The tweets that are retweeted into my timeline are mostly either Trump related or are aggressively cute images to counteract the Trump effect. As I was scrolling through the emotional rollercoaster that is now Twitter, terrified at the implications of a man clueless to the intricacies of the balances of power in the US – he may be the world’s first accidental autocrat – I smiled. I couldn’t help it. The grinning face of Keah Brown (@Keah_Maria), creator of #DisabledAndCute, is just so gosh darned cute.
In mainstream media, the representation of people with disabilities has been overwhelmingly white, male and straight. The first thing I noticed about #DisabledAndCute is that it is so diverse. There is a vast range of people with disabilities represented, including people with disabilities who are not readily recognisable as such from an image. Intersectionality has also been at the forefront of representation in this project from the beginning. I don’t remember the last time I saw a hashtag representing a group with such a wide range of intersecting identities, from race and gender, to sexuality and body shape. The visuals are all stunning and each one tells a story completely different and yet with an underlying shared narrative; we are all cute, whatever that means to each of us. We all have a right to see ourselves as cute, regardless of how others might perceive us.
There has been some criticism, as I figured there would be, from people who believe the hashtag to be infantilising and patronising. Worse still, there are those who believe #DisabledAndCute to be a form of what is known as ‘inspiration porn’, which is where able bodied people view people with disabilities, particularly through images and often with inspiring text attached, as inspiration for their own lives. A typical example is something like: “The only disability is a bad attitude,” which is often accompanied by an image of a person who very obviously has a disability, in a triumphant pose, preferably at the top of a hill or mountain.
It depends on how it’s framed. If you view #DisabledAndCute as a project aimed at able bodied people, with a didactic focus, then the word ‘cute’ might take on quite a different meaning. But Keah Brown created the hashtag as a means of celebration, to acknowledge that her self esteem could be and is connected to feeling good about how she looks, despite the messages she and others with disabilities might receive from the world. It is a refreshing counter narrative to a media still downright hostile to the idea that people with disabilities can look great and celebrate how they look.
A robust dialogue on the issue of representation, from within the disability community, is important. There is also a propensity to shut down certain narratives before they have a chance to develop nuance and complexity. We need diverse narratives and voices to share wide ranging experiences of disability. We don’t all think the same. If an idea is overwhelmingly positive for a lot of people who have disabilities and there are some who don’t like it, they have every right to say so, though sometimes it might be better to say, “It’s not for me,” and move on.
When I went to post my own pics to #DisabledAndCute, quite soon after it was created, I first posted an image of my face, cropped. I am no stranger to posting selfies to Twitter. I must admit I don’t need a hashtag to boost my own self esteem. As I thought more about the importance of visibility and everything that might mean, I decided to post another couple of wider shots that included my wheelchair and amputated leg. Those in the know would be able to tell from my short stature that I live with spina bifida. As a bit of a media studies nerd, I was fascinated by the idea that with #DsabledAndCute we get to decide how to frame ourselves. We decide what’s cute. We decide how much of ourselves to include in the frame.
Since I started following and engaging with #DisabledAndCute, I’ve been thinking much more about the space that social media allows us to tell our own stories and shape our own narratives. That ‘space’ is problematic and complicated because there is always a tension between us and our motivations and desires and the demand from able bodied people that we educate them on every aspect of our lives. Since I saw the very first #DisabledAndCute image, from Keah Brown herself, it has felt like this is for ‘us’ – people with disabilities. Naturally, a lot of people who don’t have disabilities have viewed and will continue to seek out or stumble upon the hashtag. If they learn something or their perceptions and preconceived notions are altered, that’s wonderful. #DisabledAndCute centres people with disabilities, with everyone else made spectator. We control the narrative.