Feel Free to Stare: Disability and Fashion

 | Lifestyle










Sheathed in a curvaceous bronze basque or donning an ass-less latex bodysuit, Kylie Jenner’s recent cover editorial for Interview Magazine’s December issue engages with the morbidity and masochism of perfection. Shot by the prolific provocateur Steven Klein, her body appears increasingly objectified and abstracted from her humanity.

The narrative cumulates in one of the cover photos, which finds the able-bodied model posed in a shiny chrome wheelchair. A frequent theme in his work, it would seem that Klein is suggesting that his heroine’s pursuit of beauty has come at the expense of her body’s functionality; a perverse circularity that is familiar in narratives surrounding beauty.

When Ali Stroker – the first actor to grace the Broadway stage in a wheelchair and the model behind the images on this very page – saw the cover she felt something familiar of a different ilk. When I broached the subject her response was simple. “We are not putting people in blackface anymore”, she sighed. “When we put them in a wheelchair, what is this saying?”

Of course, it’s a rhetorical question, for whatever “intention” might have guided Klein in shooting the photographs, the images were immediately felt to be offensive for their fetishization of disability and simultaneous perpetuation of the systematic invisibility of disabled bodies in mainstream media. The images fall within a line of fashion imagery that treats disability as a trope, employed variously to suggest a model’s mental vacancy, a violent disfiguration of beauty, or a sort of perverse passivity in the face of an enabled viewer’s gaze.

Despite the fact that nearly one in five Americans are reported to have a disability – based on a definition that considers physical and intellectual impairments, as well as limitations on participation in different activities or careers – it remains for the able-bodied something unfamiliar and strange. We are taught to visualize bodies solely as athletic and upright, quick-thinking and agile.

By placing an able-bodied model in a wheelchair, Klein’s images continue to project upon and fetishize whatever fantasies we may have about disability in the abstract, conversely creating cultural assumptions about what disability means or looks like. This error plays into a larger discourse that dehumanizes those with disabilities, a discourse that casts them not only literally as outcasts, but as people less able to feel, to care, to love, to think, or to receive and give pleasure.

“A lot of people were angry”, Ali recalls. “But I remember feeling that this could bring us to a larger conversation that needs to be had. I think what people’s anger showed was the absence of authentic representations of our community. I don’t even think Kylie meant to reference disability, but when there’s nothing else out there what are we supposed to feel?”

In defense of the images, Interview stated that they had no intention of offending anyone, but that instead, Klein’s work was engaging with art historical precedents, in particular, the late-60s sculptures of Allen Jones. While the reference to Jones’ sex-dolls-turned-furniture might provide some nuance to any general charges of misogyny, it was notably Klein’s decision to place Jones’ work in conversation with the wheelchair.

By collapsing disability into the lexicon of BDSM, Klein’s image paints disabled people as sexually passive and helpless. As several Twitter users have pointed out, including 17 year old Ophelia Brown, “a wheelchair is, by definition, a mobility device. This means that it gives freedom and independence to the person who needs it…. Kylie Jenner tries to profit off the misconception ‘wheelchair-bound’ means we’re helpless… My wheelchair is my FREEDOM”.

Despite the 3.6 million people in the United States relying on wheelchairs for their mobility, their presence in the media is close to null. Growing up, Ali relates: “I didn’t know how to express my sexuality because there was no one representing it for me. And if it’s not represented then does it not exist? Is it possible?”

Because disabled kids typically grow up in isolation from other disabled folks (not unlike queer youth), as well as because everyone’s relationship to their disability is profoundly different, many feel they are never adequately shown how to relate to their sexualities.

In addition, people with disabilities are frequently infantilized by those around them, their sexualities are seen as nonexistent. Many feel that they are excluded from spaces where sex or romance is on the agenda, such as bars or Tinder, and for the recently-disabled, sex is often assumed to be a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, in this vacuum, the representation of disabled people’s sexuality has been disseminated the most adamantly in pornography. While full access to participation in the pornography industry is certainly valid (some have argued that is an important space for the exploration and dissemination of such representations), one frequently finds that disabled women are grossly fetishized, their bodies presented as playthings lacking agency.

While the inconsideration of disabled people’s sexual needs is one thing (disability activists have pushed for sex workers to be specifically trained to cater to disabled people’s needs, and in the Netherlands the government has even gone as far as subsidizing citizens with disabilities’ visits with sex workers), silence around the issue has led to the blatant disregard of disabled folks’ sexual rights.

Statistics surrounding the issue are grim, showing that 40% of women with physical disabilities have reported being sexually assaulted. Conditions for women with developmental disabilities are even worse, reaching 83%.

Why is it that when we see disabled folks’ sexualities at all it is seen in the most abject of terms? While doing research for this article I found that art academics have a tendency to think about disability conceptually, rarely engaging with disabled folks’ identities, but instead using it as a way to think about constructions of humanity more broadly.

One of the more heavily theorized works in the literature is the film adaptation of Crash by body-horror auteur David Cronenberg. Both the film and the J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name were met with considerable controversy at the time of their release for graphic depictions of sexual activities in, on, or with cars. The characters all congregate over a shared sexual fetish involving car crashes and find their bodies increasingly injured throughout the story as their fetish is fulfilled in its extremity, their braces, and deformations, in turn, becoming sexual fetishes in their own right.

As is clear from even this brief summary, Crash reflects little on the lived experience of disability but instead treats disability as a means to engage with themes of mortality. The injuries and resulting disabilities experienced by the characters are used to force a consideration of the body’s internal mechanisms, as well as their failings. Disability is thus framed inherently as something perverse.

The conversation becomes more complicated as the characters’ fetish moves fluidly between an arousal surrounding cars and an arousal surrounding the characters’ disabilities themselves. This semiotic slippage is commonly theorized in terms of a fetish of technology, for the characters in Crash are less interested in cars themselves, but more in cars as a form of a prosthesis or as technological extensions of their bodies.

When considered from this perspective the cars might be considered less as damaging to the fetishists, but more as protecting. They use cars to transcend the limits of their bodies’ sexualities, reaching states that otherwise would be physically impossible. The character’s disabilities similarly necessitate the use of prosthetic devices, which place the fragile human body in a kind of union with technology.

Ballard and Cronenberg are thus more interested in disability as something that necessitates the amalgamation of man and machine, a post-humanist interest in the character of the cyborg. While such conversation might seem lost somewhere in an ivory tower, such thinking surrounding disability is more grounded in practice than you would think.

Point in case: the most notable exception to disabled folks’ invisibility in fashion and art circles would likely be the renaissance women Aimee Mullins. A commemorated activist, record-setting Paralympian, muse to photographers and artists alike, and bilateral-below-the-knee amputee, Mullins can unequivocally be considered exceptional.

Gaining fame for her cheetah-inspired running legs, she soon after fell in with the fashion sphere’s elite, modeling for Nick Knight and gaining immortality in a pair of hand-carved wooden legs, made by Alexander McQueen for the SS ’93 collection No. 13 (I should also note that she has modeled in a surprisingly elegant spread shot by Steven Klein).

Mullins has additionally become a muse to the artist Matthew Barney, playing a mystic sort of foil to the artist himself in both his Cremaster Cycle and the more recent River of Fundament. While these are all incredible examples of disability in art and fashion, I find that coverage in secondary media consistently frames her and her legs as a sort of post-human wonder, dubbing her “super-abled”.

I don’t mean to say that this is a bad thing, Mullin’s presence has created considerable conversation around prosthetics as an aesthetic possibility, as well as opened doors for disabled athletes, models, and actresses. The problem is more than the general fascination remains centered on a woman who seems quite “normal” (read absolutely extraordinary) despite her disability.

In interviews, Mullins routinely notes that people often tell her that she “just doesn’t look disabled”. With her breathtaking beauty, notable intelligence and charm, athleticism, and, of course, the ability to afford flesh-like prosthetic limbs, Mullins is able to “pass” as able-bodied in ways most disabled folks cannot. From there she is given the confidence to begin to explore prosthetics that draw attention to themselves and act as fashion statements in their own right.

Again, I don’t mean to dismiss all that Mullins has accomplished, but more suggest that positive depictions of disability are often reliant on people “overcoming their disabilities”, with a focus on how they’re able to attain a level of normalcy or even supremacy.

This ideal is unattainable for many – such as those with more restrictive physical disabilities, neurodiverse people, those with terminal illnesses, etc. – and suggests that we should only notice the disabled when they are exceeding the parameters dictated by their able-bodied counterparts. People who are unable to pass in this way are seen similarly as cyborgs, but instead of being seen as aspirational, they’re solely seen as something uncanny.

People in wheelchairs are typically not praised for their mobility, their resilience, or their unique symbiotic relationship with technology. Instead, we are told, quite literally, not to look at all. Ali notes that it is precisely this “polite” gesture – “don’t stare” – that sits at the origin of disabled folks’ segregation.

“It felt exciting to create these images that in some ways already exist but to see them created with someone actually living with the experience of being in a wheelchair. It feels powerful. It feels like I’m able to say something; that we’re looking people straight in the eye.”

Through her experience at Deaf West, a theater production company that specializes in working with hearing-impaired actors, Ali learned how to turn her limitations into strengths. “I can’t lie about who I am and how I move through the world,” she asserts. “But I’m interested in the truth. The media often puts this inspirational glaze over disability so that people can process it without really seeing the full spectrum of what it is, which includes pain and suffering.”

Rather than allowing only those who pass onto the glossy page, it seems we instead need to reconfigure how we confer value on a more fundamental level. I find it exciting that some disability activists have found parallels between their fight and the queering of the LGBTQ movement, which arose in response to a similar cultural emphasis on assimilation and normalcy.

A queering of disability might instead embrace difference as a fundamental and exciting part of identity. Ali notes that everyone has different abilities and strengths and that from an early age she was taught that her “disability” merely meant that she was “differently abled”.

“Being in a chair brings such a different perspective to things. Every day I’m seeing the world through, what I have decided to be, a powerful lens. Not only do I literally see the world from a different perspective, but I see the way people receive me, which is such a reflection of where we are. I also see, through what I’ve accomplished, that I have the power to shift that by feeling powerful in myself.”



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