This morning, I woke up and checked my Facebook feed as I usually do when I manage to haul myself out of bed. As I scrolled through, I saw a photo posted by a younger (and former – more on that later) friend of mine from a Halloween costume party she attended last night. Her boyfriend was dressed as Forrest Gump and she was dressed as Lieutenant Dan. Her costume was really well done, and she even tucked her legs underneath her inside her pants to look like an amputee. And that’s the issue here – she’s not an amputee, or even an actual wheelchair user. Based on the Facebook and Instagram comments, people thought her costume was hilarious and very well done. However, I found myself feeling really upset and disappointed. Being a person who is not easily offended AT ALL or particularly sensitive about anything, I just couldn’t figure out at first why I was so upset.
I took a screenshot of the (public) photo, covered up their faces so they wouldn’t be identifiable, and posted it in a couple of groups to ask fellow wheelchair users if they found the costume offensive. To my surprise, my fellow wheelies were split right down the middle. While most agreed that the costume doesn’t outright mock wheelchair users, many were upset that an able-bodied person would choose to dress as a character in a wheelchair for amusement and adulation. Many others thought it was totally okay because she was just imitating a movie character. I knew I was leaning towards being upset by it, but I couldn’t understand why. Then I tried to compare this situation to other examples to see if it was an apples to apples comparison.
In December 2015, model and Kardashian family member Kylie Jenner posed in a wheelchair in an S&M-style outfit for a photo spread in Interview magazine. She received a shit-ton of criticism for that shoot, including from a fellow fashion model who actually uses a wheelchair. Gemma Flanagan from Liverpool told FEMAIL she was ‘shocked’ when she saw Kylie’s cover shoot. “I was shocked when I saw the photos,” she said. “I couldn’t believe the hypocrisy of it. We’re always pushing for fashion houses to represent more disabled women, yet we’re told that it isn’t suitable. Now here we have an able-bodied person posing in a wheelchair, and she’s put on the cover of a magazine. It isn’t remotely empowering.” Despite the photographer defending his artistic choices, Gemma insisted the magazine has used the wheelchair as a prop. “For me, and millions of others, they’re not a prop – they’re our legs,” she said. In this case, Kylie Jenner was not imitating a movie character. Does that detail make this a different situation?
Next I tried to examine the issue of people dressing as characters from other minority groups for Halloween. This has become a very sensitive issue lately around Halloween. What is cultural appropriation and what isn’t? I think (or at least hope) that most people know it’s not okay for a white person to try to physically look like a black person (i.e. wearing blackface), as Julianne Hough learned the hard way a few years ago when she dressed up as Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black. Personally, I’m okay with kids dressing as animated characters or superheroes of a different race as long as no skin color makeup is involved. Think, Moana, Mulan, Black Panther, etc. It gets trickier as adults, and it’s more acknowledged now as not okay for a white person to dress generically in costume as a Native American, Polynesian, or other ethnic minority. It seems like appropriating another race or culture might be easier to identify, but is appropriating a disability different? Do people care more about upsetting racial minorities than they do about upsetting wheelchair users?
After mulling over this, I think I finally came to a conclusion over why I was so upset. A small part of it is the fact that after being in character for a few hours, she can untie her (likely very cramped) legs and walk around like she normally would. Real wheelchair users can’t do that after Halloween is over. She may have experienced a few physical obstacles wheeling around a cramped house at the party, but she in no way experienced the real-life obstacles we face every day. However, the bigger part of it (for me) is how people reacted to her costume. They went crazy over it and thought she looked awesome. I will be the first one to say that she did a great job with the outfit and makeup; the costume itself was really well done. The costume was a source of amusement. entertainment. It drew laughter and compliments – in other words, positive attention.
I travel all over the world to the tune of over a dozen foreign countries every year, and I’m gone more than I’m home. Needless to say, I’m out in public at home and abroad a LOT. I’m a thin woman and many would consider me attractive. Hell, I won Ms. Wheelchair USA two years ago! However, the reaction I get as a “real” wheelchair user when I’m out and about is decidedly not the same. I am definitely not the source of anyone’s amusement and entertainment, and if I were (as I imagine many children in wheelchairs might be for cruel bullies), it would not be a positive experience for me. People don’t come up to me and tell me I look awesome or that I did an amazing job putting myself together that day. I get looks of pity and curiosity and sometimes outright disgust. I am not congratulated for being a person in a wheelchair.
Clearly, wheelchair users have different feelings about this, as I assume non-wheelchair users do as well. I can only share my point of view here and why this upsets me. I’m in the midst of having very positive and educational conversations about this issue on social media. Unfortunately, when I sent a polite private message to this (now former) friend of mine explaining why her costume upset me, she didn’t want a conversation. After ten years of friendship, she decided to unfriend me so I wouldn’t be offended anymore. This is not how disagreements should go between people when conversations involve race or gender or disability. My own community may be split down the middle over the appropriateness of wheelchairs in costumes, but we’re talking about it. Constructively. Please share your thoughts in the comments!