Not Your Prop: Ableism In Celebrity Culture

Also posted on my Man, Myth, Mike blog.

One of the most puzzling aspects of American life in the 21 st century is our outright obsession with all things celebrity related, the odd worship of strangers we presume to know. This bizarre cult of personality that our society supports, mostly remains a sort of benign noise constantly in the background for those uninterested but every once in a while it crosses a serious line. The latest major celebrity faux pas, not related to The Donald, is Kylie Jenner’s blatantly offensive photo-shoot for Interview magazine that used a wheelchair as metaphoric prop. This act of painfully obvious ignorance, while terrible unto itself represents a larger problem in the relationship between disability and celebrity culture.

This is not ok…

When Kylie Jenner, a celebrity that requires a flowchart to trace the origins of her fame, donned her rather kinky outfit and sat in a blisteringly tacky manual wheelchair, it sent a clear message of how the industry views the disabled community. More shocking still, the supposedly “artistic” justifications behind this blunder was that it represented the limiting nature of fame. Not only does this turn an essential mobility device, that actually grants freedom, as a strange fetishized accessory but it presents disabled people in an extremely problematic light. Disability is not a metaphor to be used at will, disabled individuals are not some novelty to be imitated for shock value.

Unfortunately, Miss Jenner’s stunt that somehow no one thought was wrong before it went to print, is part of a much larger issue. Across the entertainment industry disabled people are largely excluded; disabled actors and models can get very little work, meanwhile, abled actors are cast in disabled roles and abled models are seen as the default option. The fact that Kylie’s photo-shoot even took place shows just how poorly this industry as well as the general population understands what it means to be disabled. I strongly believe there needs to be a major shift in the public narrative surrounding disability.

Fellow disabled blogger Karin Hitselberger’s now viral post, Why We Need to Talk About Kylie Jenner, perfectly sums up the importance of this discussion. As Karin puts it, “We need to talk about Kylie Jenner because this is not really about her. It is about how disability can be considered cool when used as a prop, but so often the lives of actually disabled people are seen as a terrible fate.” The disabled community’s overwhelming backlash to this celebrity blunder has sparked an important dialogue that I truly think everyone should pay attention to. The online response, in the form of blogs and recreated photos with women who are actual wheelchair users, is both empowering and enlightening.

Blog collage

Blogger Erin Tatum(left) and You-Tuber Annie Segarra(right).

The Kylie Jenner photo fiasco is certainly troubling, however, it does present a unique learning opportunity for the public. Anytime there is a situation in which a particular minority group is offended by something in the popular media, the phrase “Political Correctness” tends to come up at some point but I disagree with that judgement. I believe when a specific group speaks up it is a chance to better understand those with different lived experiences, in this case disabled individuals. As a disabled person myself, I hope that perceptions will continue change and that our society will begin to see the beauty and complexity of true disability.


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