Freakshow: Bullying, Ableist Guilt and Inspiration Porn

Quaden Bayles YouTube
Quaden Bayles YouTube
Tim de Visser • 11 mrt 2020

Earlier this year, a desperate Australian mother named Yarraka Bayles posted a video of her son Quaden, begging her to let him die. She told viewers of the verbal humiliation her son was subjected to every day. How the bullying had made him suicidal at the age of 9. The original video has since been removed, and the family’s social media accounts have been deleted. The whole situation followed a familiar pattern: the tragic video went viral, and celebrities lavished Quaden with attention and gifts. Concern trolls swarmed to question Quaden's plight. And unless this particular situation is unique, the hype will soon die. Quaden will have his day in the sun, and then it will be over. At least, that is my expectation. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe his situation will be redressed. Maybe Quaden will never be bullied again and the encouraging messages from Hugh Jackman will nourish his self-confidence. That's something, at least. But I think this whole cycle does more to address the uncomfortable guilt felt by the audience then it does to solve systemic issues like bullying, child suicidality, racism and ableism.

There seems to be a recurring trend of sentimental, individual responses to systemic tragedies. Quaden Bayles is not an isolated case. Disabled children go through this every day, around the world. Abuse against disabled people is sky high. Suicidal ideation is on the rise for young children everywhere. Racist hate crimes are spiking. And those problems clearly overlap. The cause is a system that pits people against each other. In this system, some children are bound to be bullied. And disabled people, almost by definition, are among the groups most affected. As long as that system governs society, anti-bullying campaigns mean nothing. Children can smell the emptiness, the hypocrisy of such initiatives.

In my opinion this is because they do not address the real reasons behind bullying. Children get bullied for the same things they get excluded for as adults: being an ethnic minority, being LGBTQ, not conforming to gendered expectations, being poor, being fat, and yes: being disabled. Children are not born bullies. Children are quickly taught to compete with each other for praise and attention. It's no wonder that children who do not feel loved will take out their anger on anyone they see as inferior. And in a capitalist culture, that value-judgment follows predictable criteria. Under capitalism, every person competes for money and status, and bigotry is a kind of conditional solidarity between privileged classes. Every white, cis, hetero, rich, abled, conventionally attractive man has unearned advantages because of bigotry, and every aspect of that identity can be used to get ahead. It is not difficult to see why these advantages are so persistently defended, and it seems obvious to me that children learn this, if not through overt instruction, then at the very least by observing who has status and how to gain it. They notice that brown skin and queerness make an acceptable target, just by noticing they are not as overtly praised and represented as whiteness and straightness. If we really are all equal, why do we pay so much more attention and respect to white, straight men than others? So it is with disabled kids. Our presence is rarely noted unless we are a problem to be solved or an exception to the rule.  All around the world, the living standards of disabled people are in decline. Capitalism humiliates and kills us by measuring the worth of human beings by their capacity to work. Is it any surprise that children might internalize and reproduce that hierarchy? Bullying is just children acting out what systematic marginalization teaches them about acceptable social interaction. In a time where both minorities and the disabled are framed as dishonest, lazy parasites, this means disabled children of color are an enticing target.

The lovebombing of Quaden

Quaden has quickly become a poster-child for the consequences of bullying. He was born with dwarfism, as a descendent of Aboriginal Australians. For this, he was a target. And I'll be honest, the response from the internet did not fill my heart with joy and hope for disabled kids of color everywhere. I was in fact so stressed out by the clickbait on Facebook, that I put off watching the original video for days. I was mortified. Part of that is undoubtedly projection on my part. You see, I've struggled with suicidal ideation for almost 10 years. The idea that someone would record a mental breakdown of mine and distribute it on the internet for educational purposes is frightening to me. Abusers and eugenicists are going to have access to it and pick it apart. Was Quaden's mother brave for expecting a positive response? Did she correctly weigh the risk against the potential positive outcomes? In the video, she says she had exhausted all other options to stop Quaden being bullied, and I have no reason to doubt her. But will this situation ultimately result in a better life for Quaden and help bring an end to bullying? I'm not so sure.    

The reaction across the internet was an outpour of financial support and encouraging messages for Quaden. As much as this might cheer him up in the short term, will it heal his trauma? Will it protect him and other children like him from abuse in the future? I'm worried about what will happen to Quaden's newfound confidence when the hype dies down. What happens when all this lavish attention disappears? Will the hateful rumors about his breakdown being a hoax also die down?

The ‘Greatest’ Showman

Seeing Hugh Jackman in particular share his heartfelt sympathies reminded me of a musical he starred in a few years ago. The Greatest Showman is a dramatization of the career of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a legendary sideshow tycoon and conman from the 19th century. It’s a feel-good story about his famous and popular ‘freak shows’, which would charge the public money to ogle at people with visible disabilities or gender-nonconforming appearances. The bearded lady, for instance, has an inspiring character arc about learning to love herself in spite of the public’s jeering. It teaches the fictionalized Barnum, and by extension the audience, a lesson about self-respect and strength of character. The movie doesn’t address the fact that Barnum’s first fortune came on the back of a hoax involving Joice Heth; a disabled African-American woman he ‘leased’ and exposited as George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid. This was seven years after slavery was made illegal in New York. When she died, Barnum charged money for people to attend her autopsy. The movie doesn’t deal with the way he humiliated and endangered several children with dwarfism to make them seem like monsters or miniature adults. It occurs to me I’ve omitted the details, because the phrase ‘P.T. Barnum put an African-American child with microcephaly in a monkey-costume and advertised him as ‘Zip the Pinhead’, or ‘the missing link from Africa’’ causes me great pain to think about. Nor does the movie address Barnum’s endlessly cruel treatment of animals, which he burned with hot pokers.

Reading reviews and watching trailers, The Greatest Showman presents these freakshows as having some redeeming value for the representation and development of disabled people. Misguided and imperfect yes, but ultimately better than the lives these disabled people would have had otherwise. P.T. Barnum is a flawed protagonist, but never a villain. Nor is the movie, as far as I can tell, a sharp critique of ableism based on the lived experience of disabled people. Its message is the kind of individualistic positivity that shores up all these seemingly heartwarming instances of ‘inspiration porn’; the disabled kid finally got asked to prom (and we filmed her reaction!). This cancer patient collected enough money to continue his chemo through a viral ‘Gofundme’ campaign! Despite a lifetime of derision and only finding a job being gawked at by bullies, this bearded lady’s got sass! All of these stories prioritize the one case where things went okay, in order to help us forget that it’s only newsworthy because it is unique. And it shouldn’t be. We should think about preventing these tragedies from happening in the first place, instead of focusing on the rare happy endings. It’s a typical example of the fact that people love being heroes, but hate being caregivers.

In a way, the movie The Greatest Showman asks audiences to pay for a sanitized freakshow, in which the freaks are empowered by reclaiming their own dignity and P.T. Barnum is redeemed posthumously. Just as the real P.T. Barnum would have done. It romanticizes and whitewashes his immensely lucrative exploitation of disabled people. And Hugh Jackman thought this would be a good movie to follow up a breakthrough role as the superhero Wolverine. I respect Jackman as an actor and a performer, and it was hurtful to realize that he either didn’t know about the ableist history of this historical character, or he thought nothing of it. So I can only see his support for Quaden as empty, no matter how sincerely felt.

Personal stakes

Now to be fair, I have not seen the actual movie for the same reason I put off watching Quaden beg for death. Even the fact that the movie glosses over the darkest parts of the story only makes it more painful. This stuff scratches at the surface of a trauma that I do not like to revisit. The trauma of living in a world that disables you for not conforming to the image of a ‘normal body’. Looking back, I spent so much energy pretending to be whole and happy. Avoiding any situation that could prove my worst fears. I denied my pain in the same way The Greatest Showman denies P.T. Barnum’s role in normalizing ableism: by painting over the painful parts. And I nearly destroyed myself..

I’ve spent years trying to hide my disability and how I felt about it. The little pangs, such as not feeling like an equal in sports, or not enjoying the same physical activities as my peers. And the big wounds, such as feeling like a burden on those around me, feeling sexually inadequate, the assumptions of others that I would be incompetent or dependent. Some people were obviously uncomfortable, feeding off my own anxiety about having to explain my disability. Being disabled is mostly difficult because abled people react to it in a privileged manner. Some of them see my disability as an opportunity to aggrandize themselves either by humiliating me, or by making a show of helping me. That kind of behavior models bullying. Even with the best intentions, it does not do the confidence of disabled children any good. 

The Call to Action

I realize what I’ve written here is abstract, and of little help to people in their daily lives. How do we improve the way we treat disabled people in practice? How do we redress ableism as individuals? I cannot speak to the experience of Aboriginal Australians, but I have some experience with the kind of behavior that would have helped a nine-year-old disabled boy to feel like he belonged.

-When you design or organize anything to be accessed by the general public, ask yourself if there are people who cannot access it. If so, what can be done to make it more accessible? The earlier in your design process you ask this question, the better. It's much cheaper to include ramps and elevators into your original plans than it is to add them later.

-If you can, support and validate our existence without making a show of it. Do not make it ‘a thing’. Do not make us ask to be an exception if you can help it. Do not expect us to be grateful for bare access to public spaces. I guarantee you asking strangers to be patient with you or help you with something can be mortifying and we don’t like it any more than you do. Don’t drag it out.

-Don't make people prove their disabilities. Just don't. It's a humiliating process and I promise you, pretending to be disabled is not as fun as it seems. It is a convenient lie to suggest that welfare fraud is an appreciable contribution to national debt. Besides, unless you are a doctor, you simply cannot tell who is or isn't disabled, and many disabled people are misdiagnosed because surprise: even doctors can't tell.

-Recognize that every disabled person is different and even for one person, what we can do can change over time. We can recover, we can overexert ourselves. Learning what our boundaries are and guarding them is an important and difficult life skill that no one can do for anyone else. Don’t push disabled people beyond their limits unless they’ve given explicit consent.

-Every body is different, and they are all good. There is no such thing as a disgusting body. That's just what we say when we can't get over our own judgment of another body. Bodies are also private and you don't get to control or ogle at other people's bodies without permission. This overlaps with respecting pregnant, trans, and fat bodies. Judging bodies is something you can stop doing right now!

-People are not defined by their productivity. Judging people by their income or employability is humiliating not just for many disabled people but also all poor or unemployed people (another overlapping Venn-diagram).

-Recognize that disabled people have desires and boundaries just like everybody else and just because we're different doesn't mean they are not important. Stop acting surprised that we would date, have sex or have standards. We don't necessarily want to talk about our disability and what it's like, especially when it's not relevant. We are not obliged to be grateful for the right to exist with dignity and love. Oppose any policy that cuts disabled people’s benefits when they marry.  

-Don't patronize us. We can advocate for ourselves. By all means, hold open the door for us. But do not prevent us from doing things ourselves. Do not touch our assistive devices without asking. Do not take things from us or touch us without asking.

-Invisible disabilities deserve just as much support. Mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities are treated with distrust, derision and hatred. Be wary of any attempt to privilege some abstract, quantifiable definition of intelligence. It is often used to strip disabled, queer or racialized populations of their dignity and rights.

-Be aware that the desire to segregate and sterilize us is a fascist platform that ends in abuse and genocide.

-Represent. When you communicate about humanity, or community in general terms, how inclusive is your story of disabled people? Not just in theory, but also in practice? Are your characters or examples all able-bodied and neurotypical? Do you explicitly affirm the experience and acknowledge the presence and contributions of disabled people in your stories? In other words, do you see us, even when we are not present to remind you? Do you listen to us, even if we are not there to complain?

-It's not a compliment to say you can't tell we are disabled. It can be alienating to feel like people can't see an important part of who you are, even if it is sincere. It can even imply willful ignorance of our needs and boundaries. Hiding our disability is often an exhausting coping mechanism we might employ specifically for your benefit. Please don't encourage disabled kids to do this. 

-Do not insist we can do anything. It’s a patronizing lie. Instead, acknowledge that we can do enough. Whatever we can do is enough. There is no mythical level of functioning that we should all aspire to. It is better to focus on enrichment than progress, as advocate Gaelynn Lea says in her TED Talk.