Inspiration Porn Debate

Inspiration Porn Debate

In Everyone has one, Opinion by Guest Contributor15 Comments

Inspiration Porn Debate

Annessa Mortensen

On a recent day last April, during a speech at the Ted-X conference in Australia, disabled activist Stella Young coined a new phrase that has since rocked the disabled community.  Her term, “Inspiration Porn”, referred to posters, internet memes, media stories and real-life examples

 of disabled people being depicted as heroic just for doing seemingly normal, everyday tasks.
The idea, in a nutshell, suggests that it is wholly inaccurate, and often insulting, to be hailed as an inspiration just for making it through an average day.

In the months since, not only has this term been used in several news articles, videos and online blogs, but has caused a bit of controversy amongst the disabled community at large.  Much debate ensued on various blog posts and social media.  Many people, myself included, applauded Ms. Young for finally pointing out our annoyance at constantly being portrayed in this manner. Yet many other people with disabilities voiced disagreement, stating that they felt complimented when described in this way.

Inspiration: What does it really mean?

Although we may never reach a full consensus, it occurs to me that perhaps the reason so many of us have viscerally disagreed on this issue is that we haven’t given much thought to what the term “inspiration” really means.  How and when does true inspiration occur, and what separates it from other, less positive, labels like pity or prejudice?

When someone who knows us, and is aware of our personal achievements, tells us that we’ve inspired them to attain a goal of their own, that’s a great feeling that I think most people would take as a compliment. True inspiration is motivating, uplifting, and is based in personal, specific knowledge of the person or thing that inspires you.  It allows us to see the very best in others while contemplating endless possibilities for ourselves. We can attain inspiration from nature, music, science, art, and, yes, sometimes from people. The personal stories of achievement and triumph made by countless individuals – disabled and not – often motivate us to seek our own personal best.  But, can we really be inspired by someone we know nothing about?  Probably not.

Welcome, Inspiration’s insipid opponent: Pity.

Pity, by contrast, is prejudicial, fear-based, and demeaning. It sums up the net worth of a person based solely on what is visible and holds little regard for the breadth of a person’s character, much less their accomplishments.  Pity, disguised as inspiration, is often based on the many outdated stereotypes about the disabled that have existed in the media, film and television industries for decades.

This form of pity usually stems from a person’s fear of change, and since disability represents for many the ultimate in negative change, people – particularly those who don’t know anyone with physical challenges – assume that disability would be something that they themselves could not handle.  They believe they would probably give up and that their life would no longer be worth living.  Therefore, when they see us, they assume, simply because we are out in public, living our lives, that the mere act of doing so represents some level of courage that they themselves would not possess in similar circumstances.

When a stranger who knows nothing about us labels us as inspiring, although they likely mean well, what this person is truly feeling, deep down, is NOT inspiration but abject pity.  While their words may sound complimentary, the message they’re really sending is:

When I look at you and see your wheelchair (or cane, walker, guide dog or use of sign language), I believe your life to be so filled with sadness and strife that it must take true bravery to face your day.”

This sort of superficial assumption is just as infuriating to us as it would be to make a prejudicial assumption about someone based solely on race, religion, gender or nationality.

Now that the difference between these two entities has been defined, the question becomes: How should these encounters be handled when they do occur?

If you are a disabled person, and the inspiration label is coming from a friend or colleague that knows you, then there’s probably nothing to handle.  They’re basing this on their personal knowledge of you, so it’s usually a compliment.  However, if you are faced with the Pity-Disguised-As-Inspiration scenario, what should you do then?  Some people with disabilities have said that they just ignore the insult or say “thank you”, since the person probably means well, while others express outrage by telling these people off.

While both of these reactions are understandable, I’m not sure either represents the best option. By ignoring the insult or saying ‘thank you’, you’re allowing these people to walk away with their misconceptions affirmed, which means they’ll likely continue this behavior in the future. Becoming belligerent, on the other hand, only serves to perpetuate yet another inaccurate stereotype about us – that we are all angry, bitter and unapproachable.

The best thing to do, I feel, is to engage the person in conversation and hopefully educate them as to why this term can be offensive.  Perhaps begin by asking them why they feel you are inspiring.  What, specifically, has caused them to feel this way about a total stranger?  Chances are, they’ve never really thought about why they feel this way, so challenging their assumptions is a great place to start.  I would then follow up by kindly pointing out that everyone on Earth faces challenges of some sort, and we’ve all developed our own strategies for overcoming these issues and that in that sense, we’re all far more alike than we are different.

Finally, if you happen to be a non-disabled person who has mistakenly committed this faux-pas in the past and aren’t sure how to proceed in the future, here is a general guideline:  If you know a person and possess intimate knowledge of their particular accomplishments, and as such, that person has motivated you to achieve your own goals, then it’s fine to tell that person that they are inspiring.

But if you see a stranger on the street, who happens to be disabled, and you’re feelings of inspiration are based not in knowledge of the person themselves, but only on your preconceived notions of what you think that person’s life must be like, then I advise you to refrain from any comments relating to courage, bravery or inspiration.  Chances are, what you really desire, is an opportunity to interact with this person, in which case, a simple “Hello. How are you?” should suffice.

How do you handle these situations? Leave us your comments.

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Written by: Annessa Mortensen who is a retired public school teacher born with a bone condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta. She lives and works in the Tampa Bay Area of Florida.

Comments

  1. I’ll be the first to admit that when approached by random strangers, I am not always the friendliest. Treat me with respect and I’m more than happy to return it with a smile, but pity and patronizing behaviour is about the quickest way to get on my bad side.

    Part of it is simply because I’m just trying to get on with my day when these exchanges usually happen. I’m on my way somewhere and I’m thinking about work… I’m thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner that night… I’m thinking about the quickest route to world peace… whatever! The last thing I guarantee I’m thinking about is how “inspiring” it is that I decided to leave my apartment that day.

    Most of the time I think I just come off as cold with a touch of “are you seriously asking me that question?” If someone crosses the line though, I won’t hold back. I remember being in an elevator once with a guy who turned to me and said something along the lines of “you know, as bad as my life is sometimes, I just have to look at someone like you to know it could be so much worse.” Yes, he actually went so far as to spell it out in that way. I, in turn, ripped him up one side and down the other saying in essence that I lived a very fulfilling life, thank you very much. ‘Course, that exchange was less “inspiring” and more just straight up “pity”.

    Still “inspiration porn” isn’t how I feel when I’m confronted with these attitudes. I feel like some kind of trained poodle. Go on, interrupt my day and interact with me. I know, I know… I’m supposed to smile and gush and make you feel better about your own life. Well, I’m sorry ladies and gents, but I don’t do tricks.

  2. adding ‘Porn’ to the term created in this is disgusting, as a person
    also born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta in 1967 I agree just having a
    disability is not a cool reason for anyone to be inspired by a disabled
    person but what people see the person doing with their life, n when
    people know more about what we have over come n etc is the true
    inspiration… Using the term ‘PORN’ is just to add shock value to the
    term ‘Inspiration Porn’ is disgusting n shameful!!!
    Note: some
    people add filters to their browsers to make some words not viewable
    like ‘Porn’ so this shocking term ‘Inspirational Porn’ might get to some
    that should learn about the meaning of the term that should learn of
    why she wrote this…
    Down with the term ‘Inspirational Porn’ Up with the Awareness of the meaning behind the offensive Term!!!

  3. I agree that the word porn does give it shock value. But that term was coined way before this article was ever written. Your last sentence says it all! I agree! 🙂

  4. Koala — Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. As Nathasha mentioned in her comment (and as I stated in the first paragraph of my article), the term “inspiration porn” was created by a disabled activist from Australia named Stella Young during a speech she gave at the TedX conference last April. In her speech, she said she used the term “porn” on purpose because posters and memes that depict the disabled as “inspirational” just for doing everyday things is a means of objectifying the disabled for the gratification of able-bodied people, who can look at those posters, etc., and think that their lives are better than ours. I agree with you, Koala, that Stella could have come up with a better term, and frankly I wish she had. However, Inspiration Porn is, in fact, the term she coined. As such, I had to use that term in the opening paragraph, since I was referring specifically to her video and the controversy surrounding it.

    Here is a link to the video. Aside from that one term, I think you will find it quite engaging, and it will help you better understand what spawned the desire to write the article in the first place.
    http://www.ted.com/talks/stella_young_i_m_not_your_inspiration_thank_you_very_much

  5. Athena — Thanks so much for your comment. I completely agree with you, and I loved your trained poodle analogy (Poodles rock, by the way!). Like you, I too may vary my response to those types of comments, depending on who the person is, whether or not they know me personally, and the context of what they’re saying. I also agree with you that when people do approach me in that way, I don’t think of inspiration porn either. However, I think the point Stella Young (who coined that term during a speech at the TedX conference) was making was that when people see posters, memes and stories in the media that depict us this way, it prompts them to believe that this mindset is an acceptable way to think of, and speak to, people with disabilities. Oh, and like you, I don’t do tricks. Although, if a peanut butter cookie is offered… well, then I just might! 😀

  6. Yes, I have Stella’s speech on my computer and I have read the mentioned article and like Koala I believe using the term Porn for shock value is much more Jerry Springer than facing life as it is and addressing an issue in a dignified manner. Without using disgusting terms to add weight to your opinion. I live my life and work at my job and charities I support, I spend as much time with my children and contribute to society without stooping and becoming common and disgusting when people treat me the way I don’t like. I would rather tell them its not me that should inspire them but the God that holds me up every day and gets me out of bed with all the fractures and helps me to make a difference consciously even though I am tired, weak and hurting. No need to trounce people who mean well in their own misguided way. Your acts are not educational, or empowering.

  7. Philip — Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on the article. Like I mentioned to Koala (below), I fully agree with you that there could have been a better term coined than one that contained the word Porn. I wish Stella had given this phenomena a less “shocking” term, but the fact is that “Inspiration Porn” was the term she coined. As such, I had to mention the term in the beginning of my article, since I was referring to not only her speech and this particular term, but also to the debate that ensued after the video went viral within the disabled community. Believe me, if I could have figured out a way to reference the term within the text of the article without using that actual word, I would have. Unfortunately, a direct reference of the term was the only way to say it. If I hadn’t used it, then people who had not seen the video would not have known what I was talking about.

  8. I love Stella Young’s speech, and it has been one of the best resources I’ve seen on discussing the damage of Inspiration Porn. Fyi, she didn’t coin the term. It’s been in use in media and on blogs much longer. She just made it famous outside the critical disability community. I respect that some people are hurt and offended by the term “porn.” That makes a lot of sense; however, I don’t think any of us use it just for shock value. What we typically think of as pornography uses and abuses the bodies of people with less power, objectifies people, and portrays people as having only limited purpose. We can argue that inspiration porn does these things as well. I created this short PSA about inspiration porn in 2013 called “Your Daily Dosage of Inspiration” because sending out these messages with some humor on top of the anger seems to be effective sometimes. http://youtu.be/_huLUFeH_is

  9. Hi Cheryl, I’m Nathasha the founder of AudacityMagazine.com I love this video! Thanks so much for sharing it. Would you please contact me at nathasha @ audacitymagazine.com I laughed and laughed.

  10. Very interesting piece and comments. I found this article by trying to find out who coined the term, as I heard someone incorrectly attribute it to John Oliver this week, in discussing the Olympics. I think the term inspiration porn applies in cancer stories as well. I do think the word porn is appropriate, but it trips people up. I used it in describing something concerning the baring of mastectomy scars–a hotly debated issue within breast cancer communities–and I think people thought I was referring to the baring of breasts as porn. I was NOT. I was challenging the way some “breastless nude” art-y exhibits are presented in that “if this poor breast cancer patient is brave you can be too” way–which is so ever-present in those races for cure with feather boa-wearing runners.
    I hate slogans and quips and buzzwords, but inspiration porn does describe the fetishizing (another term with sexual overtones that bother people) of awareness campaigns and we patients. So, to those who do not like the term–we need another–suggestions? Perhaps poster child? Because I am no one’s idealized, breast cancer model/ad-worthy/ready for a race poster model.
    Hope this makes sense!

  11. Definitely. When it comes to inspiration, I feel that how the word is used is more important than actually using the word. I find some people with disabilities inspiring. I inspire myself if that makes sense. If I’m crossing the street, I’m not inspiring but if you see some of the activities I do just to be with everyone else, I can see why that might be inspiring. So it all depends. I don’t like being used as an inspiration if it is done in a condescending manner. Sometimes people don’t realize they are doing it. I’m glad you’re surviving! 🙂

  12. Good point. I hadn’t thought about it within the cancer community (which is ironic because my 25 year old niece is currently battling stage 3 breast cancer), but yes, inspiration porn can be applied when any group is exploited so that another group (usually the healthy, non-disabled) can recognize their “luck” in avoiding what they perceive as someone else’s “misfortune”. If you Google the term “Stella Young TED talk” you can see the speech she gave where she originally popularized the term. It’s an excellent talk, and it’s what inspired (for lack of a better term) me to write this article. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  13. Oh thank you, I know Young’s TED Talk VERY well, saw it soon after it was posted. I was just unsure if she really coined the term–hearing her use it was merely the first time I’d heard it.
    “Exploitation” is a touchy thing in CancerLand–many patients willing sign up to be in those “inspiring” ads/PSAs for donations–which are ostensibly meant to fund research for cures and etc. Are they “pimping” themselves out? I mean these PSAs are certainly USING patients, selling patients who beat cancer–but then how else do we, ALL patients, hope to benefit from research that relies on donations? It’s a pickle. I realize I’ve benefited from these things I consider exploitative, so it is a very tough issue.
    I realize your essay here is about the random person on the street who approaches, not actual PSAs–but have you tackled that?

  14. Also are you aware of the term war porn–and the novel of the same name? The author was on NPR before he published the book, when the title was still under question. The notion of war porn kind of the same thing as inspiration porn–people who’ve not experienced war fetishizing soldiers, for example.

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