By Kate Corbett Pollack
An image of Kylie Jenner sitting in a wheelchair, used on the cover of Interview magazine (December 2015), has stirred up controversy in the Disability Rights community.
This image depicts Kylie as a human love/sex doll. These dolls are life-sized, somewhat realistic representations, typically of women, made to order from various companies. They can cost as much as $5,000-sometimes more. A wheelchair is often used by the doll’s owner to move them from place to place. Kylie’s blank stare and stiff limbs, along with her position in the wheelchair and other photos in the shoot indicate that she is posed as a Real Doll, although there are a few fetishes represented. Kylie is wearing a black vinyl corset, a collar, and black spike heels with straps and buckles around the ankles.
Some say that in this representation Kylie is appropriating disability. I suppose that means she is using an image of disability for her own gain as a non-disabled person. That perspective and the accompanying critique of her are both valid, but what bothers me about the image is the fetishization of disability and of rape culture; namely, male-gaze sexism and objectification. The wheelchair also appears to be gold-plated, indicating that money bought this woman’s submission and sexuality. There is a combination of stereotypes and oppressive and otherwise negative aspects present.
The problem with disability fetishization is that it often rests upon the ableist idea that disabled people are weak, helpless, defenseless and need to be taken care of. In the case of a wheelchair fetish, the fetish is based upon a false premise, and the fantasy oftentimes involves the presumed helplessness of those considered “bound” or “confined” to a wheelchair by disability. What I have read on wheelchair fetishes typically involves an able-bodied person taking care of and pushing the disabled person around, because they believe that a disabled person needs them and relies on them. The fantasy cannot develop independently of ableist assumptions; moreover, these assumptions create a lot of weird, uncomfortable, and disgusting feelings for people like me.
I don’t know if you have ever used a wheelchair. I don’t mean those cumbersome, over-sized things at the hospital, I mean a real chair–like an athletic chair, as used in wheelchair basketball, for example, or an everyday chair used by many disabled people. Wheelchairs are not pathetic; they’re strong and powerful. A power chair can go over many types of terrain, even snow and ice, and can have speeds of five to ten miles per hour. Handcycles are also impressive. Have you seen Olympic athlete Tatyana McFadden? She could kick your ass.
Other types of disability fetishes, such as those related to d/Deaf people, are irritating because they’re based on bullshit, too. I have encountered disability fetishization from hearing people (some of whom have worked in the d/Deaf and disability communities) and it’s unsettling. Disability fetishes can range from annoying to outright violent and tend to cross easily into rape culture and territory. These representations invoke or may otherwise cause or promote feelings of real oppression. They are not pretend.
I don’t have an issue with fetishes, in general, but disability fetishes are generally not sexy. Consensual dominant/submissive role playing is one thing, but using someone’s physical, intellectual, sensory, psychiatric or emotional disability to put them (or representations of them) in a subjugated position is problematic for me, even if the disabled person consents. However, the image of Kylie is not about what people are doing in the privacy of the boudoir (or wherever else), as consenting adults. Kylie’s sexuality and image are being used for the male gaze, and the regnant, ableist hierarchy that infantilizes women and views them as powerless objects for sexual pleasure. This image was not created for, say, the lesbian community. It’s marketed towards white, middle class, cisgendered, straight men, audience members of the majority of mainstream magazines. Even mainstream women’s magazines are largely about how you can please and appeal to straight men. Most things in the media are designed for straight men. And we all know what that means: images of bodies that are hairless, skinny, young, able-bodied and submissive with flawless complexions… the list goes on. What is designed to be sexy and appealing to straight men often repulses the rest of humanity, and feels degrading. It is also oppressive to men who do not wish to be a part of that dynamic, but feel social pressure from patriarchal society to be a certain way.
Honestly, I feel bad for Kylie. She’s 18, right? So…is she planning on going to college? I hope so. Can Kylie please go to college and major in disability studies, women’s and gender studies, and queer studies or something? Because that would be awesome. I don’t put all of the onus for this cavalcade of prosaic effigies upon Kylie herself. I might be wrong, but I don’t think she has the background, growing up in the Kardashian clan, to fully critically dissect being represented this way, which is another problem that ties into the oppression of women. Many eighteen year old young women are starting their first year of college, and most people at that age still need to learn how to deconstruct or “unpack” what is typically taken for granted.
The image of Kylie is not shocking; rather, it’s over-played and tired. What is revolutionary, subversive, and edgy is not the same old trope of the doll-like, highly made-up, plastic lips and boobs look of a woman with a very specific body shape. There is nothing wrong with that shape, but it is the same one that is almost always used to advance the stereotypes and power dynamics discussed above. Throwing this image into a wheelchair just affirms the unimaginativeness of the photograph’s creators. Their choices betray their uninformed reality: because they cannot think of anything having to do with a wheelchair except the same old shit, and they’re still perpetuating the same shit about women’s sexuality, too.
Another problem with the passive body of Kylie Jenner as Real Doll/Paralyzed Disability Fetish Object is it perpetuates the notion that disabled people are not sexual, cannot be sexual even if they want to, do not have sex, and are not found desirable by anyone without a specific fetish. According to this point of view, they can only be objects when it comes to sex; they can’t really be involved in sexual experiences as full participants. This discourse is why so many young disabled people are never talked with or taught about sexuality growing up, because able-bodied adults assume the disabled are not sexual, or should not be sexual. These assumptions align with Kylie being represented as a submissive young woman who is bendable and modifiable to fit male desire, because women shouldn’t have sexuality independent of male control and desire, while disabled sexuality is simultaneously denied or controlled.
Just like any group of humans, a wide range of sexualities and preferences abound in disability communities, and these sexualities develop on their own trajectories, as do those of the able-bodied. They are valid and real, belong to each individual, and should be free from any oppressive hierarchy which seeks to control disabled bodies, women’s bodies, bodies of people of color, or anyone with any marginalized identities.
The image of Kylie is also one that many able-bodied people have of the “wheelchair bound” populace: not muscular, not dominant, not smart, but instead, passive, frail, without strong convictions and opinions, in need of charity, guidance, benevolence and assistance, forever “confined and bound” to the chair. The truth is, there is a spectrum of bodies in disability communities just like there is an array of sexualities.
So why don’t we encounter more of the kind of image featured above? This photograph was taken at a recent performance at a multi-layered Syracuse University event on December 1, 2015, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, with Disability Studies author and speaker Simi Linton. Linton and Christian von Tippelskirch’s film, Invitation to Dance, was screened during the event, which also featured an inclusive dance workshop hosted by the performers depicted in the image above (Artistic Director of Aspire Dance Company, Tina Christina-Price, and dancer Rik Daniels), and a post-film screening dance party. Dancing, genuine and sensual, is something that is really happening in the disability communities–something happening that is not about being subjugated, patronized, or objectified. In this image, the wheelchair is a tool of dance, expression, movement, and beauty.
While this performance was not necessarily about disability and sexuality, but beauty and dance, it is important to understand and recognize that this dance is an honest portrayal of disability. The able-bodied mainstream did not manufacture these images to fit a bleak and dispiriting belief system that functions to facilitate oppressive continuities.
What is revolutionary and subversive? Not images like the Kylie Jenner shoot. What is revolutionary is real, and what is real is crip sexuality: powerful wheelchairs and accessible devices; a range of body types -muscular, athletic,thin, fat, anything and everything in between. Beauty need not be so narrowly defined, and women’s sexuality and disabled sexuality need not always be portrayed in catenation with some kind of abuse or control. Isn’t that boring, at the very least; aren’t we tired of that? True subversion, true edginess and creativity, are not confined by narrow constructs that have long been in place. What is truly subversive is liberation.