CfP extended deadline: The Crip, the Fat and the Ugly in an Age of Austerity: Resistance, Reclamation, and Affirmation (extended deadline)

We have extended the deadline to submit to our special issue of the Review of Disability Studies, The Crip, the Fat and the Ugly in an Age of Austerity: Resistance, Reclamation, and Affirmation.

The new deadline is 17th July 2017.

The Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal (RDS) seeks proposals for a special forum on the Crip, the fat, the ugly. We are currently soliciting papers of up to 7500 words in length, including references and tables. The deadline for submission of papers is July 17, 2017. Papers should be submitted to the Special Guest Editors Dr. Jen Slater, Sheffield Hallam University j.slater@shu.ac.uk, and Dr. Kirsty Liddiard, University of Sheffield k.liddiard@sheffield.ac.uk . Upon submission, please indicate that your paper is for consideration of the special forum on the Crip, the fat, and the ugly in an age of austerity.

Papers considered for inclusion may take the form of academic and creative works, as well as reflections on international disability-specific policies, practices, pedagogies and developments.

Submissions to this special issue will undergo a process of multiple editors peer-review. Authors will be notified of whether their papers will be included in the forum by September 1, 2017. Accepted authors will then be asked to submit their papers online to RDS. Prospective authors are encouraged to consult the RDS website at www.rds.hawaii.edu for more information about the Journal and its formatting guidelines. Authors are encouraged to review previous issues of RDS in preparing their paper and to subscribe to the Journal. All submissions must follow the RDS publication guidelines posted on the website. Please note that acceptance of an article does not guarantee publication in RDS.

‘The magnificence of a body that shakes, spills out, takes up space, needs help, moseys, slinks, limps, drools, rocks, curls over on itself. The magnificence of a body that doesn’t get to choose when to go to the bathroom, let alone which bathroom to use.  A body that doesn’t get to choose what to wear in the morning, what hairstyle to sport, how they’re going to move or stand, or what time they’re going to bed.  The magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but un-human.  The magnificence of bodies that are understanding gender in far more complex ways than I could explain in an hour. Moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly.  Respecting Ugly for how it has shaped us and been exiled. Seeing its power and magic, seeing the reasons it has been feared. Seeing it for what it is: some of our greatest strength’. (Mingus, 2011)

Global austerity has a far reach, often into, around, behind, beyond and alongside the body. Global austerity routinely categorises bodies in terms of productivity, value, cost, ability and aesthetics. The body is positioned vis-a-vis global austerity as a site for social order, economic possibility, progression, and big business. Whereas “[a]n able body is the body of a citizen; deformed deafened, amputated, obese, female, perverse, crippled, maimed and blinded bodies do not make up the body politic” (Davis, 1995, pp. 71-72).

Through global austerity, then, the crip, the fat and the ugly are typically Othered and denigrated bodies, identities, minds and selves, implicated and co-constituted by one-another (Bergman, 2009; Kafer, 2013). Within a context of coloniality, transnational capitalism, patriarchy, cissexism and white supremacy, the Crip, the fat and the ugly are

rendered unintelligible (Butler, 1999), made in/visible and vilified locally, nationally, and globally. As Garland-Thompson (2002, p. 57) reminds us, “as a culture we are at once obsessed with and intensely conflicted about the disabled body. We fear, deify, disavow, avoid, abstract, revere, conceal, and reconstruct disability – perhaps because it is one of the most universal, fundamental of human experiences”.

Notwithstanding the harsh political backdrop, Clare (2015, p. 107) reminds us that “[w]ithout pride, individual and collective resistance to oppression becomes nearly impossible”. In this special issue we therefore seek to explore affirmatory meanings and pleasurable engagements with the Crip, the fat and the ugly. By this we mean to critically resist and play with normative understandings of what bodies should do and be, to reimagine that – as Mingus (2011) emphasises – the Crip, the fat and the ugly are ‘our greatest strength’. How are Crip, fat and ugly embodiments both resisting and resistant? How might they offer new ways of interrogating global austerity and neoliberal ways of life? How might the Crip, the fat, and the ugly generate new, diverse and polymorphous pleasures? What are the relationships, entanglements and connections between the austere and the aesthetic? What communities do the Crip, the fat, and the ugly build and how are these critical for survival, love and life?

Submissions to this journal could include, but are not limited to, critical interrogations of the relationship between the crip, the fat and the ugly, with:

  • Aesthetic labour

  • Activism and resistance

  • Beauty industries and economies

  • Biopolitics and biopedagogies

  • Bodily esteem, confidence, self-worth and self-love

  • Colonisation and first nations communities

  • Emotion and affect

  • Extensions of Mia Mingus’ work on ugliness

  • Globalisation and globality

  • Health and Healthisation

  • Identity, imagery and representation: masculinities, femininities, queer trans and intersex identities

  • Impairment and embodiment

  • Industrial complexes, institutions and systems

  • Madness and Mad politics

  • Other forms of privilege and oppression (class, ‘race’, gender, sexuality, age etc.)

  • Popular culture and The Arts

  • Queer bodies, identities and selves

  • The politics of staring (Garland-Thomson, 2009)

  • The sexual body: Pleasure, sensuality and desire

RDS is a peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary, international journal published by the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.The Journal contains research articles, essays, creative works and multimedia relating to the culture of disability and people with disabilities.

New Paper: Troubling school toilets: resisting discourses of ‘development’ through a critical disability studies and critical psychology lens

It’s been great to work with Charlotte Jones and Lisa Procter on the second of our school toilet papers, which was published last week in the journal, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. The paper is called Troubling school toilets: resisting discourses of ‘development’ through a critical disability studies and critical psychology lens and I’ve copied the abstract below. I’m working on getting an open access version of this paper online, but for now the link above takes you to the published version, and contact me if you want a free author copy.

Abstract

This paper interrogates how school toilets and ‘school readiness’ are used to assess children against developmental milestones. Such developmental norms both inform school toilet design and practice, and perpetuate normative discourses of childhood as middle-class, white, ‘able’, heteronormative, cissexist and inferior to adulthood. Critical psychology and critical disability studies frame our analysis of conversations from online practitioner forums. We show that school toilets and the norms and ideals of ‘toilet training’ act as one device for Othering those who do not fit into normative Western discourses of ‘childhood’. Furthermore, these idealised discourses of ‘childhood’ reify classed, racialised, gendered and dis/ablist binaries of good/bad parenting. We conclude by suggesting new methodological approaches to school toilet research which resist perpetuating developmental assumptions and prescriptions. In doing this, the paper is the first to explicitly bring school toilet research into the realms of critical psychology and critical disability studies.

New paper: ‘Like, pissing yourself is not a particularly attractive quality, let’s be honest’: Learning to contain through youth, adulthood, disability and sexuality

I’m really pleased to say that I have a new article published with my colleague, Kirsty Liddiard in a fabulous special issue of Sexualities, Disability and Sexuality: Desires and Pleasures. The article is called ‘Like, pissing yourself is not a particularly attractive quality, let’s be honest’: Learning to contain through youth, adulthood, disability and sexuality and the link to journal’s version of the full article is here – but there is also an open access version. I have copied and pasted the abstract below:

In this article, the authors (re)conceptualize containment in the context of youth, gender, disability, crip sex/uality and pleasure. The article begins by exploring eugenic histories of containment and traces the ways in which the anomalous embodiment of disabled people remains vigorously policed within current neo-eugenic discourse. Drawing upon data from two corresponding research studies, the authors bring the lived experiences of disabled young people to the fore. They explore their stories of performing, enacting and realizing containment: containing the posited unruliness of the leaky impaired body; containment as a form of (gendered) labour; and containment as a marker of normalization and sexualization, and thus a necessary component for ableist adulthood. Thus, they theorize crip embodiment as permeable, porous and problematic in the context of the impossibly bound compulsory (sexually) able adult body. The authors suggest that the implicit learning of containment is therefore required of disabled young people, particularly women, to counter infantilizing and desexualizing discourse, cross the ‘border zone of youth’ and achieve normative neoliberal adulthood. Crucially, however, the article examines the meaning of what the authors argue are important moments of messiness: the precarious localities of leakage that disrupt containment and thus the ‘reality’ of the ‘able’, ‘adult’ body. The article concludes by considering the ways in which these bodily ways of being contour both material experiences of pleasure and the right(s) to obtain it.

Call for Papers: The Crip, the Fat and the Ugly in an Age of Austerity: Resistance, Reclamation, and Affirmation

I’m really excited to be editing a special issue of the Review of Disability Studies with my mate and colleague, Kirsty Liddiard. The special issue is called, The Crip, the Fat and the Ugly in an Age of Austerity: Resistance, Reclamation, and Affirmation.

I’ve copied and pasted the full call for papers below, but you can also access it on the Review of Disability Studies website.

The Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal (RDS) seeks proposals for a special forum on the Crip, the fat, the ugly. We are currently soliciting papers of up to 7500 words in length, including references and tables. The deadline for submission of papers is June 1, 2017. Papers should be submitted to the Special Guest Editors Dr. Jen Slater, Sheffield Hallam University j.slater@shu.ac.uk, and Dr. Kirsty Liddiard, University of Sheffield k.liddiard@sheffield.ac.uk . Upon submission, please indicate that your paper is for consideration of the special forum on the Crip, the fat, and the ugly in an age of austerity.

Papers considered for inclusion may take the form of academic and creative works, as well as reflections on international disability-specific policies, practices, pedagogies and developments.

Submissions to this special issue will undergo a process of multiple editors peer-review. Authors will be notified of whether their papers will be included in the forum by September 1, 2017. Accepted authors will then be asked to submit their papers online to RDS. Prospective authors are encouraged to consult the RDS website at www.rds.hawaii.edu for more information about the Journal and its formatting guidelines. Authors are encouraged to review previous issues of RDS in preparing their paper and to subscribe to the Journal. All submissions must follow the RDS publication guidelines posted on the website. Please note that acceptance of an article does not guarantee publication in RDS.

‘The magnificence of a body that shakes, spills out, takes up space, needs help, moseys, slinks, limps, drools, rocks, curls over on itself. The magnificence of a body that doesn’t get to choose when to go to the bathroom, let alone which bathroom to use.  A body that doesn’t get to choose what to wear in the morning, what hairstyle to sport, how they’re going to move or stand, or what time they’re going to bed.  The magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but un-human.  The magnificence of bodies that are understanding gender in far more complex ways than I could explain in an hour. Moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly.  Respecting Ugly for how it has shaped us and been exiled. Seeing its power and magic, seeing the reasons it has been feared. Seeing it for what it is: some of our greatest strength’. (Mingus, 2011)

Global austerity has a far reach, often into, around, behind, beyond and alongside the body. Global austerity routinely categorises bodies in terms of productivity, value, cost, ability and aesthetics. The body is positioned vis-a-vis global austerity as a site for social order, economic possibility, progression, and big business. Whereas “[a]n able body is the body of a citizen; deformed deafened, amputated, obese, female, perverse, crippled, maimed and blinded bodies do not make up the body politic” (Davis, 1995, pp. 71-72).

Through global austerity, then, the crip, the fat and the ugly are typically Othered and denigrated bodies, identities, minds and selves, implicated and co-constituted by one-another (Bergman, 2009; Kafer, 2013). Within a context of coloniality, transnational capitalism, patriarchy, cissexism and white supremacy, the Crip, the fat and the ugly are

rendered unintelligible (Butler, 1999), made in/visible and vilified locally, nationally, and globally. As Garland-Thompson (2002, p. 57) reminds us, “as a culture we are at once obsessed with and intensely conflicted about the disabled body. We fear, deify, disavow, avoid, abstract, revere, conceal, and reconstruct disability – perhaps because it is one of the most universal, fundamental of human experiences”.

Notwithstanding the harsh political backdrop, Clare (2015, p. 107) reminds us that “[w]ithout pride, individual and collective resistance to oppression becomes nearly impossible”. In this special issue we therefore seek to explore affirmatory meanings and pleasurable engagements with the Crip, the fat and the ugly. By this we mean to critically resist and play with normative understandings of what bodies should do and be, to reimagine that – as Mingus (2011) emphasises – the Crip, the fat and the ugly are ‘our greatest strength’. How are Crip, fat and ugly embodiments both resisting and resistant? How might they offer new ways of interrogating global austerity and neoliberal ways of life? How might the Crip, the fat, and the ugly generate new, diverse and polymorphous pleasures? What are the relationships, entanglements and connections between the austere and the aesthetic? What communities do the Crip, the fat, and the ugly build and how are these critical for survival, love and life?

Submissions to this journal could include, but are not limited to, critical interrogations of the relationship between the crip, the fat and the ugly, with:

  • Aesthetic labour

  • Activism and resistance

  • Beauty industries and economies

  • Biopolitics and biopedagogies

  • Bodily esteem, confidence, self-worth and self-love

  • Colonisation and first nations communities

  • Emotion and affect

  • Extensions of Mia Mingus’ work on ugliness

  • Globalisation and globality

  • Health and Healthisation

  • Identity, imagery and representation: masculinities, femininities, queer trans and intersex identities

  • Impairment and embodiment

  • Industrial complexes, institutions and systems

  • Madness and Mad politics

  • Other forms of privilege and oppression (class, ‘race’, gender, sexuality, age etc.)

  • Popular culture and The Arts

  • Queer bodies, identities and selves

  • The politics of staring (Garland-Thomson, 2009)

  • The sexual body: Pleasure, sensuality and desire

RDS is a peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary, international journal published by the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.The Journal contains research articles, essays, creative works and multimedia relating to the culture of disability and people with disabilities.

New Project Funding: Taking Around the Toilet to New Spaces

I’m very pleased to announce that, thanks for funding from the AHRC, a new strand of the Around the Toilet project is about to begin.

Over the last two years, we’ve been working with various communities – including trans, queer and disabled people – to explore the ways that toilets can exclude some, whilst including others. A lack of access to suitable toilets affects people’s lives in all kinds of ways; exclusion from toilets often connects to wider social and spatial exclusion and segregation, as well as personal discomfort. The New Spaces project will focus on impact and engagement activities to help us develop this research further. The project has three strands: 1) working with queer and disability arts organisations and events internationally; 2) sharing our Toilet Toolkit design solutions with trainee architects and design professionals; and 3) exploring toilets creatively with children and young people.

There is more information on the new project on the Around the Toilet blog, where we’ll also be posting regularly updates as the project progresses. You can also follow us on Twitter @cctoilettalk

More studentships available for PhD study looking critically at ‘vulnerability’ and bullying in the lives of disabled and/or LGBT* young people

I posted a few weeks ago about PhD studentships available to come and do a PhD around bullying and ‘vulnerability’in the lives of disabled and/or LGBT young people with El Formby, Karen Dunn and I (information of the project below). There is now more funding available meaning that if you missed the original deadline of February 1st, you now have until February 24th to apply. Get in touch with El or myself for more info.

Click here for full information from the Sheffield Hallam webpage (follow the link to ‘education’).

Contextualising bullying and ‘vulnerability’ in the lives of LGBT and/or disabled young people

Anti-bullying practice and advocacy often understands certain ‘types’ of young people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans (LGBT) and disabled young people, as being ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ to bullying. At the same time, youth work provision and other support services are increasingly subject to ‘targeted’ (rather than universal) work. Such approaches essentialise and individualise ‘vulnerability’ as something ‘within’ a person, rather than a product of socio-cultural-political contexts. Combining our backgrounds in critical disability studies, critical psychology, and sociology, we are interested in proposals that examine and critique the notion of ‘vulnerability’, and how it is constructed and enacted in education and (youth) service provision. The suggested research approach is qualitative, within which artsbased and/or participatory methods could be adopted.

New Paper: School toilets: queer, disabled bodies and gendered lessons of embodiment

I’m really pleased that this new paper, School Toilets: queer, disabled bodies and gendered lessons of embodiment, written with Charlotte Jones and Lisa Procter, has been published online in the journal, Gender and Education.

Unfortunately, these is an embargo period before I am able to make it open access, but if you don’t have a subscription to the journal and want one of the free author copies then get in touch.

Abstract

In this paper we argue that school toilets function as one civilising site [Elias, 1978. The Civilising Process. Oxford: Blackwell] in which children learn that disabled and queer bodies are out of place. This paper is the first to offer queer and crip perspectives on school toilets. The small body of existing school toilet literature generally works from a normative position which implicitly perpetuates dominant and oppressive ideals. We draw on data from Around the Toilet, a collaborative research project with queer, trans and disabled people (aroundthetoilet.wordpress.com) to critically interrogate this work. In doing this we consider ‘toilet training’ as a form of ‘civilisation’, that teaches lessons around identity, embodiment and ab/normal ways of being in the world. Furthermore, we show that ‘toilet training’ continues into adulthood, albeit in ways that are less easily identifiable than in the early years. We therefore call for a more critical, inclusive, and transformative approach to school toilet research.

Funded PhD Opportunity: Contextualising bullying and ‘vulnerability’ in the lives of LGBT and/or disabled young people

Sheffield Hallam University is offering PhD funding. I am part of the supervisor team for the below project, along with El Formby and Karen Dunn. Feel free to get in touch with me or El (whose email address is on the linked document) for more information/a conversation before application. We have a vibrant Disability Studies PhD community and it would be great to keep it growing!

NB: the link to information regarding all studentships at Sheffield Hallam is here. Scroll down and click the link under the ‘SIOE’ heading to see all projects specific to ‘education’.

Contextualising bullying and ‘vulnerability’ in the lives of LGBT and/or disabled young people

Anti-bullying practice and advocacy often understands certain ‘types’ of young people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans (LGBT) and disabled young people, as being ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ to bullying. At the same time, youth work provision and other support services are increasingly subject to ‘targeted’ (rather than universal) work. Such approaches essentialise and individualise ‘vulnerability’ as something ‘within’ a person, rather than a product of socio-cultural-political contexts. Combining our backgrounds in critical disability studies, critical psychology, and sociology, we are interested in proposals that examine and critique the notion of ‘vulnerability’, and how it is constructed and enacted in education and (youth) service provision. The suggested research approach is qualitative, within which artsbased and/or participatory methods could be adopted.

“All of the children needs help”: Disability in the Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds

This is the second of two blog posts on The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds. For an introduction to the posts, along with the first blog post on hetero and cisnormativity in the programme, click here.

In the main disability hasn’t been a feature in The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds. This, in itself, is telling. As Katherine Runswick-Cole and Tillie Curran have pointed out in their book Disabled Children’s Childhood Studies although there is a general turn within academic research, particularly Childhood Studies, to understand children as social agents, disabled children are regularly left aside or tagged on as an afterthought (see also this interview where Katherine discusses the book).

An episode of the latest series, however, introduces Daisy, who is a five-year-old wheelchair user. As Daisy enters, Dr. Sam Wass, one of the psychologists who is watching a commenting on the programme, says “it’s going to be really interesting seeing how the other kid’s react”.  This phrase sets the scene for Daisy’s treatment throughout the programme. She appears as a subject under study, from which to gauge the other (non-disabled) children’s reaction to ‘disability’. A theme in the psychologists’ comments throughout the episode is that the other children want to ‘baby’ Daisy, when what Daisy wants is to be understood as a peer and a friend amongst the group. It does indeed seem that this is the case. Yet, there is little attention paid to how adult actors and decisions, have influenced and (co)constructed these reactions through the way that Daisy is spoken of, the tasks that she is involved in and the structural barriers that Daisy faces when navigating the school.

Relational Autonomy and In/acccessibility

One of the approaches used by the programme makers is to break up the general scenes of the children playing with clips of interviews, where a faceless person asks the children questions on topics ranging from what it means to be a grownup, to what love is, and why people have friends. In Daisy’s episode, the children are quite deliberately asked “is there anybody quite different here today?” It is telling that Daisy herself is not asked this question. “Yeah, the one with the wheelchair”, one child replies. Although perhaps the intention here is to allow the children to be curious/ask questions, it in fact treats Daisy, from the outset, as an object of curiosity. The interviewer then goes on to ask, “do you know what disability is?” The child says that he doesn’t know, and the programme moves on. For those of us involved in Disability Studies and disability activism, disability is a form of societal oppression (what a brilliant show this could have become if that conversation had been started).

The Social Model of Disability separates the terms impairment from disability. Whereas impairment is a perceived ‘difference’ in body or mind, disability is the barriers (physical, attitudinal, economic and so on) in society that restrict what disabled people are able to do and be. Following the social model of disability and principles of the Independent Living Movement, disabled people have long argued that nobody – disabled or non-disabled – is truly ‘independent’ (see Steve Graby and Anat Greenstein’s discussion of this here). We all rely on other people, services, and so on in order to go about our lives. Yet, within these systems different people are granted different levels of (relational) autonomy. Disabled people may require different things to non-disabled people in order to live autonomous (or ‘independent’) lives. These include adaptive technology, such a vehicles or wheelchairs, accessible environments and personal assistants (PAs). Having access to appropriate technology and services removes barriers in the lives of disabled people, granting disabled people (relational) autonomy. Being denied access to these barrier-mitigating tools, on the other hand, literally disables people, contributing to marginalisation and oppression of disabled people.

Days at the school in The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds begin with the children sitting and meeting with the teachers and other children, before going off to play. In the episode featuring Daisy we view a scene where the teachers and children, apart from Daisy, are at one side of the classroom, getting ready to leave the morning meeting. Daisy sits at the other side of the room in her manual wheelchair, seemingly without a PA. A request is made publicly from a teacher to the other children: “Can somebody get Daisy for me?” At this point there is a jostle between the children over who will get to push Daisy, in her wheelchair, out with the others. As a viewer, it seems that Daisy has no say about which child, if any, should be pushing her chair, if she wanted to leave the classroom, or be there in the first place. On viewing that scene, I was compelled to Tweet: “‘Will someone go get Daisy’… will someone get that kid a PA! #slo5yo”. Yet, to my surprise, twenty minutes further into the programme, we see that Daisy has (what is referred to in the show as) a ‘one-to-one helper’ nearby who she can direct to assist her in getting around. By denying her the use of her PA in this scenario, or even asking whether she minded another child pushing her, in this scene we see Daisy publicly stripped of any autonomy.

It is not only the way that Daisy is discussed in the programme, but also the physical environment that disables Daisy. In another scene we see Daisy frustrated as the other children play in an inaccessible sandpit and on a climbing frame. As viewers watch Daisy try to catch the attention of the other children (“Jet, come here”; “Eden”; “Ellie- let’s play mums and dads”), the psychologist analysing the show responds that “Daisy really finds that she’s having to work hard to maintain friendships”. But what if the playground was more accessible, enabling Daisy to play with the other children? What if the children (and adults!) had the role of Daisy’s PA explained to them? Indeed, it is on the accessible roundabout that we see Daisy most easily playing with the other children.

The game that Daisy is most often seen wanting to play is ‘families’. At one point this role-playing includes Daisy telling Ellie-May that she is pregnant. Yet, when a task given to the children involves looking after a simulation baby (a doll that need to be fed, changed etc.), Daisy is nowhere in sight. It may have been that Daisy herself chose not to be part of this task – or indeed a later task involving an obstacle course (which would have needed to be adapted for her) which she’s also not part of. On the other hand, perhaps it is not surprising that Daisy isn’t included in the task with the babies, as I highlighted in my previous blog, the children are given the task in boy-girl couples as if to emulate a (problematic) nuclear family. Disability Studies scholar, Robert McRuer argues that heteronormativity (the assumption and normalisation of heterosexuality) is wrapped up in ideals which value an ‘able body’. Therefore, to include Daisy as a parent in this task, would have broken the guise of heterosexual normality. By not including Daisy as a parent, Channel 4 missed an opportunity to present disabled children as possible future parents.

Daisy gets upset at points through the show. This is understandable within an unfamiliar environment, particularly one in which you face so many barriers. It’s also not unusual, many of the children get upset at some point during the programme (there is a lot of crying in this particular episode!). Yet, Daisy’s upset is treated differently to the crying of the non-disabled children. Sad music plays. One of the psychologists comments, “I think she’s really struggling”. The other children are asked, ‘why do you think that Daisy is upset?’ Despite the problematic backdrop, it’s here that my favourite part in the show takes place, as one child, Starr Rocco, replies, “she needs help, all of the children needs help”. And that is the best understanding of the principles of The Independent Living Movement that we get through the programme. Daisy, just like the other children needs help – and this help includes creating an environment which values and enables her to take part. The adults in the show could learn a thing or two from that 5 year old.

The Wedding Bug: Hetero and cisnormativity in the Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds (the first of two blog posts)

As most people that I’ve spoken to recently will know, I can’t stop watching The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds. If you haven’t seen the Channel 4 Series, the crux of it is this: take a group of cute 4, 5 or 6 year olds, rig them up with cameras a mics and pop them into a school/playgroup-like setting with a couple of teachers who stay pretty quiet, aside from setting them a few tasks. Every now and then we get a little more information about their family background, etc. The children also have their moves watched and narrated by a group of psychologists.

Watching it is a guilty pleasure – partly as I’m putting aside ethical concerns around gaining ‘informed consent’ from 4 year olds in appearing on such a public platform – but also as I find myself simultaneously cross and fascinated about the way that the programme is set up. Although I can’t deny that I find the antics of the kids cute and funny, my particular interest in this two part blog is how the children’s moves are narrated and analysed. The first blog post discusses the how the show reinforces hetero and cisnormativity, and the second discusses dis/ableism in the programme.

Although I’ve composed these as two blog posts (basically because they were getting a bit long!), hetero/cisnormativity and ableism shouldn’t be thought about as distinct concepts, but, as Robert McRuer reminds us, are wrapped-up and implicated in one-another. I discuss this a bit more in the second blog post (also see my use of McRuer’s work in this paper).

I’ve tried to link only to open access research in the blog. If you have trouble accessing anything that I’ve linked to get in touch and I’ll do my best to help out.

The Wedding Bug: Hetero and cisnormativity in the Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds

Has anyone else noticed that in pretty much every episode of The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds, there is some kind of proposal/wedding happening?

For the psychologists that narrate the show, the regular ‘weddings’ are often put down to the children mirroring/playing at adult relationships. That it may well be. However, the heteronormativity of the weddings (I’ve yet to have seen one that wasn’t between a boy and a girl) also tells us a lot about what kinds of adult relationships the children have been exposed to. I also want to propose that the compositions of the show itself is inherently hetero and cisnormative.

By heteronormativity, I mean that assumption, normalisation and prioritisation of heterosexuality. By cisnormativity, I mean the assumption, normalisation and prioritisation of cisgender identities (those that identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth) and the gender binary.

Where are the queer families?

It’s long been noted that schools are microcosm of society. Until 2003 in the UK (2000 in Scotland) a piece of policy called Section 28 stated that that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. This meant that queer relationships and ways of being couldn’t be discussed within educational settings.

Since this time, however, we supposedly have a more diverse/inclusive way of being when it comes to LGBT relationships in educational settings. Yet, there is much work out there that suggests otherwise. El Formby’s work discussing sex education with LGBT young people, for example, highlights that there’s a long way to go to make PSHE inclusive of all genders and sexualities. She also suggests that in order to prevent LGBT bullying the discourse needs to be widened to not only think of bad individual bullies and passive (LGBT) victims, but to address wider hetero and cisnormative practice in education and wider society (an argument mirrored by The Queering Education Institute working in a US context).

But what’s this got to do with The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds? For me, much of what is shown in the show, and the way that the children’s actions are analysed and read-into by the psychologists, perpetuates hetero and cisnormativity.

It doesn’t take much communication/friendship between a girl and a boy in the show for a wave of excitement and insinuations that the children are in some kind of romantic relationship. For example at the beginning of the 5 Year Olds (2016) Episode 1, Jude is the first to enter the playgroup and take a seat. Shortly after, Ellie arrives, and chooses to sit next to Jude. The show then cuts to the psychologists who, pointing out that the children have sat next to one-another, say “we’ve got our first love in”, before the camera moves poignantly to a shot of the children’s feet next to one-another. I don’t here want to deny the children’s right to understand their relationships with other children in whatever way they choose. Indeed, it should be acknowledged that Jude and Ellie, like many other children featuring in the series, do indeed go on to refer to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend and discuss (when asked directly) being in love, before Ellie ends their relationship as girlfriend and boyfriend as the programme comes to an end. Furthermore it could be argued that the comments from the psychologists about such romance between the children happen in a fairly tongue in cheek way. Despite this, never do we see adult claims of romance based on a friendship or relationship between two boys, two girls or other groups of children. Thus, a norm of heterosexuality is maintained and the children’s possibility of understanding themselves outside of a heteronormative framework is restricted.

School’s OUT, an organisation working, campaigning and researching within schools to support LGBT students, offer an approach a two stage approach to making school settings more LGBT inclusive. They call the first stage ‘usualising’. On their website, The Classroom (which is full of useful lesson plans and resources for teachers) they describe usualising as consistently making learners aware of the presence of LGBT people, and argue that this should start in Early Years classrooms. Stage two, actualising, means discussing LGBT lives in some fuller aspect. Whereas usualising should happen across the curriculum, actualising takes place in specific lessons where the objectives are to have greater understandings of LGBT lives. Although perhaps the ‘actualising’ wouldn’t be appropriate in The Secret Lives of 4, 5 and 5 Year Olds (as the children are generally left to play) ‘usualising’ could happen through the toys, books and activities that are used in the setting (see this suggested resource list in the right-hand side ‘downloads’ column from Liz Chapman). Although I don’t know for sure that books such as The Great Big Book of Families aren’t sitting around somewhere in the Secret Lives of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds school, the lack of queerness elsewhere in the show makes me doubtful. The programme has yet to include, for example, a discussion of queer parents. Perhaps even more tellingly, in the same episode discussed above, a task involved the children having to act as parents for simulation (dolls that cry, need feeding, changing etc). To complete this task, the children were matched up to parent in boy-girl pairs, thus mirroring the nuclear family (there was some dodgy disability politics in this too, which I’ll come back to in blog post number two).

Examples such as the above perhaps most explicitly demonstrate heteronormativity. Yet there is cisnormativity hidden within them. Throughout the programme, the differences between boys and girls are consistently reiterated: not explicitly, as in restricting which toys the children can play with, but implicitly by setting up, for example, ‘girls vs boys’ challenges, thus perpetuating the myth that girls and boys are binary opposites, and nobody can bridge or live outside of those two categories. One task in the latest episode required the girls to dress-up as their dads, and the boys to dress-up as their mums. Perhaps this was meant to liberate the children from their gender roles and norms, but without any pedagogy/discussion behind it, it in fact reiterated the gendered categories, as the children policed each others’ responses to the task. Julia Serano’s work on the devaluing of femininity came to mind, as whereas for the girls it was a task taken lightly, the boys reactions were much stronger, with some crying and refusing to take part. It was sad to see one boy, Nat, go from enjoying the task, and liking the dress that he had chosen, to saying that he looked silly and hated having to wear the outfit.

Pedagogy

Perhaps one of the things that I feel The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds is missing is a pedagogy which opens up space for discussion with the children. Rather than just leave the laughter and upset about ‘boys dressing as girls’ hanging, wouldn’t it have been nice to talk about why it should be such a big deal for a boy to wear a dress? Perhaps this conversation did happen, but didn’t make the final cut. Maybe it is inevitable in a TV documentary, probably more interested in funny sound bites than a space to talk and reflect. Or maybe it is the influence of approaches to research coming from psychology – claiming objectivity and a lack of influence on what goes on (as I think the discussion above suggests, I would argue that any such claim is always false). Whichever, if any, of these are true, I do wonder what it’d look like to have sociologists, rather than psychologists, narrating the show.