Well, we’ve been spared a flashy arrival in a huge fibreglass egg and a dress made entirely of animal flesh, but Lady Gaga hasn’t failed to make some waves while she’s been in town.
On Wednesday night she performed for an adoring crowd of her ‘little monsters’ at Sydney Town Hall. It was all quite sedate, for a Gaga-gig. A flesh-coloured bedazzled onesie and an aqua wig was a flashy costume, sure, but it was no meat dress.
And then, there it was. The lady herself, resplendent in a black vinyl mermaid tail, emerged from backstage as only one with their legs bound together in a somewhat restrictive costume could; in a wheelchair.
When I saw the footage on the news the next morning, I instinctively checked out her spokes and noted they were shiny. Ooohh, shiny new mobility aids… WANT! Was I offended she’d chosen to use a chair? No. I was momentarily jealous that hers was shinier than mine, and then I forgot about it.
I can’t see that performing from a wheelchair while dressed as a mermaid makes any more comment on disability than arriving at the Grammys in an egg makes on chickens.
But all day Thursday the media insisted: this is outrageous. There was ‘anger over Lady Gaga wheelchair stunt at Sydney gig’ and were told of how she courted controversy in her live show. According to several local and international news reports, “disability groups were outraged”.
Their evidence for this seems to be a tweet from the Roman Reed Foundation, which promotes spinal cord injury research: “Dear @ladygaga how about using your celebrity status 2 try 2 get us out of wheelchairs. Instead of cruising one. Cool?!”
An organisation “dedicated to the cause of cure”, as it states on their website, objecting to someone using a wheelchair as part of performance is hardly surprising. Seeing a wheelchair as part of a highly polished performance, without any of the shame or embarrassment we’re supposed to attach to mobility aids doesn’t exactly do much for their message.
I love my chair. Without her I would be, quite frankly, stuffed. She’s a freedom machine. My wheelchair is neither a negative nor a controversial symbol in my life. It’s the first thing I touch when I get out of bed and the last thing before I climb in at night. I do draw the line at kissing her goodnight because that might be kind of creepy, but the sentiment is there. I love her. And above all, I love the freedom she gives me.
As wheelchair users we celebrate our chairs in all sorts of ways all the time. If Lady Gaga wants in on that action, more power to her. She did, after all, have quite the mobility issue dressed as a mermaid.
We’ve had the mobility issues of land-dwelling mermaids brought to our attention before. One of Bette Midler‘s most notable characters, Delores Delago, is a motorised wheelchair-using mermaid. I first heard about Delores as a teenager. Aside from not really being into Bette Midler, I thought Delores was pretty great, and Midler really quite innovative for showcasing a piece of equipment that changes peoples lives so much, but is rarely celebrated.
Some of the criticism that’s been levelled at Gaga for her previous incorporations of mobility aids into her performance are based on the fact that there are a lot of very talented wheelchair dancers out there. True. Maybe in future she’ll consider incorporating this guy, or this guy or even this tango couple into her act. Who knows. Anything’s possible with Gaga.
There’s also been criticism from those who believe that, where possible, disabled characters on stage and screen should be played by disabled actors. I’m generally in that camp myself. Opportunities for disabled actors to play high profile roles are so scarce, that it smarts a bit when we see non-disabled people in charge of them.
But Gaga isn’t telling a story about disability. She’s not portraying or mimicking people with disabilities. I don’t really think she’s even making a statement about disability, and if she is, it’s not a negative one. If she’s sending the message that a wheelchair is a liberating solution to a mobility impairment, whether it’s a disability or a big black vinyl mermaid tail, I reckon that serves us wheelchair users pretty well.
Gaga, you can borrow my beloved chair for your next show, if I can borrow your egg for my next red carpet arrival. Deal?