Culture, Identity, Politics, Sex & Gender

Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America

A few years ago, my roommate had a Miss America pageant watching party. The only way to get through such a thing, if you choose to indulge in it in the first place, is to attack it with an unparallelled level of snark, such as the world has never seen, which we did. That was the last time I saw a beauty pageant, until today.
“Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America” is a feature included in the Reel Abilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival, a project dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities, founded by the UJA-Federation. Director of the Israel Film Center at the JCC in Manhattan, Isaac Zablocki, who also directs the festival, told me,”The film celebrates an inclusive society, which I believe is something very important to the Jewish community.”
Ms. Wheelchair America is a beauty pageant, seeking to provide an opportunity for women to educate and advocate for folks with disabilities. Women between the ages of 18 and 60 and who rely on wheelchairs as the their primary form of mobility are eligible. The documentary, directed by Alexis Ostrander,  follows five women as they compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America.
The film is  unflinching; early on, Amber Marcy (Ms. Wheelchair America Michigan 2009) tells the camera that she “took a dump in my pants” before her first meeting with the judges. She and Alyson Roth, Ms. Wheelchair America California, discuss how complicated it is to control their bowels and get into the handicap stalls when they need to. A central theme throughout involves confronting truths, as well as the stereotypes and misconceptions about disabled women. Michelle Colvard, Miss Wheelchair America 2009, said, “Either you’re a hero or you’re a victim.”
The line between hero and victim is indeed blurred as we learn more about the five contestants. Identities get more complex as the film goes on-Erika, the single mother with three children whose spinal injury is the result of an abusive boyfriend, is criticized by her mother and the father of one of her girls for making bad decisions. Alyson, an overachiever whose reaction to her injury has been to start loving Jesus a lot, spreads a rumor that Santina, another contestant, has been making pornography catering to those who fetishize disabled women.
It’s worth noting that all the winners of Ms. Wheelchair America listed on the website are white skinned women. While we’re told throughout that Ms. Wheelchair America is supposed to be an atypical pageant, there’s an evening gown competition, montages of the women putting on make up are featured, and the panel of judges seems to be largely middle aged, able bodied white dudes. The narrator of the film, Katey Sagal, reminds us that although the contest is about achievement, advocacy and education, the contestants still really want to win. The parents of the contestants say things like, “It doesn’t matter if you win, you’ve already won.”
“Defining Beauty” is a challenge, full and honest and complicated, which in my opinion, is the best kind. You can still catch it, with the rest of the films in the Reel Abilities Festival. Check them out here.

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