Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Life on Wheels: Disability, Democracy, and Political Inclusion in Live Flesh and the Sea Inside

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Life on Wheels: Disability, Democracy, and Political Inclusion in Live Flesh and the Sea Inside

Article excerpt

The article explores how the representation of disability in two Spanish films elucidates the connection between democracy and political inclusion. Pedro Almodóvar's Carne trémula (Live Flesh, 1997) depicts Spain's transition to democracy, while Alejandro Amenábar's Mar adentro (The Sea Inside, 2004) portrays the life of Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic pro-euthanasia activist. Both films treat disability as a minority identity from which critical scrutiny of the contemporary democratic state emerges; yet they offer very different assessments of the political value of that identity. Carne trémula aligns disability with larger cultural transformation, demonstrating how the inclusion of people with disabilities might foster a more democratic political climate for all citizens. Mar adentro, by focusing solely on individual rights, presents disability as something to be accommodated but not a force for broader social change. Examined together, the films offer a framework for rethinking the roles of both disability and minority identity within democracy.

"Democracy is not just about rights; it is about belonging to, and in, a selfgoverning community" (135), asserts Stephanie Golob in a recent appraisal of ongoing political and cultural struggles over Spain's transition to democratic governance. Her insistence that a defining feature of democracy is the inclusion of diverse constituencies in the category of the citizen resonates with the work of disability scholars, who claim that the political inclusion of people with disabilities creates a more democratic social landscape for everyone. As Tobin Siebers puts it, disability is a "resource for thinking about fundamental democratic principles such as inclusiveness and participation" (93); Michael Bérubé, meanwhile, argues that a rigorous theoretical understanding of disability will "expand the possibilities of democracy" (53). Spain provides a unique (and often overlooked) opportunity to consider these claims because much contemporary Spanish cultural production continues to engage with the legacy of dictator Francisco Franco, who governed from 1936 to 1975, and with the democratization process following his death. This article examines two films that include disability in their assessments of Spanish democracy: Pedro Almodóvar's Carne trémula (Live Flesh, 1997) and Alejandro Amenábar's Mar adentro (The Sea Inside, 2004). Both use disability to explore the relationship between political inclusion and the practice of democracy.

While Amenábar's Mar adentro is well known (and widely criticized) in English- speaking disability communities for its controversial depiction of assisted suicide, Carne trémula is one of Almodóvar's less commercially successful films and is relatively unknown to non-Spanish-speaking audiences. Mar adentro's success in the United States is partly attributable to the fact that it offered a pro-euthanasia message at a time when the Terri Schiavo case brought national attention to assisted suicide.1 Carne trémula, on the other hand, deals more explicitly with Spanish politics and assumes an audience that is familiar with Spanish history. However, the films share important similarities, beginning with the fact that nondisabled actor Javier Bardem plays the disabled protagonist in each. Furthermore, the production of Carne trémula and Mar adentro coincides with important moments in Spanish politics and in Bardem's career.

The release dates of the two films bracket the democratically elected government of the right-wing Partido Popular (PP), which governed Spain from 1996 until 2004. Spanish disability scholars and activists claim that PP policies did not serve the interests of people with disabilities. Examining advertisements for Spain's largest disability organization, the government-funded Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles (ONCE), María José Gámez Fuentes notes that ONCE's post-1996 ads represented disabled workers as "just like everyone else," ignoring bodily differences, the prevalence of job discrimination, and the resulting need for political protection. …

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