Acts of Conspicuous Compassion

Performance Culture and American Charity Practices
Sheila C. Moeschen

Illuminates the relationship between performance and the American charity movement


Acts of Conspicuous Compassion investigates the relationship between performance culture and the cultivation of charitable sentiment in America, exploring the distinctive practices that have evolved to make the plea for charity legible and compelling. From the work of 19th-century melodramas to the televised drama of transformation and redemption in reality TV’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Acts of Conspicuous Compassion charts the sophisticated strategies employed by various charity movements responsible for making organized benevolence alluring, exciting, and seemingly uncomplicated.

Sheila C. Moeschen brokers a new way of accounting for the legacy and involvement of disabled people within charity—specifically, the articulation of performance culture as a vital theoretical framework for discussing issues of embodiment and identity dislodges previously held notions of the disabled existing as passive, “objects” of pity. This work gives rise to a more complicated and nuanced discussion of the participation of the disabled community in the charity industry, of the opportunities afforded by performance culture for disabled people to act as critical agents of charity, and of the new ethical and political issues that arise from employing performance methodology in a culture with increased appetites for voyeurism, display, and complex spectacle.

“Genuinely interdisciplinary, fresh, original, and timely. This book offers a compelling trajectory through types of charity and their forms of display, offering cultural analysis and historical narrative in conjunction. It will appeal to readers in disability, performance, cultural, and gender studies as well as American studies more broadly. Both accessible and sophisticated, it would be ideal for undergraduate and graduate courses.”
—Sally Chivers, Trent University

“An important, logical step forward in the growth of disability performance scholarship.”
—Michael Chemers, University of California, Santa Cruz

Sheila Moeschen holds an Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama from Northwestern University. She is a Boston-based independent scholar and freelance writer. Her website is 

Praise / Awards

  • "... the book is compelling, thought provoking, and well worth reading."
  • "Moeschen’s book is all at once a critical cultural analysis of how disability and white disabled people have been deployed in charity practices since the nineteenth century in America. It is also a complex historical narrative of how charitable sentiment develops as a base for ideals of American citizenship and civic moral virtues. Importantly, it is an example of how a critical disability lens can be applied to the investigation of mainstream cultural phenomena that structure society. It is an important step in the crossdisciplinary application of critical disability studies, notably in its use of performance scholarship as a methodological and theoretical approach to the study of disability as a politically significant identity."
    --Critical Disability Discourse
  • "Acts of Conspicuous Compassion would make a useful addition to undergraduate and graduate courses in these disciplines, and may also serve as a primer for those working within the charity industry interested in developing a more nuanced understanding of disability and representation. "
    --Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies
  • "In the face of the ongoing assaults upon the infrastructures of social welfare that have made the lived experience of disability increasingly precarious, Moeschen's nuanced and deeply researched account of the crucial ways that charitable practices have shaped public sentiment toward bodily difference is an especially vital contribution."
    --Disability Studies Quarterly

Look Inside

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 224pp.
  • 10 B&W illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2013
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11886-1

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  • $79.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-03655-4

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  • $28.95 U.S.

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  • charity, disability, disability studies, theater, performance, melodrama, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jerry Lewis, social welfare, reality t.v.