Amanda “Ableist” Palmer? The Evelyn Evelyn Controversy

Well meaning promotion of conjoined twins creates even more controversy for controversial Amanda F’ing Palmer

By Kerry Skemp, Bostonist – If you live your life grounded on the rock of reality rather than constantly swimming in the waves of the internet, you might have missed the Evelyn Evelyn controversy that’s been drowning Amanda Palmer of late.

The Lexington-raised musician, who gained fame as part of the Dresden Dolls and has been conducting symphonies, making high school musicals, and redefining red carpet etiquette ever since, is getting heat from feminists and disability rights advocates about her latest side project, Evelyn Evelyn.

Evelyn Evelyn is a “musical duo” made up of conjoined twins Eva and Lyn Neville, who prefer to go by Evelyn. Their full backstory can be read on Palmer’s blog, but the short version is that the twins had a troubled past that involved both circus exploitation and sexual abuse. 

Taken on: 2008-12-01

The twins’ musical talents were “discovered” by Palmer and Jason Webley, an awesome Pacific Northwest musician we’ve had the pleasure to enjoy in person (carrots!), and the twins are now releasing an album Elephant Elephant, recorded with Palmer and Webley’s help. The album guest stars some high profile artists, including Francis Bean (Kurt and Courtney’s daughter), Tegan & Sara, Andrew WK, Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance, and more. (Spoiler alert for the uninitiated, so stop reading if you don’t want to know: Palmer and Webley are Evelyn Evelyn, by all appearances.)

The project raised flags and hackles for disabled people and victims of sexual abuse, who accuse Palmer and Webley of mocking and stereotyping disability and taking advantage of abuse victims by creating such a sensationalistic yet troubling background for the twins, dressing in “crip drag” (a specially constructed two-person dress) to perform as the twins, and casting themselves as the twins’ able-bodied “rescuers” from abuse victim / circus freak obscurity. Some opponents of the project have compared Palmer and Webley in Evelyn Evelyn costume to white people wearing black face, and many people are genuinely upset about what they view as serious exploitation of both disabled people and abuse victims.

The first and most developed opposition to the project seems to have been voiced by Annaham at Feminists with Disabilities. After reviewing the ways in which the project stereotypes people with disabilities (PWDs), Annaham says “Evelyn Evelyn seems like a project that is far from actually being transgressive, even given the initial appearance of said transgression… there is a chasm of difference between at least acknowledging that there are people like this (in this case, conjoined twins) who do exist and that they probably are affected by ableism, and outright appropriation of this uniqueness in the name of art.” She continues:

The larger cultural context of treatment of real people with disabilities, too, is conveniently forgotten (see the lyrics to “A Campaign of Shock and Awe”); the twins seem to exist in a world that is completely free of ableism (in forms subtle and not), harsh social treatment of PWDs by abled people, and pernicious, damaging stereotypes. This is particularly disappointing given that Palmer has written some great, quite un-stereotypical songs about PWDs and people with mental health conditions… There are other, more creative ways to portray people with disabilities that don’t rely on facile stereotypes or on the ways that PWDs are already represented in popular culture. Representing Evelyn Evelyn as variously inspiring, freakish, weird and a “wonder” just reinforces existing stereotypes about PWDs, while ignoring the cultural context in which the project was conceived; while Evelyn Evelyn may be artistic and, at first glance, “different,” the attitudes beneath the project’s surface seem awfully mainstream.

The problem, then, seems to involve the failure of this project to creatively portray people with disabilities in a way that both shatters stereotypes (rather than perpetuating them) and recognizes the role of “ableism” in the experience of PWDs.

Commenters reacted, some upset: “pretending to be conjoined twins is so fucking edgy and cute? for real?” Some providing more information: “ what some people don’t understand is WHY Evelyn and Evelyn [exist]… If [Palmer] wanted to release new material, it would have to be released with Roadrunner as she still is contractually obligated to give them another album. The Evelyn sisters is a way for her to release a new album without having to deal with the shite her label has been putting her through.” (Kinda like when Prince “changed” his name.)

Palmer posted the full backstory of Evelyn Evelyn, but that didn’t help the situation: she detailed the twins’ backstory further, providing even more points of contention for those already offended. And the controversy really blew up when Palmer tweeted that she was putting “disabled feminists” at her “mental periphery” in order to focus on her daily work. Mirroring the controversy over Evelyn Evelyn to an extent, Palmer just meant that she was setting the issue aside for a bit, but folk interpreted the statement as Palmer willingly further marginalizing disabled people and feminists.

There were posts upon posts upon posts and everyone accused everyone of all sorts of (sometimes nasty) things, some even saying that Amanda Palmer would shit on a couch just to be edgy, but some interesting discussion took place in the midst of the shitstorm. Palmer responded in detail, saying

offending or belittling disabled people or people who have a history of sexual abuse could not be farther from our intention. we generally don’t like to offend and belittle ANYONE, but if there is anybody that we especially don’t want to alienate with this project, it is the people who might already feel marginalized and dismissed in our society. especially when that type of alienation is a major recurring theme throughout the whole Evelyn Evelyn record.

Webley, too, posted a response, saying he “never” considered that people could be hurt by the project. Palmer’s fiancé, author Neil Gaiman, says “I think that Evelyn Evelyn, as a piece of performance art and a story, is about conquering obstacles and [surviving] and making art against all odds.” but the situation doesn’t seem to have been fully resolved yet. It’s hard to see Palmer and Webley pulling the project, but maybe they’ll make modifications, or at least come out with a statement that recognizes the controversy.

All in all, some of the more vicious comments made were probably not necessary, and the situation provides a good example of how the internet’s instant and constant accessibility makes it possible to get heated and defensive when getting considerate and contemplative might be a better option. If you have the time, though, it’s worth reading some of the more cogent objections to the Evelyn Evelyn project. We’re not sure it’s turned us against Palmer, exactly, or even the project itself, but it has made us think more about what it means to be able-bodied and how our daily experience differs drastically from that of a disabled person.

We don’t think Palmer intended to be exploitative, and we’re not even sure where the line is drawn—if anywhere—when it comes to appropriating another’s identity in art. Even men writing as women and vice versa becomes problematic, at times. As long as we recognize that artists are speaking fictionally, to provoke new ideas and new perspectives, taking on another’s perspective for artistic purposes has the potential to be very powerful. And the Evelyn Evelyn project, however poorly conceived or offensive, has provoked a lot of dialogue, some of it illuminating. And the music, for what it’s worth, is also pretty fun.

If you want to learn more about disability issues, FWD provides a list of suggested reading on disability topics. If you want to learn more about the band, Evelyn Evelyn’s Elephant Elephant comes out March 20, and the duo will perform at ART’s Oberon on April 12 and 13.

Editor – The term “Ableist” is a polite word that means disability bigot. We use the word bigot since it doesn’t diminish the hurt and damage of disability bigotry on its victims.

  • S. Francis

    “The term ‘Ableist’ is a polite word that means disability bigot. We use the word bigot since it doesn’t diminish the hurt and damage of disability bigotry on its victims.”

    It seems ironic to me that after an editorial which focuses so heavily on perception and personal interpretation, there’d be a note from the editor saying such a thing. Singling out one word from Kerry Skemp’s piece offends me in two ways:

    1) As a moderately educated reader, I don’t want the author/reposter to assume I simply won’t know the meaning of a word. And if such a word should arise, I AM reading this on the internet…Google is just a keystroke away.

    2) While I’m sure some woud see it as unfair to compare Amanda’s “persecution” to that of the fans/bloggers who have taken offense to EE, this just really rubs me the wrong way. There is no “polite” word to define a problem like this, and I can’t imagine Amanda takes it any less lightly because it’s dressed up prettily. I know I wouldn’t. To cite a recent event: SouthWest Airlines ill-appropriately attemptempted to say that Kevin Smith was ANYTHING but “fat.” He knew what they were saying, we all knew what they had told him using their PC-thesaurus, and THEY knew what was being said — saying that he was a “person of size” doesn’t somehow make it any less offensive (only less prosecutable in the legal sense). Obviously I know that there is a difference between the bite of “fat” and “person of size”, but I hope it’s registering with you how this makes me feel.

    Furthermore, that note from the editor reads to me like “Oh these poor people…they’re getting SCREWED, and they don’t even have the balls to really go for the jugular to shine light on how awful this truly is.” It’s about personal perception to a point, and that’s what I am taking from it, but REALLY? That almost feels more bigoted than every single complaint re: Amanda/Evelyn Evelyn that I’ve read, rolled up into one. Because they might want to but can’t say “bigoted”, you’ll make sure to?

    Truth be told, Annaham DID use the word at one point (it’s in http://disabledfeminists.com/2010/02/09/evelyn-evelyn-ableism-ableism/)……..it just wasn’t in direct regards to Amanda, and moreso the awful comments that she and her team were seeing from those retaliating at the blogs.

    In any case, I’m bothered by that word, regardless of your intention. And hey, I’m sure someone will say I’m missing the point…..but isn’t that the point?

  • Stephen Pate

    Thanks for your comment. The comment is on the use of the whoosie word “ableist”. Notwithstanding the story we think Amanda is cool and a person of courage.

  • JMS

    You seem to have misspelled “masquerade as conjoined twins” as “promotion of conjoined twins.” Currently able-bodied people masquerading as people with disabilities does not actually promote people with disabilities in any way.