Disability Studies Quarterly Blog
Review by Indira Allegra, Chronic Talks Collective, Email: email@example.com, Jess Dorrance, Chronic Talks Collective, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Julia Havard, Chronic Talks Collective, Email: email@example.com, Caleb Luna, Chronic Talks Collective, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, and Olivia Young, Chronic Talks Collective, Email: email@example.com
Keywords: ableism, cerebral palsy, chronic illness, representation, race, independence, family dynamics, religion
Hi and welcome to our disability book club! We are members of the Chronic Crip Femmes Collective, a multiracial group of sick and disabled queer and trans artists and academics. Together, we do work around disability justice, mutual aid, art, and collective liberation. Today, we are discussing writer and journalist Keah Brown’s book The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me (2019). In the following conversation, we chat about Brown’s reflections on the gifts and challenges of pop culture representation, her frequent but troubled departures from internalized ableist scripts, the ingenuity of black crip femme aesthetics, disabled modes of relating with objects, and what it would mean to frame The Pretty One as enacting non-binary methodologies.
Jess Dorrance: In 2017, at 26 years old, Brown shot to Twitter fame for creating #DisabledAndCute–which she jokingly refers to as her “firstborn child” (6). The hashtag was meant to celebrate her newfound acceptance of herself as “a black woman with cerebral palsy who loves herself now,” which most days, she writes, “feels like a revolutionary act” (5). Soon after debuting her hashtag, other cute disabled folks started chiming in with their own selfies, videos, and messages. The hashtag remains widely used today. The Pretty One, Brown’s first book, features twelve autobiographical essays in which Brown reflects on everything from the intersections of misogynoir and ableism to the structural shittiness of living in a culture obsessed with “curing” disability. Her prose is full of spunk and wryness, alongside palpable grief and anger.
The Pretty One was one of the first books about disability that I read after falling chronically ill. In the throes of the pain of my own internalized ableism, I really appreciated the degree of vulnerability Brown shared regarding her ongoing journey to love her body, expecting others to love and value it too.
Indira Allegra: One of The Pretty One’s central themes is Brown’s devotion to and desire for representation. She offers us a kind of testimony: what it feels like to try and find yourself and understand the world one episode of Sister, Sister (1994) and Hallmark movie at a time. Her book is replete with her reflections about the ways in which her life does not neatly map onto the narratives put forth in pop songs, tv shows, and movies, which she relates to as authorities.
Caleb Luna: In charting her trip through the highs and lows of her relationship with pop culture, we could say that Brown’s book is itself a kind of crip rom com. She joins the ranks of this emerging genre, alongside tv shows like Special (2019), Everything’s Gonna Be Okay (2020), and Love on the Spectrum (2019), but expands the genre beyond the white disability narratives that these shows have often centered.
Olivia Young: Yes, there is a powerful moment in her book where Brown reflects on the impact of the lack of representation in popular culture: “I realized seeing my black skin on-screen was no longer enough . . . because I realized what I wasn’t seeing: disabled [black] bodies” (43:39). There is so much about our experiences of disability that is outside of our control. Brown finds a sense of power in the art of writing for and with a mainstream public, in the act of rescripting narratives around disability. In opening up about her own experience for readers, she crafts a model for the type of representation she longs for as a black disabled femme.
Julia Havard: Brown highlights how black disabled femme aesthetics and practices of care are skills that require knowledge and labor to perform. In one essay, for instance, Brown describes her research process of trying to glean how to perform a one-handed ponytail from YouTube–that treasure trove of femme science. The search was frustrating at first, as most of the videos she found were created by white women with long hair. As Brown describes her hopes and frustrations, talking the reader through the gestures involved in her eventual ponytail success, I felt as though I was watching a YouTube tutorial. Her prose style works as its own commentary on how black crip femme skills can seep into forms she’s been systemically excluded from.
Jess: Brown’s ponytail essay also nuances the supposed binary of interdependence and independence. Brown shares how not being able to put her hair into a ponytail by herself until she was 24 impacted her life as a young person, affecting dynamics with family and friends as she consistently had to ask for support if she wanted her hair up. Though interdependence can be such an integral piece of femme politics–I’m thinking here of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poetic line that “Asking is femme magic” (2019, 43)–Brown explains how asking for help is often painful and complicated for her. “The fear of infantilization and the anger of others is what makes me weary and ashamed when I know I need help,” she writes, “because of the automatic belief that I need help by society at large” (114). This is one example of many in The Pretty One where Brown complicates tropes that are at the center of historic disability activism, revealing the knotty emotions that can attach to desires for both autonomy and support as well as the layers of meaning attached to these ideas she must constantly wade through.
Caleb: Brown’s detailed description of the belief structures and access barriers she is confronted with while trying to style her hair is one of the many moments in this book where she shares her experiences around navigating both structural ableism and the ways that it becomes a part of how she thinks about herself. For example, in “Love You, Mean It,” Brown describes the way that jealousy around her non-disabled twin sister’s experience of high school infiltrated their relationship. Brown is explicit about how ableism impacted this sister dynamic, detailing how she was systematically taught to hate her body and how she channeled that hatred against the person closest to her.
Olivia: These moments of Brown reflecting on the ways ableism shaped her relationships are such a significant part of what makes this narrative crip, allowing readers to witness the confusing and hazy ordeal of processing and removing abelisms’ internalized scripts. Brown’s form is thoughtfully nonbinary, holding contradictions in a nuanced and expansive way. For example, she both externalizes her disabilities as a way to observe the fluid relationship she has to her body, while also intimately claiming her CP as devotedly her own.
Indira: Right–a nonbinary methodology of writing multiple truths. Writing depression and joy, jealousy and beauty, and all the feels in between and beyond.
Julia: There’s something impactful about a text where the author is in process, being able to witness the continuation of undoing internalized ableism, where a layer is peeled back only to reveal an even deeper insidious iteration of ableism’s effects. Memoir as a genre facilitates this transparency, where the reader is allowed to witness the author in their mistakes, in their vulnerability, in their potential for change. This feels quite rare–especially in academic contexts–and really quite radical.
Caleb: I’m thinking about the anecdote of Brown’s college roommate and her ownership of her role in their dynamic and dissolution of the relationship in the penultimate essay, “To See and Be Seen.” Brown writes, “Sometimes you can be the toxic person in someone’s life even in your quest to be seen and understood, and you can hurt someone in your quest to heal yourself” (205). This reflection complicates so many dynamics–particularly those that frame disabled people as only the recipients of harm and not as complex, nuanced people who might themselves cause harm in their journeys. Brown’s story is an incredible meditation on the sometimes impossibility of repair, even with someone who is deeply beloved. She represents herself on a spectrum of evolution, where she later recognizes that she was able to maintain other relationships through the growth that comes with maturity. In addition to allowing disabled people to be imperfect, Brown’s surfacing of her own mistakes also presents disabled people as not having static emotional or physical lives. She depicts us as capable of change alongside our non-disabled family, friends, lovers, and comrades.
Jess: In addition to chronicling her relationships with people, Brown also theorizes crip modes of relating to objects. In one of my favorite essays in the book, she narrates the story of her longest relationship: a long-term, open one with all the chairs in her life. “If there is anything CP has given me that is good,” she writes, “it is the opportunity to meet and fall in love with new chairs and new seats, to get to know them on first sit-dates as we discover what level of comfort will be offered to my body and how long the opportunity will last. . . . We get to know each other, the things we like, what we don’t, and because all great relationships have boundaries, we do, too” (26). Brown’s prose has a cheeky lightness here, but similar to Mel Chen’s reflections on how their multiple chemical sensitivity broadens their capacities for intimacy to non-human objects like their couch (Chen 2011), Brown’s love letter to chairs unsettles deeply held norms. She reveals how her disability produces eroticism with objects and devices, queering what constitutes desire and romantic love. She forwards a strident critique of ableist culture’s mandate that we deny ourselves comfort and push past pain at any cost, maintaining that “We have to rid ourselves of the idea that health means constant movement and that stillness is laziness” (29). If we are to allow our whole selves to be seen, Brown argues, representation of disability needs to include the pain of it, too.
Julia: Yes! Brown unpacks the ways that capitalism, as entangled with constructions of health, require endless movement and “moving forward.” Against this, chairs are rest; chairs are stillness. Brown asks, “Have you thanked a chair today?” (28). I’m pausing to thank my chair right now. It’s this casual provocation toward inter-human-object-dependence that makes Brown’s text a book of popular theory, the everyday crip romcom I crave. I value how Brown integrates her love of romcoms into this conversation about chairs as access support, where the protagonists doing a flirty dance are her and her chair. It made me a little shy about how intimate we are with chairs. Our junk touches! I am way more intimate with chairs than I am with most people, a true chair slut. This moment of the text really instilled me with some gleeful gratitude.
I have such an embodied response to chair romance as a cane user with chronic pain. The sight of a chair often compels me to take a deep breath, invoking feelings of longing, recognition, and relief. Even thinking of it now, I feel my chest muscles relax, sinking into the chair which comes up to meet me. Brown elaborates that the joy and relief in connection with chairs wouldn’t be possible without the pain, making them a specifically crip source of joy. I delight in the idea that we have a romcom that nondisabled people don’t.
Indira: I appreciate that Brown takes into account many different kinds of pain, including pain associated with depression and suicidality. In the essay, “I Like Me Now, Too,” Brown offers some insight into her spiritual journey regarding the wakefulness of her life, writing, “There’s something magical about wanting to live after you’ve wanted to die. . . . I can’t get that time back, but what I can do is work harder to nurture the love that I have fostered and make a conscious effort to keep going even when I feel the old me sneaking back up and trying to infiltrate the new life I have now” (233). Brown later notes that she resists the idea that she will ever “fully heal” from her depression and suicidality, implying that her journey is more around developing a different relationship to these struggles. She acknowledges a sense of progress around her mental health, but does not expect herself to perform a kind of hyperability around it. This is another moment where we witness Brown challenging a linear, ableist framework for healing.
Olivia: Brown’s reflections on her experiences around healing add poignant complexity to discourses against “cure” in disabled communities (see for instance Clare 2017). In an earlier essay, she meditates on how painful it has been that many people in her Christian community are invested in the idea of magically ridding her body of CP. In a profound clapback to ableist iterations of scripture, Brown argues that disabled bodies are a perfect part of life and afterlife, in no need of fixing. “Why can’t my spirit be disabled?” she protests, “It would be disabled and cute, afterall, so I don’t see the problem” (94).
In content and form, Brown writes against binaries of interdependence and independence, pain and cure, cuteness and ugliness, crafting a black disabled femme intervention into discourses around disability and aesthetics that is urgently needed. Brown’s text is inscribed with fantasy: she imagines rhetorical futures, engages playfully with form, cheekily embodies love stories with objects, and dreams of romantic connection, while holding the lived experience of black disabled suffering and pain. Her narrative is not unidirectional, but evolving, roots unfurling in many directions simultaneously. In the way that Kyla Wazana Tompkins describes theory as both descriptive of our world and speculative (2016), Brown crafts radically digestible theory, a YouTube guide for enacting radical crip self-love and a dream of a future where love for black disabled body-minds is abundant and ever-present.
Chen, Mel Y. 2011. “Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 17 (2–3): 265–86.
Clare, Eli. 2017. Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Durham: Duke University Press.
Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. 2019. Tonguebreaker: Poems and Performance Texts. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.
Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. 2016. “We Aren’t Here to Learn What We Already Know.” Avidly, September 13, 2016. https://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2016/09/13/we-arent-here-to-learn-what-we-know-we-already-know/
This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.
Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.
Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.