CW: ableism, objectification of women, objectification of disabled women, sex, exploitation
It was the year 2015. 50 Shades of Grey was playing in theaters. Children of all ages were performing “The Dab”. The most well-funded primary electoral campaign in the history of the United States was singing the praises of John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.
From this inconceivable time in history, a rising, soon-to-be-self-made-billionaire entrepreneur, helped only by her generationally wealthy family, her appearances on one of the most widely-circulated reality shows on cable television, and a media circus that fed every one of us proles our daily updates on the brand of yogurt she was eating for breakfast whether we wanted to know or not, would make her indelible mark on Western civilization. But not before being responsible for one of the most widely criticized instances of shitting the bed of disability representation we’ve seen this century.
Kylie Jenner was the front cover model on the December edition of Interview magazine. The cover photo featured her looking straight forward, like an inanimate object, in a wheelchair plated with gold. The photo itself made her look like a sex toy; a motionless mannequin unable to move, feel, or think. If in this photo Kylie Jenner was meant to portray a living woman, then the woman is without cognitive function; non-communicating, non-thinking, non-feeling. In this photo where Kylie is in a gold-plated wheelchair, she occupies the space of a physically disabled woman, portraying these abominable characteristics.
Within the pages of her article in the magazine, where she talks about her life, her values, and her hopes for the future, more photos from the shoot are displayed. She lays motionless and barely covered in a shipping box, fully portraying a sex doll in transit. In other photos she holds a motionless pose with stiff joints, as she is carried off by men.
When you look at these photos, this art exhibit, what do you feel? I invite you to identify and sit with your feelings.
In this photo shoot I see that a model, an abled model with no experience of being disabled, is occupying the space of both a disabled woman and a sex doll. Two things occupying the same space, represented by one form, means that they share the same characteristics. It is to say that a disabled woman is a sex doll. As a sex doll is an inanimate, unfeeling, unthinking, impersonal object for men to use and abuse, so too is a disabled woman. When I look at the man carrying the wheelchair-using, stiff-bodied, incapacitated sex doll/woman, the message I see is, “get yourself a disabled girlfriend lads, she can’t fight back.”
Disabled models, who have a challenging time getting work in an extremely ableist industry, were justifiably angry that an abled model was taking up their space, which is to say, taking up their job. Models who use wheelchairs as mobility aids are nothing new, but very poorly represented.
Nermin Hassan, who uses a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy, wrote in an article for the modelling agency Models of Diversity:
“There are many undiscovered people sharing the same values as one another (about) feeling alone and abnormal as they have never seen someone they can relate to their selves in the media. Unfortunately placing a well known able-bodied model in a wheelchair such as Kylie Jenner doesn’t count.”
Disabled models began to take back their space by wearing a similar kink outfit as Kylie did in her photoshoot and posing with their actual mobility aid wheelchairs, and telling their stories about how their wheelchair is more than just a prop.
Other women who use wheelchairs as mobility aids fought back over Twitter:
So why am I bringing up something that happened in December of 2015 now, at the end of the hellish epoch of 2020?
To bring up the lessons that we and the media circus learned five years ago about disability representation, which can be summarized as thus:
- If you are portraying a disabled person in an art statement, consult with disabled people so that your statement has the best chance of being positively received by the demographic.
- If you are portraying a disabled person in an art statement, hire an artist with that disability, or at least who uses that aid! If you cannot find an artist with the disability being portrayed, or who uses the aid that is part of the statement, you simply did not look.
- Knowing a disabled person does not give you expertise in disability representation.
- Make sure that disabled people are the ones telling, and in control of, the story.
These are four simple lessons that we accepted, learned, and moved on toward a better future of disability representation.
Australian singer/songwriter/voice actress/director Sia is publishing a film starring Kate Hudson as Zu, a woman living with addictions, who becomes the sole guardian of a non-speaking autistic woman named Music. Music, contrary to the disability representation lessons we had already learned from the Kylie Jenner disaster, will not be portrayed by a non-speaking woman, an autistic woman, or even an openly neurodivergent woman. The neurotypical Maddie Ziegler will instead be putting on a performance for us of what Sia thinks it means to be a non-speaking autistic woman.
Under Sia’s direction, Maddie learned how to portray autistic people by watching exploitative videos of autistic meltdowns uploaded to Youtube by parents of autistic children, and consulted with the pro-cure hate organization Autism Speaks to learn about autistic people.
Instead of casting an autistic actor, Sia stated that “casting someone at her level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community.“
Sia has broken all four of these very simple, critical, four rules of representation, and has abused autistic people on Twitter who have put emotional labour into teaching her compassion for our community.
So if Sia is unwilling to learn from December 2015, is there anything that we can learn?
Can we learn how to take back the space that Sia has stolen from autistic people, as the wheelchair-using models who took back their space from Kylie Jenner did?
Can we learn how to support each other when we are collectively abused by a high-profile celebrity punching down at less-powerful people?
Can we learn how to enforce these four very simple reference points for making art that the people depicted by it will enjoy?
And can we learn how to ensure that we are not back here in 2025 with another privileged voice speaking over disabled people believing that they can freely use our voice and our image for their profit and playtime?