(dis)ability in the media

By Kierra Dye

The theme I chose to focus on is (dis)ability. [To clarify, I prefer to use (dis)ability because ability is subjective, so a person may view themselves as fully able-bodied while someone else may have the same body and view themselves as having a disability.] The media world is becoming more diverse and is starting to represent identities that do not fall into the majority. Popular culture is featuring (even if only in a limited quantity) characters of different races, classes, ethnicities, and sexualities. One piece of identity that appears to be less represented or misrepresented is the identity of (dis)ability.

Artifact #1: Dove Campaign for Real Beauty


One pop culture artifact that evinces the invisibility of (dis)abilities is the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty ads. As can be seen above, Dove argues that many different identities are beautiful, despite the fact that they are not highlighted in traditional beauty ads. In the above print advertisements, Dove has ensured that its campaign included women who represent multiple identities. Dove’s ads blatantly combat traditional views of beauty by pointing out the perceived flaw of the model but reframing that flaw to be positive. The compiled ads touch on body size, skin color, eye shape, age, hair styles, even freckles; however, (dis)ability is not explicitly represented in this campaign. The problem with this is Dove seems to assert that if one has a disability, she cannot be beautiful.

Artifact #2: Orange is the New Black: Season 1, Episode 10 “Bora, Bora, Bora”


Unfortunately, I was unable to find a clip online from Orange is the New Black to share because most clips have been deleted for copyright infringement. Thus, I will summarize what happened in Season 1, Episode 10 “Bora Bora Bora.” A group of delinquent youth is brought to the prison so that the inmates can attempt to make them fear prison life and consequently change their ways. In the scene where all of the girls get off the bus and meet the corrections officer, the bus driver says that there is one more, and Dina gets off the bus using a mechanical ramp. The corrections officers are baffled because these girls are supposed to be delinquents, and they do not believe that a person with a (dis)ability is able to cause trouble. In the next scene, the inmates rush up to the youth and begin berating them. A corrections officer brings aside one of the inmates (Washington) and tells her that she should try to scare Dina. Washington begins by telling Dina there are no wheelchair ramps in prison. This monologue points out that many institutions (including prison) are not accessible to those who are not fully able-bodied. Dina responds by saying that she doesn’t need ramps. She states that she robbed a liquor store and started a gang to prove that her (dis)ability doesn’t limit her. Washington is surprised and immediately assumes the gang is comprised of girls in wheelchairs.

This clip alone shows the assumption that (dis)abilities are limiting. Furthermore, Washington’s comment about the gang being girls in wheelchairs asserts that only other girls in wheelchairs would accept Dina’s leadership.

Later in the episode, “Pensetucky” (a conservative Christian who believes that God has given her healing powers) tries to heal Dina and make her able to walk again. This scene expresses the idea that (dis)abilities are not normal and should be fixed.

Artifact #3: Becky Jackson in Glee

Although Glee is featuring a character with an obvious (dis)ability, the scene above seems to poke fun at Becky. Instead of using the real actress’s voice to narrate the scene, a British woman’s voice narrates stating that Becky’s voice can sound like whatever she wants in her head—which makes Becky seem childish, despite the fact that she is in high school. Becky’s monologue talking about how she could get any guy in the school seems to poke fun at the thought of a girl with Down Syndrome being able to have a romantic interest.

Artifact #4: Jimmy from Degrassi

Jimmy was once fully able-bodied but now uses a wheelchair because he is paralyzed from the waist down after a school shooting. This scene is problematic because it makes sexuality seem like the most pervasive aspect of Jimmy’s (dis)ability. Furthermore, instead of educating the viewers by showing them that there are other ways to be intimate if paralyzed, Jimmy tells Ashley to leave because he is frustrated with his inability to gain an erection.

Artifact #5: Wet Seal’s first model with Downs Syndrome


I actually have a lot of praise for this company. They opposed the idea that (dis)abilities are not beautiful and exhibited a model with a visible (dis)ability. I only have two critiques of this advertisement: 1) it is not common enough. This story made headlines because it is out-of-the-ordinary, which is problematic. 2) though the intent was to express beauty in diversity, the company’s motives could be to exploit Karrie and her (dis)ability to receive praise and favor.

These five artifacts synergize because they show both the invisibility of (dis)ability as an identity and that in the rare occasions that (dis)ability is shown in the media, it focuses on their physical characteristics (i.e., beauty, sexuality, etc.) of the characters instead of focusing on their personality and contribution to the plotline, as they do with other characters. However, many identities that are not of the majority are viewed purely for their physicality (Garland-Thompson 19). For example, race is reduced to skin color, gender is tied to primary and secondary sex characteristics, and sexual orientation is limited to sex practices.

Perhaps this is because, as Rosmarie Garland-Thompson wrote in her essay “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory,” (dis)ability has just recently been considered an identity instead of pathology. She explains this in the following quotation: “Over the last several years, disability studies has moved out of the applied fields of medicine, social work, and rehabilitation to become a vibrant new field of inquiry within the critical genre of identity studies” (Garland-Thompson 13).

Garland-Thompson goes on to say later in the essay that society stigmatizes body variations (Garland-Thompson 17). Throughout the playlist, stigmas associated with (dis)abilities are revealed. Dove does not consider (dis)abilities part of a diverse identity and do not include them in their “real beauty” campaign. The other inmates do not believe that Dina is capable of gang activity because she is not fully able-bodied. It is odd and humorous that Becky has romantic thoughts and a high self-esteem because people with Down Syndrome are not usually considered beautiful or capable of romantic relationships.  Jimmy is frustrated because he cannot receive sexual gratification. We praise Wet Seal for being so noble as to let someone with a (dis)ability model, because people with (dis)abilities are not innately beautiful.

Stigmas about (dis)ability are not the only stigmas revealed in this playlist. When you juxtapose Jimmy and Dina, you can notice how gender plays a role in their reactions. Dina feels the need to assert strength and dominance through violence. Perhaps this is because she is a female, and females are typically viewed as physically inferior to males, and the fact that she has a noticeable (dis)ability exacerbates this idea. However, Jimmy does not feel the need to physically assert himself. He feels comfortable giving up physical efforts; however, he does not allow himself to be emotionally vulnerable. Perhaps this is because gender stereotypes say males are supposed to be emotionally strong.

Garland-Thompson points out that to accept (dis)ability as a diversity instead of a pathology, we must stop comparing bodies with (dis)abilities to the perceived normal bodies (Garland-Thompson 19). For example, we must change the thoughts that someone with Down Syndrome has an “extra” chromosome. That is assuming there is a correct number of chromosomes in the human body. Is a person with Down Syndrome any less human because he or she has 47 chromosomes instead of 46?

Works Cited

Dove Real Beauty Sketches: People’s Insights Volume 2, Issue 29 – See more at: http://asia.mslgroup.com/dove-real-beauty-sketches-peoples-insights-volume-2-issue-29/

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK: “Bora Bora Bora” S1E10 (Review). 2013. Photograph. Forces of Geek. 7 Oct 2013. <http://www.forcesofgeek.com/2013/07/orange-is-new-black-bora-bora-bora.html&gt;.

Nanson, Meg. Pop Culture Rant: On “Glee” and Disabilities. 2013. Photograph. Forces of Geek, Austin, TX. Web. 7 Oct 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLpgp78qIOY&gt;.

Degrassi – CHW – Uncut “sex” scene. 2008. Photograph. YouTube. 7 Oct 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSUqVTczssE&gt;.

Brown, Sue. How My Daughter Became Wet Seal’s First Model With Down Syndrome. 2013. Photograph. JezebelWeb. 7 Oct 2013. <http://jezebel.com/how-my-daughter-became-wet-seals-first-model-with-down-1441114081&gt;.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” Feminist Disability Studies. Ed. Kim Q. Hall. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2011. 13-47. Print.

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