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In this episode, I am hosting Zeynep Serinkaya Winter. We will discuss the gendered representations of disability in the Turkish cinema, focusing on melodramas produced between 1960 and 1980. Zeynep reveals how disability and gender intersect to signify bodies as spaces of modernization and consolidation of the nation-state project.
Zeynep is a social scientist with an interdisciplinary background, currently working on digital dissidence, queer movements in Turkey and digital intimate publics. She completed her master’s degree in the Comparative Studies in History and Society Program at Koç University. Zeynep has also been actively involved in civil society work, advocating for freedom of expression. She is a founding member of the Civic Space Studies Association and the co-coordinator and translator for LGBTI News Turkey, where she occasionally contributes as a writer. Her translations have also appeared in publications such as Cogito and Jacobin. Currently, she continues her doctoral studies in the Design, Technology and Society program at Koç University.
Zeynep’s research depicts the genre of melodrama as conducive to the enmeshment of ableism, hetero-patriarchy and nationalism. Melodrama’s sensationalist nature, coupled with its simplistic depiction of events and character development, can be seen as an infrastructure of essentialist representations reproducing ableism, hetero-patriarchy and nationalism.
Zeynep highlights the fact that Turkish melodramas responded to the side effects of modernization efforts of Early Republican Turkey. The rapid industrialization, urbanization, state-led rise of a national bourgeoisie, internal migration from rural to urban areas had led to urban sprawl, poverty and a disenchanted working class. Melodramas became the medium through which emotions arising from these complex social events can be filtered and reduced to a dichotomy of traditional values vs modern lifestyles. A middle class consisting of able bodies is the golden mean of representation in melodramas, through which hetero-patriarchal gender norms are reproduced.
By drawing upon eugenic discourses that had been circulating amongst the intelligentsia, Turkish melodramas marginalize both extreme richness and extreme poorness. Melodramas equate both with moral corruptions such as excessive drinking, overt sexualization, or gluttony and idleness. People living at these extremes are marked as undesired citizens via grotesque demonization or extreme victimization. For example, the image of a rich woman excessively drinking signifies that woman as a villain who does extreme evil deeds to separate the hero and the heroine. On the other hand, the image of a poor woman excessively drinking signifies that woman as a victim whose subjectivity had been completely erased by every unfortunate event that happened to her.
Gendered representations of disability are incorporated into melodramas as a crucial narrative tool to perpetuate hetero-patriarchal norms. For example, melodramas equate mobility impairment with asexuality or sexual dysfunction. As Zeynep puts it: “Wheelchair users are often depicted as failing from performing their gender roles, as a husband that satisfies his wife or as a wife that can be procreated with.” Moreover, bodies that are marked as female and male experience different effects of disability in Turkish movies. For example, female blindness means vulnerability to male sexual aggression. Blind women are depicted as in need of male protection and care. Male blindness, on the other, means loss of patriarchal control over women.