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If there’s one thing that internet denizens can agree on, it’s that animals–especially domestic pets–are great. (There’s even a Wikipedia article on the internet’s love of cats.) And why not–pets are so cute!
From the (now inactive) Cute Overload blog to the /Aww subreddit, cute animals have been in high demand online for a while. But there’s a not-so-adorable side to the internet’s thirst for cute: the fetishization of animals, particularly pets, with disabilities.
The breathless coverage of apparently “inspirational” animals with disabilities is everywhere: A pig named Chris P. Bacon (ha ha, because we usually eat pigs, right?!) had a wheelchair made for his back legs! This duck has a new lease on life thanks to a prosthetic foot! Wow, a goldfish with a wheelchair! Don’t discount the thousands of results that a simple Google Image search for “disabled animals,” brings up, either—there are a lot of photos, stories, and memes about them.
As with a lot of internet trends, this fetishization is widespread, but difficult to trace to a single source; there are Buzzfeed articles, photo sets with varying degrees of context about the photo subjects’ disabilities, television specials, and—of course—lots and lots of “inspirational” coverage of humans who have saved animals with various disabilities (but WHO SAVED WHO?). So why is the internet obsessed with disabled animals? My take is that the various “inspiring” stories about disabled animals provide a way for nondisabled people to talk about and engage with disability in a facile way. If one is constantly gawking and aww-ing over pictures and stories about animals with disabilities, then they don’t have to spend time thinking about actual disabled people, or the ableism against disabled humans that still exists.
Much of the positive coverage of disabled animals takes a cue from inspiration porn, a term that was coined by disabled comedian and activist Stella Young. Disability activist and writer Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg sums up inspiration porn as “consist[ing] of the objectification of disabled bodies for the purpose of inspiring able-bodied people” to, among other things, stop whining, get a better attitude, and use their WILLPOWER to overcome various obstacles. The main message of a great many inspiration porn images, stories, and memes is generally: This person with a disability overcame adversity/got in shape/stopped whining and embraced happiness, so why can’t you, abled person?
Being inspired by other humans to live up to one’s full potential is not bad on its face, but inspiration porn reduces disabled people—and their varied life experiences—to life lessons and just-so stories that abled people can be inspired by and then forget about. Inspiration porn uses disabled people as objects—not subjects—in its quest to motivate (or shame) abled people into getting up and “doing something,” living their dream(s), or accomplishing amazing feats. Simply put, inspiration porn images, articles, and memes use disabled people as inspiring things to be shown off, usually for the benefit of abled people’s personal motivation.
There are other phrases and tropes that tend to be used in inspiration porn material, including “[condition or disability] doesn’t stop this person from achieving their dreams,” “[person] is so happy despite their disability,” and “[person] has such a great attitude about life” and can teach abled people so much about what it means to really live; that last one seems to have sprung from the ridiculous Scott Hamilton quote about the “only” disability being a bad attitude. [An aside: That quote is also a great example of a person with a disability policing the experiences and opinions of other PWDS—Hamilton has had a few much-publicized battles with cancer, but doesn’t seem to have realized that cancer is disabling, no matter what kind of attitude you cultivate.]
Unsurprisingly, these tropes are also present in a lot of disabled animal inspo-porn:
These animals are so INSPIRATIONAL for doing normal animal things, plus a side of “disability is bad”: “These fur balls were dealt crappy hands, but they’re still smiling, purring and wagging their little tails. That’s what I would call totally inspirational!”
[Disabled animal] has so much to teach us nondisabled people about compassion and empathy: “Now, Joe has a new mission: using his experiences to help teach young kids to prevent bullying by using empathy and compassion.”
Another [disabled animal] has so much to teach humans about themselves—and LOVE! “He shows them that with love and kindness anything is possible.”
Hear that, nondisabled humans? Don’t complain or feel sorry for yourselves—be like this cat. “Cats just figure things out…They do not waste time feeling sorry for themselves—they simply get on with the act of living and have a whole lot of fun doing it! In their heads, they are fine and dandy, just as they are!”
This INSPIRATIONAL cat can do things, just like normal cats! “Belle is quite an inspiration. She cannot jump like other cats, but that doesn’t stop her from climbing on anything that she can stick her claws into.”
Gawking at these disabled animals—and sharing their “inspiring” stories (usually written by nondisabled humans) across social media—becomes a way for people who may not have significant personal experience with disability to engage with some common tropes about disability. Unfortunately, many of these “positive” tropes about inspiring disabled animals who (unlike humans?) don’t complain about their lot in life are still damaging. It may not be politically correct these days to pity and gawk at people with disabilities, but it is accepted—even encouraged—for nondisabled people to project these feelings about disabilities onto disabled animals. The compassion that commenters, Tweeters, and social media sharers may have for these disabled animals doesn’t seem to extend to people with disabilities; while pigs and goldfish get wheelchairs and their humans are praised for “good deeds” by the internet, many members of the online disability community have had to crowdfund for wheelchairs.
Certainly, on the scale of issues surrounding the comparisons of disabled people to animals, this one lacks the horrifying implications that, for example, Peter Singer’s continued contempt for people with disabilities in the name of animal rights and utilitarian philosophy do. But the continued and unquestioned objectification of “cute” and “helpless” disabled animals highlights how even the most well-meaning nondisabled people can and do project damaging stereotypes and tropes about disability—and the apparently “inspiring” nature of people with disabilities–onto animals. Such projections do both animals and humans with disabilities a disservice. Disabled animals deserve to have full lives—not to just be “inspiring” objects at which to be gawked.
Originally published on Disability Intersections.
Most of the time, my muscles are as tight as closed fists; this gives new meaning to the phrase tight body.
I mean that I do not have the energy to get out of bed, I replied.
My partner is quick to reassure me that family and friends would much rather see me when I am feeling well, and that it’s important for me to take care of myself. Despite my frequent worry about this topic, his reminders help. But the expectations that “nice” women are up for anything, are cheery, social, ever helpful, able to go to parties and events, look pretty at all times, be charming and friendly and talkative and make other people comfortable by not showing that they’re upset, annoyed, in a funk, or (in my case) in pain at all–still haunt me.
The central idea in this attitude, as with the skepticism surrounding chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic Lyme disease, and more—is that women who have any of these “mysterious” diseases must be exaggerating their symptoms for attention, embellishing descriptions of their daily pain to get drugs, or dumb enough to have been convinced by drug ads on TV or news articles or WebMD that they have these “made up” diseases. There’s a pervasive cultural idea that men’s pain should be taken seriously—if a man is in enough pain to visit a doctor, he must be in real pain. The other side of this coin is that women’s pain should not be taken seriously—a woman in pain who’s concerned enough to visit a doctor for treatment might be just hysterical or anxious.
To people who do not have chronic pain, this sounds like I have given up. To me, it sounds like common sense.
[Introductory note: This was originally published on my old blog on March 10, 2007; because I am nothing if not a complete and total buzzkill, I think it’s worth re-archiving here, particularly since “new age” thought has a pretty strong foothold in Western–and particularly North American–culture. This sort of magical thinking still has a strong grip in many folks’ consciousness, even given the recent economic downturn; maybe I’m just naive, but I find the fact that some people can still be all ~*POSITIVE THINKING*~ and/or YOU GET BACK WHAT YOU PUT OUT even amidst widespread economic chaos and a brutal job market extremely surprising, and pretty sad.
Then again, realistic thinking has never been America’s strong suit, particularly amongst the privileged classes. The following post has been slightly edited for clarity. I have since written quite a bit on “positive thinking” as a means of social control, mostly at FWD: The Negative Side of Positive Thinking; Book Review: Bright-Sided; Just. For more information about precisely how harmful “positive thinking” can be when taken to the extreme, I highly recommend this blog post by Dr. David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine, which covers the Kim Tinkham case in detail (content warning for discussion of cancer).]
I just watched the latest and supposedly “greatest” in the self-help/marketing peoples’ insecurities back to them market, The Secret.
I sort of want that 90 minutes back. Now, before people start jumping on me and calling me negative, skeptical, bitchy, et cetera, let me assure you: I am, indeed, all three of those things. I tried to watch The Secret with an open mind. I really, truly did. But, I have to say, besides some of the stuff about visualization*–which I have thought of as a powerful tool for a while, and, at times, it has absolutely worked for me–I simply was unable to get on The Secret bandwagon.
I don’t know what it was that made me so hostile to the entire thing. Was it the overproduced “dramatic” re-enactments, some of which look very familiar to even a casual viewer of the History Channel? Was it “Dr.” Joe Vitale, Metaphysician,** who contends that ALL of the bad circumstances in your life come to you because of, well, you and your horrible, horrible negative thoughts? Was it Lisa Nichols, who was one of four women interviewed (out of 16-17 people) and one of two people of color interviewed? (She seemed to be the most sincere out of all of the “Teachers” interviewed, which endeared her to me quite a bit.) Was it the many shots of people from Other Lands, smiling and laughing, and getting fawned over by the “Teachers” due to their “natural” ability to Make Do With What They Have? Was it the completely oxymoronic focus on using The Secret to gain material things, money and houses (focused on after the many shots of our friends from other lands)? Was it the bizarre assumption that everyone watching the video wants the same damn things? Eeeek!
Then I reread this fantastic article, which outlines some of the problems with The Secret, and how Oprah, unfortunately, has basically adopted it as her credo and is trying to get her viewers to do the same. If it works for her, great. However, one thing that has bothered me about Oprah’s unquestioning acceptance of The Secret is this: It reinforces the great American trope of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. AKA: If Oprah/some disadvantaged person has become successful, then you can, too! All you have to do is think positive thoughts!
There is, of course, a lot more to it than that. I’m all for thinking good thoughts, but it is the denial of reality and various systems of oppression that make this position worse. Racism, for example, is one thing that is consistently denied as to its very existence. I have news for you, folks: Racism still very much exists. I can certainly create a non-racist America in my own mind (and let me tell you, it is awesome), but to see it in front of me is going to take some major societal changes. And it’s the same with sexism. And homophobia. And ableism, and classism, and all of that other fun stuff. “Creating your own reality” only goes so far–eventually, you will run into a structure that is bigger than you, and oftentimes, these structures are oppressive and hurtful to many people. I’m sorry if that sounds “negative,” but it is true for a lot of us. Not many people can conveniently ignore these structures in order to “think positive.”
Bad things are going to happen. Bad feelings happen. That is part of life. One of the Noble Truths of Buddhism, after all, says that life is full of suffering. Of course it is, even though it is also full of Great Things. To deny this is to deny an actual, authentic life. And I have to say, I feel sorry for anyone who shies away from feeling the full spectrum of emotions because they think that “negative thoughts will attract bad things,” (one of the claims espoused in The Secret). Yes, negative thoughts suck. They make us feel bad. But trying to be aggressively “happy” is not only potentially dangerous, it’s Pollyanna-esque and annoying.
[*Visualization, however, is one tool that I really, really like, mostly because it forces me to use my imagination and is quite fun. It’s nothing new, however; various self-help gurus have been promoting this tool for years. Even if it doesn’t work, it’s still fun, and, unlike some of the professional bullies who harangue you for an hour and a half in The Secret, it (most likely) won’t make you feel bad about yourself.]
**I kid you not; this was listed as his actual professional title during the video. When I grow up, I wanna be a Metaphysician!
[Warning for possibly triggering content regarding mental health, specifically depression.]
I’ve been reading a fair number of how-to creativity books (yeah, I know, creativity is not something you can “learn” from a book) recently in preparation for a long-term project, and one thing I have noticed about some of these books–and a lot of the “advice” floating around out there about creativity–is the notion of the “inner critic.” The inner critic, according to some Professional Creative Types, is the voice that tells you that you are not creative, that you can’t write, or draw, or paint, or accomplish whatever creative project you want to. The inner critic is supposed to stand in for everyone who’s told you that you are a crappy artist, that your creative pursuits aren’t good enough, and all of that fun stuff that apparently wasn’t there when you were a kid. And, in the course of becoming truly creative, you are supposed to silence your inner critic.
This got me thinking, however: What if that critic was there when you were a kid? What if the inner critic is, well, part of you, and you cannot “just silence” that part?
One thing that I really don’t talk about publicly (on the internet or off) is my history of major depression. There are many reasons as to why, and I think that those might best be saved for another post. However, there is something that really bugs me about the “inner critic” model of creativity: it does not take depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions into account. What if that voice in your head has been there for a while, and is an active part of your mental health issue? It’s not so easy to turn off that voice that tells you that you suck, or that your art or writing is a bunch of crap, or that you will never amount to anything when that voice is there because of a mental health condition.
There’s another assumption in writings about the importance of “turning off” the inner critic, which is that all children have a magical reserve of resilience and that is why they are so creative. These children simply don’t care what anyone else thinks, and the Creative Adult must recapture that sense of adventure by silencing the inner critic! It sounds so easy! But what of the depressed child, or the child with mental health issues? As someone who had depression issues as a kid — and still does — I question the supposedly “universal” applicability of this whole inner critic business, the assumption that it can be turned off like a damn light switch, after which we will all Recover Our Childlike Capacity For Creativity, or something.
I remember having my own Inner Critic as a kid, and it was not fun. Certainly, I did have years where I had that sense of Childlike Creativity and Wonder, but those were also interlaced by a voice in the back of my mind that would tell me awful things. And it never left, after a while. It would hiss: You do not belong. You are weak. Your bum leg is punishment for something, and you sure as hell aren’t going to “make up for it” with your stupid cartoons, give me a break! You think you’re going to be popular because of your cartoons? Because of your writing? Please. You are worthless, and also none of the other kids like you. Your art is just a hobby, nothing more.
Then, once the depression came on the scene, those little hissings became, well, much bigger. They’d been there when I was a kid, no doubt, but with major depression, they stuck in my brain like a particularly awful tape loop that just couldn’t be turned off. Things with my depression are much better now — as they have been for a few years — but I am always, always on the alert in case it comes back full-force. My depression not totally gone (nor do I expect it to be), but I manage it with care. And the “inner critic” that artsy self-help types slam? She’s still there, and I think she will be there permanently. The trick, for me, is learning to live with her instead of assuming that silencing her is an easy step.
[Originally published at FWD.]
Recently, I read this bizarre article, penned by Judith Warner, in the New York Times–one in a stream of many that detail how excessively awful the current generation of young people (read: young workers) is at putting its collective nose to the grindstone, sucking it up, and generally not acting like a bunch of brats, or something.
Many of us have heard about, or come into contact with, some of these bright young things. They are heralded — or, more commonly, blasted — as naive, entitled, too optimistic, and over-confident. The note of panic begins fairly quickly: They don’t know how to dress professionally! They expect to march into the workplace of their choice and immediately start making a six figure-salary! They think they are perfect! They want praise all of the time! (Does no one who writes this stuff stop to consider that many human beings want praise when they complete a task to the best of their abilities?) They have tattoos, dyed hair, and iPods! EVERYBODY PANIC, because the American workplace is apparently going to be dragged down by Generation Y’s entitlement, narcissism and laziness! This narrative, however, seems to apply mostly to a very specific subset of the population (and even the picture that accompanies the NYT article reinforces this): young, able-bodied, middle to upper-middle class, college-educated white people.
This erases, or conveniently ignores, a hell of a lot of folks who are not young, abled, middle/upper-middle class, and white. It erases young workers who may not have had as many educational opportunities, or who had to take more than the expected four years to finish their degree, or who did not finish school, or go to college at all. It erases people whose parents or family members may not have been quite so “involved” in their education, or in their lives at all. Of course, it also erases young people with disabilities — both those who cannot work, and those who want to work but who may be bumping up against this narrative of the “entitled” Generation Y denizen. Some of us have psychological issues or disabilities that put us completely at odds with the “overly-confident” and “entitled” stereotype that apparently befits the current generation — because we cannot stop worrying despite the fact that we are supposed to be totally optimistic and confident all of the time, thinking that the roads leading to our perfect job will be lined with rainbows and gold.
Some of us have physical disabilities, chronic pain, or chronic illnesses that prevent us from working 40-hour weeks (or more); asking for accommodations or disclosing our condition(s), we fear, may make us look “entitled,” or like we do not want to put in the time necessary to work our way up — even if this is not the case. The fact is that many people, and many young people, with disabilities are already at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to the labor market and making a living. Not only are many people with disabilities more likely to live in poverty, but they may face hostility, discrimination, and unreasonable demands, both in the workplace and from society at large.
While I am not saying that these over-entitled Generation Y-ers don’t exist (they absolutely do, in my experience), I am struck by the fact that this narrative is so dependent upon erasing or ignoring certain people whose bodies and experiences do not fit the “expected” labor-related attitudes that have been traditionally upheld by American culture. Many of these attitudes, furthermore, rely heavily on binaries: You either work full-time, or you’re lazy. You’re willing to be mistreated in the workplace and do whatever it takes “for the job,” or you’re a wimp. Suck it up, or go home. If you’re not making enough money to live on or are poor, you just aren’t working hard enough. If you ask for “accommodations,” you’re asking for too much — just do your job! You have to work hard to “make it,” and if you don’t work hard enough, it’s your fault. If you don’t like your job or face daily mistreatment, you can always quit and find another one, right? But if you can’t, it’s your fault, and why did you quit that job, anyway?
The message for Generation Y, in general, may be “Get over yourself,” but the message for those who do not fit the characteristics of the “average” Generation Y worker is more severe — and ultimately more dire.
[Cross-posted at FWD]
For Blogging Against Disablism Day this year, I thought I’d share a poem that I wrote a while ago that I haven’t shared until now. I was going to turn it into a spoken-word piece but never got around to it. Better late than never, I suppose.
On my side
eyes brain neck
spinning along with
and I haven’t even been drinking
this is not a workout
and yet, I am sweating
the body over (re)acts
does not know quite how to
and I wish I
could say to
every non-believer, every “skeptic”
everyone who’s ever asked:
what’s wrong with you
why do you walk like that
is something the matter with your foot
what is it
why aren’t you getting better
why isn’t your attitude more positive
why can’t you
almost always accompanied
by one of these:
at least you can walk
at least you’re smart, so you can deal with this
at least you’re not homeless
or living in a Third World country
you’re luckier than most
how bad could your pain be?
just take some aspirin
you should take vitamins
just work through your pain
I have pain, too
you’re too young to have something
why are you so bitchy
that I hear
I smile a little bit, inside
many of these people
will also know
but for now
this is my reality
and I wish you could see it
for only a minute
and then maybe you’d
think before you
talk at me
or offer meaningless platitudes
every word that exits your mouth
friend of a friend,
asshole on the street who tells me to smile
because it can’t be that bad
means less to me
than I do to you
I’m not your vehicle for
I am not to be used
to show the world
what a great “liberal,” progressive kind person you are
or to be subjected to
masked as concern
so please step out of
once I can stand, that is
for now—lucky for you
I am confined to vertigo
In my own carpeted purgatory