For a minute, there, Kylie Jenner, you almost had me thinking you were on my team. Hey, I thought, a celebrity is using her platform to make wheelchairs cool! This picture of you in black latex posing on a gilded wheelchair is totally saying people with disabilities can be sexy. And even if it’s not, it’s art! Art gets a hall pass on offensiveness.
Wait a second.
Even though I don’t use a wheelchair regularly, because of a spine problem, I do have to use one at places that require a lot of walking, like airports and museums. I also wear a neck brace almost everyday. And thinking about the stares, comments and accessibility problems I’ve experienced, as I looked at the images of Kylie in the latest Interview magazine, my initial nonchalance began to morph into uneasiness, and then: anger.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one.
– Jessica Jewett Jones (@JJ9828) December 1, 2015
I’m constantly infantalized because of my wheelchair, denied even the idea of sexuality and agency let alone desirability. But Kylie?
– Kayla Whaley (@PunkinOnWheels) December 1, 2015
– Ophelia Brown (@bandaidknees) December 1, 2015
There’s a bunch of reasons these images are problematic. For starters, images of Kylie in a wheelchair could only be published as part of a sexy, glamorous photo shoot because Kylie is healthy. She isn’t actually disabled; if she was, the photos would never have happened. According to popular culture, being disabled is not sexy. Only because we know that Kylie can get up and walk away do the images qualify as high fashion. And that’s a problem.
An estimated 15 percent of the world’s population is disabled. But when was the last time you saw an actually disabled person featured in your J. Crew catalog or Vogue magazine? Have you ever seen a disabled person featured in mass media? My guess is probably not. And it’s not like they don’t exist. Model Jillian Mercado, for example, is as gorgeous as the next girl. But, she’s in a wheelchair. And that means she probably has a hard time finding work with major companies.
Turning a wheelchair into a momentary fashion prop for someone who is healthy simultaneously trivializes and sensationalizes the very permanent and painful reality of being disabled. The images reek of appropriation: Kylie has the privilege to cherry-pick from a discriminated population’s experience, without actually experiencing their everyday struggles. She wants to use a wheelchair to further her image is a fashion icon while having no idea what it actually means to be disabled.
It’s certainly not the first time Kylie’s been accused of this behavior.
But let’s not forget to hold Interview accountable. Rather than apologizing, it defended the images:
“At Interview, we are proud of our tradition of working with great artists and empowering them to realize their distinct and often bold visions. The Kylie Jenner cover by Steven Klein, which references the British artist Allen Jones, is a part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media scrutiny. Throughout the Art Issue, we celebrate a variety of women who are both the creators and subjects of their artistic work, and the Kylie feature aims to unpack Kylie’s status as both engineer of her image and object of attention. Our intention was to create a powerful set of pictures that get people thinking about image and creative expression, including the set with the wheelchair. But our intention was certainly not to offend anyone.”
If they were trying to show Kylie “in a variety of positions of power and control,” I’ll take a wild guess that the wheelchair image is meant to represent powerlessness. Thus, we have another knee-high boot kick to the guts of disabled folk everywhere: people with disabilities are powerless.
Meanwhile, comparing the challenges of fame with the challenges of being disabled makes me throw up in my mouth a little. Does there need to be a federal law to ensure you are treated equally in a society?
It’s worth noting that this shoot definitely could have gotten its self-important point across sans images that pile on to the prejudices and stereotypes people with disabilities deal with every single day. And even if the intent was not to offend – and by gosh, it never is – the fact is that the images are, indeed, offending people.
If Kylie and Interview could muster up the awareness to realize they made a mistake, it’s an easy fix. Apologize, and donate that ridiculous golden wheelchair to someone who actually needs it.