Revealing Disability: Gattaca and the Ideology of Ableism

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Revealing Disability: Gattaca and the Ideology of Ableism
Perhaps no contemporary political issue has united the left and right as profoundly as the debate surrounding the new eugenics. Andrew Nickels Gattaca (1997) encapsulated the antidemocratic potential of reproductive technologies for the science of discrimination. In this bio-punk vision the human future is motivated by ideologies of perfection, a new eugenics, and a quest for escape to the stars. Through the protagonist’s dreams, we the audience are duped into accepting this hegemonic ideology of the ruling class. In our future society, genetic discrimination is illegal in theory, but common in practice. In Gattaca, a genetic registry database allows for easy biometric profiling, with the result that the middle and upper classes feel pressured to select their offspring through preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Socio-economic status depends on costly access to biotechnologies for selective breeding. Medical scientists have taken the place of God in determining human potential, while society polices this medical understanding by preventing the genetically “invalid” from entering high status professions.

But what most viewers miss, I argue, is the film’s troubling implications for the discourse of disability and identity politics. Because in the post 9/11 age, US culture increasingly resents the “victimary rhetoric” of the left, , audiences will likely miss that they are themselves disabled, in terms of the films social model of disability, which works along lines of class and genetic perfection, creating “invalids” and “degenerates”. Therefore I take a closer look at how the film’s use of the science fiction genre reveals and conceals the social construction of disability and ability around a dangerous medical discourse, which, through its reduction of social relations to the myth of natural selection, replaces the functions of God, law, and destiny.

The tendancy when viewing the film is to deny dependency and vulnerability, and shelter beneath what the disability rights movement calls abalism. It is ironic and striking how the film at once serves to problematize the “naturalness” of disability and normalcy, while allowing audiences a false defensive ideology of ability. This mouse trap allows Viewers to perpetuate their wish to pass for normal, not only as able-bodied, but as genetically enhanced supermen; this dependence upon class exploitation and various forms of prosthesis – both ideological and technological – serves to naturalize economic and invidious class distinctions. As we shall see, following mythic and even biblical tradition, what René Girard calls mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry is symbolized by the violent competition between brothers. I suggest that the connection between mimetic desire and rivalry leading to victimage are not just arbitrarily and coincidentally linked to issues of disability, scapegoating, and transcendence.

We are made conscious of our dependence upon technologies when they break down. For similar reasons, the senses are foregrounded against a background of injury or sensory deprivation. In an obvious fashion, disability makes the embodied mediation of sensation and knowledge stand out visibly. What is striking in Gattaca, I argue, is how the body of the disabled person is marked as Exceptional and requires correction. The disabled body of the marked “invalid” (the over achiever, Vincent freeman (played by Ethan Hawke), and the under achiever, Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law), appear together in narratives as a means to foreground the “normative” as constructed by the ideology of ableism. That is, Jerome serves as a supplement and foil for Vincent’s disabled status, what David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder (2000) call a narrative prosthesis. For the nature of the prosthesis is to become invisible, to conceal the dependencies of ability, and this is the narrative function of the quadriplegic character Jerome as support for Vincent, the hero of autonomy and ability. Ironically, then, without realizing it, in such a society, all of Gattaca’s contemporary audience would be in a similar position to the central character and narrator, Vincent, that is, they would be classed invalid, which is equivalent to our category of disability or physical handicap. But for two reasons — chiefly shame around the category of disability, and a furtive fear of contagion, most viewers miss that Vincent is in fact a disabled person, who is both socially and medically marked: he is visually impaired and has a heart condition. This also indicates how technology appears as “natural” when historical context is lacking. So Vincent must pass for able bodied – a closeting of disability. For his obvious biological handicaps require him to pass himself off as able bodied through the use of prostheses, such as contacts, a borrowed genetic identity, and a tape recorded heartbeat to fake his workout.

More often than not, disabled people are represented in films and theaters by the able-bodied. So too in Andrew Niccole’s Gattaca. Our resentment and anxiety over the future of bio-technologies is channeled by the film into the form-of-the-content; our desire is given closure narratologically. The generic theme of the individual overcoming all barriers is encapsulated in the journey of the hero Vincent (the Everyman figure). Audiences experience transcendence vicariously through the film, that is, they defer and repress the unpleasant knowledge of their vulnerability and alienation from power.

The movie is set in the “not too distant future” when human genetic engineering from conception has become commonplace: “we now have discrimination down to a science”. Vincent has been conceived a “God Child”, as his parents wished to leave some things to chance. Thus he was born with a 99% probability of heart failure, violence, blindness…etc. The only references to his own physical abilities/endowments are to his “beautiful piece of equipment” on display every time he has to give a urine sample when he checks in to Gattaca, the space observatory. Ironically, this suggests that a healthy male endowerment may be a sign of evolutionary backwardness, or a violent disposition, or alternatively, a sign of his determination. While Vincent, then, dreams of returning to the “womb” of space, and transcending all human limitations in a rocket, the cool and clean “valids” envy his penis in what the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would irresistibly diagnose as the narcissistic fantasy to be the phallus as symbol of male power.

When it came to the birth of their second child, Vincent’s rival brother Antoine, the parents had learned their lesson, and so left nothing to chance; as the screen-play has it, they even had to sell their car to pay for the embryo screening procedure (a critical signifier of class dropped from the film). Despite the clear economic and social factors that lead to discrimination in the society — where genetic invalids have become the underclass serving the valids — the movie achieves clichéd closure when it permits the hero Vincent to achieve his desire to travel into space.

Significantly, the Freshman students I teach at Purdue initially answer “No” when asked if Vincent was disabled. Some felt the ending irritating because of the abrupt closure. The common response opines, well, the conventional wisdom that “anyone can succeed if they have determination”. Yet to achieve his goal Vincent must cheat and be helped, so he undergoes an elaborate identity exchange with Jerome, a genetic valid, but now a self-pitying quadriplegic who attempted suicide after missing the gold in a swimming contest.

Because it sides with the victim rather than the scapegoating crowd, Gattaca affords audiences a high cultural sublimation of resentment, as opposed to a popular anticipation of worldly action. However, this deferral of resentment also suggests its quietism towards disability activism, instead of actually critiquing disability systemically, as a product of both medical and social discrimination and disabling social design.

Jerome commits suicide in a home crematorium at the same time as Vincent achieves his dream of returning to the stars – “the dust from whence life was formed”. Thus, resentment against the unjust valids is transformed into complicity with their ideology, because the marked body of the crippled character has no future within the filmic imagination, only serving as a prosthetic solution and a problem to be normalized. What’s more, this failure of imagination is blamed on the character’s psychological failings rather than on the impossible obstacles he faces adapting to this discriminatory society. This psychological explanation for destiny is ideological, because it functions to conceal the systematic nature of disability oppression and economic alienation.

Although the message of the film is culturally conservative — arguing implicitly against reproductive technologies and the new Eugenics — it fails to critique and underline the democratic problem with biotechnology – namely its economic significance in terms of global distribution and availability. It fails to show how such technologies can be positive if provided equitably so as to ameliorate many disabilities and illnesses. The disability rights’ movement itself is conflicted on this matter, being on the one hand defensive of disability as a source of legitimate identity and even valuable knowledge and skills, while on the other hand siding with the victims, romantically opting to level its criticism at society for failing to redesign inclusively.

For generic narrative satisfaction, the exceptional body needs to be normalized or disposed of. The psychological reading, which argues that Vincent and Jerome’s fates are determined by their individual attitudes, fatally overlooks the systematic nature of the social construction of disability through discrimination and lack of accommodations for those who have different needs to the valid. This psychologisation of disability individualizes a social problem, and thereby ignores the realities of social design and prejudice, implying that suffering is an individual matter unrelated to discrimination. Doesn’t Jerome’s suicide tie up the issue of discrimination too nicely? While it doesn’t explicitly state that such a life as his is hopeless, it rather treats the character simply as a disposable narrative prosthesis for Vincent, a kind of extension for the character identified as able or normal.

The Disability Rights Movement (DRM) has advanced radical politics both nationally and internationally; however, as medicalized subjects, what Foucault calls “docile bodies”, disabled identity is disciplined through the grids of discursive juridical intelligibility. Identifying as disabled is viewed as both empowering and disempowering; and it is simultaneously recuperated by liberal capitalism and massified in the opposite direction, into a biological species identity through what Agamben, following Foucault, calls biopower.

In sum, while Gattaca largely feeds this naïve individualistic reading, the characters of Vincent and his flame Irene (Uma Thurman) do develop, in that they come to understand that biology should not determine ones equal rights or fate, even if society educates people to think so. The idea that Vincent made it out of sheer guts alone ignores the fact that he used Jerome as a narrative prosthesis, literal and metaphorical, in order to pass. Indeed, the film toys with frustrating our satisfaction by seeing Vincent fail. But we soon forget, that in the final instance he only manages to board the flight because the security guard has known all along he was invalid and empathized with him as a role model for his own son. But this is a point so narratively contrived as to go unremarked. Almost lost under this deus ex machina solution is a quiet message of solidarity and hope: nobody makes it alone.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Girard, René. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World: Research Undertaken in Collaboration with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. Trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. London: Athlone, 1987.
Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Niccol , Andrew. Gattaca. Dir Andrew Niccol. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Gore Vidal, Xander Berkeley. DVD. 1997.

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2 Responses to “Revealing Disability: Gattaca and the Ideology of Ableism”

  1. Carly Miller Says:

    interesting to think of this in terms of everyday day biopower/eugenics which simple media (ads whatnot) create and bloom within the individual.

    Thanks for the words, good read!

  2. 5 Reasons Why We Need People with Disabilities in The CRISPR Debates – Disability Remix Blog Says:

    […] resulting from the effort to control human reproduction (for a great disability read on it, read here). The “not so distant future” imagined in the film grows closer with CRISPR. I wish I could […]

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