Nervous Systems: Part 6

This part is being published to coincide with Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) 2016.

Previously: Parts 1, 2, 34, and 5. Image descriptions can be found below the .jpgs, under the “read more” tag; click the images for larger versions.


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Panel 1: Anna stands in front of a wavy psychedelic background and is overjoyed at not being in pain.

Text: Ironically, going to the E.R. was at that point one of the only times that I felt like my pain was taken seriously at all.

Thought bubble: Wow, I am not in pain AT ALL!

Panel 2: Author Paula Kamen speaks about gender and pain.

Text: As feminist writer Paula Kamen (2005) argues, there is a long history of gender essentialism connected to pain and its treatment (or lack thereof!).

Speech bubble, Paula: Just because women in pain outnumber men in pain does not mean that we are weaker!

Asterisk: This is not a direct quote.

Panel 3: A “man” symbol stands against a white background.

Text: Men are usually expected to be stoic when faced with pain; on the whole, however, they seem to get adequate treatment.

Footnote: Kamen 67-70.

Panel 4: Two images of Anna experiencing pain. The Anna on the left is labeled “Actual Circumstance,” and the Anna on the right is labeled “What Some People Hear.”

Text: Women, meanwhile, are societally encouraged to talk about their problems, but are also taken less seriously when they “complain” of chronic pain.

Speech bubble, Actual Circumstance Anna: EVERYTHING HURTS.

Speech bubble, What Some People Hear Anna: Whine whine whine whine whine

Footnote: Kamen 69; Groopman 2000.

Panel 5: An abstract image of different hands—black and white—reaching up toward the top of the panel.

Text: There are race-based factors, too: people of color are, statistically, the most undertreated when it comes to chronic pain.

Footnote: Dube 2010.

Panel 6: A large image of a dollar sign dominates the panel.

Text: Poor people disproportionately suffer from chronic pain and other disabling health issues.

Footnote: Barker 2005.

Panel 7: Anna rolls her eyes; only the top half of her face is visible.

Text: Contrary to popular belief, chronic (and oftentimes invisible) pain is not just a problem that affects…

Panel 8: Anna looks worried, as she realizes that her diagnosis of fibromyalgia does not really go against the stereotype of people who have been diagnosed with chronic pain.

Text: …middle-class, white women.

Speech bubble, Anna: Whoops.


Panel 1: Anna angrily reacts as she sees an ad for a pharmaceutical product aimed at fibromyalgia patients.

Text: One might not guess this based on the TV ads for drugs used to treat, say, fibromyalgia.

Speech bubble, TV ad: FYE-BRO-MY-ALL-GEE-AH


Panel 2: Text featuring the names of various chronic illnesses—rheumatoid arthritis, MS, complex regional pain syndrome, Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia–fills the frame.

Text: Many chronic and “invisible” health problems have a wide cross-section, but are still stigmatized—particularly when physical pain enters the picture—as “women’s” exclusive complaints.

Panel 3: Anna considers some of the issues with the popular imagination defining these illnesses as only being women’s illnesses.

Text: Illnesses that primarily affect women are usually not viewed as important, or as deserving of something other than scorn, mockery, or non-paternalistic treatment.

Speech bubble, Anna: There also seems to be little attention paid to men and gender-variant people with these conditions, which has problems.

Panel 4: Image of the nonfiction book For Her Own Good.

Text: Feminist writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English wrote a book on similar topics in the 1970s. The authors trace medical science’s often tumultuous relationship to women’s bodies and health.

Panel 5: Image that references Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper; a woman in a bed (enduring the “rest cure” for hysteria) sees a woman in the wallpaper, struggling to get out.

Text: Unsurprisingly, the medical community’s treatment of women has, in many cases, been a gold mine of sexism. Think of hysteria and neurasthenia, for instance.

Speech bubble, protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper: A woman in the wallpaper!

Speech bubble, woman in the wallpaper: LET ME OUT!

Panel 6: Various speech bubbles, all containing phrases that people with chronic pain commonly hear: Get over it; Suck it up; Everyone has problems; Have you tried POSITIVE THINKING?

Text: Pain medicine, certainly, has improved over the years—as has the medical community’s attitudes regarding chronic pain—but some attitudes, meanwhile, have proven difficult to shake in mainstream culture.

Panel 7: Image of an equation—woman symbol + pain = ?

Text: Some feminists have uncritically adopted mainstream beliefs about pain, and people in pain.

Panel 8: Anna lies on the ground, disgruntled; it looks as if she has fallen and has been left behind by people unseen. She sarcastically and angrily responds to this.

Text: The notion that women’s chronic pain is not a feminist issue continues to dominate.

Bottom text: In their zeal to celebrate women’s bodies as powerful, some feminists have left women in pain in the figurative dust.

Speech bubble, Anna: OKAAAAY.


Panel 1: Equations featuring the “man” and “woman” symbols associated with brain and body, respectively, equals GENDER ESSENTIALISM ALL OF THE TIME.

Text: Biological essentialism—and the connection of “woman” with “body”—has been an issue that feminists have grappled with for a long time.

Panel 2/Footnote: A quote from Price and Shildrick’s essay “Openings on the Body: A Critical Introduction” (1999).

Text and quote As Price and Shildrick write: “Given the putative links between a natural femininity and incapacity [that] worked so efficiently in the interests of patriarchal oppression…many first-wave writers…saw equality as predicated on the need to go beyond biology, to stress instead the potential of women for intellectual achievement regardless of troublesome bodies (3-4).”

Panel 3: Image of a “standard” body.

Text: Many feminist narratives have aimed to reclaim women’s bodies by taking apart such traditional thinking.

Bottom text: The type of body deemed worthy of celebration, however, is still rather limited.

Panel 4: Image of a Super Feminist who stands proudly while wearing a “woman” symbol t-shirt and superhero cape. Text marks her as SUPER FEMINIST! Healthy! Pretty! Can do EVERYTHING!

Text: The “powerful” woman’s body is, on the whole, one that conforms to conventionally abled and “attractive” norms…and is usually cisgendered, thin, and white to boot.

Panel 5: Super Feminist condescendingly pats Anna on the head.

Text: In the attempt to reclaim women’s bodies as strong, powerful, and worthy, certain bodies have been ignored or pushed aside.

Speech bubble, Super Feminist: Love your body!

Speech bubble, Anna: My body causes me pain, though…

Panel 6: Anna lies on the ground in pain as the Super Feminist scolds her.

Text: Disabled bodies—and bodies in pain—have often been ignored by “love your body” rhetoric, and by many feminists as well. In the rush to refute biological essentialism, who has been left out, or forgotten?

Speech bubble, Super Feminist: Women’s bodies are STRONG!

Speech bubble, Anna: Uh-huh.

Panel 7: Anna lies on the ground, in extreme pain.

Text: As Susan Wendell (2001) contends, feminism has created its own expectation of an “ideal” body: “Good feminists, like ‘good’ women everywhere, are supposed to give [until] it hurts…” (24-25)

Speech bubble, Anna: It HURTS. Can I, like, take a break now?

Panel 8: Anna sarcastically responds to feminist “skepticism” of chronic pain conditions.

Text: Some feminists have made no bones about their “skepticism” of certain health conditions.

Speech bubble, Anna: FANTASTIC.


Panel 1: Elaine Showalter talks about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Text: Literary scholar Elaine Showalter, for example, famously dismissed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as a media-driven “psychogenic epidemic” (117) in her 1997 book Hystories.

Speech bubble, Elaine Showalter: CFS is [indicative of] fin de siècle anxiety.

Panel 2: Anna takes exception to Showalter’s theories.

Text: Her offensive characterization did not stop there: People with CFS are “often hostile to psychiatric or social explanations” of their illness (128).

Speech bubble, Anna: I wonder WHY.

Text: Showalter also writes that “emotions have tremendous power over the body (117)”

Speech bubble, Anna: …nicely implying that CFS is caused by emotional issues.

Panel 3: Anna gestures to a fainting couch in the background of the panel.

Text: Oddly, she [Showalter] also used the term “hysteria” in that book to categorize CFS as a non-illness, and to paint those with it as media-influenced dupes.

Speech bubble, Anna: I think we all know where this is going.

Panel 4: Anna speaks directly to the reader, book in hand.

Speech bubble, Anna: It looks like I’ll be needing that fainting couch real soon, myself, if I have to read more of this drivel.

Panel 5: Anna continues to speak directly to the viewer.

Speech bubble, Anna: I guess using the word “hysteria” to describe a disabling health problem that affects mostly women is totally cool when a feminist does it! Sheesh.

Panel 6: Anna continues to speak.

Speech bubble, Anna: Showalter also equates CFS with fibro (118), even though they are TWO DIFFERENT CONDITIONS!

Panel 7: Anna throws the book to the side.

Speech bubble, Anna: Forget this. I’m not giving her a pass just because she’s an influential feminist.

Panel 8: Anna smiles as she imagines being able to set Hystories on fire using lasers that shoot from her eyes.

Text: Certainly, it is important to look at social and cultural factors of illness and disability; this does not mean that illness and disability are not real.


Panel 1: Names of various academic disciplines: sociology, ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, queer studies, media studies and theory, history, and cultural studies.

Text: The concept of “social construction” is one that gets utilized frequently in area studies, the social sciences and Humanities.

Panel 2: Anna speaks directly to the reader.

Text: Generally, the phrase “social construct” or “social construction” refers to the idea that many things we take for granted as “normal” and/or “natural…

Speech bubble, Anna: …such as gender roles, race, health, and ability, are actually constituted by social factors.

Panel 3: Images that represent abstract concepts: government, the nuclear family, the media, and cultural values.

Text: In short, things that appear to be “normal” are made so by cultural, social, and political processes and institutions.

Panel 4: Anna holds a sign with the word WHITE and an arrow pointing at herself.

Text: Social constructionism, as a concept, can be very useful in analyzing stuff that we might otherwise brush off as “the way things are.”

Speech bubble, Anna: Race, for example, is not based in biology, but is created and sustained by social relations.

Panel 5: Image of an anti-trans radical feminist.

Text: However, like many theoretical ideas, it can also be misapplied as well.

Speech bubble, radical feminist: Gender is socially constructed—therefore, trans people do not/should not exist!

Bottom text: –Radical feminist talking point

Panel 6: A cheerful liberal feminist.

Text: Unfortunately, some feminists have completely misapplied this concept to illness—particularly those that are not visible—in the race to disavow essentialism and the notion that women are physically inferior to men.

Speech bubble, feminist: You can’t be sick and in pain! Women are strong!

Panel 7: Image of two books, Going Mad by Kate Millet and Women and Madness by Phyllis Chessler

Text: As Andrea Nicki writes in her essay “The Abused Mind,” some radical feminists used a similar strategy with regards to mental illness during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Footnote text: Truly the gift that keeps on giving!

Panel 8: Abstract image of the human ribcage.

Text: Nicki writes of anorexia, “Those educated in social and cultural factors [of illness] may…not view [an anorectic’s] condition as a debilitating illness, perhaps unsympathetically attributing to her an extremely conformist mentality” (84).


Panel 1: Anna interacts with a fellow feminist.

Text: You can probably guess why this whole “x as only a social construction” business gives me cause for concern.

Speech bubble, feminist: “Fibromyalgia” is a social construction CREATED by the patriarchy to make women think they’re sick!

Speech bubble, Anna: Oh, I knew that was next.

Panel 2: An invisible hand, meant to be the “hand of the patriarchy” referred to in the panel text, pats Anna on the head.

Text: For one thing, it reduces people—women in particular—with chronic, often debilitating conditions like CFS and fibro to agency-free cultural dupes who are easily led by the hand of patriarchy.

Speech bubble, Anna: EVERYTHING HURTS.

Panel 3: Anna sarcastically screams “FETCH ME MY FAINTING COUCH!”

Text: It also suggests—perhaps inadvertently—that by simply having health conditions that feature pain and fatigue as symptoms, we are somehow letting “the sisterhood” down because we are, accidentally, fulfilling stereotypes of women.

Panel 4: An exhausted Anna lies on a fainting couch as someone points at her.

Text: As Nicki points out (85), this sort of reasoning can easily cross the line into blaming ill people for conditions that are not their fault.

Speech bubble, pointing person: Malingerer! You must GET SOMETHING out of being sick.

Speech bubble, Anna (sarcastic): Okay, thanks for clearing that up.

Thought bubble, Anna: FUCK YOU

Panel 5: Various faces parrot mainstream beliefs about people with chronic pain.

Text: When it comes to mainstream ideas about pain, illness, and fatigue, such thinking is not exactly new, liberatory, or feminist.

Speech bubbles: Hysterical, positive thinking, But what if it IS your fault? Whiner, secondary gain, psychosomatic b.s., stupid, psychological problems, shut up, drug addict, ha ha ha, typical attention-seeking female.

Panel 6: s.e. smith, with cat companion.

Text: Writer s.e. smith sums up the wider public opinion on fibromyalgia thusly:

Speech bubble/quote, s.e.: [Fibro] is often assumed to be a specifically “female” complaint, and it’s laden with the double burden of being a “faker’s disease” in the eyes of the American public, who are apparently incredibly knowledgeable about illnesses[…]

Footnote: See smith 2010.

Panel 7: A New York Times headline from January 14, 2008: “Drug Approved. Is Disease Real?” with an arrow denoting “Actual headline”

Text: The media treatment of chronic pain (and conditions that affect women in greater numbers) has not helped.

Footnote: See Thernstrom 2010; Scarry 1988.

Panel 8: A random dudebro wants to share his opinion.

Top text: If anything, it’s made some people who don’t deal with pain believe that they “know” a lot about it from, say, reading a few articles.

Speech bubble, random dudebro: I know all about pain! I read this article in…

Bottom text: …some are NOT shy about sharing.