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Primer: Inspiration Porn

Posted in Education, and Primer

Last updated on May 1, 2019

If you haven’t read my Introduction I strongly recommend it

Primer articles explore the complex web of disability representation focusing on far reaching tropes and their consequences.

The term inspiration porn has gained a lot of traction in the disability community since it was coined by the late Stella Young in 2012. Going off of the Wikipedia definition “Inspiration porn is the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability”. I’m not going to spend too much time on the definition because many people have already done a great job of doing so, but I do want to share a few thoughts and address some of the arguments I have seen by people against the idea of inspiration porn.

The phenomena of inspiration porn is almost entirely predicated on the idea that disability is bad and therefore anyone with a disability must be experiencing day to day duress of high magnitude. This then gets translated to “they have it harder, therefore their everyday actions are inspiring.” This assumption is fundamentally based on a phrase many people with disabilities have heard “I wouldn’t be able to do what you do if I was in your shoes.” Such ideas are drawn from a lack of understanding and a tendency many people have to under evaluate themselves. If they had been born with a disability they would have adapted much the same as anyone else, they would be a fundamentally different person. All kinds of people also deal with disability later in life. Non-disabled persons need to get over this chasm that allows for such strict divisions between “us” and “them”.

Stella originally used inspiration porn in reference to memes that showed the actions of people with disabilities as inspirational. She does a great job talking about this in her Ted talk so I’m not going to spend much time on it.

Since its debut as a term, inspiration porn has gained traction in being used when talking about television or film. Movies like the recent Wonder had my mind rolling its eyes based on the trailer alone. The title by itself should be raising flags for people, but on top of that, you have this story about a disabled boy with lots of charm and wit who is amazing in the face of his adversity. Sprinkle in lots of sun and soft lighting and a non-disabled actor playing the role and you have Hollywood hamfistedly slapping you in the face with inspiration porn. I don’t look at a movie like Wonder and find myself inspired, rather I find myself angry that people aren’t asking questions about why a person with a disability would struggle in school. How do we lower the rates of bullying of these children, how do we make it so that acceptance is a given, not inspirational. This cotton candy fluff disability media is incredibly dismissive of the problems that the disability community faces and allows non-disabled people to go feel warm fuzzies at the expense of the people the film is about.

Another example in this same vane are the short inspirational videos that go viral on the internet. Maybe you’ve seen one about a person with a mental disability being happy to have gotten a job or happy at work, or maybe one about a kid using an adaptive device or a different technique for accomplishing a task. Devoid of context these videos should not be thought of as inspiring. It’s fine to be happy for someone, but inspiration shouldn’t be drawn from mundane tasks or things that should be standard. Watching a video about someone getting a job and being happy because of it should make you think about why it is difficult for people with disabilities to get jobs in the first place. These things should be engaged with critically. Think about whether or not you would be inspired if they were a non-disabled person. Think about the ways these videos gloss over serious systemic problems facing the disability community. If it is actually an inspiring thing then great! People with disabilities can absolutely be inspiring. But if it isn’t inspiring then it is perpetuating a harmful stereotype that dehumanizes people with disabilities and undermines their ability to integrate into society.

In Response to Critique

I mentioned a few arguments I’ve seen perusing the comment sections on articles other people have written about inspiration porn and I want to address the two that seemed most prevalent. The first is something like “inspiration porn is a gross term”. This one quite frankly is just a form of dismissiveness. The term relays relevant information, implying a sort of spiritual masturbatory material while being non-offensive. There might be arguments that something a little more sedate could’ve been coined, but when talking about an overlooked and exploited problem a stronger term seems well justified. Accept the term and engage with the problem rather than directing attention away from it.

The second critique I’ve seen and one that is more ingrained is that calling someone inspirational can’t be a bad thing when coming from a good place. Which is somewhat true, the phrase has no inherent malintent. It’s also true that I can’t just tell you to stop being inspired by something and have it happen overnight. That’s fair, expecting people to change behavior immediately will not go far. I call us back to engaging with the topic matter critically. Demonstrate that you care about the disability community by thinking through your actions and the impact they have. I don’t think it is hard to argue that it is never acceptable to randomly approach a person with a disability and call them an inspiration unless it is directly in relation to some inspirational event you observed them do, even then it is better to air on the side of caution. If it is a family member or friend that you find inspiring then be willing to engage in a conversation with them to see what their thoughts on the matter are. Being firmly rooted in your beliefs does not excuse you from trying to understand the viewpoints at play.

I always encourage discussion, but as a little challenge I will only post comments that describe an example of inspiration porn you have seen or experienced. Feel free to write whatever else you want after that, but an example is the cost of admission.

Other Resources and Research

3 Comments

  1. I recall seeing an particularly egregious example of inspiration porn: it was a trailer for a 2018 Oscar bait film. It was about a man with PTSD and amputations I think. The trailer only really focussed on how the able bodied main character learnt and grew from contact with the disabled character, and ended on a quote which went something like “you had to be broken before you could succeed”. It was quite oblivious to how inaccurate it was and how othering its message was when it portrayed a disabled person as being extremely different and defined almost solely by their disability.

    April 18, 2019
    |Reply
    • Mitch
      Mitch

      Thanks for the comment Rugose, sorry it took me a while to realize you had made one! I’m unfamiliar with the movie you are referring to, but that definitely sounds like an example of inspiration porn muddied with a bunch of other tropes. I’ll probably do a Primer article on the use of disabled characters for the betterment of able-bodied characters in the near future.

      April 24, 2019
      |Reply
  2. […] and so did this incredible thing in spite of the cards they were dealt.” For those who know about inspiration porn this line of thinking should be familiar. Focusing on the extremes of any population is negatively […]

    June 26, 2019
    |Reply

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