Inspiration porn as othering

The last couple of months has sparked a lot of debate about inspiration porn outside of the disability world. It started with the now infamous Superbowl commercials from Microsoft and Toyota, both companies feeling a need to show how people with prosthetic legs are able to lead perfectly normal – albeit bionic – lives. Granted we have come a long way with prosthetic legs – and good for those who wear them.

Those commercials showed two people who live life to the best of their ability. They have managed well for themselves. They might have some extraordinarily circumstances that make them somewhat interesting. But most people I know have extraordinary life circumstances and in that light these two were not that special.

I know a single mother of 3 who has unbearable pain. So much so she can barely get up in the morning. She needs help from her daughter to put on her socks and shoes to leave the house every day. Despite that she gets up, goes to work where she is on her feel all day long only to come home and collapse in bed at night because she has spent all her energy making ends meet in her low paying job. She is an extraordinary woman in more ways than I am able to describe. But at the same time she is not potential for a Microsoft or Toyota commercial. Why is that? She is way more disabled by her chronic pain than those two people with hi-tech bionic legs have been for a mighty long time. She truly struggles with her disability and she manages magnificently.

What is the difference between the single mom I know and the now famous cripples in these commercials?

All three do everything they can to live life to the best of their ability. But there is nothing inspirational about the single mom who gets out of bed every day despite a pain level that is unimaginable for anyone who hasn’t tried giving birth while passing a kidney stone at the same time (yes, I know such a woman as well.) People see her as an ordinary woman doing what society expects from her. Not as someone in whom we can bask in our inadequacies in the holy name of inspiration porn. She doesn’t have a visibly ‘sexy’ disability like an amputation or a sexy wheelchair (I know, I am damn sexy with my one leg and my shiny wheels – no need to tell me)

Somehow society has decided what disabilities are deemed ‘legitimate’ and which ones we’d rather not care about. And when someone is perceived as having a ‘real’ disability that person is also potentially an inspirational hero for merely living their life.

Living life to its fullest is by no means wrong. It is the fact that others regard it as an inspiration that I find both wrong and disgusting. Unfortunately there are many non-disabled people who don’t get it when we protest and tell them not to use us as their magic mirror – telling them they ‘are the fairest of them all’.

In the last few years a whole industry has boomed around this idea that disabled people doing something completely ordinary are superhuman. We have become the unwilling heroes in an industry that make non-disabled people able to feel good about themselves because they can reflect their petty little lives in ours.

This feel-good industry is fueled by an objectification of people who implicitly are deemed ‘less fortunate’. And it seems to please the masses of the majority culture to no end when disabled people can overcome so-called ‘unfortunate circumstances’ and achieve some semblance of normalcy.

Recently I ran across an article by Josephine Fairley (JF) in the British newspaper, The Telegraph. The article is a poignant reminder of how people with disabilities are regarded as something different from human beings. JF not only regards inspiration porn as something good. In her view inspiration porn, is considered “progress.” The progress lies in the fact that we are now being used for her and other’s emotional absolution instead of being shunned and hidden away like we used to be in a not too distant past.

To me it’s nothing short of a tragedy. That another human being can see progress when all I see is exploitation. At the very best it’s trading one ill for another.

JF completely fails to see that inspiration porn is no better than the freak shows of yore where disabled people were exhibited and dragged around the circus ring to elicit a sense of horror from the audience. The only difference between the two types of freak show is the audience’s expected emotion. We have traded the sense of horror for a shot of feel-good, hooray for progress!

I am not blind to the fact that on the surface of things it’s better for the audience to feel good about itself than to feel horror. But regardless of the instilled emotion the result for the objectified person is not much different. We are still a symbol of that which is different, wrong and beyond the norm.

Looking at a few other articles to see what kind of woman could come to such a lopsided conclusion I was quite surprised to find out her big issue is women’s rights. How can a person be an adamant supporter of human rights for one group of people whilst joyfully gawking at another group in the virtual zoo of inspiration porn?

This can only be done through the simple mechanism of ‘othering.’ People with disabilities are essentially different from those without. We are not really people after all. We are ‘other.’ Those whom fingers are pointed at. We are basically regarded the same way people of color were 200 years ago, humanlike but fundamentally different and lesser than. We are implicitly seen as subhuman.

The fact that a (presumably intelligent) woman JF finds it in her to describe inspiration porn as progress while fighting for women’s rights tells me that we are viewed as subhuman whether it is acknowledged or not. We are simply reduced to stooges in the inspiration porn circus.

We are deviant and different by means of our physical bodies. Our deviance recreates us as a magic mirror for the majority to reflect itself in and feel good about itself. And when we are reduced to act as that magic mirror it is easy for someone like JF to fight for the rights of one minority and not for another since the other really is the Other. Subhuman and deviant.

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4 thoughts on “Inspiration porn as othering

  1. You do know that companies behind commercials, as well as mass media it selves, aren`t looking for who`s having the most challenging disability? They are thinking money, and “what do people want to see” to relate to, to be thinking “it could be me, and look at me I am doing good while looking good!” THAT is what Toyota want to be associated with!
    It`s strictly business.
    But, another issue is your concern regarding researchers, psychologists, or whoever is trying to say something wise about us and our part in the non- handicapped self image. Of course we are being used for that purpose! Is that OK? Of course not! Because it makes us smaller than we are. And the worst part is; some of us doesn`t even realize it! In our numbness we are thinking: “I get cheered on because I get my trousers on all by myself, or because I drive a car, doing sport, or living in a house.. so I don`t need to challenge myself any further.” And that is a dangerous thing to say to one self.

    And, by the way; we are not regarded the same way colored people was 200 years ago; They were seen as not being of same equality. We are being felt sorry for, and that is so much worse to rebel against.

    1. Anne-Pia,

      We should get together and discuss this some time.

      I think your last sentence hits the nail on the head. You are right that we are primarily looked upon with pity. But I also think that pity makes them see us as unequal, just like I think there were people who looked at those of color with pity. The point here is that with us pity comes first whereas with racism inequality comes first.

      The pity is also the reason why we are seen as ‘challenged’ and why some of us are looked at as a source of “inspiration” for those who are afraid of looking at their own pitiful life and do something about it on their own terms.

      Henning

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