Meet Holly Norris - a Canadian artist, undergraduate student at Trent University and creator of 'American Able.'
Meet Jess Sachse - a Canadian artist and model who has a genetic disorder called Freeman-Sheldon syndrome.
'American Able' intends to, through spoof, reveal the ways in which women with disabilities are invisibilized in advertising and mass media. I chose American Apparel not just for their notable style, but also for their claims that many of their models are just ‘every day’ women who are employees, friends and fans of the company. However, these women fit particular body types. Their campaigns are highly sexualized and feature women who are generally thin, and who appear to be able-bodied. Women with disabilities go unrepresented, not only in American Apparel advertising, but also in most of popular culture. Rarely, if ever, are women with disabilities portrayed in anything other than an asexual manner, for ‘disabled’ bodies are largely perceived as ‘undesirable.’ In a society where sexuality is created and performed over and over within popular culture, the invisibility of women with disabilities in many ways denies them the right to sexuality, particularly within a public context.
Too often, the pervasive influence of imagery in mass media goes unexamined, consumed en masse by the public. However, this imagery has real, oppressive effects on people who are continuously ‘othered’ by society. The model, Jes Sachse, and I intend to reveal these stories by placing her in a position where women with disabilities are typically excluded.
As someone responding to this art, I would like to suggest that the strength of this satirical spread is not only its capacity to lay bare the lie that American Apparel uses "regular women" in their ads, but its capacity to force the question: How subversive is American Apparel in all its hipster glory?
American Apparel feeds the capitalist patriarchy with its mainstream-porn-like pictures (and anti-union practices but we'll stick to the images for this discussion.). Indeed, the company has gone so far as to capitalize on porn stars as models.
Less noted in cultural critiques, American Apparel feeds the capitalist patriarchy with its reliance on the hipster image - an image that, while claiming to be "non-conformist," relies heavily on being commercial for its cultural legitimacy.
As Rob Horning explains at Marginal Utility,
In capitalist society, a hipster figure will always be generated by the way commercialization is necessary for cultural legitimization (commercial viability has replaced religious sanction in this respect). The received idea of the hipster proves that a given cultural phenomenon has become integrated in commercial society, is reliably exploitable, has no actual subversive potential, is just an insubstantial matter of style.
Expanding on the role of the hipster in relation to capitalism, Forest Perry ponders,
What if, rather than serving the interests of capitalism, hipsters were to work towards its dissolution? This would mean contributing to their own demise as hipsters, because without capitalism, there can be no such thing as “hip.” At least not “hip” in its current articulation, which depends on elements of today’s society that would likely disappear were it transformed along socialist and radically democratic lines. Under such transformed social conditions, there would be no yuppies, “the ‘other’ in the neo-bohemian classificatory system” against whom hipsters define themselves. Nor would there be poor and working-class people, whom hipsters also rely on for their identity.
Unlike the hipster, the disabled are not a niche market for conspicuous consumption that can be counted on to save a dying capitalist economy.
As a disabled women who passes for able-bodied, I know that my physical impairment and disabling environment leaves with me little extra time to be preyed on by marketers cultivating anxieties about "cool" and "pretty" to sell items as basic as socks.
Most women with disabilities - and women with working minds - are too worried about keeping well, paying the bills, caring for families, creating art and making fun of patriarchy to worry about our fucking socks!
Just as Norris argues that women with disabilities are unrepresented in popular culture and are denied a right to sexuality, I would point out that women with disabilities are marginalized as workers and are often denied a right to living wages, leaving them over-represented among those living in poverty.
Women with disabilities may be denied our place in advertisements not simply because we are seen as sexually "undesirable," but because we are not favored as consumers and workers.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that all disabled people face economic hurdles or can't be big spenders. For all I know, Jes Sachse may experience little or no physical impairment that interferes with work. Moreover, she may be changing back into Prada after flipping off American Apparel.
As a disabled women who passes for able-bodied, I know that my physical impairment and a disabling capitalist environment (e.g. rigid work schedules) have hampered my economic mobility. And, while I experience long periods of "wellness," I believe my experiences with disability have only further radicalized me. It is unsurprising that some of the most radical and subversive political movements in Canada are led by organized groups of disabled women, such as the DAWN network.
Unlike the hipster, the disabled person acts as symbol for potential subversion that extends beyond the immediacy of social and cultural norms to entrenched work and production relations.
Norris' series is to be featured in a Toronto subway exhibit titled What’s the Hype? which "explores the tenuous relationship that exists between our everyday lives and the mirror of ‘reality’ that we see in mainstream media."
Norris tells Torontoist, “These are photos of my friend Jes, She has a disability. She is really hot. What’s shocking?”
But, I say: let's be shocking. Let's not only aim to change the mirror of reality, but use our insights from examining illusions to make real revolutionary changes in our everyday lives.