“CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE.”
It’s the phrase that seems to have been on the tip of everyone’s tongue this year. From the racial and social tensions that exploded in the wake of the events of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner shooting cases, to the terrifying acts of aggression made against female gamers during “GamerGate,” there’s been no dearth of situations in which one group of people has been forced to call out another for being unable to understand the former’s plight and position. But if there’s one privilege that should be checked, it’s the one that transcends race and gender: the privilege of the able-bodied.
And it is a privilege, make no mistake about that. For most of us, just because we decide to take the elevator to our offices every day doesn’t mean we couldn’t take the stairs if we really had — or wanted, let’s be real — to. But an action as simple as deciding to choose “stairs” over “elevator” just isn’t an option for millions of people, a reality that gets notoriously overlooked in mainstream contemporary culture and society.
The lack of portrayals of persons with disabilities in film, television, advertisement and music — the pillars of popular culture, essentially — creates a much-distorted sense of reality in which being able-bodied is viewed as the universal norm. And when persons with disabilities are depicted, the portrayal is usually stereotypical, the physical struggles of the individual almost exclusively being the aspect of his or her life focused on. The disability doesn’t get viewed as just one of the many life circumstances that a person has to contend with, it becomes conflated with the identity of the person – they become their disability. Sure, sometimes meaningful and nuanced representations of characters who are persons with disabilities do make it in front of the masses, like Artie Abrams and Becky Jackson on the musical comedy-drama TV series Glee, but these examples are the exception, and definitely not the rule. Frankly speaking, persons with disabilities don’t get much attention or airtime. During these last few months of 2014, though, these kinds of one-sided, stereotypical representations of persons with disabilities got flipped on their heads three different times. Here’s how:
1. The Theory of Everything
Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s biopic, The Theory of Everything, which premiered in November of this year, centered on a man who’s image, when conjured in the mind of the public, has always been automatically linked to that of a wheelchair. The film’s portrayal of Hawking’s life, career, and relationships before and after he developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis humanizes him, making clear in no uncertain terms that yes, persons with disabilities can make amazing contributions to society and science and humanity, and yes, they can fall in love and have families (even more than once). The wheelchair fades into the background; Hawking as a man, with hopes and fears and dreams and frustrations, is what (rightly) comes into focus. Hawking goes so far as to compliment Eddie Redmayne, the actor who portrays him in the film, for depicting him in such a multi-faceted way: “I thought Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of me was very good. He spent time with people with ALS, to be authentic. At times, I almost believed he was me.”
2. Pro Infirmis: “Because Who is Perfect? Get Closer.”
You wouldn’t think the worlds of marketing and the fashion industry would be interested in depicting more complex representations of persons with disabilities. After all, they’re both in the business of promoting a certain ideal (read: thin) body type that all men and women should ascribe to (and spend tons of money in the hopes of achieving it). Pro Infirmis, a charity based in Switzerland, created mannequins based off the measurements of five people with a range of different disabilities and bodies, which were then prominently displayed in different Zurich clothing storefronts on a busy downtown shopping street, in plain view of passerby. The reactions of both the passerby and the models for the mannequins are captured in a film titled “Because Who is Perfect? Get Closer.” It’s groundbreaking because, when it comes to the commercial world, persons with disabilities rarely ever get to see themselves represented as models, but that doesn’t mean that they’re any less interested in fashion and physical appearance than the able-bodied community is. A representation of the diversity of bodies in the fashion world is a vital step in eliminating the pervasive stereotype that persons with disabilities don’t have the same interests and preoccupations as other people.
3. Viktoria Modesta: Prototype
Stop reading for a moment and bring to mind a musician, rapper, or performing artist that has a prominent physical disability. We’ll wait. Couldn’t do it? That’s because there don’t seem to be any at all. For much of the same reasons that the fashion world relies on able-bodied models of a certain physical body type as its “ambassadors,” the talent that the music industry tries to sell us is almost-exclusively able-bodied: society likes to see itself reflected back in the eyes of the individuals it deems to be worthy of its esteem, and society intrinsically sees itself as able-bodied. Viktoria Modesta, a British/Latvian singer-songwriter who decided to undergo voluntary amputation below her left knee to stave off further health complications, is dispelling the myth that larger-than-life celebrity, the kind of talent and charisma that can command the attention of the masses, is a commodity exclusive to the able-bodied. In her video for her single “Prototype,” Modesta draws the viewer in with a palpable passion that she exhibits through her singing and dancing. She prominently features the many different prosthetics she uses, drawing deliberate attention to them, as if to say: “See, I can dance and sing and be just as fierce and bad-ass as your Beyoncés and Nicki Minajs, even WITH my prosthetic leg.” Just watch her dance at the end of the music video if you need proof of Modesta’s sheer fierceness. It might look like a calculated move to capitalize on the shock factor of her amputated limb, but she joins a long line of artists who use their bodies to draw attention to themselves (we won’t drop any names, but we’re pretty sure you can think of at least a couple.) Why should the rules be any different for her? She obviously thinks they aren’t, and she obviously thinks that being a person with a disability doesn’t preclude from her from being a singer, or a dancer, or a person who follows their dreams and creative impulses.
Bet you’re gonna look at those stairs differently on Monday, aren’t you?