MEAN

09.24.14 9:55 AM ET

Gabby Giffords and the Problem with ‘Inspiration Porn’

Critics of retired Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords call her anti-gun ads ‘mean.’ But Giffords isn’t mean—she’s just not doing what society expects (and accepts) of disabled people.

On Sunday, Alex Isenstadt of Politico published a piece announcing that retired Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords is acting very “mean” this election year. The reason? She’s been sponsoring political ads calling out her opponents who don’t support gun control.

On January 8, 2011, in the parking lot of an Arizona Safeway, Giffords was shot along with 19 other people, including a 9-year-old girl. Today, Giffords has largely overcome the bullet she took to the head, a recovery she’s won through intense physical and cognitive rehabilitation. She’s now, perhaps, the most outspoken gun-control activist in politics, penning op-eds on the subject and frequently taking to Washington.

While not running for office herself this year, Giffords heads Americans for Responsible Solutions, a PAC that advocates for responsible gun ownership. So far, its campaign has included running political ads targeting opponents like Martha McSally (R-AZ), who is running for Giffords’ former seat.

Critics claim that Giffords’ ads are “mean” because they evoke such powerful emotion. On screen, people who have lost loved ones to gun violence deliver powerful testimony about how tighter gun-control measures could have saved their families. But there’s nothing wrong or unusual about Giffords’ political ads. Her opponents simply aren’t used to thinking of her as a real person.

Gabrielle Giffords is a woman, a victim of violence, and a person with disabilities, and the world doesn’t give much freedom to people like her. Women are either prudes, or they’re sluts. Victims are either asking for it, or they’re too naive. And people with disabilities are either pathetic figures who simply don’t try hard enough, or they have a bad attitude when they dare reject strangers’ pity.

Isenstadt’s own lede unwittingly highlights the problem, calling Giffords an “irreproachable figure of sympathy.” In other words, former Representative Giffords, with her multiple disabilities, has become nothing more than a modern-day Tiny Tim, and Tiny Tim is not supposed to run political ads shaming his opponents.

This reductive form of stereotyping that now preys on Giffords is part of an extremely insidious phenomenon that anyone with a social media account can witness—chances are, you’ve seen Tiny Tim more than once on your own screen. An image of a little girl with no hands coloring, perhaps, or another child running on blade-like prosthetics. At the bottom of these images, a memeified one-liner usually says something like, “What’s your excuse?” Disability advocates call these types of memes “inspiration porn,” because the people and children depicted in them are objectified in the same way figures in pornography are often objectified.

Take, for instance, the little girl coloring. She isn’t climbing Mt. Everest or accepting a Nobel Peace Prize. She’s a child, and she’s living her life. But we’ve taken her image, and we’ve shared it with thousands of strangers on the Internet, and we’ve transformed this little girl’s fun afternoon into some sort of life lesson for our own benefit. “If this girl can color without having hands,” the meme seems to say, “why shouldn’t we be able to accomplish so much more?”

Within the confines of the Internet, this little girl exists only to make us feel better about ourselves.

Until now, Gabrielle Giffords has been the physical embodiment of those sweet little memes we’ve “liked” on Facebook. She has inspired us all with her courage in the face of adversity and her strength for never giving up. But now she dares have an opinion.

There’s a long history of shaming opinioned people with disabilities. In 2012, Australia-based disability activist Stella Young wrote an article called “We’re Not Here For Your Inspiration.” “Let me be clear about the intent of this inspiration porn,” Young writes. “It’s there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective…It’s there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think ‘well, it could be worse… I could be that person.’”

The article’s comment section exploded with rage as readers argued that Young was dead wrong in her sentiments: “Have you got a problem, an inferiority complex or something,” asks an anonymous user. “We have a daughter with down syndrome [sic] and she is different. Okay just face it. This is why she need [sic] more tender loving care than the strong ones. Okay your attitude is rubbish.”

A similar incident occurred during the 2012 London Paralympics, when XOJane writer S.E. Smith published a piece calling for an end to the “inspiration” rhetoric that surrounded the event. As Smith writes, “Nondisabled people don’t seem to understand how frustrating and damaging this language is…They seem to be under the impression that this kind of objectification improves our lot in life, or gives us a reason to live; we may not amount to much, but at least we can be inspiring, you know. We’re making such great accomplishments simply by being alive.”

While the responses to Smith’s piece were slightly more open-minded than Young’s readers’ were, the comment section was not devoid of objections. Even fellow XOJane writers chimed in to invalidate Smith, explaining that people with disabilities, like Smith, were in fact very much inspirational and they reserved the right to be inspired by anyone they pleased. It’s rather telling that almost all of the readers with objections were able-bodied themselves.

In the case of Giffords, whose impairments have been even more publicly visible than Young’s or Smith’s, the former representative is now encountering her own set of comment section-naysayers who have a real problem with a disabled woman telling them “what’s what.” Except Giffords’ naysayers are not anonymous readers, sitting in their pajamas and scoffing at the “uppity” opinions expressed before them. These naysayers are leaders of our country, whose integrity we rely upon.

Isenstadt writes in his article that Giffords’ opponents are particularly inconvenienced because they can’t fight back against the delicate, sympathy-inducing Giffords. But Gabrielle Giffords has never asked to be treated with kid gloves. Gabrielle Giffords is a fierce leader, and she’s here for more than inspiration.