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Review by Conor Moynihan. Email: conor.g.moynihan@gmail.com

In the anthology Rated RX: Sheree Rose with and After Bob Flanagan (2020), editor Yetta Howard advances the thesis that Sheree Rose remains unduly marginalized both in relation to her collaborative and radical artwork that she made with her partner and BDSM slave, Bob Flanagan, who died of cystic fibrosis in 1996, and in the larger realm of art and performance histories. As Howard notes: “[p]art of what is at stake in this project is how Rose’s art addresses minoritarian embodiment and radical inhabitations of Dominant/submissive roles in the many forms that her feminist transgressions of power have taken” (3). To achieve this, Howard takes a rather radical and performative—one could even say curatorial—approach to argumentation by incorporating a variety of textual and imagistic pieces, including Sheree Rose’s own writings, the words of collaborators and critical perspectives (often, people fit in both of these categories), performative essays that dance obliquely around the themes and episodes highlighted in the text, and a wealth of images, reproductions, stills, and other documentation of Rose’s work as an artist, performer, collaborator, and subculture extraordinaire.

One of the central contentions of the text is to draw attention to the important role Sheree Rose played in her collaborative work with Bob Flanagan. As Rose recollects to Tina Takemoto, “[n]o one remembers my name. It’s always Bob’s name people remember . . . The thing that people don’t understand is that Bob was my invention” (48). This is Rose’s post-Bob statement, and the quotation that motivates Howard’s text, but it remains, throughout the anthology, only partially substantiated. Yes, clearly, Rose deserves more credit than she has been given. Did she make Flanagan fully, or did Flanagan help shape her too by receiving her Dominance with his submission? This is not to diminish or lessen the quality or stakes of this text, quite to the contrary, I write this to amplify the queer and crip radical potential this engenders. While lifting up Rose, we glimpse a new way of approaching art and performance, one where the singular (and often male, cis, and white) artist is decentered for a feminist, queer, and crip plurality that Rose embodies.

Throughout the text, there is a metaphor put forth of Rose being an irritant (to Flanagan, obviously, but to others) akin to the grain of sand that begets the pearl. There is a beautiful way that this book, through Howard’s approach, mirrors that effect. There is much mention of Rose’s brand of feminism, but little analysis of it. It involves appropriative tendencies like co-opting other spiritual traditions (the Hindu goddess Kali, for example) but is also trans-inclusive. Neither of these aspects gets picked up, we as the readers have to just sit within them and make of them as we will. This book also suggests the capacity to separate Rose from Flanagan, which neither happens nor feels necessary by the end. Further, throughout the contributions, the mediating roles of contract and consent are explored but never fully unpacked. In short, this book is irritating because it brings to light important and critical themes but does not digest them for us. It leaves us to do the unpacking, which is quite generous for an academic text.

There were a few points of true irritation. Howard sets up the text beautifully in her introduction with a wealth of critical disability studies scholars’ voices, texts, and ideas, layering them into her interpretation of Rose, Flanagan, and performance theory. Unfortunately, at no other point in the text is disability or crip theory returned to. Yes, disability is discussed and, yes, chronic illness is discussed, but these topics remain peripheral, even when they are central, because they lack the same critical attention they deserve (and are bestowed in the introduction). Both Amelia Jones and Harold Jaffe use the phrase “CF [cystic fibrosis] sufferers” in describing Flanagan and comparing the relatively long length of his life compared to others who died younger (105 and 174, respectively). This is worth mentioning because while there could be many interesting ways to analyze suffering, CF, and BDSM, this phrase was dropped on more than one occasion with little or no unpacking. In a book centered on illness and disability, it felt like a missed opportunity tinged with a hint of ableism and inspiration porn. Fortunately, these moments are few and dissipate beneath the rich and nuanced transcribed conversations about CF, BDSM, aging, mortality, disability, and illness between Howard, Rose, Martin O’Brien (Rose’s more recent collaborator who also lives with CF), and Rhiannon Aarons (135-151).

This book would be a welcome addition to a variety of fields including art history, performance studies, queer and LGBTQ studies, BDSM theory, Disability Studies, curatorial studies, and more. Not everyone can experience the Rose’s corpus of performance and photography live, but Howard’s inclusion of archival material combined with a plurality of scholarly and writerly voices will allow so many to be able to learn about and from Sheree Rose’s practice with and after Bob.

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.

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