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Only a week ago, the Paralympics were in serious trouble. As we wrote in our last blog, they’d sold barely 12% of the available tickets—just about 290,000. That was only a fraction of the 2012 Paralympics attendance in London, with about 2.7 million spectators, and even less than the 3.4 million spectators in Beijing for the 2008 Paralympics. Teams from various countries were in danger of not even making it to Brazil to compete due to the lacking travel stipends, venues were being disassembled, it was overall a precarious situation for the entire event. Obviously the time was ripe for some major promotion to address the dire situation and that is of course exactly what happened. As of the writing of this piece the organizers have sold over one million tickets which is great news! Not so great are some of the approaches that supporters took to sell tickets.
According to the Telegraph, Cleo Pires, a Brazilian actress, had the idea to support the ticket sales by lending her image to a PR campaign that photoshopped her, and fellow Brazilian actor Paulo Vihena. As we all know, photoshopping is unfortunately a near-standard procedure for almost all marketing campaigns and ads, but this version was much worse than usual. Pires and Vihena’s pictures were digitally manipulated to make them look like amputees and the campaign ran in Vogue Brazil with the hash tag #SomosTodosParalímpicos (we are all Paralympians). While well-intentioned, it is quite startling that such an ableist campaign ever saw the light of day. It is good and necessary for minority groups to have allies among the majority—and clearly Pires and Vihena and Vogue Brazil were all trying to be allies and help the Paralympics and all the athletes out—but there is no shortage of reasons why this campaign is not the work of true allies.
To start with the obvious, no, we are not all Paralympians. Even the vast majority of those of us who have physical disabilities are not Paralympians because they do not train six days a week and make huge sacrifices in order to prepare their bodies to compete at a world class level. We most definitely are not all Paralympians.
If the absurdity of this is still not obvious, try imagining a campaign that supports ending violence against women featuring two male models photoshopped to look like women with the hashtag #WeAreAllWomen. As a rule of thumb, all of us are never the same thing. Unless your hashtag says #WeAreAllHuman and features actual humans, you probably may want to reconsider.
This highlights a second problem with the Vogue Brazil campaign: the exclusion of images of actual people with disabilities from much of mainstream media. There were plenty of actual Paralympians to choose from. As a matter of fact, both Pires and Vihena were in a lovely behind-the-scenes picture with actual Paralympic athletes they were trying to emulate. Now that picture is a model for what it looks like to be an ally to a minority community. In response to criticism Pires reportedly said that, “We lent our image to generate visibility. And that’s what we’re doing. My God.” But the only picture in which the actors lent their actual image is exactly the one where they are happily posing with the Paralympians behind the scenes. And had that been the campaign—to show solidarity with the athletes while still lending star-power—it wouldn’t have erased the self-representation of a fifth of our population.
If the games were in Africa, would @VogueBRoficial have blacked out a white model? #disabled @Paralympics https://t.co/zyz19TvQN3
— bdi (@bizdisint) August 30, 2016
Wow! In a show of support for the Paralympics, Vogue Brazil lured these models to a shoot and stole their limbs! https://t.co/TcoDe3EY7t — John-Henry Perera (@pererajh) August 25, 2016
Now some of you may be saying, but the two athletes whose bodies served as the photoshop blueprint—Bruna Alexandre and Renato Leite—were okay with the campaign; doesn’t that make it okay that these able-bodied people took their place? This is a frequent argument and of course it doesn’t hold water. It relies on the idea that one representative of an entire group of people is capable of speaking for all. To give you an idea, there are women who actually believe that women don’t deserve the right to vote (it pains me too much to even link to examples), yet no media campaign is making the case to end women’s suffrage. Yes, Alexandre and Leite may personally have been happy to have able-bodied actors photoshopped to look like them, but that doesn’t change the fact that that’s a problem.
The fundamental principle that was violated by the Vogue Brazil campaign was that of self-representation. If this had been about supporting black civil rights, no one would have photoshopped famous white actors to look black. If it had been a marketing campaign to promote a concert, no one would have photoshopped a model to represent the actual musician. And yet, when it comes to people with disabilities, this fundamentally misled campaign was somehow published. Furthermore, I haven’t been able to find an apology from Vogue Brazil or Pires or Vihena (which doesn’t mean there haven’t been any—my Portuguese is non-existent, so if you’re aware that they have apologizes, please let me know) and an apology is the least we can ask for. As we live in a world where difference is more and more valued, we will keep seeing mess ups, but the important thing is that we learn from our mistakes.
Meanwhile, a great example on how to be supportive of the Paralympics without excomes from the #FillTheSeats campaign that is asking the world to buy tickets so they can be donated to locals, some of who couldn’t afford them otherwise. #FillTheSeats is calling on allies who can pitch in to please do.
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