic locking of the door.

28 | Introduction

The film concludes with a fairly traditional reconciliation between the
male and female leads. In the last frame, as Melvin and Carol enter a bakery together, he realizes that he has stepped on a crack in the pavement.
Thus the heteronormative epiphany that ends the film is once more visually linked in this frame to Melvin’s own able-bodied epiphany.

Critically Queer, Severely Disabled
Cultural representations of ability and heterosexuality like those in As
Good As It Gets are unique to the past few decades. The homophobia
and ableism represented in films and other cultural texts throughout the
twentieth century and carefully documented by Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet and Norden in The Cinema of Isolation—have been superseded (but not entirely replaced) by new, improved, and flexible homophobia and ableism. The more efficient management of queerness and
disability suggests that a heterosexual, able-bodied culture has learned
some, but most certainly not all, of the lessons of contemporary movements for liberation that queers and people with disabilities have shaped.
What if this is as good as it gets? It is not only award-winning Hollywood films that provoke such resignation. As George W. Bush took office
in 2001, the appointment of an openly gay Republican to the position of
AIDS czar covered over the antigay alliances that had propelled the new
administration to power, just as the almost immediate signing of the
“New Freedom Initiative” masked the fundamentally antidisabled positions that sustain both the Republicans and their New Democratic predecessors and allies. The New Freedom Initiative allows people with disabilities to take out low-interest loans to buy equipment from businesses
and rehabilitation centers, but it does nothing to address the systemic economic inequality that many people with disabilities face. Most important,
it is the businesses and rehab centers that receive grants for the initiative,
not the people with disabilities themselves. Beyond that, the general emphasis on “smaller government” by both New Democrats and Republicans inevitably requires cutting programs on which disabled people often
rely for survival. Despite the supposed emphasis on diversity, and despite
the temporary visibility of disability and homosexuality even in the Bush
administration, the flexible corporate strategies that currently undergird
contemporary economics, politics, and culture invariably produce a

Introduction | 29

world in which disability and queerness are subordinated or eliminated
In fact, the 2004 presidential campaign exemplifies the ways in which
both U.S. political parties operate according to the flexible logic I have
been delineating. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration may have included numerous openly LGBT appointees, but that did not keep the former president from suggesting, following Senator John Kerry’s failed
presidential bid, that Kerry should have been more supportive of antigay
initiatives. Bush, in contrast, may have appealed to his conservative and
Christian base through support for a constitutional amendment forever
defining marriage in the United States as the union of one man and one
woman, but that did not keep him, in an appeal to “moderates,” from implying late in the campaign that civil union protections for same-sex couples might be sometimes appropriate. The fact that one party’s homophobia is more virulent, in these examples, should not discount the extent
to which both depend on flexible bodies. Neoliberalism will undoubtedly
continue to exhibit or require such a dependency, even as there is likely to
be vacillation between more and less apparently phobic poles.
According to the flexible logic of neoliberalism, all varieties of queerness—and, for that matter, all disabilities—are essentially temporary, appearing only when, and as long as, they are necessary. Although the disabilities resulting from the attack on Simon in As Good As It Gets would
seem to differ from disabilities (such as Melvin’s) that can be “transformed, and improved” and disabilities or conditions (such as Spence’ s)
that are more chronic, all ultimately serve the expansion of able-bodied
identity and—most important—can be moved from center stage as that
expansion takes place. Similarly, the model who beats Simon and is initially represented as a street hustler, and Simon’s black gay friend and colleague, Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who is portrayed as a much
more flamboyant character than Simon, might have very different lives
from Simon himself; all have sexualities, in turn, that are different from
the “sexualities” of Spence and Carol’s mother, Beverly (Shirley Knight)
(indeed, Spence and Beverly are represented as having no sexuality). Ultimately, however, the range of real or potential sexual identities only facilitates the heteronormative coupling represented by Melvin and Carol
at the end of the film; it is no longer needed once that coupling is secure.
In the end, then, neither gender trouble nor ability trouble is sufficient
in and of itself to unravel compulsory heterosexuality or compulsory

30 | Introduction

able-bodiedness. Butler acknowledges this problem: “This failure to approximate the norm . . . is not the same as the subversion of the norm.
There is no promise that subversion will follow from the reiteration of
constitutive norms; there is no guarantee that exposing the naturalized
status of heterosexuality will lead to its subversion” (“Critically Queer”
22; qtd. in Warner, “Normal and Normaller” 168–169 n.87). For
Warner, this acknowledgment in Butler locates a potential gap in her theory, “let us say, between virtually queer and critically queer” (“Normal
and Normaller” 168–169 n.87). In contrast to a virtually queer identity,
which would be experienced by anyone who failed to perform heterosexuality without contradiction and incoherence (i.e., everyone), a critically
queer perspective could presumably mobilize the inevitable failure to approximate the norm, collectively “working the weakness in the norm,” to
use Butler’s phrase (“Critically Queer” 26).
A similar gap could be located in relation to disability. Everyone is virtually disabled, both in the sense that able-bodied norms are “intrinsically
impossible to embody” fully and in the sense that able-bodied status is always temporary, disability being the one identity category that all people
will embody if they live long enough. What we might call a critically disabled position, however, would differ from such a virtually disabled position; it would call attention to the ways in which the disability rights
movement and disability studies have resisted the demands of compulsory able-bodiedness and have demanded access to a newly imagined and
newly configured public sphere where full participation is not contingent
on an able body.
We might, in fact, extend the concept and see such a perspective not as
critically disabled but as severely disabled, with severe performing work
similar to the critically queer work of fabulous. Tony Kushner writes:
Fabulous became a popular word in the queer community—well, it was
never unpopular, but for a while it became a battle cry of a new queer
politics, carnival and camp, aggressively fruity, celebratory and tough
like a streetwise drag queen: “FAAAAABULOUS!” . . . Fabulous is one
of those words that provide a measure of the degree to which a person
or event manifests a particular, usually oppressed, subculture’s most distinctive, invigorating features. (vii)

Severe, though less common than fabulous, has a similar queer history: a
severe critique is a fierce critique, a defiant critique, one that thoroughly

Introduction | 31

and carefully reads a situation—and I mean reading in the street sense of
loudly calling out the inadequacies of a given situation, person, text, or
ideology. “Severely disabled,” according to such a queer conception,
would reverse the able-bodied understanding of severely disabled bodies
as the most marginalized, the most excluded from a privileged and always
elusive normalcy, and would instead suggest that it is precisely those bodies that are best positioned to refuse “mere toleration” and to call out the
inadequacies of compulsory able-bodiedness. Whether it is the “army of
one-breasted women” Audre Lorde imagines descending on the Capitol;
the Rolling Quads, whose resistance sparked the independent living
movement in Berkeley, California; Deaf students shutting down Gallaudet University in the Deaf President Now action; or ACT UP storming
the National Institutes of Health or the Food and Drug Administration—
in all of these, severely disabled/critically queer bodies have already generated ability trouble that remaps the public sphere and reimagines and
reshapes the limited forms of embodiment and desire proffered by the systems that would contain us.26
Compulsory heterosexuality is intertwined with compulsory ablebodiedness; both systems work to (re)produce the able body and heterosexuality. But precisely because these systems depend on a queer/disabled
existence that can never quite be contained, able-bodied heterosexuality’s
hegemony is always in danger of collapse. I draw attention to critically
queer, severely disabled possibilities in order to bring to the fore the crip
actors who, in chapter 1 and the remainder of this book, will exacerbate,
in more productive ways, the crisis of authority that currently besets
heterosexual/able-bodied norms. Instead of invoking the crisis in order
to resolve it (as in a film like As Good As It Gets), I would argue that
crip theory (in productive conversations with a range of disabled/queer
movements) can continuously invoke, in order to further the crisis, the
inadequate resolutions that compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory
able-bodiedness offer us. And in contrast to an able-bodied culture that
holds out the promise of a substantive (but paradoxically always elusive)
ideal, crip theory would resist delimiting the kinds of bodies and abilities
that are acceptable or that will bring about change. Ideally, crip theory
might function—like the term “queer” itself—“oppositionally and relationally but not necessarily substantively, not as a positivity but as a positionality, not as a thing, but as a resistance to the norm” (Halperin 66).
Of course, in calling for a crip theory without a necessary substance, I
hope the remainder of Crip Theory will make clear that I do not mean

32 | Introduction

to deny the materiality of queer/disabled bodies, as it is precisely those
material bodies that have populated the movements and brought about
the changes I discuss throughout. Rather, I argue that critical queerness
and severe disability are about collectively transforming (in ways that
cannot necessarily be predicted in advance)—about cripping—the substantive, material uses to which queer/disabled existence has been put by
a system of compulsory able-bodiedness, about insisting that such a system is never as good as it gets, and about imagining bodies and desires

Coming Out Crip
Malibu Is Burning

A 1991 issue of differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural
Studies was one of the first major special issues of an academic journal on
what guest editor Teresa de Lauretis called “queer theory.” For de Lauretis, queer theory generally emerged from academic studies of the construction of sexuality and of sexual marginalization: How have sexualities been variously conceived and materialized in multiple cultural locations? De Lauretis explains in her introduction to the volume that the
conference leading to the special issue of differences (which convened at
the University of California, Santa Cruz in February 1990) was also intended “to articulate the terms in which lesbian and gay sexualities may
be understood and imaged as forms of resistance to cultural homogenization, counteracting dominant discourses with other constructions of
the subject in culture” (iii). De Lauretis cites a few other conferences that
had convened around the topic, but she implies in an endnote that queer
theory is not much connected to queer activis