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Disabled women in literature seldom have erotic lives. Think of poor, crippled laura wingfield in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, waiting passively alongside her anxious mother to be taken up by a man. Or consider Gertie McDowell in James Joyce's Ulysses, the object of Leopold Bloom's voyeuristic fantasies, limping along, herself sexually blank. Even Eva Peace, the one-legged crone goddess in Toni Morrison's Sula, is done with sex. There is something at least untoward and at most perverse about representing disabled women as erotic. In The Sexual Politics of Disability, the sociologist Tom Shakespeare and his coauthors detail a long history of disability as a sexual disqualifier or as an occasion for perversity for both men and women in narrative representation.
PEOPLE WHO ARE visually different have always provoked the imaginations of their fellow human beings. Those of us who have been known since antiquity as “monsters” and more recently as “freaks” defy the ordinary and mock the predictable, exciting both anxiety and speculation among our more banal brethren. History bears ample witness to this profound disquiet stirred in the human soul by bodies that stray from what is typical or predictable. Such troubled fascination with the different body has occasioned enduring cultural icons that range from the cyclopic Polyphemus and the gigantic Goliath to werewolves and the seven adorable little dwarfs. Perhaps even the founding Judeo-Christian myth that Adam's body contained Eve, drenched as it is by millennia of interpretation, derives from reports of the rare condition fetus in fetu, in which tumors encasing fetuses are embedded in the bodies of their living siblings. The presence of the anomalous human body, at once familiar and alien, has unfolded as well within the collective cultural consciousness into fanciful hybrids such as centaurs, griffins, satyrs, minotaurs, sphinxes, mermaids, and cyclopses—all figures that are perhaps the mythical explanations for the startling bodies whose curious lineaments gesture toward other modes of being and confuse comforting distinctions between what is human and what is not. What seems clearest in all this, however, is that the extraordinary body is fundamental to the narratives by which we make sense of ourselves and our world.
By its very presence, the exceptional body seems to compel explanation, inspire representation, and incite regulation. The unexpected body fires rich, if anxious, narratives and practices that probe the contours and boundaries of what we take to be human. Stone Age cave drawings, for example, record monstrous births, while prehistoric gravesites evince elaborate ritual sacrifices of such bodies. Clay tablets at the Assyrian city of Nineveh describe in detail sixty-two of what we would now call congenital abnormalities, along with their prophetic meanings. Aristotle, Cicero, Pliny, Augustine, Bacon, and Montaigne account for such disruptions of the seemingly natural order in their interpretative schemata. For these fathers of Western thought, the differently formed body is most often evidence of God's design, divine wrath, or nature's abundance, but it is always an interpretive occasion.
This article offers the critical concept misfit in an effort to further think through the lived identity and experience of disability as it is situated in place and time. The idea of a misfit and the situation of misfitting that I offer here elaborate a materialist feminist understanding of disability by extending a consideration of how the particularities of embodiment interact with the environment in its broadest sense, to include both its spatial and temporal aspects. The interrelated dynamics of fitting and misfitting constitute a particular aspect of world-making involved in material-discursive becoming. The essay makes three arguments: the concept of misfit emphasizes the particularity of varying lived embodiments and avoids a theoretical generic disabled body; the concept of misfit clarifies the current feminist critical conversation about universal vulnerability and dependence; the concept of misfitting as a shifting spatial and perpetually temporal relationship confers agency and value on disabled subjects.