A Wheelchair in Gold: The Jenner Machine

Turning now to the issue of Kylie Jenner and the golden wheelchair, of course it was offensive. Thinking first of the colour of the wheelchair there is a hierarchy in precious metals, consisting of  bronze, silver and gold.

Given this hierarchy, gold is the top dog, the number one. You are gold Spandau Ballet tell us and I have believed this many times in a haze of drunken confidence.

Therefore, being the Alan Sugar of precious metals on wheels confers upon the object a certain amount of power, status and wealth, which Kylie Jenner has in abundance and many people with disabilities do not.

I wonder if she’s ever been told, when asking for help to take the golden brakes of the golden wheelchair that she could do it herself if she wasn’t so lazy?

What do you mean she’s never been out in the wheelchair? Oh yes I forgot! It’s art darling! How remiss of me!

So framing the wheelchair as an object of wealth and power is completely at odds with the experience of people with disabilities in their daily lives. It is the photographer’s prerogative to use a golden wheelchair in the first place. Using a gold wheelchair signifies the power Kylie Jenner has as a celebrity and underscores every bit of power that people with disabilities do not have.

Of course, Interview magazine for whom the shoot was carried out had a whole raft of artistic justifications for why they chose to approach the shoot in the way they did.

These justifications are explored in this excellent unpacking from Heather Saul at The Independent.

This one in particular sticks out in my mind.

At Interview, we are proud of our tradition of working with great artists and empowering them to realise their distinct and often bold visions,” a spokesperson said. “The Kylie Jenner cover by Steven Klein, which references the British artist Allen Jones, is a part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media scrutiny.”


But my problem here is a simple one. If Kylie Jenner wants to have a discussion with the media about how she is treated, then by all means she should do so. But in exploring her own objectification she is not disassociating herself from it. She is merely using an objectified group as a cipher to make a point. People with disabilities suffer huge amounts of objectification and questioning and inquisition through no fault of their own. Kylie Jenner chose a life in the spotlight. People with disabilities did not choose this fate.

This plugs neatly into the debate about how offensive art and the wider creative industries are allowed to be. For example, is it censorious to believe that Kylie Jenner should not be allowed to pose in a wheelchair? Or is it simply necessary to ensure that an already oppressed group are not further oppressed by artistic licence carried out by people who do not really understand the issues at hand?

Kayla Whaley touches on this to devastating caustic effect in a series of tweets, which I have storified with her permission.

I think the mistake Klein has made in trying to implement the vision of artist Allen Jones is that they have got carried away with a flight of fancy and indulgence over artistic expression, and forgot that their art intersects with a very difficult lived reality that many people experience every day.

Whaley speaks of Kylie Jenner wearing the shallowest possible illusion of what she experiences every day.

Jenner is not really a person in a wheelchair. Steven Klein knows this, and those at Interview magazine know it too. In fact, were they to repeat the same shoot with a wheelchair using model I would bet my wheelchair that it wouldn’t get half the coverage. Curtain twitching voyeurism is at work here. Readers will know that Jenner is not in a wheelchair, and artistically it probably is interesting for them to see a wheelchair being used as a prop for someone who is anything but vulnerable.

Also I know that Jenner will not have given this a second thought. She will have been paid and carried on with her life. I would guess she probably had to spend two hours at most in that beautiful golden chair. Try a lifetime instead. Hell, try a week. There are no pots of gold inculcated into the daily reality of disability. But neither is it abject wanton misery. My disability is not a job or a photo shoot for me. It is my life.

It points to the narcissism of fame obsessed America that such a shoot was even thought about. I categorically refute that I’m jealous of Jenner in any way. But when you consider that Caitlyn Jenner, in her first act post transition adorned the cover of Vanity Fair, one has to question the motives of the Jenner family. Kylie could have said no to the shoot and that would have been a brave act. But it’s all about how she is treated by the media. Do you know what I hear? Me me and narcissistic me and little else.

One of Kayla’s more poignant observations was this one.

“It still feels like a victory to me when I take a selfie and find it attractive. It still feels like a battle to believe others will too.”

How sad in 2015 that a person with a disability says that. People with disabilities have been fighting this age-old battle since before Kylie Jenner was born. People’s attitudes towards disability are still extremely conservative. Many people don’t believe for example, that people with disabilities can have sex. I’ve lost count over the years of the number of times someone said to me;

“Oh wow you drink alcohol!” Yes, mine is a Malibu and Coke, a Malibu and Lemonade or a Bailey’s. I didn’t know there was a cocktail called patronising. But Kayla is right. It is a battle to feel attractive when disabled. To feel attractive to yourself as an achievement let alone to anybody else.

But Kylie Jenner is attractive when sitting in a wheelchair because she’s not in one. Somebody this week had the balls to recreate the shoot in a wheelchair in full PVC and for that I commend them utterly. I doubt Interview magazine or Mr Klein will be calling though.

I like Kayla’s tweet in which she chooses to use the word wear to describe how Jenner approaches disability. For Jenner disability is just another costume. She can take it off or put it on at leisure. That is the luxury my friends of not being disabled.It is photographic hocus pocus.

Now this is not to say that wheelchairs within the arts have not been used to positive effect.

I’m thinking particularly of the musical Wicked, still enjoying great success in the West End and on Broadway. In a non-schmaltzy way, the writer Stephen Schwartz in creating the character of Nessarose allows us to see a woman who is embedded into the natural plot of the show, and who finds love with Boq. Nessarose still presumes however that Boq wants to take her to the dance as he feels sorry for her.

That is the problem in essence with the shoot. That in using a wheelchair to depict the powerlessness of her life than to the media, she treats people with disabilities in the same way as the media treat her. As an object of curiosity, voyeurism and fetish. Nowhere near close to a real person, more an entity with a gazillion followers on social media, something to be talked about, analysed and poked, with little more dignity than a goldfish in a bowl. But for her as I said this is something she wears, and something she can take off and forget about. I can’t and nor can others with disabilities.

In an interesting twist to the tale, Broadway actress Ali Stroker who is a wheelchair user, and currently starring with the Deaf West theatre company in Spring Awakening on Broadway, wants to recreate the photo shoot. In an interview with Variety Magazine she speaks of wanting to recreate the photo shoot as it opens up an interesting conversation about sexuality and disability, and she feels we can represent ourselves. Firstly, I think it’s important to be unequivocal in my applause for Ali Stroker’s achievements.

I can’t quite agree with her. It wasn’t people with disabilities who were approached for the shoot in the first place. So the agency and our place in the dialogue has been taken away from us. However, I will agree that with tenacious work it is possible to seize it back from the behemoth that is the Jenner publicity machine. Also there was no sense of collaboration between those with disabilities, the photographers and Jenner herself. Disability was nothing to do with the interests of the Jenner machine. Jenner’s objective was to demonstrate her displeasure with her treatment at the hands of the media. She’s done that impeccably on the backs of people with disabilities.

As to sexuality, given what Kayla says in this arena I don’t think that the Jenner shoot opens up any kind of dialogue at all. In fact all a service to do is to reinforce ableist beauty standards which loom large in the media today.

My sage advice to Ali Stroker would not be to imitate some kind of patriarchal parody of wheelchair use where there is always a Prince Charming to rescue a wheelchair not bound damsel at the click of a lens but to do her own shoot on her own terms.  She’s beautiful in her own right.

As for me, over the course of writing this I’ve kind of come full circle. You see if I wasn’t disabled I could get paid for wearing a disabled costume for a couple of hours while sitting in a gold metal frame. But is that really something I want to aspire to? Is society really swimming that much at the shallow end that it will continue to lap crap like this up forever?

Disability can be art, it can be music, it can be prose and it can be wonderful. But it is not a fetish to take on and take off. Whoever commissioned this should examine their conscience. Hopefully something other than a camera will click! As for me I’m off to listen to Kylie now.




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