“Throughout the Art Issue, we celebrate a variety of women who are both the creators and subjects of their artistic work, and the Kylie feature aims to unpack Kylie's status as both engineer of her image and object of attention. […] Our intention was to create a powerful set of pictures that get people thinking about image and creative expression, including the set with the wheelchair. But our intention was certainly not to offend anyone.”
This sorry-not-sorry apology was offered by a representative of Interview Magazine in response to vehement backlash against photos in the magazine’s December/January issue that show reality television star Kylie Jenner seated in a golden wheelchair on the cover. “As a visibly disabled woman, I never have the option to choose if I want to put myself on display,” explained writer Emily Ladau at Salon. “People stare at me, often directly and unabashedly, because my wheelchair demands attention. I’m not sitting to make a cultural statement, though. I’m sitting because it’s my reality.” By exploiting the visual impact of the wheelchair without any acknowledgment of the realities of chair-users and other people with disabilities, the photograph frames wheelchairs as a limitation rather than as a way that its users can gain independence and access the world.
It is tempting to place the blame for the photoshoot squarely on Jenner. Many articles have done so, with headlines such as, “Kylie Jenner Offends the Internet with Wheelchair Photoshoot” and “Kylie Jenner Slammed for Posing in Wheelchair.” This over-simplifies the issue and doesn’t ask the question of the number of people who must have signed off on this idea for it to reach the point of mass-market publication. Not only does Interview’s short statement feel distinctly unapologetic, its sentiment hinges on the idea that the wheelchair in this photo was deliberately chosen as a metaphor to communicate Jenner’s simultaneous limitation and liberation of her own self-made celebrity.
The use of the wheelchair in the art direction of this photoshoot reinscribes a very old, tired visual and literary device wherein disability bears the metaphorical weight of personal creative limitation (think Jane Eyre, The Sun Also Rises, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). This narrative turns tools and strategies that many people rely—like canes and wheelchairs—into a branding project. In literature The Secret Garden presents wheelchair-user Colin as foil and human empathy lesson to Mary, the novel’s selfish, able-bodied protagonist. In film and on television, characters who use wheelchairs—from Macaulay Culkin in Saved to Aubrey “Drake” Graham in Degrassi— are presented as angry, pitiful, or inspirational, and can often be seen brooding over their physical loss. In advertising, the famously recalled, cringe-worthy 2000 Nike Dri-Goat print ad evokes the wheelchair as the symbolic antithesis to physical and mental ability.
The Nike ad says their shoes will keep you from slipping and becoming a “drooling, misshapen, husk of your former self” in a wheelchair.
These narratives are not only offensive, they are blatantly untrue. For people with disabilities, tools like wheelchairs represent independence and agency, not limitation. Personally, when I carry a cane in public, I assert myself as a disabled woman occupying public space, and thus “engineer my image.” These repetitive, reductive narratives are difficult for disabled people to shake off and impact the ways we are seen and understood by the world. Putting a wheelchair on the cover of Interview magazine is supposed to hit on these same old ideas—the image is meant to evoke shock and pity.
The enduring shock value of the wheelchair is made more unsettling because of the current reality that disabled bodies are rarely—if ever—visible in fashion. This lack of representation contributes to a sense that disability is not a part of what we understand to be beautiful. As an able-bodied woman posing in a wheelchair, Jenner’s photo overwrites hard work that disability advocates have done to separate the real experiences of chair-users from these harmful narratives of invisibility, deviance, and dependence. One way this separation may be achieved is by demanding visibility. Disabled models are actively responding to the Jenner cover and collections of photos of disabled models currently working are being enthusiastically circulated online. However, in the context of an industry that profits off of the manipulation of bodies and identities, how much importance can be placed upon gaining representation for disability in fashion? Would a disabled model be offered the opportunity to “engineer her image?” Or would she just be seen as another prop meant to hype a photoshoot? For disabled models currently working, these questions loom large. This conflict is played out by the dubiously well-intentioned America’s Next Top Model, which has repeatedly cast disabled models and then cluelessly placed them in spaces and scenarios that are inaccessible (the most recent season features Nyle, a deaf model who spends nearly all of his screen time very articulately advocating for his access needs). Models with disabilities face the uphill battle of confronting fashion’s simultaneous lack of representation of bodily difference and desire for spectacle of any kind.
In considering this magazine cover, it is important to address the complicated power of representation. Seeing oneself reflected in pop culture can be validating and empowering. The absence of disabled bodies in fashion photography callously reminds disabled people that we do not fit within established understandings of beauty. The tension between invisibility and spectacle, exposed in harsh relief by the insult of able-bodied appropriation, makes the concept of representation a complicated one for people with disabilities. These photos offer an opportunity to interrogate not just Jenner as an ableist individual, but to get at the slippery nature of representation as existing somewhere between empowerment and subjugation within an industry that depends on the commercial value of some bodies and not others.