Penny R. and p.j. sent in a link to the American Able project. A description from the artist’s website:
‘American Able’ intends to, through spoof, reveal the ways in which women with disabilities are invisibilized in advertising and mass media. I chose American Apparel not just for their notable style, but also for their claims that many of their models are just ‘every day’ women… Women with disabilities go unrepresented…in most of popular culture. Rarely, if ever, are women with disabilities portrayed in anything other than an asexual manner, for ‘disabled’ bodies are largely perceived as ‘undesirable’…
Too often, the pervasive influence of imagery in mass media goes unexamined, consumed en masse by the public. However, this imagery has real, oppressive effects on people who are continuously ‘othered’ by society. The model, Jes Sachse, and I intend to reveal these stories by placing her in a position where women with disabilities are typically excluded.
The goal is admirable. Individuals with disabilities are routinely ignored in pop culture, and if depicted, they are often either mocked or are devoid of sexuality (notable examples being the documentary Murderball and the depiction of a character in a wheelchair on the TV show Friday Night Lights, though both focus solely on men with disabilities who generally have relationships with women who do not).
That said, it brings up the eternal question regarding artistic endeavors, particularly those aimed at undermining prejudices: does it work? The idea here is to show a woman with disabilities in sexualized contexts and use humor to counter popular conceptions of those with disabilities as asexual (and parody American Apparel in the process). As with any use of parody/irony/etc., it poses a dilemma. Will viewers get it? Will they grasp the intent and look at the images through that lens? Will it lead some people to question why they might find these photos shocking, why a woman with a disability shown in sexual situations would be surprising, or the reason for any discomfort they might feel when looking at them?
Or will people respond by ridiculing Jes, or even feeling disgusted? Will they look further into those feelings and why they might have them? Will it change anything?
And how do you decide if it’s worth it? If half of viewers engage in some introspection and examining of their own prejudices, and half don’t, is that a sufficient trade-off? If 90% of people ridiculed the images and it reinforced their belief that bodies of those with disabilities are undesirable, but 10% would think about how women with disabilities are de-sexualized, or that American Apparel presents a very narrow range of body types as “normal,” everyday women, would you feel that you had accomplished something significant? Is it the artist’s responsibility to care?
Similar questions have been posed about photos of individuals from Appalachia: do they humanize people often depicted as backward “hillbillies,” or do they actually reinforce perceptions that everyone living in the area is poor and rural?
How do you negotiate the use of art to make social statements (whether questioning prejudices, pointing out inequalities, or humanizing stigmatized groups), considering that once you put something out in the public domain, you have little control over how people interpret it and whether they take from it the opposite message you intended, perhaps even ridiculing your subjects as a result of your project?Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.