prototype: a new pop video playing on old disability stereotypes
Last month, UK broadcaster Channel 4 released a music video starring Viktoria Modesta, dubbed “the first bionic pop artist”, performing Prototype. The launch is part of Channel 4’s Born Risky brand campaign, with Modesta featured as a “new kind of artist” set apart from the “painfully dull and manufactured” pop stars. What sets her apart? Her prosthetic limb. ‘It is a difference too far for the music industry to date, and the reason why Channel 4 has given her this important platform.’
Being a woman with disability working in the disability advocacy sector, I was instantly keen to find out how Modesta and her disability would be represented in the video. As I watched the clip for the first time, which you can view here, I felt a wash of mixed reactions.
At first glance, it was positive to see a woman with visible disability appear in mainstream music. Artists whose bodies do not conform to conventional beauty norms are absent from mainstream media. This is especially the case in the music industry, wherein women’s bodies are highly sexualised, a form of expression rarely embraced by the mainstream as relevant to or acceptable for women with disabilities. In Prototype: The Making Of, Modesta raises her concerns about this, noting that she hopes ‘the bed scene’ isn’t shocking for the audience because ‘there is nothing unusual about it’. She explains she’s been excluded from pop culture on the basis of her disability and that the making of the video is a positive platform for her to express herself.
‘I felt like Channel 4 and Saam [director] helped me to express something that I kind of felt the need to express… It wasn’t your usual industry scenario where people tell you what to do and people tell you how you should look and how you should sing. It was like true collaboration.’
On the other hand, I found myself frustrated by the preoccupation with Modesta’s disability in the video and in the surrounding media coverage. I’m no expert in music, but as a consumer I couldn’t see or hear anything about Modesta’s clip that made it distinct from mainstream pop music, apart from a very overt focus on her range of beautifully crafted prosthetic limb. Modesta is marketed as “alternative” because of her visibly impaired leg, not because her music or style is actually alternative. While Channel 4 claims to challenge mainstream images of pop artists by “giving” Modesta a platform, it does not sit well with me at all that she is categorised differently purely because of her disability. I also dislike the language “first bionic pop artist”. I highly doubt that Modesta is the only pop artist with a prosthetic limb. It’s just that they’ve been marginalised and excluded from mainstream music and this language contributes to their erasure.
The video itself reinforces problematic representations of disability. The opening scene stands out to me most, where Modesta sits on a throne surrounded by cloaked doctors equipped with a syringe and bloodied meat cleaver. It appears to be a statement about the medically “freakish” nature of Modesta and her leg. Her disability is presented as a novelty, serving to entertain and inspire non-disabled spectators. She plays the “supercrip”, the villain superhero, simply by existing in the presence of disability. Her prosthetic limb even appears to be fashioned into a laser weapon of sorts in the closing scene. The problem is not that she’s presented as a heroine; the problem is that she’s presented as a heroine seemingly for having a non-normative body.
Sure enough, consumers are receiving the supercrip message loud and clear. When I had a skim through the twitter hashtag #bornrisky, there was an abundance of exclamations along the lines of ‘amazing!’ and ‘inspirational!’. I doubt this is about congratulating Modesta for her achievements as a pop artist or that this language would be used about a similar video featuring an artist without visible disability. The late Stella Young, a widely respected disability activist, called this ‘inspiration porn.’ She wrote, ‘using these images as feel-good tools, as “inspiration”, is based on an assumption that the people in [these images] have terrible lives, and that it takes some extra kind of pluck or courage to live them.’
These depictions construct people with disabilities as other; as fascinating objects of medical intervention, not quite human, not “like us” (the mainstream), which creates and perpetuates a range of societal barriers and inequalities. Really, disability is a totally ordinary, natural fact of life. Why can’t Modesta be respected as a pop artist in her own right; as an amputee, but not in spite of or because of the fact that she’s an amputee? It’s because ableist societal attitudes don’t allow people with disabilities in mainstream media unless presented as exceptional supercrips or medical tragedies.
While I stress that I do not want to downplay the discrimination that Modesta has clearly faced as a disabled pop artist, Modesta otherwise meets every mainstream beauty standard. She is white, thin, fit and conventionally attractive. She is able to move her body in all the ways that the mainstream expects of a woman in pop music. She has the means to access beautifully designed prosthetic limbs. It’s as though having a non-normative body is acceptable only if you mostly meet conventional beauty norms and your disability can be presented to suit the mainstream gaze.
Perhaps the simple fact that Modesta appears in a pop video in which her visible disability is allowed to be shown with pride is progress in some sense. It’s true, we don’t see much if any of this. But overall, my feeling is that the video does not challenge the mainstream; rather, it wraps disability up in a neat palatable package for the mainstream, while reinforcing damaging stereotypes.