Fashion is no foreign concept to Kylie Jenner. But recently, the youngest of the Jenner sisters posed on “Interview’s” December/January cover in a gold wheelchair. Almost like a mannequin, she stares off into space. Her “fembot” aesthetic, with plastic-looking makeup and Latex-esque clothing, contributes to a surreal commentary about fashion covering handicaps.
In response to Jenner’s cover shot, 24-year-old Erin Tatum decided that she wanted to recreate it with her own wheelchair. Tatum, affected by cerebral palsy, wanted to make a very important point with the photo: wheelchairs are not a glamorous accessory by any means.
On Tumblr, she explained that she “tried [her] best to create a more authentic version of Kylie Jenner’s interview cover, given that [she’s], you know, actually disabled and a real life wheelchair user.” She continued, elaborating: “I can barely get people to make eye contact with me, let alone land a cover shoot... If being in a wheelchair is trendy now, I’ve apparently been a trendsetter since Kylie was born.”
Tatum is not alone. She joins the chorus of voices from disabled individuals who are speaking up about the inappropriate use of wheelchairs as hip new fashion props, especially since Jenner is not physically handicapped.
And they’re not wrong to be offended. Because Jenner is normally abled, choosing to pose in a wheelchair can be hurtful to someone who has to use one, not just as a fashion statement. It is also unfair to actually disabled models like Jillian Mercado, who are rarely given the kind of opportunities that Jenner has, even with the trait now being deemed “fashionable.” By definition, a wheelchair is a mobility device, which means that it gives freedom and independence to whoever needs it, whereas the cover photo with Jenner represents the limitations of the device.
Of course, “Interview” defended the image, saying that the photos were to “explore Kylie’s image” according to Seventeen Magazine’s coverage of the story, also insisting that their intention “is to create a powerful set of pictures that get people thinking about image and creative expression, including the set with the wheelchair.” Jenner also agrees that she wants to figure out her identity by “experimenting,” according to the very same magazine her photo is displayed on. Despite the outrage, “Interview” continues to promise that the purpose of using a wheelchair is strictly a means of expression; they never tried to offend anyone by any means.
The fashion industry does have a history of mishandling issues of representation with disabilities. Up until recently, however, the industry did not give much attention this group of individuals at all. When fashion executives do choose to use “token models” who are disabled, they treat the end product as a feel good moment.
“Interview,” on the other hand, used a superstar and a metallic wheelchair to give a vibe of elegance, enough to be on the cover of the magazine. Though their intentions may have been different from how the cover is perceived, an apology should not be so quickly accepted. Clarifying that they did not mean to offend anyone helps some, but it does not disregard the fact that many wheelchair users felt cheated by this cover.
Though I do not use a wheelchair, and therefore will never fully understand the people who are offended by this appropriation, this cover should be viewed as distasteful art, that is, art for attention rather than true purpose. Wheelchairs are not a costume choice, nor an identity to try on for the fun of it. Fashion stretches many boundaries to make a statement, but this one crossed a line. The image is not empowering at all, but rather a desperate search for attention. The statement made by “Interview” did just that--catch the attention of readers with a risque image. Except now, I know there are new lows in fashion that aren’t “low-cut.”
The views expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The Torch. Contact Felicia Escandon at firstname.lastname@example.org.