Fandom, Shame, and Identification in Morrissey's 'Disability-Chic Movement'

Fandom, Shame, and Identification in Morrissey's 'Disability-Chic Movement'
Conference Name
Cripples, Idiots, Lepers, and Freaks: Extraordinary Bodies/Extraordinary Minds
Host Institution
CUNY Graduate Center
New York
United States
Conference date
Fri, 03/23/2012
Conference Name
Cripples, Idiots, Lepers, and Freaks: Extraordinary Bodies/Extraordinary Minds
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Part of Morrissey’s iconic wardrobe during his four years as singer and lyricist for the subculture-defining 1980s British indie-rock band The Smiths was a large, outdated hearing aid. He featured it prominently during photo-shoots and television performances to complement his no-frills glasses from the National Health Service, his blouses from “plus-size” women’s clothing shops, and the bunches of daffodils and gladioli sticking out of his back pants-pocket. His cultish fans adopted many of these affectations, including the hearing aid. It was, he told an interviewer, “part of the disability-chic movement that I created” (Keeps).

The genesis of this accessory is unclear. This paper explores several of Morrissey’s more and less serious explanations in relation to his performance of other stigmatized traits and identities—bookish, nerdy, anachronistic, Aestheticist, queer (which he is), working-class, poor (which he was), and a fat woman (which he is not). I argue that by aestheticizing and eroticizing markers of shame, Morrissey uses what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls its “experimental, creative, performative force” to perform reparative emotional work on himself and his fans and encourages identification and a recognition of intersectionality among the salon des refuses that comprises his fan-base (4).

One common theory understands the hearing aid as an homage to Johnnie Ray, the queer, alcoholic British crooner of the 1950s known in the tabloids as “the nabob of sob” and “the prince of wails,” just as Morrissey is sometimes called “the pope of mope.” A Smiths’ employee convinced a medical supply depository to lend him the non-functioning display model by dropping Ray’s name (Goddard 100-1). In the same way Morrissey used flowers to link himself with Oscar Wilde, this affectation allowed Morrissey to act out some of the complex projective and introjective identifications that comprise his relationships with the objects of his fandom. It allowed him to display his sense of himself as wounded and defective without having to name any too-specific defect or wound. Similarly, by identifying himself with this icon or divo, he could project intolerable parts of himself into him, where, borrowing the divo’s aura and resources, they might be (a) transvalued from shaming to elevating, and (b) in the safety of the divo’s fabulousness lavished with loving, reparative concern.

In 1984, the year Morrissey’s hearing-aid really took off, he said in an interview that it was a gesture of solidarity with a hearing-impaired fan who had told him of her depression in a letter. “I thought it would be a nice gesture … to show the fan that deafness shouldn’t be some sort of stigma that you try to hide. Basically, I was trying to give her a bit of confidence in herself” (qtd in Bret 52). Morrissey explicitly reversed the direction of fandom here, feeling himself called by his own fans to invite their own reparative identification with him. In turn, he helped confirm for himself that he, too, possessed the fabulousness of a divo.

In the same year he more flippantly told an interviewer who had asked about his ear-piece, “I'm afraid it was the old prop, the old hearing aid implement to gain audience sympathy, if such a thing is possible” (Van Poznack). Here, the hearing aid as embodiment of his wounded, needy demand for love dangerously skirts misappropriation of the identity of people with disabilities, a charge also leveled at his 1990 solo recording “November Spawned a Monster.” Without trying to settle the question, I oppose to this criticism the aggression with which this song confronts its listeners with the reality of its speaker’s—a girl in a wheelchair with unspecified ailments—physical difference and of her loathing of the “pity, sympathy, and people discussing me” it provokes.

Also potentially vulnerable to this criticism is perhaps Morrissey’s most flippant but most significant explanation of the hearing aid, quoted in part above: “It was purely sexual, part of the disability-chic movement I created.” What this explanation gets at is how, by aestheticizing and eroticizing markers of difference and shame, Morrissey promotes recognition of intersectionality among his fans—misfits, queers, young chicano Californians, what used to be called “sensitivos”—but more than that, sponsors a subculture, a salon des refusés, whose members identify with and adopt the stigmas of their compatriots and broadcast aggressively both the brute fact of their presence and the aesthetics and erotics of their transvaluation. 

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