Disability as Self-conscious Performance

By Xie Yihui

Seeing Thunder (Thunder) and Aunt Lotus & Her Dream Bicycle (Lotus) both present and question narratives of disability. The films start with disabled protagonists struggling to make sense of their identities, but they eventually come to terms with it, aided by imaginative performance. Yet, Lotus differs from Thunder in the sense that it presents more shackles surrounding disabled identity, showing how it ultimately cannot escape from pre-existing clichés. 

In the two films, understanding one’s disabled identity is an audience-aware experience. Each individual’s disabled identity is tied to a specific perspective. In Thunder, the protagonists with hearing disability see their identities either from the lens of the hearing or deaf world: “In the hearing world, I identify myself as deaf,” one protagonist says. “And I identify as hard-of-hearing to the deaf community, ” says another. The stage metaphor is more explicit in Lotus. The producers assess a team of candidates auditioning for a movie role who is blind. The scene is dominated by a question: “Do you think you’d make a good actress for this role?” 

Aunt Lotus auditioning for the movie role.

All of these point to this single idea: Disability is a form of performance. When people think about disability, there is a certain kind of plot in their minds. So disabled identity is under scrutiny. Lotus shows hopeful candidates acting awkwardly. Their inexperience is palpable, and their happiness or anger contrived. The director later says that he wants “realism” from their performance. This “realism” is less about realness but more about performing his script—he wants a disabled person who can skillfully perform the script he imagined about their lives, which he later proves to know little about. Thunder has an interesting parallel where one character asks the (actual) producer to repeat because he cannot hear. This implies that he is also presenting himself as a disabled role for this documentary film. 

Characters perform for non-disabled audiences and there is a sense they do not meet the preconceived standards. In Lotus, the auditioning candidates fall short of the producing team’s expectation, with one exception, Aunt Lotus, who brings her genuine longing to reconnect with her estranged son to her performance. In doing so, she creates her own script that is nothing like the original one. The rule of thumb: “Act like you are not acting.” 

Pretending is hard when you have real constraints. As shown in Thunder, a hard-of-hearing person cannot pretend they can hear all the time; and their ability to hear and speak disqualifies them from becoming Deaf. (Here the capitalized “Deaf” refers to being culturally Deaf, instead of the inability to hear.) Falling short of both standards creates a sense of failure, which makes them feel that they are “a ghost that is trapped.” They are neither here nor there, not belonging anywhere. 

In between deaf and hearing worlds, he is stuck.

In forging and affirming one’s identity in performance, characters in both films resort to imaginative performance. Performance does not mean disingenuity. It takes creativity to rewire your past experience and tweak it into new forms. In Lotus, the producer’s line is ironic: “I feel that your performance lacks imagination.” While it reflects a society trying to fit disabled bodies into a preconceived mold, it also suggests that performing one’s identity requires some creativity to make this performance work. (Any kind of identity isis performative anyway). Answering “who I am” takes creativity. Thunder’s reframing of its its sound and visuals is an exemplification of creativity. When one protagonist describes how they understand sound, they state they focus on visuals and feel vibrations. So they see, instead of hear, thunder.  The characters are able to own their in-betweener identity, accepting that they do not experience the world as others do. In Lotus, the desire to ride a bicycle and Aunt Lotus’ inability to, prompts her to rearrange her space radically. She rides a spin bike with soil all over the floor and scented bags hanging from a a ceiling fan. She recreates her dream in a room of her own. 

Aunt Lotus’ imagination runs free in her room.

The two films differ in how they present clichés of disability. At the end of Thunder, both characters are assertive of their agency in creating identities, albeit not without some struggles. One of them says that they are able to fit into both the Deaf and the hearing worlds, because they can perform in accordance to their standards. In other words they behave slightly differently—silent laughs for deaf friends and loud ones for the hearing community. Both protagonists see the identity as uniquely their own, free from established clichés.  

However, in Lotus, clichés are deemed as necessary for disability stories. This is telling from how the film eventually uses the “dream” trope that the producer vehemently dislikes. The film shows Aunt Lotus’ memory or dream of riding a bike on a forest path with her son, a return to the past necessary for fulfilling her bike-riding wish. But now she’s blind and her son barely comes home. A re-enactment of this memory is impossible. Yet seeing our protagonist doing what they dream of doing at the end of a film is cathartic, even if it seems delusional. That tells us something—perhaps this irony indicates the inevitability of these elements in disability narratives and the need for people to see the “overcoming” of disability in some way. 

Aunt Lotus rides a bicycle in her dream or memory.

Eventually, the sense of performativity is heightened in Lotus, where the character performs in her dream as her former self, devoid of disabilities (it is unclear whether it is a memory or a dream). However, performativity reduces as the other film progresses, and the movie’s soundtrack corresponds with the characters’ description of sound. The close-up shots of the characters and our intimate exploration of their inner worlds bring us closer to them as themselves, and not as fictional characters. Snapshots of their lives—sitting at the beach, playing games with friends, watching movies in bed. The intimacies and closeness dilute the sense of performance, creating a “realism” that the production team in Lotus is looking for. That shows that, perhaps, realism in disability narratives lies in staying true to disabled experiences.

Seeing Thunder’s protagonists were able to claim identities of their own.


About the Writer

Xie Yihui is a philosophy major from Yale-NUS College. She is spending a semester at Gallaudet University this fall and joining Bloomberg as a reporter next year. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of The Octant, her college’s independent newspaper. When free, Yihui enjoys a good conversation over an oat milk latte or a Teh-C-kosong.




The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

About the Writer