The Problem with Inspiration Porn

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  • Maybe Stewart

With the Tony Awards and Ali Stroker’s big win still in recent memory, the discourse around accessibility in theatre has finally splashed into the mainstream. By now, we’ve all heard the outraging stories regarding the lack of access Stroker had to the stage during the ceremony, where she was unable to get to her actual seat in the audience at any point and was the only member of her creative team that could not go up to accept their award for Best Revival of a Musical.

It is not news that theatre is lightyears behind so much as reaching ADA standards, or that there are major problems with how disabilities are and have been portrayed on the stage. As a physically disabled theatre artist myself, I hope to see these conversations continue to enable change in our community. But today, I would like to focus in on a specific, less discussed problem with the representation of not only the disabled community but many oppressed groups: Inspiration Porn.

Now I’m sure many of you have spent hours scrolling through the #inspirationporn tag on Instagram while trying to drag yourself off to your day job, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Inspiration porn is a term, first coined in 2012 by disability rights activist Stella Young, which is defined as the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspirational based solely or in part on their disability. Personally, I believe that definition can be expanded to include the exploitation of any oppressed and under-represented group of people. As a member of both the disabled and LGBTQIA+ community that has dealt with the negative side of inspiration porn for years, many stories about queer characters that center explicitly on their queerness scream of inspiration porn to me, and I would like to keep that in mind for the conversation here.

Theatre is known as an inspirational art form. It brings people together to witness incredible stories of the human experience, allowing us to see the world through one another’s eyes. Inspiration is what makes our art so powerful.

Maybe it is the pursuit of that inspiration that has made our community so blind to inspiration porn and the red flags around it. Or maybe it’s because so few disabled people can be involved in theatre, and therefore cannot raise the red flags for well-meaning, unaware artists. Either way, theatre is rampant with it, doing a major disservice to the multiple oppressed communities that find their home in our art.

But why is inspiration porn so problematic? Isn’t it a good thing that our representations of oppressed communities are positive and inspiring?

Well, yes and no. It certainly wouldn’t be helpful to revert to the Elizabethan ideas of disabled characters always being villains because their differences are seen as the external manifestation of inner evil. But while there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of stories about these characters being inspiring – I am inspired every day by the members of my queer and disabled communities – it is the focus and result of how we’re telling these stories that is problematic.

When our “otherness” is objectified, and characters are reduced to merely fighting with and overcoming their “otherness” in the face of their oppressors, there’s a big problem. These stories don’t help or celebrate us – they make audiences pity us, guilts them into trying harder for themselves, or even (in the case of plays set in the past, as seemingly all of them are) absolves them of guilt by lulling them into thinking we’ve done enough to help these communities.

Inspiration porn furthers the idea that disabilities are something to be fought or fixed, rather than accepting them as a part of a whole person that doesn’t need fixing. It pushes the ideology that “someone always has it worse off” to inspire its audience, rather than focusing on the endless abilities each of us naturally has within us.

Worse yet, inspiration porn sets up the idea that only successful people from these oppressed minority groups deserve to be seen, and erases those without the means to rise above their so-called “normal” fellows. This places undue pressure on already oppressed groups to outperform everyone around them, leaving these communities with the concept that they must prove themselves as inspirational before they can be accepted. It objectifies our struggles, and shrinks us down to nothing but our differences, discounting every other aspect of our humanity while typically focusing on only the most traumatic elements of our stories.

Now, for anyone outside of these communities, this may all seem very over-dramatic. But I implore you to imagine a world where you’ve grown up without ever seeing someone like you on stage. And then, when you finally do, it’s a story in which that person has to rise above everyone else before they are worthy of being human. What’s more, picture that you then learn the person portraying that role is being lauded for their ability to put on your “otherness” so well because no one actually like you was “good enough” to handle the role. Now imagine this storyline growing more popular in the name of representation, until you see it over and over again, always produced through the same lens of pity for these characters that will never know what it’s like to be “normal.” This is what it’s like to live in a world completely saturated with inspiration porn.

I have never met a member of the disabled community for which this didn’t ring true. We live in a world that isn’t built for us, and in which we can rarely measure up to expectations because they take so much more for us to reach. In a world where the bare minimum has been done to make life possible for us, and everyone around us believes that’s good enough. In a world where producers say they tried to involve someone from our community, but no one showed up – while they hold auditions in locations that are inaccessible.

So, what can we do to improve? We can educate ourselves on what inspiration porn is, and learn to identify it – not only in our entertainment but in our own behavior. We can follow best practices by involving people from the oppressed groups we are representing in every stage of the process, even if it involves making accommodations or conducting additional research.

But the biggest, most important thing we can do is improve our overall representation in theatre. Write plays that include disabled, LGBTQIA+, and other minority groups in your character breakdowns – not just as main characters, but as parts of your world. Write stories that include them, instead of stories that focus on their differences. Cast actors from these groups in your shows, even if the character descriptions don’t require it. Avoid producing shows that don’t do these things, because there are plenty of wonderful pieces out there that are just as inspiring, without harming these communities.

The bottom line? Let us exist in your stories without the burden of inspiring the room. Don’t use us for your concepts, or to make a statement – involve us because we are just as much a part of the human experience as you are.