Thursday, December 3, 2015

Let's Talk About that Kylie Jenner Image

I want to respond to something that happened this week that I'm still trying to make sense of.

Perhaps you have seen that image above of Kylie Jenner in a wheelchair on the cover of Interview Magazine and heard about the backlash from it. I’m sure like many of you, if I see anyone from the Kardashian clan mentioned in an article I ignore it. I’m convinced every time someone clicks on a Kim Kardashian article, an angel loses its wings. 

Yet, this image irked me. Most people are blaming Kylie, but I honestly doubt she made any conscious choices besides agreeing to pose for the images for profit. It was the choice of those involved at the magazine to use a wheelchair as a prop. She was literally along for the ride. As the backlash to the image began, it’s a comment from a representative from the magazine that irked me the most:

"At Interview, we are proud of our tradition of working with great artists and empowering them to realize their distinct and often bold visions. The Kylie Jenner cover by Steven Klein, which references the British artist Allen Jones, is a part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media scrutiny." 

I’ve been trying to formulate why exactly this image and comment are so problematic and I want to be able to communicate this from my standpoint as a disabled woman.

The problem is the choice to use a wheelchair as a prop to highlight Kylie’s supposed vulnerability because of media scrutiny fetishizes societal views of the “powerlessness” of the disabled. The “media scrutiny” has been incredibly profitable for her and is being falsely correlated to the experience of the disabled here. This is essentially disability tourism, trying to inhabit a marginalized position without the physical or cultural realities the disabled experience, such as navigating a world that is not designed for us. The editorial staff can delude themselves that they are making a political statement or high art. But we have to call it what it is: distasteful and offensive.

Disability, like other facets of identity, is a label externally and legally defined by society and not one that is chosen.  It is a label that can come with a certain level of marginalization, and like many externally-defined labels, stereotyping. The stereotype of the “restriction” and “powerlessness” of disability is fetishized and even parodied in this image. This parody silences the truth that a wheelchair is a tool for the disabled that enables freedom, access, and independence.

The ADA just celebrated its 25th anniversary and the disabled are a protected class of citizens, but this was not always the case. It’s important to remember this. Yet, the disabled continue to face hurdles with full employment and participation in society. I mentioned in another post the limitations of the ADA and that the disabled continue to deal with limited accessibility in public and private spaces. These are some of the material realities that are invisible in this image.

The disabled are often treated as invisible in society. If you look at media, you will see very limited representations of the disabled and often you will see disability given a negative connotation—it’s treated as some sort of obstacle to “overcome,” a physical vulnerability, or a reason for pity or empathy. Disability is also often defined rigidly as a physical manifestation that is visible to the able-bodied, as if every disability could be “read” at a glance. Disability is not defined by using a wheelchair. Disability comes in a variety of forms and most of them are invisible. 

It’s not the fetishization that makes this image so disturbing for me. It’s the perpetuation of the invisibility and silence of the disabled community. I look at this image and see myself and others represented by that wheelchair and I am represented as a prop. A costume choice. A fashion statement. My experience is not just objectified; it is rendered silent. 

Ironically, though the intention was to make Kylie the subject of this image, the wheelchair has become the subject.

Kylie has never experienced being disabled or dealt with painful scrutiny or pressure to conform to societal expectations about what disability “looks like.” I have lived as able-bodied and disabled now so I have experienced both worlds. We need more voices from the disabled to challenge rigid definitions of disability, to express the experience of being disabled and the struggles and triumphs that come with that label, and more importantly, to show that the disabled are three-dimensional human beings. 

Often injustice comes in the form of a thousand cuts, a thousand slights that slice deeper and deeper into our sense of worth, leaving unseen scars that are continually re-opened. I have experienced derision because of my illness and disability and in the health communities I’m in people share the derision they experience daily. Since becoming ill and disabled, I am witness to injustice every day in some form beyond my own personal experience. Starting this blog is a way for me to give voice to the experiences I’ve seen discussed every day.

I’ve been asked “do you really need to use that cane?” I’ve had medical professionals ask in an accusatory tone “why are you in a wheelchair?” I’ve heard comments about being “too young” to rely on mobility aids. But worst of all, when I’m in my wheelchair and I’m with my husband, I often unwillingly become invisible. People often look through me and speak only to him.

I guess in some ways I’m “lucky” I never had a note left on my car when I have used disabled parking spots because I had to start using a mobility aid right after I got my disabled pass. My disability is “visible” to those who feel they are entitled to “proof” I suppose. I see people post pictures of the notes left on their cars often. I see comments constantly about people putting off getting a disabled placard even though they need one. I did as well.

I resisted using mobility aids because it forced me to “come out” with my illness. I desperately wanted to “pass” and I was able to for some time. If you can “pass,” you can be free of this derision, or the prying questions, or the constant staring. I put myself in constant precarious situations when I was trying to pass and forced myself to do things I physically could not do, ultimately making myself worse in the end.

It wasn’t worth it.

I’ve only recently began to get comfortable with the label of being “disabled” and what comes with that label. I didn’t choose this label. It chose me. My self-image has been radically transformed and how others view me and treat me in the world has also changed. It’s been a tremendous hurdle adjusting to this, but I’m getting there.

I put using off a wheelchair for a long time, even after my doctor gave me a prescription for one and my husband insisted that I needed to finally accept that I needed one. Once I finally started using a wheelchair, I realized I had so much freedom. I could go somewhere without having to immediately find a chair. I could navigate stores again. I could leave the house with more success. I didn’t have to count the steps from my car to a door to try to figure out if I could make it. This sense of freedom negated the comments and the staring. They just don’t really get under my skin anymore. I don’t have to “prove” anything to anyone. I’m just living my life and doing what I have to do to live it the best I can. All that time I put off using a wheelchair was wasted time.

My wheelchair gives me power. This is something that the editorial staff at Interview Magazine or people who question my need for mobility aids don’t understand. Fetishizing societal views of the “powerlessness” of the disabled perpetuates a one-dimensional stereotype of the disabled. The gilded wheelchair used as a prop is a perfect metaphor for the vacuity of the stereotype they are peddling in the image.

The voices of the disabled responding to this image or any issue related to disability should be privileged and heard to challenge the silence perpetuated in this image. This image represents one of the thousand tiny cuts of injustice and though it may be a minor cut, it deserves analysis to avoid more cuts in the future.

You can read more articles commenting on the disabled view of this image here, here, and here 


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