By Victor Schagerlund
The latest cover of the influential fashion magazine Interview has caused great controversy, both in the fashion world and further afield. On the cover, reality star Kylie Jenner is depicted in a golden wheelchair wearing a latex corset, something which critics see as “abusive”, “distasteful” and as a clear metaphor of “ableism”: the discrimination and oppression of people with disabilities.
The use of a wheelchair as an accessory, as well as the highly airbrushed and sexualised portrayal of Jenner have been viewed as offensive because they convey a glamourised and misguiding view of disability. Shooting Kylie Jenner in the wheelchair, instead of a model such as Jillian Mercado who is actually disabled, also proved provocative in the way that it implied a lesser worth of disabled bodies.
Erin Tatum, born with cerebral palsy and thereby wheelchair bound, decided to recreate the cover in a more realistic manner. She took her mum to the local mall, bought a black shiny corset and posed for a picture that she afterwards posted online as a comment to the original image. Tatum’s picture was shared infinite times on social media, and even made it into an article in The Washington Post (rightly so: her recreation is wonderful). Ophelia Brown too took to social media to protest, sharing a picture of herself in her wheelchair on Twitter with the caption: “wow being in a wheel chair is so fun and fashionable!”
Disability is something that is rarely seen or shown in our visual culture, and is practically invisible in fashion. Therefore, it is natural that when a charged symbol such a wheelchair is taken out of context and used thoughtlessly, it generates anger and frustration.
To blame the model herself is unfair and I dare say, even misogynist. The subjects in fashion pictures are not hired to be part of the creative process, but to realise this process. It is therefore highly unlikely that Kylie, as a young celebrity, had any say in the construction of the image. Thus, critique should mainly be aimed at the photographer, the creative direction and the magazine’s management.
Interview magazine has published an official response apologising and explaining their intention with the cover: “The Kylie Jenner cover by Steven Klein, which references the British artist Allen Jones, is a part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media.” They assume that the reader will recognize the allusion to this earlier work, and read the images accordingly – Interview is a magazine aimed at an audience knowledgeable about art and fashion.
However, in this day and age, fashion has never been as accessible or transparent. No matter how obscure or politically incorrect a shoot is, it can be accessed and interpreted by anyone. Perhaps then, it is high time that fashion companies become more aware of the creative responsibility they hold and think more carefully about charged symbolism. Nonetheless, provocation is a necessary tool in challenging convention. Personally, I can agree that the Kylie cover was careless and inappropriate, and I definitely support the need for increased diversity within fashion. But, I cannot stop myself from asking: where does one draw the line between political correctness and the expression of creativity?
Photograph: Disney ABC Television Group via Flickr