Fame and Disability

Christopher Reeve, Super Crips, and Infamous Celebrity

1When we think of disability today in the Western world, Christopher Reeve most likely comes to mind. A film star who captured people’s imagination as Superman, Reeve was already a celebrity before he took the fall that would lead to his new position in the fame game: the role of super-crip. As a person with acquired quadriplegia, Christopher Reeve has become both the epitome of disability in Western culture — the powerful cultural myth of disability as tragedy and catastrophe — and, in an intimately related way, the icon for the high-technology quest for cure.

2The case of Reeve is fascinating, yet critical discussion of Christopher Reeve in terms of fame, celebrity and his performance of disability is conspicuously lacking (for a rare exception see McRuer). To some extent this reflects the comparative lack of engagement of media and cultural studies with disability (Goggin). To redress this lacuna, we draw upon theories of celebrity (Dyer; Marshall; Turner, Bonner, & Marshall; Turner) to explore the production of Reeve as celebrity, as well as bringing accounts of celebrity into dialogue with critical disability studies.

3Reeve is a cultural icon, not just because of the economy, industrial processes, semiotics, and contemporary consumption of celebrity, outlined in Turner’s 2004 framework. Fame and celebrity are crucial systems in the construction of disability; and the circulation of Reeve-as-celebrity only makes sense if we understand the centrality of disability to culture and media. Reeve plays an enormously important (if ambiguous) function in the social relations of disability, at the heart of the discursive underpinning of the otherness of disability and the construction of normal sexed and gendered bodies (the normate) in everyday life. What is distinctive and especially powerful about this instance of fame and disability is how authenticity plays through the body of the celebrity Reeve; how his saintly numinosity is received by fans and admirers with passion, pathos, pleasure; and how this process places people with disabilities in an oppressive social system, so making them subject(s).

An Accidental Star

4Born September 25, 1952, Christopher Reeve became famous for his roles in the 1978 movie Superman, and the subsequent three sequels (Superman II, III, IV), as well as his role in other films such as Monsignor. As well as becoming a well-known actor, Reeve gained a profile for his activism on human rights, solidarity, environmental, and other issues.

5In May 1995 Reeve acquired a disability in a riding accident. In the ensuing months, Reeve’s situation attracted a great deal of international attention. He spent six months in the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute in New Jersey, and there gave a high-rating interview on US television personality Barbara Walters’ 20/20 program. In 1996, Reeve appeared at the Academy Awards, was a host at the 1996 Paralympic Games, and was invited to speak at the Democratic National Convention. In the same year Reeve narrated a film about the lives of people living with disabilities (Mierendorf). In 1998 his memoir Still Me was published, followed in 2002 by another book Nothing Is Impossible.

6Reeve’s active fashioning of an image and ‘new life’ (to use his phrase) stands in stark contrast with most people with disabilities, who find it difficult to enter into the industry and system of celebrity, because they are most often taken to be the opposite of glamorous or important. They are objects of pity, or freaks to be stared at (Mitchell & Synder; Thomson), rather than assuming other attributes of stars. Reeve became famous for his disability, indeed very early on he was acclaimed as the pre-eminent American with disability — as in the phrase ‘President of Disability’, an appellation he attracted.

7Reeve was quickly positioned in the celebrity industry, not least because his example, image, and texts were avidly consumed by viewers and readers. For millions of people — as evident in the letters compiled in the 1999 book Care Packages by his wife, Dana Reeve — Christopher Reeve is a hero, renowned for his courage in doing battle with his disability and his quest for a cure.

8Part of the creation of Reeve as celebrity has been a conscious fashioning of his life as an instructive fable. A number of biographies have now been published (Havill; Hughes; Oleksy; Wren). Variations on a theme, these tend to the hagiographic: Christopher Reeve: Triumph over Tragedy (Alter). Those interested in Reeve’s life and work can turn also to fan websites. Most tellingly perhaps is the number of books, fables really, aimed at children, again, on a characteristic theme: Learning about Courage from the Life of Christopher Reeve (Kosek; see also Abraham; Howard).

9The construction, but especially the consumption, of Reeve as disabled celebrity, is consonant with powerful cultural myths and tropes of disability. In many Western cultures, disability is predominantly understood a tragedy, something that comes from the defects and lack of our bodies, whether through accidents of birth or life. Those ‘suffering’ with disability, according to this cultural myth, need to come to terms with this bitter tragedy, and show courage in heroically overcoming their lot while they bide their time for the cure that will come. The protagonist for this this script is typically the ‘brave’ person with disability; or, as this figure is colloquially known in critical disability studies and the disability movement — the super-crip.

10This discourse of disability exerts a strong force today, and is known as the ‘medical’ model. It interacts with a prior, but still active charity discourse of disability (Fulcher). There is a deep cultural history of disability being seen as something that needs to be dealt with by charity. In late modernity, charity is very big business indeed, and celebrities play an important role in representing the good works bestowed on people with disabilities by rich donors. Those managing celebrities often suggest that the star finds a charity to gain favourable publicity, a routine for which people with disabilities are generally the pathetic but handy extras. Charity dinners and events do not just reinforce the tragedy of disability, but they also leave unexamined the structural nature of disability, and its associated disadvantage.

11Those critiquing the medical and charitable discourses of disability, and the oppressive power relations of disability that it represents, point to the social and cultural shaping of disability, most famously in the British ‘social’ model of disability — but also from a range of other perspectives (Corker and Thomas). Those formulating these critiques point to the crucial function that the trope of the super-crip plays in the policing of people with disabilities in contemporary culture and society. Indeed how the figure of the super-crip is also very much bound up with the construction of the ‘normal’ body, a general economy of representation that affects everyone.

Superman Flies Again

12The celebrity of Christopher Reeve and what it reveals for an understanding of fame and disability can be seen with great clarity in his 2002 visit to Australia.

13In 2002 there had been a heated national debate on the ethics of use of embryonic stem cells for research. In an analysis of three months of the print media coverage of these debates, we have suggested that disability was repeatedly, almost obsessively, invoked in these debates (‘Uniting the Nation’). Yet the dominant representation of disability here was the cultural myth of disability as tragedy, requiring cure at all cost, and that this trope was central to the way that biotechnology was constructed as requiring an urgent, united national response. Significantly, in these debates, people with disabilities were often talked about but very rarely licensed to speak. Only one person with disability was, and remains, a central figure in these Australian stem cell and biotechnology policy conversations: Christopher Reeve.

14As an outspoken advocate of research on embryonic stem-cells in the quest for a cure for spinal injuries, as well as other diseases, Reeve’s support was enlisted by various protagonists. The current affairs show Sixty Minutes (modelled after its American counterpart) presented Reeve in debate with Australian critics:

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PRESENTER: Stem cell research is leading to perhaps the greatest medical breakthroughs of all time… Imagine a world where paraplegics could walk or the blind could see … But it’s a breakthrough some passionately oppose. A breakthrough that’s caused a fierce personal debate between those like actor Christopher Reeve, who sees this technology as a miracle, and those who regard it as murder. (‘Miracle or Murder?’)

16Sixty Minutes starkly portrays the debate in Manichean terms: lunatics standing in the way of technological progress versus Christopher Reeve flying again tomorrow. Christopher presents the debate in utilitarian terms:

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CHRISTOPHER REEVE: The purpose of government, really in a free society, is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And that question should always be in the forefront of legislators’ minds. (‘Miracle or Murder?’)

18No criticism of Reeve’s position was offered, despite the fierce debate over the implications of such utilitarian rhetoric for minorities such as people with disabilities (including himself!). Yet this utilitarian stance on disability has been elaborated by philosopher Peter Singer, and trenchantly critiqued by the international disability rights movement.

19Later in 2002, the Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, invited Reeve to visit Australia to participate in the New South Wales Spinal Cord Forum. A journalist by training, and skilled media practitioner, Carr had been the most outspoken Australian state premier urging the Federal government to permit the use of embryonic stem cells for research. Carr’s reasons were as much as industrial as benevolent, boosting the stocks of biotechnology as a clean, green, boom industry. Carr cleverly and repeated enlisted stereotypes of disability in the service of his cause. Christopher Reeve was flown into Australia on a specially modified Boeing 747, free of charge courtesy of an Australian airline, and was paid a hefty appearance fee. Not only did Reeve’s fee hugely contrast with meagre disability support pensions many Australians with disabilities live on, he was literally the only voice and image of disability given any publicity.

Consuming Celebrity, Contesting Crips

20As our analysis of Reeve’s antipodean career suggests, if disability were a republic, and Reeve its leader, its polity would look more plutocracy than democracy; as befits modern celebrity with its constitutive tensions between the demotic and democratic (Turner).

21For his part, Reeve has criticised the treatment of people with disabilities, and how they are stereotyped, not least the narrow concept of the ‘normal’ in mainstream films. This is something that has directly effected his career, which has become limited to narration or certain types of television and film work. Reeve’s reprise on his culture’s notion of disability comes with his starring role in an ironic, high-tech 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (Bleckner), a movie that in the original featured a photojournalist injured and temporarily using a wheelchair. Reeve has also been a strong advocate, lobbyist, and force in the politics of disability. His activism, however, has been far more strongly focussed on finding a cure for people with spinal injuries — rather than seeking to redress inequality and discrimination of all people with disabilities.

22Yet Reeve’s success in the notoriously fickle star system that allows disability to be understood and mapped in popular culture is mostly an unexplored paradox. As we note above, the construction of Reeve as celebrity, celebrating his individual resilience and resourcefulness, and his authenticity, functions precisely to sustain the ‘truth’ and the power relations of disability. Reeve’s celebrity plays an ideological role, knitting together a set of discourses: individualism; consumerism; democratic capitalism; and the primacy of the able body (Marshall; Turner).

23The nature of this cultural function of Reeve’s celebrity is revealed in the largely unpublicised contests over his fame. At the same time Reeve was gaining fame with his traditional approach to disability and reinforcement of the continuing catastrophe of his life, he was attracting an infamy within certain sections of the international disability rights movement. In a 1996 US debate disability scholar David T Mitchell put it this way: ‘He’s [Reeve] the good guy — the supercrip, the Superman, and those of us who can live with who we are with our disabilities, but who cannot live with, and in fact, protest and retaliate against the oppression we confront every second of our lives are the bad guys’ (Mitchell, quoted in Brown). Many feel, like Mitchell, that Reeve’s focus on a cure ignores the unmet needs of people with disabilities for daily access to support services and for the ending of their brutal, dehumanising, daily experience as other (Goggin & Newell, Disability in Australia).

24In her book Make Them Go Away Mary Johnson points to the conservative forces that Christopher Reeve is associated with and the way in which these forces have been working to oppose the acceptance of disability rights. Johnson documents the way in which fame can work in a variety of ways to claw back the rights of Americans with disabilities granted in the Americans with Disabilities Act, documenting the association of Reeve and, in a different fashion, Clint Eastwood as stars who have actively worked to limit the applicability of civil rights legislation to people with disabilities. Like other successful celebrities, Reeve has been assiduous in managing his image, through the use of celebrity professionals including public relations professionals. In his Australian encounters, for example, Reeve gave a variety of media interviews to Australian journalists and yet the editor of the Australian disability rights magazine Link was unable to obtain an interview. Despite this, critiques of the super-crip celebrity function of Reeve by people with disabilities did circulate at the margins of mainstream media during his Australian visit, not least in disability media and the Internet (Leipoldt, Newell, and Corcoran, 2003).

Infamous Disability

25Like the lives of saints, it is deeply offensive to many to criticise Christopher Reeve. So deeply engrained are the cultural myths of the catastrophe of disability and the creation of Reeve as icon that any critique runs the risk of being received as sacrilege, as one rare iconoclastic website provocatively prefigures (Maddox). In this highly charged context, we wish to acknowledge his contribution in highlighting some aspects of contemporary disability, and emphasise our desire not to play Reeve the person — rather to explore the cultural and media dimensions of fame and disability.

26In Christopher Reeve we find a remarkable exception as someone with disability who is celebrated in our culture. We welcome a wider debate over what is at stake in this celebrity and how Reeve’s renown differs from other disabled stars, as, for example, in Robert McRuer reflection that:

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... at the beginning of the last century the most famous person with disabilities in the world, despite her participation in an ‘overcoming’ narrative, was a socialist who understood that disability disproportionately impacted workers and the power[less]; Helen Keller knew that blindness and deafness, for instance, often resulted from industrial accidents. At the beginning of this century, the most famous person with disabilities in the world is allowing his image to be used in commercials … (McRuer 230)

28For our part, we think Reeve’s celebrity plays an important contemporary role because it binds together a constellation of economic, political, and social institutions and discourses — namely science, biotechnology, and national competitiveness. In the second half of 2004, the stem cell debate is once again prominent in American debates as a presidential election issue. Reeve figures disability in national culture in his own country and internationally, as the case of the currency of his celebrity in Australia demonstrates. In this light, we have only just begun to register, let alone explore and debate, what is entailed for us all in the production of this disabled fame and infamy.

Epilogue to “Fame and Disability”

29Christopher Reeve died on Sunday 10 October 2004, shortly after this article was accepted for publication. His death occasioned an outpouring of condolences, mourning, and reflection. We share that sense of loss.

30How Reeve will be remembered is still unfolding. The early weeks of public mourning have emphasised his celebrity as the very embodiment and exemplar of disabled identity: ‘The death of Christopher Reeve leaves embryonic-stem-cell activism without one of its star generals’ (Newsweek); ‘He Never Gave Up: What actor and activist Christopher Reeve taught scientists about the treatment of spinal-cord injury’ (Time); ‘Incredible Journey: Facing tragedy, Christopher Reeve inspired the world with hope and a lesson in courage’ (People); ‘Superman’s Legacy’ (The Express); ‘Reeve, the Real Superman’ (Hindustani Times). In his tribute New South Wales Premier Bob Carr called Reeve the ‘most impressive person I have ever met’, and lamented ‘Humankind has lost an advocate and friend’ (Carr). The figure of Reeve remains central to how disability is represented. In our culture, death is often closely entwined with disability (as in the saying ‘better dead than disabled’), something Reeve reflected upon himself often. How Reeve’s ‘global mourning’ partakes and shapes in this dense knots of associations, and how it transforms his celebrity, is something that requires further work (Ang et. al.).

31The political and analytical engagement with Reeve’s celebrity and mourning at this time serves to underscore our exploration of fame and disability in this article. Already there is his posthumous enlistment in the United States Presidential elections, where disability is both central and yet marginal, people with disability talked about rather than listened to. The ethics of stem cell research was an election issue before Reeve’s untimely passing, with Democratic presidential contender John Kerry sharply marking his difference on this issue with President Bush. After Reeve’s death his widow Dana joined the podium on the Kerry campaign in Columbus, Ohio, to put the case herself; for his part, Kerry compared Bush’s opposition to stem cell research as akin to favouring the candle lobby over electricity. As we write, the US polls are a week away, but the cultural representation of disability — and the intensely political role celebrity plays in it — appears even more palpably implicated in the government of society itself.