Monthly Archives: February 2009

Cerrie Burnell: Maybe She’s Just the Best Person for the Job?

Laurie and Debbie say:

The Internet and the newspapers are buzzing with the story of Cerrie Burnell, established actress now co-hosting the BBC young children’s channel, CBeebies.

upper body shot of Cerrie Burnell showing her shortened arm

No one is complaining about her work, her acting ability, her manner with children, or how she shows up on TV. She sounds like a perfect host for a children’s channel.

So why is she news? Because she was born with one shortened arm.

Having a shortened arm can be described as a disability (because of all the things that are designed for two-handed people) and/or can be labeled as a disfigurement (because of exactly the responses she’s getting). In this story, disfigurement is the issue–no one is saying that Burnell can’t do the job because of her arm, or that she’s not good at it because of her arm. The people who want her off the show are saying they don’t want (their children) to see it, which very frequently means they don’t want to see it themselves. Since toddlers don’t post a lot of blog comments, we’re not getting a lot of response from the core audience. But everyone who has ever made anything for young children knows that the money, attention, time, and prioritizing all come from the parents, and the parents have a lot to say about Burnell’s appearance.

“There’s a time and place for showing kids all the “differences” that people can have, but nine in the morning in front of 2 year olds is NOT the place! Little overboard on the need for political correctness, perhaps?” says one father.

One point he’s missing is that Burnell’s visibility has the potential to make his kid see a one-armed woman as ordinary, part of life as she knows it. The more kids see, get accustomed to, ask questions about, and interact with, the bigger their world gets.

He’s not the only commenter to use the phrase “politically correct” (a phrase which, to put it mildly, neither of us has much patience with). In this case, however, using that phrase implies a particularly noxious position–i.e., that Burnell was chosen only or at least primarily because she has one arm. The vision is of BBC executives sitting in a smoke-filled room somewhere saying, “Hmmm. Let’s see what young children need. I know! They need to see people with disabilities! Let’s hire a disabled person!”

Somehow, this doesn’t seem too probable. Far more likely is that Burnell was one of the top choices for the job and the BBC executives had a long, difficult internal negotiation that sounded a lot like the arguments going on in the comments section of the CBeebies website: some of them thought it would be good for kids to see her arm, some of them thought it was too disturbing, and some of them thought that maybe the choice should be made based on her personality, her talent, her voice, her manner with children, and whatever other criteria they used to pick the other finalists.

And in that negotiation, somehow Burnell got the job, which shifted the discussion into a wider forum. This also allows people with direct experience to weigh in:

My 3-year-old daughter has a congenital upper-limb deficiency just like Cerrie’s. It’s there at nine in the morning, it’s also there at pre-school, it’s there at the supermarket and it’s there when we go on holiday. Some people stare, some people ask questions and many other people just don’t notice.

We are bringing our daughter up to believe that she can be anything and do anything that she sets her mind to. Not because we are politically correct but because she IS capable of anything and everything. The sheer excitement and delight on her face when she saw Cerrie’s little arm was priceless and just reinforced everything that we have taught her.

What Burnell’s detractors are really saying is that regardless of how good she is, regardless of whether or not most kids like her, regardless of anything except nine inches or so of missing flesh, she shouldn’t have her job. That’s not about political correctness, that’s about civil rights.

What should the BBC executives have said to Burnell? “Sorry, dear, we’d love to hire you, but you don’t have two arms?”

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for being first with the pointer.

Boston, Stitches, Ammonites, and Parrots

Laurie says:

Body Impolitic has been going along without me for the last ten days because I was in Boston for Boskone showing my jewelry. I was feeling very pleased the afternoon before I left. Everything had gone unusually smoothly and I was thinking about blogging before I left. Then I had a random chance accident with broken china, and ended up rushing to the injury clinic of Kaiser to get 5 stitches in the ball of my left thumb. (Thank god it was my left thumb). The cab driver was kind enough to tie my shoe laces for me.

With some help from friends (Thank you Bayla and thank you Ctein) the show went OK. It’d amazing how different life is with one and a quarter hands. (That’s what being temporarily one thumbless feels like.) Work that normally would take 3 minutes took 30. Now, I’ve returned, the stitches are out, everything looks good and I should have my thumb back within a week.

I left for the plane to go to Boston with a heavily bandaged wrist and thumb. Everyone was remarkably helpful. San Francisco has a disability line for security, which is a good thing to know. In terms of disability, it seemed like an injury that folks perceive as something that could happen to them tomorrow gets a remarkable level of help. I really appreciated the assistance, but had the feeling that if I’d been in a wheel chair, folks would not have been quite so enthusiastically helpful.

As I said, it all went well. I’d designed a group of pieces from fossils, geodes and related materials that I was excited about. I love working with all kinds of unusual stones and spend an inordinate amount of time involved with them. I like doing groups of related works.  All of my work is lost wax casting.


Ammonite Pendant is 2.5 by 2″

This pendant in made in sterling silver with a polished ammonite fossil with 2 fresh water pearls and a ruby eye. Ammonites went extinct in the Cretaceous about 65 million years ago. When I’m making something that exists (or did exist) in reality I like to work from a group of images.  I used about six different pictures of ammonites to carve and design this pendant. What I want is a strong sense of the reality of the creature, although of course I’m seriously abstracting from reality to make work that feels aesthetically right and alive. Literal reproduction tends to look flat and rather dead to me.

Parrot Obsidian Dagger

Parrot and obsidian is close to life size.

I had the obsidian knife cut especially for me.  It’s knapped exactly the way they were made in pre-metal cultures.  I had finished carving a handle for it in wax but hadn’t cast it yet.  Then I went to the De Jong Museum and saw a Mayan parrot headed knife.  It was very different from the one I made, but it was inspiring.  I went back to my studio and started over from scratch (something I rarely do).   A few years ago, I did a series of parrot designs for Judy Lazar so I don’t need photos to make parrots.   I carve all my work with magnifiers.  In this case so I can do the very finely detailed feathers.  When it was finished, it clearly needed an emerald eye. This work uses the same principle as the ammonite, abstract from reality so that the work looks aesthetic, real and alive.

I’m thinking about making some ammonite earrings when my thumb recovers.