I have a love/hate relationship with magazines. They allure me so, and I cannot help myself from buying at least one when I’m in a magazine store. Admittedly, I often leave with two. I’m like a kid in a candy store who can’t pick which lolly they like the most, ogling the aisles in indecisive turmoil. Yet, despite that I cannot resist them, I am always keen to criticize magazines, too. It’s not so much the content as the advertisements, which are always meticulously constructed to imprint on our pliable brains idealistic images of a perfect life; perfect homes, perfect families, perfect outfits, perfect skin, perfect bodies, perfect social lives, perfect perfect perfect. And who decides what is perfect? The ‘perfection’ that we see in magazines is simply a socially constructed ideal, and as such, is often fictitious. Socially constructed perfection is what’s normative, taken for granted as what life ought to be like, and therefore is the realm of what I referred to in a previous post as the privileged centre. What I detest about magazines is that they are part of an industry that peddles normative depictions of life that are shiny, evocative, and most importantly: highly influential. Inevitably, influential depictions of normativity incite mandatory adherence. The deviant category of abnormality becomes cast into the periphery.
What do magazines and advertising have to do with ableism? Often when I peruse magazines or pass by huge billboards, I imagine alternative realities. Imagine if one of the models in, for example, a clothing advertisement, was an amputee, or paralyzed, or blind with a white cane or a guide dog? But this just isn’t the norm. And I find this not only problematic, but an integral angle for criticism. The fact that we predominantly see able-bodied people in media is ableism in its purest form. To explain, the mainstream exclusion of diversity in media is discriminatory against disabled people, for by default it is the silent but pervasive favouring of able-bodied humans as the exclusive, normative ideal.
When the only images we see in media are of able-bodied people, the outcome is that society becomes ableist in its mindset. Our understanding of what it means to be a human becomes informed by assumptions that everyone can walk, hear, move, etc. An outcome of such narrow representations of diversity is that when we do see disability or difference, the person as a whole is regarded as abnormal or non-normative because their difference is so stark: in media we don’t normally see wheelchairs, artificial or missing limbs, hearing aids, deformities, and so on. Therefore, these ‘differences’ often become constructed as a ‘master identity’ for the person. To explain, Social Construction Theory argues that we often make the assumption that our social identities are determined by our physical self.1 This theory can explain why we often equate that physically possessing female reproductive organs by default places women within the socially constructed gender category of ‘feminine’. The same applies for disability. For example, when there is an athlete who is disabled, normally we don’t just say that they are an athlete. Instead, we focus on their physicality, saying disabled athlete. Hence, their disability is at the foreground of our understanding, highlighted as more definitive of the person’s identity than their athleticism.
However, I argue that if there was more widespread representation in media of disability as a normality, the monopoly that able-bodied humans have over these cultural spaces would be overturned with beneficial results. For example, I believe that the binary of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ would dissipate, and we would no longer pigeonhole people into narrow master identities. Society would become accustomed to seeing more disabled people, leading to disability being viewed as a normal, unstigmatized facet of the person’s subjectivity, like having brown hair or blonde. Disability would cease to be a focal point.
I believe that more disabled people need to be featured in all cultural mediums, full stop. However, the inclusion needs to be in such a way that respects diversity. An abysmal misstep in the journey towards representation was recently made by Kylie Jenner on the cover of Interview magazine. The images show Jenner sitting in a gold-plated wheelchair, casting a confident gaze into the distance whilst co-opting for her own whims what millions of people use as a functional mobility device. For me, the real problem is that Jenner decided that she can look sexy and edgy in a wheelchair with glamorous makeup and clothing on, whilst millions of people in wheelchairs face real discrimination and hardship every day as a result of how stigmatized disability is. I therefore find the image highly offensive. Alongside not actually needing the mobility device for normal daily functioning, Jenner is also an incredibly famous TV personality who is already emblazoned throughout the Internet. Meanwhile, many people who need wheelchairs see them as utilitarian, not “glamorous.” In addition, models in wheelchairs, who cannot freely discard them once the photoshoot is over, often have difficulty getting noticed.
But despite Jenner’s egocentric lack of foresight, there are a lot of amazing things happening in the realm of disability representation. Here are some of my favourite examples:
Alex Minsky is a former Marine Corporal who lost his leg when running over a bomb in Afghanistan. After an arduous recovery from his accident, Minsky has now parlayed into a modelling career. I was most interested in the description of him as having a “blasé attitude towards his prosthesis.” I think his lack of attention towards losing his leg will help redefine normative ideals about what makes a body beautiful.
English songstress Viktoria Modesta has been called the world’s first amputee pop star, but I prefer her own self-titled term: bionic pop star. She challenges adherence to normative body ideals, saying that if you don’t fit in, then don’t. She goes on to explain that according to her, one of society’s biggest challenges beyond curing cancer, achieving sustainability and preventing war, is to learn how to truly understand and accept other humans.
Prior to a week ago, the only way to have a Lego wheelchair was to make your own. People have even made video tutorials about how to make them yourself, using imagination and ingenuity to sidestep the ableist lack of wheelchair characters in the popular toy’s range of products. However, Toy Like Me, a movement to bring attention to the ableist tendency of the toy industry to exclude children with disabilities, distributed a petition to urge Lego to create a character with a wheelchair. Accruing over 20,000 signatures, the petition resulted in Lego releasing their first ever disabled minifigure. Much to millions of people’s joy, children and adults alike in wheelchairs can now choose a Lego character who looks like them.
And my personal hero:
I first discovered Aimee Mullins when I read about her in a women’s magazine over six years ago. She has been an inspiration to me ever since. She is an Olympic athlete who was the first person in the world to use the Cheetah carbon-fibre sprinting legs, competing in sprinting and long jump. In addition, she is also a runway model and was a muse to the late Alexander McQueen who famously hand-carved wooden legs for her. And if that isn’t enough, she is also a motivational speaker who travels around the world giving inspirational talks about girls and women in sport, as well as reconceptualizing normative standards of beauty. She makes me realize how wonderful the world can be when we embrace and celebrate what makes each of us different to one another.
Past, current or future: what are your thoughts about the inclusion of disability in mainstream media?
- Vance, C. S. (2006). Social construction theory. In Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World, 2nd ed. Toronto: McGraw-Hill. 29-32.