We need to talk about the fact that Kylie Jenner, a conventionally beautiful able-bodied woman who fits societal standards of beauty in almost every way is allowed to be sexy and edgy in a wheelchair, when that reality is so often denied to many wheelchair using women. We need to talk about the fact that disabled people, real disabled people, are still largely missing in media representation, especially media representation around beauty and sexuality.
–Karin Hitselberger: Why We Need to Talk about Kylie Jenner
When I first heard about Kylie Jenner’s wheelchair enabled photo shoot, I wondered: why a wheelchair? Why not a toilet, or adult-sized infant car seat, or a Victorian fainting couch.
Any of those could have helped her show how disempowered and imprisoned she feels by the media, and the first two would have given her plenty of options for the sexualized edginess she, or at least her photographers, were going for.
Instead, she chose a wheelchair, and BDSM gear, neither of which mean what she or the photographer thinks they mean.
So much has already been said about the choice to use a wheelchair in this shoot. I’ve stayed quiet all this week, because as someone who doesn’t use a wheelchair, this isn’t my conversation to have. but I wanted to pull this all together and look at it through a broader sexuality and disability lens.
let’s start with the BDSM gear.
Kylie wants to explore her identity. Lots of people use bondage gear, and BDSM gear in general, to explore who they are. Lots more use it to express who they are.
My collar is my mirror. It’s my wellness check. It’s my sense of freedom because it’s my sense of stability. It represents to me the journey I made through myself and my partner to earn my collar; The hard work and self-exploration and acceptance I had to go through to get it. When my partner takes me by my collar or cuffs me, or in any way binds me, it’s a reminder that I am face to face with myself in this life, and I’d better be the person I want to see close-up in those moments when I can’t break free. (Well, i could, but safe words aside, assuming they’re not part of this.)
I get bound for the kink, but within the kink, for me, is a much deeper place where I can feel safe and comfortable with who I am. Beyond that, my collar is my safety, reminding me I’m not taking on the world alone.
— Written by a friend (who is disabled, but isn’t a wheelchair user) when I asked about what the gear means in her BDSM relationship.
That’s not exactly imprisonment…and it’s not self-reinvention either. Sure, for some people, bondage gear is about putting on a costume, about becoming someone else, about doing something edgy and contrary, about reinventing oneself, even just for a little bit, but for most people, whether they’re dominant or submissive, BDSM gear is about expressing themselves more fully, not hiding from who they are.
Kylie was going for sexy. That’s usually what bare skin, corsets, and other fetish wear means.
Problem is, visibly disabled people (including folks in wheelchairs) aren’t read as passively sexual. Instead, we’re frequently read as nonsexual, as unlikely candidates for a sexual or romantic relationship. Or, we’re seen as sexually desirable because of our disabilities, which is a good thing, or a bad thing depending on who you talk to. Hint: Being transparent about finding disability attractive and sexy is good. Only being attracted to someone because they’re disabled (that is, not seeing them as a whole person) is not-so-good, unless the person is cool with it.
Either way, the sexuality of people with any type of disability isn’t automatically passive. People with disabilities have a full range of sexualities and sexual feelings, from not experiencing sexual desire or attraction (asexuality), to being submissive (not passive) in their sexual play, to desiring a traditional heterosexual relationship, to… pretty much anything anyone could imagine. It’s almost always the beliefs of others, not disability, that limit disabled people’s sexualities.
Now, the wheelchair.
Yes, wheelchairs do signify public scrutiny.
We’re told, by a representative from the magazine that the photo shoot “aims to unpack Kylie’s status as both engineer of her image and object of attention.”
most disabled folks don’t get to engineer whether they’re objects of attention or not.
Emily Ladau tells us just exactly what that scrutiny looks and feels like for her:
As a visibly disabled woman, I never have the option to choose if I want to put myself on display. 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.
A nondisabled person using a wheelchair in a symbolic way is treading a fine line between accuracy and appropriation because she’s dictating what the wheelchair means. yet the wheelchair can have no real meaning for her since she simply sits in it for the photo shoot, then gets up and walks away.
For someone who needs a wheelchair, it doesn’t – can’t – just mean one thing.
Wheelchair users need their chairs for diferent purposes. Some folks only use a wheelchair when they leave their house; others can’t get out of bed without one. What someone needs their chair for, how long they’ve had to use one, why they had to start using a chair in the first place – all these things are going to afect how someone feels about their chair, and what symbolic meaning it has.
Disability rights advocate and sexologist Bethany Stevens posted on her Facebook page: “Disability can be very glamorous, wheels can be wings with bling.” Activist Ophelia Brown doesn’t think that way about her chair; she says that her wheelchair isn’t a fashion accessory.
But, Ophelia does agree thather wheelchair is her wings.
Bethany and Ophelia are both crystal clear; their wheelchairs are what make it possible to do what they do, to live the way they want to live. Their wheelchairs are freedom, not prison.
It’s great that Kylie loves to experiment with her looks. A person with a visible disability can change their looks all they want to, it’s still most often the disability, or the assistive device, that people will notice first, or pay most attention to.
S.E. Smith points out that the whole photo shoot would have read very differently if it had been done with a disabled model, and could have made a “powerful statement” challenging the idea that women are there to be watched, that disability equals vulnerability, that a woman can only express sexiness by making herself appear passive, or at least for what passes as passive in the public imagination.
If I’m told I’m attractive, it’s often said that I’m “attractive for a girl in a wheelchair.” But Jenner is considered sexy, full stop, because people know the wheelchair is only pretend.
— Emily Ladau: Dear Kylie Jenner, My Wheelchair Isn’t a Prop: Stop Playing Dress-up Games With My Reality
If Kylie Jenner really wanted to explore the way mass media represents her, she could have started by challenging that representation. What better way to explore feeling powerless than to express power? Instead, the photo shoot put her in a traditional feminine role (revealing outfit, serving drinks).
If Kylie Jenner really wanted to explore her powerlessness in the face of media sscrutiny, she could have started by exploring her sexual agency. She’s a young, conventionally attractive white woman. She’d have plenty of tropes and symbols to draw on for a photo shoot expressing how confined and controlled she feels without appropriating other symbols and totally missing the mark on what they mean.
Here’s a photo shoot with a disabled woman, a wheelchair user, exploring all parts of her life, including her sexuality.