The internet has been buzzing for the past week over Kylie Jenner’s recent cover photo shoot for Interview Magazine. As a person with disabilities (and a wheelchair user since I was three years old) between this, and the news about the mass shooting in San Bernardino, I’m fuming as I write this! So the cover and accompanying photos feature photos of Jenner as a femme-bot, with doll-like poses, unfixed eyes, sitting in a wheelchair, as well as several other photos of her without the wheelchair. The images were shot by photographer Steven Klein.
After a lot of relevant critique from folks on the internet, Interview told E! News: “The Kylie Jenner cover… references the British artist Allen Jones… [and] aims to unpack Kylie’s status as both engineer of her image and object of attention. Our intention was to create a powerful expression including the set with the wheelchair. Our intention was certainly not to offend anyone.”
Aside from a few poses, clothing, and doll-like look, the wheelchair has nothing to do with Jones’ work. And while the publication stated they never intended to “offend anyone,” the statement completely minimalizes the oppressive nature of the shoot and gaslights all the marginalized folks affected by the spread.
Using a wheelchair simply as a photo shoot prop is disgusting. Jenner isn’t the first person to use a wheelchair or mobility device, for the sake of fashion or aesthetic. From Lady Gaga, to Emily Autumn, using
mobility aids to make a fashionable statement is nothing new. In 1995, Vogue featured a model using hand crutches in one photo, and an external fixator on her leg in another photo for their February editorial spread. In retrospect, this appropriation is nothing new, with the fashion industry even dubbing it “Disability Chic”.
There’s an extremely violent double standard in action here. Most able-bodied people don’t realize that there’s so much unchecked privilege and power at play. When folks with disabilities, like myself, actually need and use mobility devices, we’re dehumanized. We have slurs thrown at us, asked extremely intrusive questions, deemed sexless while also being fetishized in the same breath, tokenized, abused, rendered helpless– and the list goes on and on. When able-bodied people use mobility aids in the name of fashion, it’s called edgy, glamorous, sexy, artistic and beautiful. These women all hold systemic power and privilege over people with disabilities. It’s important to note that these high profiled shoots of ‘disabled chic’ all feature women who are white, wealthy, thin, and conform to eurocentric beauty standards. Most importantly- they’re able-bodied. Yes, all of these things matter.
When we’re fed this sort of imagery, we need to think critically, and stop letting institutional privileges and respectability politics silence, gaslight, and further erase folks with disabilities. People have tried to use the excuse that these photographers are attempting to affirm disabled folks, spread awareness, and dismantle stigmas, but if that’s the case, why not feature models with disabilities? You can’t put an able-bodied person in a mobility aid and try and sell it as “affirming,” because the only thing you’re affirming is that folks with disabilities aren’t good enough to be able to represent themselves or be in charge of their own narratives.
One thing a lot of able-bodied and neurotypical folks don’t understand – primarily because it’s not commonly seen or shared – is just how violent being disabled can be. People with disabilities are more likely to be raped, beaten, abused, neglected, and exploited. Some of us are even given over to state institutions, becoming property of the state solely for being disabled.
It’s time to talk about body politics and how this intersects with race, class, desirability, exploitation, and fetishization. This dialogue is crucial.
It goes without saying that folks with disabilities (especially folks with physical disabilities) are completely invisible in fashion. The fashion industry, as well as pop culture and TV, continue to render us invisible and erased. But when able-bodied folks use mobility devices as a prop they’re revolutionary. Everyday the media tell us: It’s chic and glamorous to look disabled but not actually be disabled.