Facebook Captions: Kindness, or Inspiration Porn?

Katy Gagliardi

Abstract


Introduction

In 2017, both the disability community and popular culture are using the term “inspiration porn” to describe one form of discrimination against people with disability. ABC’s Speechless, “a sitcom about a family with a son who has a disability, (has) tackled why it’s often offensive to call people with disabilities ‘inspirational’” (Wanshel). The reasons why inspiration porn is considered to be discriminatory have been widely articulated online by people with disability. Amongst them is Carly Findlay, a disabled writer, speaker, and appearance activist, who has written that:

(inspiration porn) shows non-disabled people doing good deeds for disabled people—feeding them chips at McDonald’s—’serving us all lessons in kindness’: or taking them to the high school dance. These stories usually always go viral. The person with disability probably never gave their permission for the photo or story to be used in a meme or told to the media (Findlay).

The definition and dynamics of inspiration porn as illustrated in this quote will be expanded upon in this paper’s critical analysis of captions. Here, the term captions is used to describe both writing found on memes and on Facebook posts (created by a “poster”), and the comments written below these posts (created by “commenters”). Facebook threads underneath posts about people with disability both “reflect and create” (Barnes, Mercer and Shakespeare 202) current societal attitudes towards disability. That is, such threads not only illustrate negative societal attitudes towards disability, but can also perpetuate these attitudes by increasing people’s exposure to them. This paper will focus on a specific case study of inspiration porn on Facebook—the crowning of a student with autism as prom king—and consider both the conflict of whether people’s kind words are patronising use of language, as well as the concerns of over-disclosure used in this thread.

What Is Inspiration Porn?

The genesis of the term inspiration porn is commonly attributed to the late Stella Young, a disabled woman who was an advocate for people with disability. However, the term has been traced to a blog post written in February 2012 (bear). Anecdotal evidence from Lisa Harris, a disability consultant and advocate with over 20 years’ disability education experience, suggests that the term was blogged about as far back as 2006 on Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s Webpage Disability and Representation (Harris). However, it was Young who popularised the term with her 2012 article We’re Not Here for Your Inspiration and 2014 TED Talk I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much. Young defined inspiration porn as “an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, doing something completely ordinary—like playing, or talking, or running, or drawing a picture, or hitting a tennis ball—carrying a caption like ‘your excuse is invalid’ or ‘before you quit, try’”.

It is worth noting that the use of the word porn has been considered controversial in this context. Yet it can be argued that the perception of the person with disability having achieved something great gives the person without disability a hit of positive “inspired” emotion. In this way, such inspiration could be termed as porn as it serves the purpose of fulfilling the “pornographic” self-gratification of people without disability.

The term inspiration porn has historically been used in disability studies in two ways. Firstly, it has been used to describe the “ableist gaze” (Davis), which is when a person with disability is ‘seen’ through the eyes of someone without disability. Indeed, just as the “male gaze” (Mulvey) is implicit in sexualised porn, so too the “ableist gaze” is implicit in inspiration porn. Secondly, it has been used to highlight the lack of power experienced by people with disability in cultural representation (Barnes, Mercer, and Shakespeare 201). This study is a good example of the latter—it is not uncommon for people with disability to be refuted when they speak out against the inherent discrimination found within captions of (intended) kindness on Facebook threads.

Inspiration porn is also a form of “objectification” (Perry) of people with disability, and is based on stereotypes (Haller and Zhang 22) about disability held by people without disability. According to Dr. Paul Sinclair, a disability scholar with 15 years’ experience in disability education, objectification and stereotyping are essential factors to understanding inspiration porn as discrimination:

when a person with disability engages in their daily life, it is possible that a person without disability sees them as inspirational by superimposing his/her stereotypical perception of, or understanding about, people with disability onto the identity of the person, as a human being.

Such objectification and stereotyping of people with disability is evident across various media captioning. This is particularly so in social media which often includes memes of images with “inspiring” captions—such as the ones Young highlighted as clear examples of inspiration porn, which “feature the Hamilton quote (‘The only disability in life is a bad attitude’)”. Another example of this kind of captioning is found in news items such as the 2015 article Disabled Teen Crowned Homecoming Queen in Awesome Way as featured in the article USA Today (Saggio). This article described how a student not identified as having a disability gave her homecoming queen crown to a student with a disability and captioned the YouTube clip of these students with, “High school senior [Name] was hoping she’d be crowned homecoming queen. She has cerebral palsy and has never felt like she fit in at school. What happened during the crowning ceremony will warm your heart” (Saggio). The fact that the young woman was pleased with getting the crown does not mitigate the objectifying dynamics of inspiration porn present within this example. Captioning such as this both creates and reflects some of the existing attitudes—including charity and its appeal to emotionality—that perpetuate inspiration porn.

Measuring Inspiration Porn with Sentiment Analysis

The challenge for the researcher analysing Facebook threads is how to meaningfully interpret the captions’ numerous contexts. The methodology of this research used a quantitative approach to gather numerical data about selected Facebook captions. This paper discusses data gained from a sentiment analysis (Pang and Lee; Thelwall et al.; Driscoll) of these captions within the contexts of my own and other researchers’ analyses of inspiration porn, as well as the perspectives of people with disability.

The sentiment analysis was conducted using SentiStrength, a software tool that extracts both positive and negative sentiment strengths “from short informal electronic text” (Thelwall et al., 2545), and ranks it “on a numerical scale” (Driscoll 3). Sentiment analysis and SentiStrength are useful, but not perfect, tools with which to analyse Facebook captions. For example, SentiStrength determines two scales: a positive emotion measurement scale ranging from +1 (neutral) to +5 (most positive), and a negative emotion measurement scale ranging from –1 (neutral) to –5 (most negative). It calculates the positive and negative scores concurrently rather than averaging them out in order to acknowledge that captions can and do express mixed emotion (Driscoll 5).

News articles about people with disability attending proms and comparable events, such as the homecoming queen example described above, are often criticised by disability activists for perpetuating inspiration porn (Mort; Findlay; Brown). Based on this criticism, sentiment analysis was used in this research to measure the emotional strength of captions—particularly their possible use of patronising language—using the Autism Speaks Facebook post as a case study. The post featured an image of a high school student with autism who had been crowned prom king.

The Autism Speaks Facebook page was set up to fund “research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increas(e) awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocat(e) for the needs of individuals with autism and their families” (Autism Speaks). The location of the prom was not specified; however, Autism Speaks is based in New York. This particular Facebook page was selected for this study based on criticism that Autism Speaks receives from disability advocates. One of the major critiques is that “(its) advertising depends on offensive and outdated rhetoric of fear and pity, presenting the lives of autistic people as tragic burdens on our families and society” (Boycott Autism Speaks). Autism Speaks has also been described as a problematic example of an organisation that “dictate(s) how disability should be perceived and dealt with. Often without input of disabled people either in the design or implementation of these organizations” (crippledscholar). This article goes on to state that “charities always frame what they do as positive and helpful even when the people who are the intended recipients disagree.”

The prom king post included a photo of a young man with autism after he was crowned. He was standing beside a woman who wasn’t identified. The photo, posted by the young man’s aunt on the Autism Speaks Facebook page, included a status update that read:

My autistic nephew won PROM KING today! Just so you all know, having a disability doesn’t hold you back if you don’t let it! GO [NAME]. #AutismAwareness (Autism Speaks)

The following caption from the comment thread of the same Facebook post is useful as an example of how SentiStrength works. The caption read:

Tears of Joy! Thank you for posting!!! Wow this gives me hope for his and my son’s and everyone’s special wonderful child nephew and niece! Way cool!

However, because SentiStrength does not always accurately detect and measure sarcasm or idiomatic language usage, ”Tears” (the only negatively interpreted word in this caption) has been scored as –4, while the overall positive sentiment was scored as 3. Therefore, the final SentiStrength score of this caption was 3, –4, thereby demonstrating both the utility and limitations of SentiStrength as a sentiment analysis tool. This is useful to understand when analysing the data it produces.

When analysing the entire thread, the sentiment analysis results across 238 captions, showed that 2 was the average strength of positive emotion, and that –1.16 was the average strength of negative emotion. The following section will analyse how a specific caption chosen from the most positively-scored captions from these data indicates that inspiration porn is possibly evident within.

Use of Language: Kind, or Patronising?

This discussion analyses the use of language in one caption from this thread, focusing on the way it likely demonstrated the ableist gaze. The caption was the most positive one from these data as scored by SentiStrength (5, –1) and read, ”CONGRATULATIONS SWEETIE!!!”. While it is noted that basing this analysis primarily on one caption provides limited insight into the dynamics of inspiration porn, this analysis forms a basis from which to consider other “inspirational” Facebook posts about people with disability. As well as this caption, this discussion will also draw upon other examples mentioned in this paper—from the homecoming queen article in USA Today to another caption on the Autism Speaks thread—to illustrate the dynamics of inspiration porn.

On the surface, this congratulatory caption seems like a kind thing to post. However, inspiration porn has been identified in this analysis based on the caption’s effusive use of punctuation coupled with use of capital letters and the word “sweetie”. The excitement depicted through use of multiple exclamation marks and capital letters implies that the commenter has a personal connection with the prom king, which is a possibility. However, this possibility becomes less feasible when the caption is considered within the context of other captions that display not dissimilar use of language, as well as some that also display intimate emojis, such as grin faces and love heart eyes. Further, when this use of language is used with any consistency across a thread and is not coupled with textual information that implies a personal connection between the commenter/s and the prom king, it could be interpreted as patronising, condescending and/or infantilising. In addition, “sweetie” is a term of endearment commonly used in conversation with a romantic partner, child, or someone the speaker/writer knows intimately. While, again, it is possible that these commenters knew the prom king intimately, a more likely possibility is that he was being written to by strangers, yet using language that implied he was close to them—which would then have the same patronising connotations as above. It can therefore be argued that there is a strong possibility that this heightened use of intimate and emotional language was chosen based on his autism diagnosis.

The conclusion drawn above is based in part on contextual similarities between the Autism Speaks post and its associated thread, and the aforementioned homecoming queen news article. In the former, it is likely that the young prom king was congratulated effusively because of his autism diagnosis. Similarly, in the latter article, the young woman was crowned not because she was named homecoming queen, but because the crown was given to her because of her diagnosis of cerebral palsy. As both gestures appear to have been based on others’ perceptions of these individuals’ disabilities rather than on their achievements, they are both likely to be patronising gestures.

Over-Disclosure

In addition to use of language, another noteworthy issue in the captions thread on the Autism Speaks Facebook page was that many of them were from parents disclosing the diagnosis of their child. One example of this was a post from a mother that read (in part):

I’ll be over here worried & concerned with the other 9,999 & ½ things to deal with, keeping up with new therapies, current therapy, we came in progress from any past therapies, meltdowns, dietary restrictions, educational requirements, The joy and difficulties of not just learning a new word but actually retaining that word, sleep, being hit, keeping him from hitting himself, tags on clothes etc. etc. [sic] (Autism Speaks)

The above commenter listed a number of disability-specific issues that she experienced while raising her son who has autism. The context for her caption was a discussion, unrelated to the original post, that had sparked underneath a sub-thread regarding whether the use of person-first language (“person with autism”) or identity-first language (“Autistic person”) was best when referring to someone with autism. The relationship between inspiration porn and this intimately negative post about someone with disability is that both types of post are examples of the “ableist gaze”: inspiration porn demonstrates an exaggerated sense of positivity based on someone’s disability, and this post demonstrates disregard for the privacy of the person being posted about—perhaps due to his disability. The ease with which this negative comparison (over-disclosure) can be made between ‘inspirational’ and ‘negative’ posts illustrates in part why inspiration porn is a form of discrimination—intentional or otherwise.

Furthermore, some of the children who were disclosed about on the main thread were too young to be asked consent, and it is unclear whether those who were old enough had the capacity to provide informed consent. Research has found that online over-disclosure in general is a matter of concern.

The specific practice of online over-disclosure from parents about their children—with or without disability—has been raised by Leaver (151), “what happens before young people have the agency, literacy or skills to take the reins of their own selves online? Parents, guardians, loved ones and others inevitably set the initial identity parameters for young people online.” Over-disclosure is therefore also an issue that concerns people with disability, and the people closest to them.

There exists both anecdotal evidence and academic research regarding online over-disclosure about people with disability. The research states that when people with physical disability disclose online, they employ strategic approaches that involve the degree to which they disclose (Furr, Carreiro, and McArthur). This suggests that there are complex factors to consider around such disclosure. Also relevant is that the practice of over-disclosure about another person’s disability, regardless of whether that disclosure is made by a close family member, has been critiqued by people (Findlay; Stoltz) within the disability community: “would you publicly share this information about your other children, an aging parent, or yourself?” (Stoltz). Finally, the practice of disability over-disclosure by anyone other than the person themselves supports the understanding that inspiration porn is not about the “object” of inspiration; rather, it serves to give pleasure (and/or pain) to the objectifier.

Conclusion

Inspiration porn via the ableist gaze is discriminatory because it focuses on a (societally) undesirable trait in a way that serves the “gazer” at the expense of the “gazed-at”. That is, people with disability are objectified and exploited in various ways that can initially appear to be positive to people without disability. For example, when someone with disability posts or is posted about on Facebook, a person without disability might then add a caption—possibly with good intentions—that serves as their “inspired” response to what it “must” be like to have a disability. It can be argued that such captions, whether on news articles or when framing social media images, therefore either reflect or create existing social inequalities—and possibly do both.

In continuing to use the term inspiration porn to describe one form of discrimination against people with disability, both the disability community and popular culture are contributing to an important narrative that scholarship needs to continue to address. Indeed, the power imbalance that is celebrated within inspiration porn is in some ways more insidious than malicious discrimination against people with disability, because it is easier to mistake as kindness. The research sample presented in this paper supports the countless expressions of anecdotal evidence given by people with disability that this “kindness” is inspiration porn; a damaging expression of the ableist gaze.

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Copyright (c) 2017 Katy Gagliardi

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