Spring has sprung, and with it comes prom season. Unfortunately, prom season usually means “sunny, with a chance of inspiration porn.” Inspiration porn is patronizing media that portrays disabled people as heroic and inspiring simply for existing and doing things that non-disabled people are expected to do. If you don’t think you’ve encountered it, you probably have and not yet realized it. Inspiration porn is usually served with maudlin music or a corny quote. You may be wondering, “If it makes people feel good, then what’s the big deal?” The thing is, on the surface, this type of media may appear to be uplifting. At first glance, you may think it promotes inclusion. But if you dig a little deeper, there’s nothing feel good about it at all.
Let’s take for example I meme that my friend recently found on Facebook. The image shows a young able-bodied man dressed in a prom tuxedo, holding hands with a young woman seated in a power wheelchair and wearing a pink dress. In white letters, the text reads: “He asked her to prom, even in her condition! Like and share= respect.” Excuse me while I gag. What’s wrong with this meme? Where to begin…
It reflects low expectations for people with disabilities.
Going to prom or a school dance is often a tradition for high school students. If the fact that a disabled student attended the prom is still making waves on the Internet, then we as a society have very low expectations for what disabled people will do and accomplish. Memes like this one present participation and inclusion as an exception. They suggest that disabled people don’t usually belong in the community. Our participation should not be so unusual that it warrants media attention. We are not visitors to your community from some faraway planet or elusive creatures generally seen only in folklore. We are here in your schools, your workplaces, and your neighborhoods. Save your shock for “Local Girl Rides Unicorn to School Dance.” People in wheelchairs are quite boring in comparison.
It elevates the non-disabled to “hero status” for treating us like human beings.
The meme’s insistence that this young man deserves “respect” for asking this young woman to prom implies that he must be a “special kind of person” for even being with a disabled person. By this logic, disabled people are ordinarily undesirable and anyone who thinks otherwise must possess exceptional strength of character. If sharing romance, friendship, or even simple kindness with a disabled person is considered an indicator of superhuman benevolence, the message is that we are not deserving of basic human connection. It is absurd and insulting for the maker of this meme to put the boy on a pedestal for merely being with his prom date. The praise he receives for taking her as his date “in spite of her condition” very plainly suggests that a disability is normally an expected and even understandable reason to dismiss someone as unattractive and unworthy.
It creates an “us” and “them” mentality.
The text asks the cyber audience to show the boy respect for asking her to prom. By treating the disabled girl as “the other,” validated only by the non-disabled boy’s goodness, she is not presented as part of the group, but rather as an outsider welcomed with the permission of a heroic do-gooder. The meme tells an assumed able-bodied audience that they have been compassionate for making one of “them” feel like one of “us.”
It assumes that the invitation was born of pity rather than genuine attraction.
The fact that this is flying around social media with comments such as “WOW. AMAZING! There ARE good people in the world!” means that whoever made the meme hasn’t even considered that he may have asked the girl to the prom simply because he liked her. It says, “We know you wouldn’t really want to be with someone like THAT, so you must be feeling charitable!” It’s 2016, and yes, people with disabilities have friends and family members that spend time with them because they want to. Anyone who asked me to a prom as if I were a community service project would be swiftly turned down. For all we know, maybe she asked him to prom.
Who knows if the people in this picture even wanted this attention?
It’s more than likely that these two young people were having a typical night at the prom. It’s more than likely that this young man didn’t see himself as exceptional, and this couple may not even know they’ve been made into an Internet commodity. And I use the term commodity very deliberately because inspiration porn turns people into objects. They exist for the consumption of an able-bodied audience, not as human beings but as measuring sticks for others’ morality.
But… PORN? Isn’t that term a bit provocative?
Yes. I guess it is, but no other term quite captures the harm of such media. Much like porn in the traditional sense, inspiration porn puts its subjects (disabled people) on display and exploits them for the benefit of viewers, often without their consent.
Ultimately, inspiration porn like this meme is produced by a society that applauds disabled people for existing and worse, makes inclusion and participation a favor and not a right. I will be liked and loved for everything I am, not in spite of the parts that the world deems unpalatable. And if the prom is a metaphor for life, I don’t need an invitation. I’ve already begun to dance.
Image shows a young man in a tuxedo holding hands with a young woman in a pink dress. They are gazing at each other. The woman is seated in a pink power wheelchair. The text reads: HE ASKED HER TO PROM EVEN IN HER CONDITION! LIKE AND SHARE= RESPECT.