The camera pans up to the smiling face of a young woman with a medal around her neck as a voiceover proclaims, “At 24, Melissa Stockwell made a choice to serve her country. And when she lost her leg in Iraq”—here a shot from below of the same young woman swimming, the silhouette making it clear that one leg has been amputated above the knee—“she made another. Melissa chose to fight.” The spot goes on to show Stockwell running, biking, swimming, and winning medals, while the voiceover says she’s “inspiring others to choose to be their best.”
It’s a commercial for beer, by the way. Modelo.
But the ridiculousness of the implication that professional triathletes often crack open a cold one with the boys at the end of the day is not the most egregious thing about this commercial. It is the most blatant form of neoliberal inspiration porn I’ve seen in a while. Inspiration porn is a term used in the disability community to refer to media created for a mostly able-bodied audience that shows disabled people1 overcoming their struggles with disability to rise up and become amazing—they “choose to fight,” and therefore inspire regular people to do the same.
This overcoming narrative is everywhere in popular culture. As a child I had a much-loved picture book about Wilma Rudolph, a woman who had polio when she was young and was told she’d never walk again but ended up becoming the fastest woman in the world. As a young adult I suffered through The Fault in Our Stars, where Shailene-Woodley-As-Cancer-Patient is told she can’t fly to Amsterdam because of her lack of lung function, but—spoilers, I guess—she “chooses to fight” and does anyway! Then, despite lugging an oxygen tank behind her, she triumphantly climbs the ladder to Anne Frank’s attic, and at the top makes out with her Hot Cancer Patient Boyfriend! Hooray! No consequences at all to doing exactly what her doctors told her not to do!
The flip side of this narrative is also pervasive: the disability overcomes you instead of you overcoming the disability. This is the kind of story where a person, who is always always always played by an able-bodied actor, becomes paralyzed and can’t handle it, so decides to kill themselves. Think Million Dollar Baby or Me Before You. The narrative here is that the person is so full of life, so vivacious and active, that they’d rather be dead than disabled.
I became disabled at the age of 19, just after my freshman year of college. I came down with a heart condition, and while it felt sudden, there had been warning signs for years, warning signs that can only really be seen with hindsight. Annoying. I’m still reckoning with the millions of ways my disability has affected my life, but in my years of being disabled and meeting disabled people, let me tell you something: both of these narratives are, in everywhere but popular culture (aimed at able-bodied people), extremely rare.
Now this is not to say that there aren’t people who, like Wilma Rudolph, do, in fact, go against the odds and do things they were told they weren’t going to be able to do. People do physical therapy and train and the results are amazing; the Paralympics are among the most incredible feats of human talent that the world has to offer. And disabled people themselves often support and propagate the overcoming narrative (the suicide one, not so much). I follow two truly awesome Instagram accounts run by disabled women of color, both of whom use wheelchairs and both of whom are breaking into the modeling industry (@aaron__philip and @jillianmercado, if you want to give them a follow), and both of whom have posted videos proclaiming something along the lines of, “Just don’t tell me I can’t do anything, because I’m gonna do it.” (Watch Jillian’s here and Aaron’s here.) I don’t mean to belittle this narrative when it is the disabled person—and not Modelo—controlling it. It is merely my experience that there is a third narrative, one that does not appear almost ever in popular culture.
The third narrative is this: sometimes disabled people actually can’t do things, and we learn to be okay with that. If you need to find inspiration in the lives of disabled people, find inspiration in that. Learning to be okay with limitations that alienate and isolate me from most of the population was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I had to do it, because I could not overcome them. And most disabled people have at least one limitation they cannot overcome. Mine is standing for more than 20 minutes without passing out. Where’s the movie about learning to be okay with that? Where’s the movie about learning to be okay with having to stay home and lie down and count out doses of medications while my friends were out dancing and learning what it is to be an independent young adult?
Don’t think it’s escaped my attention, by the way, that most of the stories I’ve mentioned here are about women. Perhaps that’s just my bias as a young woman, but perhaps it’s also because people seem to find stories of disabled men more tragic: the Hot Cancer Boyfriend is the one who dies in The Fault in Our Stars, the Hot Wheelchair Boyfriend the one who commits suicide in Me Before You, etc. Even Hilary Swank’s character in Million Dollar Baby is portrayed, before her paralyzing accident, as more stereotypically masculine than feminine, and she also commits suicide. The supposed loss of masculine vitality seems to be almost unimaginable, at least to the American public, but apparently the softer, calmer woman can manage having limitations. Perhaps that’s because women are seen as naturally weaker and more dependent anyway, so it’s okay—even charming, like with angelic Beth in Little Women—for feminine people to be disabled.I’m not sure if that’s why all of these examples are skewed towards femininity or if all of this bias is on me, but either way, I acknowledge that it’s there and apologize for any problems this might cause.
This third narrative is perhaps not cut out for providing dramatic allure, I know that. I know that watching someone learning to be okay with spending a lot of time in bed is not thrilling. But representation matters. There’s a kid out there who needs to know that it’s not her fault that she can’t become a Paralympian or a triathlete, that she is just as strong for living through and with her disability as those other “inspirational” disabled people are. She “chose to fight” just as they did; it’s simply a different fight.
1. There is a lot of discussion in the community about which is better: “people with disabilities” or “disabled people.” The arguments go like this: there’s the “People First” movement, who want to see us defined by our personhood, rather than our disabilities. Love that. Then there’s the other side of the coin, which says that other identifiers are not put after the noun as if they are something to be ashamed of; we don’t say, for example, “people with darker skin” to refer to Black people. (The complicating factor is, of course, the term “people of color,” but proponents on this side of the argument tend to say that that term wouldn’t exist if “colored people” weren’t such a loaded and problematic phrase—in other words, that “people of color” is the exception, not the rule.) This argument says that because disability is the same as any other physical marker, we shouldn’t put it after “people.” To break the rule and put it after the noun instead of just using it as we would any other adjective implies that it is somehow negative. I understand both arguments, and think that there are pros and cons to both. My decision to use “disabled people” in this article is partly ideological and partly grammatical, and if it has offended anyone, I am truly sorry.
is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. She cares a lot about disability representation and social justice and dogs.