Blog Post

DIS/RUPTIVE/ABILITY: Remixing Ableism on Tumblr

This semester, I studied constructions of abled and disabled bodies on Tumblr in a blog series on inspiration pornsexualitydevoteeism, and embodiment. Working on the project was incredibly revealing and slowly fostered a sense of injustice and frustration mingled with intrigue and a desire to take action. This project evolved out of that journey.

For my final project, I set out to challenge the ways users interact with disability on Tumblr by remixing content and purpose through a blog on Tumblr. The blog is called D I S / R U P T I V E / A B I L I T Y.

I began by studying the content being created and shared as well as patterns of circulation, overall visibility, response, and perceived impact. I studied memes and tropes and traced content back through reblogs to understand the flow through different channels. With this knowledge, I created a Tumblr and filled it with strategically designed images and videos to disrupt different memes, tropes, and distribution channels on the very platform that facilitated the circulation of the problematic content I sought to disrupt. 

I made a second blog on Tumblr to complement the first: Drake’s Good Attitude, linked in the sidebar. I return to the reasoning for making the blogs separate later in this post.

This project has two main goals:

  1. To catalyze conversations that position abled and disabled bodies in the digital world as far less objectifiable than we assume and to create an environment that acknowledges every body, voice, and experience as valid, unique, and valuable.
  2. To challenge Tumblr's image as a time-waster or trivial collection of hipster fashion blogs and instead position Tumblr as a powerful tool for information dissemination and activism while also demonstrating how the very tools used to create problematic content on Tumblr can be used to object to it.

Why disability?

The history of people with disabilities is heavy with violence and oppression, yet it is largely undocumented. In spire of the growth of the disability rights movement and the growth of literature on disability from a social model perspective, heavy stigma about people with disabilities endures. Disability shares many of the same issues and theories related to race, gender, and sexuality, but rarely are people with disabilities even acknowledged as a minority group, let alone as the subject of critical theory. In this project, I hope to bring visibility to disability studies as a whole while also highlighting the unique problems presented when disability and representation intersect on a platform like Tumblr.

This project set out to address the following questions:

What content is being shared by and about people with disabilities? Are there patterns, memes, and tropes? Which are reblogged the most and least? Which content, if any, circulates beyond likeminded blogs? How far is the reach and what about it makes that particular post so popular?

I also based this project off of the questions I asked in my blog series: What is the role of Tumblr as a platform? Which pieces are controlled by the user and which by the platform? How does Tumblr create an opportunity for self-representation and identity formation of its users? To what degree does Tumblr function as a means of embodiment or disembodiment? How do actions of content creation, reblogging, and interacting with other users affect beliefs about our physical bodies? Do these beliefs translate to the ways we conduct ourselves away from Tumblr?

And then finally, can the tools Tumblr has to offer actually create an opportunity for the creation and circulation of oppositional media through the same methods responsible for the circulation of the problematic material in the first place? Is it possible to design a blog and its content on Tumblr to break the isolation between communities and spread to non-likeminded blogs in other genres?

Theoretical basis

I. TACTICAL MEDIA, CULTURE JAMMING, & REMIXING

““We live at a time when the image has become the predominant mode of public address, eclipsing all other forms in the structuring of meaning,” asserts [Stuart] Ewen. “Yet little in our education prepares us to make sense of the rhetoric, historical development or social implications of the images within our lives.” In a society of heat, light and electronic poltergeists — an eerie otherworld of “illimitable vastness, brilliant light, and the gloss and smoothness of material things” — the desperate project of reconstructing meaning, or at least reclaiming that notion from marketing departments and P.R. firms, requires visually-literate ghostbusters.” - Mark Dery, Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs

This project is rooted in theories of tactical media, culture jamming, and détournement. Even though the quote above is from nearly twenty-five years ago, it sums up the context for this project. The methods described in Dery's article were therefore not only useful as a theoretical basis, but also in practice as I worked on this project.

Rita Raley also provides a strong foundation for this project in "Tactical Media as Virtuosic Performance," the introduction to her book "Tactical Media." She places the emergence of a new kind of resistance (tactical media) in a historical context, intertwined in the premise of this project that the effectiveness of activism in different spaces is changing. While she explains that tactical media is an intentionally "slippery" term, she also provides stories and insights to help us understand its meaning. The purpose of tactical media can be to "provoke," "reveal," "defamiliarize," "critique," and "educate." "The activity of disturbance and provocation "offers participants in the projects a new way of seeing, understanding, and (in the best-case scenario) interacting ith a given system,"" she writes, quote Lovink. I used the concept of tactical media, applied at a micro-scale in particular images and videos, to inform this project at each step of the process. Overall, I sought to use the concept of tactical media to disrupt not Tumblr as a platform, but its users.

An explanation of the theoretical basis of my project is explained in each component below.

II. DISABILITY THEORY

This project is deeply rooted in disability theory. First and foremost, I accept the social model of disability as true (you can read a description of the social model of disability in my blog post here). I have read the "Disability Studies Reader," edited by Lennard J. Davis, cover to cover many times over, and it has served as a foundation for how I position disability in this project. The following articles were particularly relevant for this project:

"The Dimensions of Disability Oppression," by James Charlton
"Stigma: An Enigma Demystified," by Lerita M. Coleman Brown
"Beholding," by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
"Reassigning Meaning," by Simi Linton
"Aesthetic Nervousness," by Ato Quayson
"Narrative Prostheses," by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder
"The End of Identity Politics: On Disability as an Unstable Category," by Lennard J. Davis
"The Vulnerable Articulate," by Marquard Smith
"Sculpting Body Ideals," by Ann Millett-Gallant
"The Enfreakment of Photography," by David Hevey
"Disability, Life Narrative, and Representation," by G. Thomas Couser

D I S / R U P T I V E / A B I L I T Y

Since Tumblr is primarily a visual platform, I chose to use only images and video for the content of the blog. I came into the project with a basic understanding of iMovie and photoshop. Given the aesthetic of the images I created (and that many were based on images that were poorly photoshopped in the first place), I did not find my lack of experience with photoshop to be a barrier. Working with existing videos in iMovie, however, w more difficult than I expected. I spent a significant amount of time learning to deal with challenges peeling apart the audio from existing video (specifically trying to separate narration from background music) and failed many times before producing the content in this project. The content of my final product falls into two main categories: passing and disrupting, described in turn below.

PASSING

The idea of passing is deeply rooted in theories of culture jamming and détournement. In “Taxonomy of Digital Video Remixing,” Eli Horwatt writes the following about remixing:

“Though these remixes enact critical transformations of content, both the remixer and re-editor perform the same aesthetic strategy of replicating the grammar of the source material — the words may have changed but the language is still the same. . . These works of détournement, are marked by the artist's desire to camouflage their transformations, almost as if to insinuate them back into the mediascape as authentic and original works.”

Tumblr is filled with micro-oppressions (like microaggressions- similar result without the aggression). An example of micro-oppresion is inspiration porn, which I’ve discussed extensively in other posts so I will not go into it again here. To explain this idea and how it connects to the idea of passing by Horwatt, I will use an example.

First: the Guinness commercial I posted on Tumblr

Then, watch the original.

The scene that I cut out is one that unnecessarily glorifies the “helper” (“such a good friend!”), a common disability trope in the media. At the end of my remixed version, you do see one man walk and another sitting in a chair rather than a wheelchair, but still not enough to assume that all but one of the men are able-bodied. The idea is that someone who has not seen the original could see the remixed version and think it was the original. The art of passing is therefore the art of normalization. The goal is for it to be close enough to reality that a person processes and accepts it as real- as just a commercial of a bunch of guys who use wheelchairs playing basketball and drinking Guinness. 

I also attempted to create images that “pass.” Fashion is big on Tumblr- whether it is through a blog dedicated to modeling or to street fashion (12345). The diversity of bodies in the most popular fashion blogs are still quite narrow, despite the role Tumblr has played in the growing love your body movement. There are many talented models with disabilities, and a large number of editorial-worthy photographs of them; the problem was that there is little to no overlap between the brands that fill some of the Tumblrs above and the brands that hire and feature models with disabilities. The problem, then, had nothing to do with the models or photographers, but in the way those photographs are “packaged” or “presented.” 

Consider, for example, blogs like foreveryoungbeach and le-jardin-de-la-mode. Even if not all of the photos they post and reblog show the brand in the image, source, link, or caption, you can tell which brands they are by other posts (that are attached to a brand) and the aesthetic of the clothes/modeling style. If none of those brands — in this case clothing brands like Urban Outfitters and magazines like Elle and Vogue, as well as many others — feature models with disabilities, why would they want to post those photos?


Remix Inspiration: "American Able" campaign

With this question in mind, I did further research and discovered the phenomenal campaign “American Able,” by photographer Holly Norris and model Jes Sachse (photo above). I decided to apply a similar critique by taking photos of models with disabilities and placing them in photos and advertisements that previously featured an able-bodied model. 

In order for these photos to truly “pass,” however, they would have to be posted on a blog populated with many images with the same aesthetic that are unaltered, meaning almost entirely images of able-bodied models. The point is to blend in. Given the amount of time, patience, and work involved in building a tasteful, cohesive fashion blog and gaining followers, I chose not to actually take this idea of passing and apply it by making this sort of blog to see the results. What I hope to demonstrate, however, is that changing perception is not about, as Rita Raley writes, “. . . the grand, sweeping revolutionary event.” Instead, it is about locating entrances into the distribution channels on platforms like Tumblr and repositioning the content in a way that adheres to existing norms while making subtle changes to send a different message. “Passing” is therefore one of the greatest tools of détournement available to anyone who wants to challenge the ways that we use platforms like Tumblr.

DISRUPTING

In this project, I used multiple forms of disruption to intervene in the representation of disability on Tumblr with degrees of intervention. The first drew from the concept of “adbusting." In 2012, street artist Daniel Soares caught the media’s attention when he attached giant images of photoshop toolbars onto H&M advertisements. What I loved about his project is that he did not alter the original image- only added something to it, revealing something hidden, to change the ways people experience and understand the image. I attempted to use this technique to take unaltered, existing content, and then add something to it that might change the viewer’s experience. One example is this video, which begins with an excerpt from an article Jerry Lewis wrote in Parade Magazine in 1990, followed by a video showing another version of what it’s actually like to “get out on the court with other cripples and play wheelchair basketball.” Another example (a stretch from adbusting but similar idea) is in the image below, which approaches the problematic content (the image of the quote above) with humor and a widely used meme.

Next, I used a similar form of disruption but partially altered the original content, using “soundbites” and different modes of relaying the original message in this video:

The point, again, was to give a visual counter to what the man, Jerry Lewis, describes in the beginning of the video to challenge how we interpret these messages. 

The final method of disruption I used in my blog was clear, direct rejection of the original content. I used this for three memes in particular:

Compared to the originals:

These images incorporate classic culture jamming strategies that seek to radically change a message using the original style and syntax. I chose this method with these particular photos because the very act of endless scrolling on your Tumblr dashboard facilitates a passive relationship with content. At first, you might mistake the remixed images for the original. But since they are memes that have been so widely circulated across social media platforms, most people can recognize that something about the text or image makes it different from the original. It forces users to stop and think, switching from passive to active engagement with the platform.

I ground this form of humorous disruption in Christine Harold’s “Pranking rhetoric: culture jamming as media activism.” Harold argues that in the right situations, parody can act as a way to seize power by inciting mistrust of the original content. My intention in creating the video below can be summed up perfectly in Harold’s words: “To reveal, one must stand in a familiar place and know just what is behind the spectacular curtain.” I hope this video, mixing humor with critique, will speak for itself:

Click to watch

My last method of disruption was through the creation of the meme and Tumblr “Drake’s Good Attitude.”

I do not think I have to explain memes and the incredible potential they hold for sharing a message on a massive scale. My goal was to disrupt in as many ways as possible, and given my knowledge from studying Tumblr this semester, I knew that creating a new, effective meme was the only realistic way of turning this project from a performance into an action with real impact. Since starting the blog three days ago (the idea came to me late), the posts have already collectively received over 200 notes. The meme is my attempt to utilize Tumblr humor to combat oppression of a group of people whose thoughts and experiences are largely unacknowledged. Tumblr makes it easy for users to continue to overlook issues related to marginalized communities by promoting the fallacy that Tumblr and the web offer endless knowledge and information when that reality is necessarily a construction. The only way to intervene, then, is to figure out how to deliver that message in the aesthetic, humor, or style of something else users follow. A hilarious meme is just one option.

I should also note that featuring Drake, rather than a person with a disability, in this meme was a strategic decision based on a few key reasons: First, he is relatable to a large number of people, increasing the audience of people who might find it funny. Second, people are uncomfortable laughing at anything involving someone with a disability because of a deeply ingrained idea that people with disabilities are generally worse off and you would have to be a tyrant to laugh at them. Third, the photo of Drake using a wheelchair was a meme before, but just for turning his lyrics into wheelchair puns. I hoped that bringing it back might attract an audience of people who knew that meme while giving it a more productive purpose. And lastly, the photos of bad attitude Drake and good attitude Drake are just too perfect for words.

Final thoughts

This project has been an incredible learning experience for me. It is easy to criticize something that you disagree with in writing, but words only go so far. Scrolling, liking, and reblogging have become casual and comfortable — which is not a bad thing; it does, however, mean that is is going to take a lot more than a paragraph of dissent in the caption of an image to force someone to stop and reconsider. When one realizes how widespread stigma is against people with disabilities, it becomes ever more important to use innovative tactics to engage people in dialogue and ask them to question the ways they understand disability. Moreover, as younger generations become savvier with identifying culture jamming and perhaps even one day become fatigued by its prevalence, the need to develop new methods of détournement grows. I hope that this project may play a role in turning a series of disruptions into a pulse.

 

References

Dery, Mark. "Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs." Shovelware. Updated Release 8 Oct. 2010. Accessed 3 Apr. 2014.

Harold, Christine. "Pranking Rhetoric: “Culture Jamming” as Media Activism." Critical Studies in Media Communication 21.3 (2004): 189-211.

Horwatt, Eli. “Taxonomy of Digital Video Remixing." Cultural Borrowings: Appropriation, Reworking,Transformation. Ed. Iain R. Smith. E-Book published by Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies. 2009. 76-91.

Davis, Lennard J., ed. The Disability Studies Reader. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Raley, Rita. "Introduction: Tactical Media as Virtuosic Performance." Tactical Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2009. 1-30. 

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