Features Performance Published 20 August 2014

Performing Inspiration

In the latest of her series of features on disability and performance, Amelia Cavallo discusses "inspiration porn."
Amelia Cavallo

Porn! …have I got your attention? Good. So many people love porn. It’s exciting and it makes you feel good, right? It can also leave you feeling inspired to better yourself, because it serves as a reminder of the fact that there are people out there who have it harder than you. It’s starting to hit the mainstream as well. There are tons of images on social media that get shared by thousands of people with pictures that are accompanied by phrases like, “before you quit, try” or “the only disability in life is a bad attitude.” It even was used to advertise the 2012 Paralympics with the widely viewed commercial, “meet the superhumans”.

You may be guessing at this point that I am not talking about the kind of things that most people associate with the word porn. This kind of porn isn’t (necessarily) about sex, it’s about inspiration. In this context, the word porn means the objectifying of one body for the benefit of another, and that is what all of these examples do. The phrases above are associated with photos of disabled people, usually cute children, doing something unexpected, such as a child with no hands drawing a picture with a pen in her mouth, or a kid with downs syndrome playing football.

The meet the superhumans commercial shows Paralympic athletes alongside footage of war, car crashes and prenatal issues that all lead to disability, and apparently more difficult lives. We can’t just watch them as athletes and be excited. We have to see them overcoming what seem like broken and substandard bodies, sensory and cognitive make ups, This is suppose to make those watching (the non-disabled public, because let’s face it, that’s who these images are for) feel good about their unbroken, able bodies, senses and cognition.

These examples present disability as a “bad” thing that needs to be overcome, and turn the individuals shown into objects of pity and reverence. “You” the able-bodied observer, are suppose to look at that photo or commercial and think, “Isn’t that inspiring. That poor disabled person is trying so hard and doing so well! I obviously can do better because I’m not disabled, so I should take nothing for granted and live my (much better and more validated) life to the fullest!” This is not unlike what reality TV shows do when they show you the X-Factor contestant who’s mom just died, or the politician who wants to show how he cares for the community by hanging out with a bunch of poor black kids. It tugs simultaneously at the heart strings and the inherent ignorances around certain identities within society.

“Inspiration porn” is a phrase that exists within the disabled community, because we are objectified in this way constantly. I touched on this in an earlier blog around the performance of disability, stating that people often tell me how amazing I am for doing everyday things like walking down the street. I also often get told how beautiful I am by people, not necessarily because they think I have exceptional beauty, but because they think that as a blind woman, I am not aware of how (good) I look on a day to day basis. These comments, while well meaning on the surface, come from this sense of objectification, pity and reverence. It’s an unfortunate and often infuriating part of the gig if you’re a crip, and I think for the most part we deal with it using patients, a bit of sass and a lot of humour. If you watch Shelia Young’s TED talk on inspiration porn, you’ll get what I mean.

Now, all of this being said, it doesn’t mean I dislike inspiration. It’s good to be inspired, and that often comes from watching people overcome adversity. However, the context of this inspiration is important, particularly when thinking about art, which stems from a kind of inspiration, and hopefully inspires people to think, act and/or at least have an enjoyable experience. My issue with inspiration porn is not that people watch a disabled person and become inspired. My issue is that they are inspired by the idea that a fundamental part of what makes us who we are is a horrible curse that we want to be freed from. Yes, being disabled can be hard. So can being queer, a person of colour, a woman, a man, old, young, thin, fat, and so on. Everyone has it hard at points in their life. It’s called being human, and there is no competition for who has it worse or who can overcome more adversity. Moreover, assuming someone has less quality of life because there is something about them that you can’t identify with (How can she even draw with a pencil in her mouth?), and that you’ve decided you wouldn’t want for yourself is oppressive. It assumes that the goal is to overcome a your identity as opposed to owning it.

I come from a white, upper middle class American family. I am not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I have never really wanted for anything. I am well aware of the fact that this is not only because I have worked extremely hard to be able to live this life, but also because of the social status into which I was born. Blindness has never stopped me, and has actually aided my career in many ways. Do I face adversity? Hell yes. Do I want that fact to inspire people when the see me performing or walking down a street? Sure, but not because they pity me. Disabled people aren’t here to make the able-bodied masses feel better about themselves. We love our identities just as much as you do (should). Bare that in mind the next time you see a photo of a child in a wheelchair with the phrase “your excuse is invalid” next to it.

Amelia will be performing her new show, I Breathe at the Liberty Festival in Queen Elizabeth’s Olympic Park on 30th August 30th at 1:15, 3:00 and 5:00.

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Amelia Cavallo

Amelia Cavallo is a visually impaired, USA born actor, singer, musician, circus aerialist and aspiring academic. As a performer, Amelia has worked with various companies throughout the UK including Graeae Theatre, The Raven Theatre Company, Extant Theatre, Future Ruins and Natural Diversions. She also worked as a sway pole performer in the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony, and conversely as a burlesque artist for Criptease Unlimited as part of the Southbank’s Unlimited festival. Amelia is currently a Phd candidate at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama researching the potential normative structures in acting processes via disability studies and crip theory.

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