chasing life: sex, gender, cancer

Lately, I’ve been following abcSpark’s new show, Chasing Life. It’s about a young woman diagnosed with Leukemia at 24. It’s about her experience: what’s happening, who she tells, how her family and friends handles her illness- in both awesome ways and shitty ways, the cancer-friends she makes, the insane complications and heartbreaking moments. It’s got its fair share of problems I could dissect as someone committed to a feminist analysis of media texts…. but as another young adult with cancer, I love it. They get a lot of things right- the anxiety about telling, the over-caring and the under-caring, the fertility preservation issues, the total crap that chemo is, the lifelines that cancer-friends become even though you’ve known them for such a short period of time, the weird and hopeful naturopathic treatments.

One of my very own friends who has really ridden the cancer roller coaster with me, someone who has come to almost as many appointments as Sammy, who has heard the good, gross, and horrific, who has shown up always even though it was hard, has been watching Chasing Life alongside me. I did have to suppress the familiar feelings of critical engagement when I first saw this scene, but I did suppress them, if only so I could stay engrossed in the story, until that very own friend of mine who’s ridden the cancer roller coaster with me brought it up again.

The scene is this: In episode 8, the group of cancer-friends get together. One of the young women- one portrayed as always very sweet, with a scarf on her (presumably) bald head, is about to live out one of her life long dreams. The cancer-friends gather in a strip-bar. And suddenly, we see this always-sweet-always-scarf girl on stage, wearing a fabulous and luxurious, long, blonde wig. She’s pole-dancing. She’s taking it off. Because we know she has cancer and is so sweet (and presumably innocent because she’s sick) her pole-dancing is pretty much absolutely adorable, her friends are thrilled for her, and this one rich, white-boy cancer-friend who supposedly makes all his cancer-friends’ dreams come true with financial gifts (he paid for the main characters’ fertility treatments, anonymously, and took another cancer-friend on a trip he’d always wanted to go on pre-death) shines as the humble but sweet and so generous star- he arranged  this opportunity for the sweet cancer friend to pole-dance. And then Ms. Stripping/Pole-dancing does the thing that makes us love her even more: she whips off her wig to cheers of “Take it all off!!” You can watch it here on Youtube- it starts at minute 18. 

OK. So my first thought, when I watched this scene, was- YES SHE IS SEXY. YES SHE CAN BE SEXY WHILE SHE HAS CANCER. YES SHE WANTS TO BE SEXY WHILE SHE HAS CANCER. I was happy to see a representation of cancer as normatively sexy, and excited to talk to my cancer-friends about how cancer = not sexy, and there was this Chasing Life moment to talk all about sexy, cancer, gender, desire. So what does it mean for a young woman with cancer to want to be looked at, to want to place herself in a situation where others see her as sexy, to dare others to see her as a sexual being? What does it mean to be able to acknowledge those kinds of desires? I mean so many people have them and ignore them, and here we have a media representation of a sick girl throwing her sexuality in your face in a normative way, in a way we are accustomed to seeing healthy, hot, hyper-sexualized young women?

My dear appointment-attending-always-showing-up-even-when-it-was-hard friend, though, she called me and was horrified at how this young woman could only be tentatively sexy because she’s the “godly” and nun-like character, the one who could do no wrong- she does embody the typical good-girl persona, the one who could never do any wrong. There is a serious problem in our world, where young women’s sexuality is persistently denied, framed as dangerous, racialized, and otherized. We police girls and young womens’ bodies with school dress codes, decisions about what’s “appropriate,” and regulations and standards that dictate how young women should move, who can be sexual, how whiteness and upper-class-ness correlate to a latent but private sexuality. This scene played into many of those  stereotypes.

Yet, I’m not ready to give it up. There is a way in which in contemporary media culture, sick and disabled bodies are not sexual bodies. Sick bodies are rarely cast as desirable bodies: rather, they are to be taken care of, they need help, they are infantilized when everyone else knows what is better. Sex is rarely discussed by doctors, though sex conversation runs rampant in young adult cancer circles. There’s an undercurrent, but when have you seen a body so medicalized as bodies are when they have cancer, also take up normative representations of what is sexy? Rarely.

It’s an interesting conversation for me, because sex, gender, and cancer all circulate around the body. As someone who has had breast cancer, my cancer feels like it embodies all of the conversations surrounding gender, image and sex in new ways. I am mostly left with questions, as I rethink this sexy pole-dancer scene. Sure, I might have liked it more if she had some kind of sex desire that was totally non-normative. But would I have even recognized it as sexy? What I can definitely recognize as “sexy” is a girl dancing on a pole, even if I can critique why that particular image is really problematic.

So then, what happens when the infirm body, the chemo-body, the pale body, the cancer-body takes up pole dancing? What about when she owns a secret desire? What about when its arranged for by a young white guy who ends up looking like a hero? Do we all need young, cute, rich white boys to manifest our desires, put us up on stage? Is it his gaze that makes her sexy, his acknowledgement that she looks good, or is it that she actually looks good? Why is he so prominent? I think part of what seems really fascinating here is the relationship between this wish-granting rich white cancer boy friend, and this young angel-like girls’ desire.  There’s something really sticky, really powerful, really concerning, really shocking, really hopeful-  about a girl body with cancer doing a sexy dance in front of her cancer friends.

Lots to think about tonight, about the intersection of sex, cancer, sexuality, dancing bodies, gender, cancer friends, fake breasts, media images and representations…

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