Welcome to our first discussion post! We’ve selected a topic for each Thursday of this month, and asked our contributors if they had any brief thoughts to share on that topic. This way, we can showcase a variety of perspectives and opinions.
This week’s topic: inspiration porn. Don’t know what that is? You’ll find the answer below–we asked our contributors how they define this concept and what they feel about it. Read on!
To me, inspiration porn is any sort of media (a picture, a movie, a book, etc) or even a view of an individual, that tries to fabricate an ordinary action as something extraordinary. For instance, a meme depicting an amputee with a prosthetic leg walking with the caption “Brave!” (Yes, I have seen this before). It can also be imposed on an individual. For instance, I’d say I’ve been turned into inspiration porn by strangers who tell me that I’m “so amazing” for – no kidding – walking down the street with a guide dog or a cane.
I *hate* inspiration porn. I can’t even convey how much I hate it. To me, it’s such a dangerous thing because, even if the intentions are good, it implies that the average disabled person is weak or lacks independence. So when people tell me I’m “amazing” for being out in the world, it implies the average blind person is a shut in. In reality, disabled people are people and want to be treated like normal people. This means not being seen as “brave” or “inspirational” for average, every day actions. Unfortunately, the news, modern lit, modern film, etc, seem to think this is the only way to tell the story of a disabled person. The plot is always “Character X has Disability Y, but she STILL MIRACULOUSLY MANAGES TO OVER COME IT.” Disabled people in the media are always treated as extraordinary and not ordinary. And, to put it eloquently, it sucks.
That Oh So Special way of viewing disability. Inspiration porn positions disability as a terrible burden, assuming that disabled people have no quality of life, but they can find some redemption in inspiring nondisabled people by doing novel, heroic, and amazing things like having jobs, getting good marks in school, or participating in society. Inspiration porn is photos of disabled athletes with sappy captions. It’s news stories about brave little disabled children boldly ‘not letting their disabilities stop them.’ It’s handing awards to disabled students for doing what everyone else is already doing, like they’re freakish, fascinating objects rather than human beings. It’s the treatment of disability as a valuable learning experience for nondisabled people, rather than just something that’s a fact of life for some members of society.
And in fiction, it’s pernicious. Disability is often used as a plot device to teach characters something, and disabled characters frequently show up as object lessons or figures of inspiration to the other characters, particularly when they are not the narrators or the centres of the storytelling. Thus we have stories where characters are ‘inspired’ by the fact that disabled people exist, or do things in the name of their disabled object lessons. It deprives disabled characters of all autonomy and objectifies them; from human beings, they have been transformed into mere caricatures, and they aren’t allowed to just be themselves.
Want to avoid disability porn? Focus on this: people should be inspiring because of their deeds, not because of who they are. Thus, for example, a woman like Hannah McFadden isn’t inspiring because she’s a wheelchair athlete and it’s just amazing that someone who uses a wheelchair for mobility can be an athlete. She’s inspiring because she’s a world-class athlete who competes on the international level with some of the fastest, strongest, most amazing athletes in the world.
Recently on my bus commute home from work, an older lady leaned over to me and said words I have heard so many times in my life: “You are so inspiring.” I still don’t know how to respond to that even though people have been saying it to me since I can remember. In that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder how the woman saw me. Clearly I was not just another commuter reading a book on a bus. I knew I looked different—the hook-shaped prosthetic arm took care of that—but what did she think that meant for me?
I wanted to tell her that what she could see didn’t mean as much as she thought. That my life was pretty normal, really. But she had already leaned back in her seat and turned her attention elsewhere. The conversation was over without any contribution from me. I understand that inspiration is a tricky thing, and I don’t want to take good feelings away from anyone. I do, though, caution people who are willing to listen that inspiration based on assumptions may be more de-humanizing than they realize.
Inspiration porn, I feel, is a way of simultaneously focusing on how incredibly tragic a certain disability is and robbing the disabled person of any agency or complex feelings about it. Instead, it fawns over–fetishizes, almost–the aspects that make abled people smile sappily. After all, isn’t it amazing how well this wheelchair user can navigate public transport? It’s so inspiring! Just leaving the house is already an act of immense bravery, worthy of applause. In other words, the bar is set at a condescendingly low level.
In inspiration porn, it’s fine to linger on how much pain someone is in, or adversity they’ve faced, because all of it strengthens just how brave they are for trudging on regardless–but lord forbid you mention things disabled people might struggle with every day, such as accessibility, ableism, policy, benefits, healthcare. Inspiration porn glibly bypasses those issues to tell a narrative that won’t make anyone’s conscience sting, or feel like they might need to change their attitudes. The audience is abled people, and the goal is to make them feel good, and screw what actual disabled people might want or need. Disabled people act as props in this narrative. One spot-on example: the Glee episode “Laryngitis” in which a disabled character appears solely to inspire Rachel.
To me, inspiration porn is any story where a character must overcome the horrible tragedy of their disability, thus inspiring the able-bodied audience. This can be found in any and all types of media: books, movies, TV, etc. The first time I remember seeing it was in a Disney channel movie back in the day called Miracle in Lane 2, where Frankie Muniz heroically races soapbox cars despite using a chair. I had no language to understand what I was seeing or why it made me so profoundly uncomfortable, but now I do.
How we portray reality affects reality. Culture is made, constructed by an infinite number of tiny (and not so tiny) decisions we each make. Inspiration porn, therefore, affects how individuals and the wider culture see me. For example, I’ve had a lot of recommendation letters written for me (for scholarships, internships, awards, jobs, etc.) and I’ve read quite a few of them. Every single one so far has said something along the lines of, “Kayla never lets her wheelchair stop her. She’s such an inspiration.” And every time I think, “Really? Of all my accomplishments and qualities, that’s what you chose to lead with?” The media I consumed both as a kid and now tell me I’m not allowed to be a person; I have to be an inspiration. Whatever that means.
A college counselor once told me they really couldn’t accommodate me. Not because I was disabled—they had funds and scholarships for that. But those were only valid as long as I wanted to do what Normal People™ did. And I had just expressed my interest in doing a double degree, because the undergrad degree I was working on at the time was not challenging enough for me. She pointedly told me (though not in so many words) that if I did not stick to their preconceived notions of disability, they would not be able to help me pursue my academic plans. True to their word, they didn’t.
Inspiration porn, to me, is that preconceived notion that either turns disabled people into objects or into lesser humans, depending on the narrative. It is offensive, it is discriminatory, and most of all it is dangerous. It tells us, disabled people, that “normal” is the best we can (and should) achieve, glossing over the fact that “normal” is a culturally constructed concept, based on individual experience that should (but not always do) include ours. It tells society to expect only that and all that. If we do what everyone else does, we are objectified as an “inspiration”. If we create our own normal, we are Othered. This lowers our value and significance as human beings in the eyes of other human beings. And it tells abled people that they should not expect more from us, not just in terms of what we achieve but in terms of who we are. We can be inspirational. We can be pitied. But we cannot be happy, sad, competitive, curious, lazy, sarcastic, struggling, in love, in hate, in any way or shape complex at all. Let me give you a hint though: we are. And that is our normal.
I have found that inspiration porn is, like porn-porn, about how the viewer feels — not about the disabled person depicted. Inspiration porn makes the viewer feel feelings. Generally pity, and generally a profound gratitude that they are not a cripple themselves. They cannot imagine how someone manages to go through life on crutches, being autistic, twitching, or using a wheelchair — without putting a bullet through their brains. They watch us struggle, or ride a bike, have one glorious victorious moment, or sit in a chair in slowmo. And they feel very, very warm inside. They get weepy. They whip out their compassion and stroke it until it explodes into fuzzy self-congratulatory peacefulness. It’s so inspirational! They say.
But what exactly does this inspire you to DO? Does it inspire you to step on a land mine, be lucky enough to have the money and resources to have blades as prostheses, and become an athlete? No? Does it inspire you to coach basketball and give every kid a chance to try out instead of giving That Autistic Kid only one chance to get a basket in four long years? No? To demand that special education services are fully-funded? No? So where is the inspiration? What. Are you. Inspired. To DO?
If the answer is “share it on Facebook,” please stifle. I don’t share my favorite xhamster videos. Let’s keep it clean, folks.
What do YOU think, readers? Were you familiar with the concept of inspiration porn? Did these thoughts shed a new light on the subject for you?
Share in the comments!