Applying Queer Theory and Disability Studies in the Film ‘Margarita with a Straw’


According to Cambridge English Dictionary, a film consists of a series of moving pictures that have been recorded so that they can be shown at the cinema or the television. A film tells a story or shows a real situation. There is no clear start to the film making industry.

Film and literary theories have shared a close bond due to the strong visual characteristics of the film. In fact film has a wider range of audience than that of a book. So it is possible to note and study the rudiments of literary theories by watching and analyzing films.

The following project will primarily highlight two different literary theories and apply them to the film, ‘Margarita with a Straw’. Queer theory and disability studies, two theories that mainly affect the minority will be discussed and brought together.

Queer theory’s exact origin is hard to clearly mark, since it came from multiple critical and cultural contexts, including feminism, post structural theory, radical movements of people of colour, the gay and lesbian movements, AIDS activism, and many sexual sub cultural practices.

The word queer is often used as a noun or an adjective but in Queer Theory it is used as a verb. The word “Queer theory”, was first used by Teresa de Lauretis in her article “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities” which was published in the journal Differences in 1991.

The word queer was often used derogatorily in the 50s and 60s but today it has a different meaning. This is the result of the reappropriation of the term within the community. It may be used to describe the disputable sexual orientation of an individual or it could also mean a budding theoretical model which has developed out of lesbian or gay studies around 1991. Today queer theory is a well established academic discipline but not many people have much insight into it.

Queer theory is a framework of ideas that underline the fluid property of the individual’s identity with regard to sexuality. Another key concept of queer theory is heteronormativity. This is a worldwide view that promotes heterosexuality as a normal sexual orientation and is reinforced in the society through the institutions of marriage, employment, adoption rights etc. by doing so the homosexuals can be perceived as different and unacceptable in the society. It also highlights the limited representation of gay men and women in our culture and media.

Queer theory does not have a single perspective to it; it is as diverse as the members of the culture. Queer theory rejects conventional or mainstream behavior, including sexual identity and also a range of identities including race, disability and gender. It rejects the essentialist nature of theories of identity based on binary opposites like gay/straight and argues that there is another space outside which is queer.

Michael Foucault refuses to accept that sexuality can be clearly defined and instead focuses on the expansive production of sexuality within governments of power and knowledge. He says that power acts to make sexuality seem like a hidden truth that must be dug out and made specific.

Gayle Rubin’s essay “Thinking Sex” is often identified as one of the fundamental texts of queer theory. It continues Foucault’s rejection of biological explanations of sexuality by thinking about the way that sexual identities as well as behaviors are hierarchically organized through systems of sexual classifications. Rubin also argues against the feminist belief that through gender sexuality was obtained or the belief that gender and sexuality are the same.

Judith Butler, a key figure in queer theory due to the book ‘Gender Trouble’, argues that the idea of two biological sexes is just as socially constructed as gender is. She says that male and female behavior roles are not the result of biology but are constructed and reinforced by our society through media and culture. Gender is seen as a performance. She argues that gender trouble is caused by a number of exaggerated representations of masculinity and femininity.

Butler further says that feminism made an error by asserting that ‘women’ were a group with common characteristic and interests. That approach performed “an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations” reinforcing a binary view of gender relations. She argues that, rather than opening up possibilities for a person to form and choose their own individual identity, feminism had closed the options down.

Another theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes Queer Theory as: “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonance and resources, lapses and excessesof meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically”. She points out that the definitions of sexuality depend a lot on the gender of the romantic partner one makes making the assumption that the gender one has and the gender of the person one is attracted to make up the most important element of sexuality.

Analyzing with a queer perspective has the potential to undermine the base structure on which any identity relies on, this allows queer theory to be interdisciplinary and thus creates new ways of thinking in how sexuality is shaped by other factors.

The second theory discussed in this project is disability studies. When we think of the name disability studies we automatically think of someone who is cripple or a blind or a mentally retarded individual and the study about them. Contrary to all this, disability studies focuses on how disability is designed and / or reflected in the society. It does not refer to any medical condition, but the political construction and social identities. It discourages the notion of disability as impairment.

Disability studies began to emerge in the West in the late twentieth century as a result of the success of the disability rights movement, the seminal works of few scholars like Michael Foucault and Erving Goffman, and the flourishing of other interdisciplinary identity-based approaches that revealed compelling new aspects of humanities while emphasizing rights.

Just like queer theory, disability studies are also a young academic discipline. It is multidisciplinary. Disability studies offer a critical perspective with which to think differently about the way disability is constructed created and related in everyday life. It is the experience or perception of a person who is not considered equivalent to the rest of the population due to the small mindedness of the people. Labels of ‘normal’ or ‘disabled’, and those that come with the diagnosis of a disease create tensions that play out in the social and cultural environment of human reasoning.

In her 1998 manifesto for the field, ‘Claiming Disability’, Simi Linton said that it was important to use a social model for disability studies as it allowed disabled people to find a group identity despite many differences amongst them. This social model again helped the disabled to come together and collectively raise their voice for their rights.

While the social model has served as a core principle of the field as disability studies matured, leading theorists have called for a more nuanced approach. In 2002 Leonard J Davis argued that an insistence on social construction alone was intellectually unsatisfactory. Tom Shakespeare, while saying the social model was crucial, called for more sophisticated methods that recognizes disability as a phenomena “requiring different levels of analysis and intervention, ranging from the medical to the socio-political.” Even so some people who are legally considered as disabled have been uncomfortable with accepting the disability label due to the pervasive stigma associated around disability.

Today, disability is no more about a disfigured or malfunctioned body but it is about everybody. If no one is considered as ideal and everyone is thought of to have some or the other kind of disability it makes everyone equal. This is exactly what disability studies do. It also tries to restore the voices of those with physical, psychological and developmental disabilities and to ensure that they will have the loudest voices during the light of this movement.

Disability studies are mostly inspired by feminist studies, civil rights movement and postcolonial studies. Before this branch of studies, disabled people were considered to be reference point to gauge the so called normal individual’s flawlessness. Disability studies is similar to queer theory as the basic idea is to not think differently about the not so normal people of the society and accepting them into the society without any prejudice and considering them as our equal. It is mainly associated to people of the lower strata of the bifurcated society.

It also tells us that there is no difference between the ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ bodies. In fact in reality there is only imperfection in all human beings. And it is all these imperfections that come together and make people perfect. So that makes no man different from another. The main propaganda of the disability studies is to make us understand that people with disabilities are normal and impairment through disease or injury is normal for human beings.

Tobin Siebers is the theorist and author behind disability theory. Siebers makes good use of theoretical and cultural studies approach to disability to historicize the disabled body against the tendency to treat disability as a metaphor for something else. In his book ‘Disability Theory’, Siebers explains disability theory as engaging in three intermingling agendas: “an intervention from the perspective of disability studies”, “an extended discussion of the broad means by which disability relates to representation itself” and “disability as a minority identity”.

Based on Goffman’s insights, Rosemarie Garland Thomson in her book ‘Extraordinary Bodies’, coined the term “normate” to describe an idealized position that has dominance and authority in society. In practice scholars in disability studies mostly emphasized on the cultural aspects of disability, the field and policy makers largely embraced an understanding that encompasses both biology and culture.

We see that today’s society is more learned and they have sympathy towards all kind of disabled people. Unlike olden times disability is not considered as a curse or a punishment from God for their wrong doings. People have become more willing to help and understand the feelings of the disabled. There have been several centers for disability that have been made so as to promote the disabled in the society. Most of the cities in our country have been aiming to become disable friendly. But again the scenario sees a total shift when moved to the rural community of India. Here the disabled are made to feel worse. They are discriminated and considered to be lowly. The disabled are believed to be unintelligent and they do not get to express their opinion in any matters, even their personal affairs.

In the film, ‘Margarita with a Straw’ successfully portrays both queer theory and disability studies through its protagonist Laila. Laila has cerebral palsy which impairs her motor functions but not her intelligence. Laila becomes open and confident enough to experiment with her sexuality. She does not allow herself to be persuaded by the societal norms and do as her parents want her to. She becomes brave enough to accept her bisexual orientation even though she admits to be scared about it in the beginning.

Three of the major characters in this film are disabled. Laila suffers from cerebral palsy, Khanum is a blind and Dhruv is also confined to a wheelchair. Three of these characters successfully breaks the usual barriers that the society normally keeps for the disabled and celebrate their sexuality. Queerness was once considered to be a disability and sexuality of a disabled was nonexistent but in this film both these phenomenal are seen working together and celebrating the growth of the character.

Laila’s bisexuality and her journey through self discovery along with her physical disability and mental baggage makes her one of the best character to be taken into consideration for a dual analysis of queer theory and disability studies.

The following chapters will do a detailed analysis of the character Laila and her journey through queerness and disability.

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