Summer 2012, there are two buzz words in circulation, independently and in conjunction with one another: superhuman and inspiration. At the ugly end of the spectrum, ‘inspiration porn’ is making its appearance across social networks; a larger man with artificial limbs leans down to a young girl, also with artificial limbs, written across this image is ‘The only disability in life, is a bad attitude.’ Due to the popularity of this discussion, I shall end it here (at the end of this blog, there are some suggested readings).
The model of inspiration within the disabled community has perpetually been a valuable currency to trade on. Lawrence Clark, for instance, has been making full use of this alarming rhetoric this summer, with his new show ‘Inspired.’ Clark’s show is about “Asking awkward questions. Are all Paralympians special? What about those who come last?” I like this – what about the people who can’t have it all, who are just “rubbish”, as Clark suggested? To excel, to push our incredible machines to the max is an interesting process in and of itself. How does one arrive at this point? The writer/interviewer Richard Downes goes on to state that ‘To be heroic is a form of self-feeding that we can get into which will lead to another form of damage.’ In modifying our bodies, how far does one go?
So, Channel 4 is hosting this year’s Paralympic Games, and the advertisement has incited the disabled and the non-disabled community to ask many questions, one being: is this another employment of the ‘overcoming disability’ discourse? If not, it certainly still embodies the rhetorical device of the Supercrip. This is the assumption that the disabled body overcomes its inherent difficulties, to align itself with the normalcy of ‘those able bodies.’ During the latter part of the advertisement, the following text appears across the screen: ‘Forget everything you thought you knew about strength, forget everything you you thought you knew about human, it’s time to do battle, meet the superhumans’.
Part 1 of this conversation, by Nina, addresses the fact that this advert is appealing to the “non-disabled” audience. I never thought of the advert within this context, appealing to the masses only to turn up the heat and people’s desire to see Supercripness in action. However, to my mind, no discussion of this advert is complete without recognizing its glaring flaw. In a text that ostensibly celebrates, and serves to ‘normalize’, disabled people, it falls at the first and most common hurdle, the primary employment of non-disabled musicians and artists. Bay Area hip hop artist, Leroy Moore, recently led a discussion with fellow facebook users about this issue. Moore recognised the need for disabled artists to have a visual presence during such events: “The whole message is so bad and coming from non-disabled people sets us back on the international stage by a Hip-Hop group that is supposed to be one of the most political groups in Hip-Hop, Public Enemy! Sad that even conscience Hip-Hop groups don’t get it!” This discussion eventually lead to the point of analysing what critical thinking is, and how it pertains to the media. Which, I feel, is the most relevant question when approaching a media text such as the Superhuman. Critical thinking is the ability to recognize problems, and draw attention to the unstated assumption, in other words, expose the underlying rhetorical devices that are silently employed in all media. How do the media and activists come together to find a workable change to this well-rehearsed narrative, that caters both for the attention of disabled and non-disabled audiences?
After rewatching it several times, I’ll admit that the clip is fast, furious and sexy. My interpretation of this advert, that in fact these disabled athletes have a palpable sexual agency, juxtaposes the image of the infantile ‘Tiny Tim’, a character that often consumes the representation of disabled people. The advert certainly deconstructs this stereotype very well, even within the two minute time frame. Yet, the unfortunate ‘overcoming disability’ narrative is alien to most people with disabilities, not all individuals have access to this level of status, this degree of relatability. Therefore, this Paralympics advert arguably composes a narrative that dooms many to exclusion: failing to reach this level of success suggests an abject failure. It is either Superhuman or barely human.
The quick flashes of a car crash, a pregnant woman, the hand-to-hand combat of the battlefield, reveals to viewers that not everyone is immune to the impact of disability in their lives. I would like to rephrase this slightly. What is at stake here is an academic concept, that of ‘temporary able bodiedness’, which suggests that all members of society experience only temporary able bodies. If someone breaks their arm – they become disabled, albeit temporarily – suggesting more radically that, in fact, disablement is fluid. The question I have to ask now is, do non-disabled people perceive this narrative? Namely that fluidity between disability and ability is much closer to the surface than mainstream society could ever imagine.
Richard Downes: Laurence Clark talks about his Unlimited commission ‘Inspired’