Why Viktoria Modesta doesn’t rethink disability

The Internet has been abuzz over the past week of a new “bionic” pop star, Viktoria Modesta. Modesta’s meteoric rise is thanks to Channel 4’s “Born Risky” campaign, which provides resources and support for “alternative voices” that would otherwise struggle to break into the mainstream. Leading the campaign is Modesta with her song “Prototype,” the beginning of which demands the viewer to “forget what you know about disability.” But for a text that demands the viewer to “forget” what we know about disability, it seems to spend a lot of time marinating in the juices of all-too-familiar tropes and images of disability. Is Viktoria Modesta really revolutionary or is she simply Lady Gaga with one leg?

In some ways, this can be read as a resistant text

Simply put, Modesta the musician does present a radical crip embodiment that challenges dominant ableist imaginations of who the disabled are, what they can do, and how they behave and it is for this reason that there is merit to this work. In the video for “Prototype,” Modesta is cast as a freedom fighter whose body stands in stark opposition to a fascist repressive regime that, presumably, stands as symbolic of typical western body/gender policing. She then goes on to inject disability in places most often considered inaccessible to the disabled subject, such as the extended ballet scene which blends the technical grace of dance with the hard, metallic scraping of her sharpened prosthetic limb. More than that though, Modesta present us with a resistant depiction that demands we embrace her eroticism — this video doesn’t just claim she is sexual, it asserts it quite clearly. Whether it be the slinky clothing, the seductive dancing or the naked bed writhing, Modesta forces us to consider her as a variable sexual target that defies heteronormative conceptions of sexuality. In this way, Modesta embraces her disability and calls on others to do the same by living outside dominant bodily, gender and sexual subjectivities.

For this reason, on the whole, I think Modesta is doing a good thing popularizing the ideas of Disability Studies and mainstreaming disabled bodies.

But in other ways, it is just more of the same…

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of pop music and my original response to seeing this video was “meh”.  My biggest problem with “Prototype” is the way Modesta has been packaged by Channel 4, as seen in this article which follows a typical super crip mythology. Simply put, how are we supposed to “forget” what we know about disability when the video spends an inordinate amount of time reminding us that Modesta is an amputee? Why must Modesta be a “bionic” pop star and not simply a pop star? Introducing Modesta as a “bionic” pop star and starting her video with the text “forget what you know about disability” followed by a scene of doctors surrounding her with scalpels and needles immediately frames her, forcing the viewer to see her through an ableist confining lens of “disability” throughout.

Revealing top comment on the Channel 4 facebook post re: Modesta
Taping a bunch of LEDs to your hairy leg just doesn’t have the same effect, I guess…

The problem is that the prosthetic leg, not Modesta herself, is the star of this video. Throughout the video, the viewer is provided voyeuristic close-ups of her glowing or angular prosthetic,  including a befuddling dance scene that is introduced almost exclusively from below the waist and features a soundscape dominated by the grind of her prosthetic on the floor. Even Modesta’s sexuality is tethered to the prosthetic, situating her in a long and deep tradition of amputee fetishism. In fact, the only time we see her without a prosthetic leg is within the bedroom, where the focus of the scene is not her near-naked body but the taboo of witnessing her exposed amputation.

Perhaps one of the most powerful moments in this video for me is the young girl pulling the leg of her doll to replicate the embodiment of Modesta, but the power of this scene is then blunted when it is implied that people are now cutting off their own legs in homage to Modesta, playing into the all-to-common fear of contagiousness and the threat of bodily corruption the disabled pose to the normate. At the same time, this phobic angle may not be the dominant reading of the text, as the most popular comment on the Channel 4 Facebook post about Modesta is an individual lamenting that their leg doesn’t light up too.

This is not to say that Modesta must disavow all connection with disability in order to be radical or revolutionary, in fact claiming her disabled subjectivity is a strong political move, but this text seems to continually reinforce ideas of amputee fetishism, amputation as central to identity and disability as contagious. What’s more, the implication that Modesta is somehow new or unique is frustrating as it ignores the work of disabled artists (like Frida Kahlo, Christy Brown, Aimee Mullins, and the late Stella Young) and activists like Jes Sachse’s American Able, which poses almost the exact same type of bodily sexual confrontation without constantly reminding people that she’s “disabled”.

What would be truly revolutionary is if Modesta was allowed to simply be a pop star, fashion icon, or sex symbol — without “disabled” being perpetually asterisked beside her name.

By Jeffrey Preston

Born with a rare neuromuscular myopathy, Jeff has spent his life dedicated to advocating for himself and others with disabilities. With a PhD in Media Studies from Western University, Jeff's research focuses on the representation of disability in popular and digital culture. Jeff is currently an Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at King's University College @ Western University in London, ON.

12 replies on “Why Viktoria Modesta doesn’t rethink disability”

Actually, umm… What she’s saying, as best I can interpret, is that it’s okay to BE disabled, and have that as a defining trait, as opposed to simply having a disability. Having a disability is a statement that you don’t want it to define you, therefore it is bad. To state that you ARE disabled, is a suggestion of contentment and possibly even pride, that you challenge the notion that all disability is bad.

This is a really difficult terrain to navigate, something I’ve been struggling with the last few weeks as I’ve been thinking about Modesta and this video. Two clarifications, though:

First, my fundamental criticism is more directed towards the way Modesta has been manufactured by Channel 4 as opposed to how Modesta imagines/constructs herself. While Modesta DOES seem to portray a traditional “crip pride” that doesn’t seem to be the way Channel 4 presents/talks about her. I’m not trying to “blame” Modesta for this, as I say in the post that, on the whole, I think this is a positive piece of work.

Second, I think there’s a huge difference between disavowing/ignoring one’s disability, and subsequently relegating it to an ableist/medical model imagination of negativity, and resisting attempts to fully categorize an individual through the lens of their disability. Further, I’m not so sure here that Modesta is “claiming” her disability so much as Channel 4 is forcing it upon her (and us, the viewing audience). To me, Jes Sachse’s work does a much better job of revealing “contentment” and disability pride that resists normative expectations of disability because she doesn’t have to say it out loud, it is simply evident.

Is it not the medical model of disability that demands our diagnosis, our limitations, to be the dominant identity trait? I just struggle with the idea that the way to resist the normates constantly seeing us as nothing more than our disabilities is to form our entire identities exclusively around our disabilities. Consider, for example, a woman who is blonde who doesn’t want to be seen exclusively as “a blonde” — this does not reflect a negative imagination of blondeness, but is a demand for us to acknowledge the complexity of humanity instead of being seen as more than “just a blonde”

I’m not getting it. I see that seeing a person strictly as their disability is bad, especially when all they associate with disability is bad. But … A thing can be a defining aspect of a person without being the only defining aspect.

For instance, look at one of my favourite characters, Homura Akemi. Once you know her in detail, she no longer seems like a harsh, emotionless girl. I would say two things define her: Her previous traumas, leading her to be emotionally closed off, and her deep love (of one kind or another) for her best friend, Madoka. See, two defining qualities, one of which is presumably an anxiety disorder. This is what makes her her. A wonderful character.

A lot of people who hate the medical model of cure and fixing consider their disabilities to define them. They also consider themselves to have other defining aspects besides their disability.

I consider it admirable that you’re speaking up for an incredibly vulnerable performer, but … we should find out what message the artist wants spread. I think that’s what would mean the most.

There are going to be folks out there who see her largely as kink fulfilment fuel, and objectify her like that. What we ought to do is try to make objectification socially inexcusable, except for when it’s private and consensual.

Her point is to embrace disability and redefine it. I think this is a new wave of disability as a positive form of embodiment and an aesthetic that invites the viewer to look and hopefully see what she wants them to see. No artist can ever control that though. I think this skips the stage where people are allowed to “just be a pop star”. She’s kinda saying F*** that in one interview where she said “the time for boring ethical discussions about disability is passed.” I think the disability movement got framed as being about access and inclusion, but as we are now in the door and at the table in various circles we are pushing the boundaries and have to let go of the need to be defended about creating a disability narrative of neutrality or invisibility. The ultimate vision of the movement was for us to be full participants and that means shaping agendas, creating a new aesthetic, redefining the delivery of services, generating art, culture, and community. I think some of us should be able to form our identities completely around our disabilities if we are the ones defining the meaning and representation of that. This is what is radical about this piece.

Jeffrey, I appreciate your post. While you end up coming down on the negative, I think you occupy a certain ambivalence that I myself felt when I saw the video. The point is that this is a very disability positive message that is contaminated (right word?) by the conventions of pop music videos. Does she have to be hypersexualized? Is her in-your-face message actually revolutionary and radical or does it simply fit into a certain neoliberal idea of “expressing yourself” through “transgression?” Is the group reaction to her expressed by the little girl and the young boy a truly revolutionary thing or just a kind of vague imitation of Vendetta? My general feeling is that almost anything in the pop culture, including the majority of blogs etc is not going to fundamentally transform everything. Given that, I’m happy with the general idea of Viktoria Modesta–an irreverent push to get disability the proper attention it deserves as an identity that isn’t negative and in fact desirable. And when I say desirable, I mean involving desire–which is often bracketed off from disability except in the wannabe community. Including desire doesn’t mean automatically referencing wannabes, does it?

The very fact that you have such a problem with her being disabled is what makes her visibility so important. i’m going to go out on a limb and guess you are abled. You certainly wrote a pretentious, almost inaccessible article about this. There’s nothing ableist or confining about disability, anymore than seeing that somebody is black, or seeing that a woman is queer. You seem to have just thrown as many buzzwords in as you could without understanding how they fit together or how they relate to disability or why it’s important to see ourselves represented, AS disabled people onscreen (even when it’s not the same disability).

Modesta has to be a disabled pop star and not just a “pop star” because if she were any less successful she’d still be a disabled woman, because to look at her she’s a disabled woman, and because you need to get over it. Her narrative may not have been perfect but it’s better than anything you came up with, and I’m pretty sure it’s better than anything you CAN come up with–no fault of yours, it’s just not an experience you understand.

I’m sorry you find my writing style pretentious — I feel you need complex terms to tackle complex ideas. To be clear, I don’t have a “problem” with her being disabled, I have a problem with her disability being commodified & fetishized, largely for the voyeuristic gaze of the nondisabled public.

Also, disability is confining because of the ableist structure of Western society — I am not disabled by muscular dystrophy (and the wheelchair I use) but by the normative ableist design of our environment and ableist expectations of who/what the disabled can be. This is not naturally occurring, it is socially constructed, and my hope is this article helps to shift through this construction.

I’m sorry I assumed you were able. It was a response to your article and things that have been said to me along these lines. That said, I still don’t appreciate what you’ve done here. The reading level of this piece is grade 16.5. Am I to assume, then, that you need to be a graduate student to understand the “complex” ideas about disability you’ve presented here? Preferably one who is not cognitively disabled as I am? These ideas aren’t complicated except to someone who is unfamiliar with them, and by writing like this you are making it impossible for large chunks of readers, disabled or otherwise, to engage with you–which begs the question of who you really think your audience is.

Given how few depictions we have of any disability being depicted in media, particularly in a way that doesn’t victimize or remove someone from the story, I like that you can actually see Modesta’s limb, just there. I like even more that her prosthetic is treated as a thing of beauty, and that it is glamorized–just like everything else about an able pop star is. As rarely as prosthetic limbs that aren’t (white) “flesh”-toned limbs get produced and purchased, it’s even rarer to see those in media.

I’m glad that you reference the social model, but you didn’t do anything to “shift through the construction.”

One point before I think it’s time we move on: this is my personal blog and not an academic journal, a university classroom, or a public broadcaster. I don’t really have a specific intended audience, but merely wanted a space to voice my own opinions. As such, I write my posts in the way that I like to write using the language I feel necessary to express my opinions. Does this mean only “graduate students” can (and should) talk about disability issues? Obviously not. People need to talk about these issues in the ways they feel comfortable, just as I’ve attempted to do here.

In an educational setting, the language, discourse and structure I use is different, designed to be accessible to a variety of learning styles and aptitudes.

Thank you for writing this excellent piece, Jeff. I had similar reflections on seeing the video, especially sine C4 was behind it. They also did the “Meet the Superhumans” ad campaign for the 2012 Paralympics, using similar slogans: “Forget everything you thought you knew about strength. Forget everything you thought you knew about humans. It’s time to do battle. Meet the Superhumans”.

I think part of it is that C4, in both cases, was packaging disability and nonnormative bodies following norms of appropriateness for able bodied people- disabled athletes are being powerful where power is defined following able-bodied norms about what power is: being an athlete is being powerful. Fighting for your rights in the streets while the Paralympics took place by disability activists who were protesting cuts to disability support in the UK and ATOS’ role in them and its role in the Paralympics as a sponsors isn’t.

In this case beauty and talent is also defined following ableist norms- was I the only one to be surprised they so thoroughly missed the chance to include mixed ability dance in there?- she is a normatively beautiful singer with an amputated lg and apparently unlimited amounts of cash to get not only the most cutting edge prosthetics technologically, but also aesthetically.

And at the same time, like you, I couldn’t help think at least it was a powerful again, that word, power, seems to creep up, doesn’t it?- representation of a disabled person- a trope not often enough reproduced in pop culture. But still…is she just the disabled Lady Gaga? (an interesting question especially considering Lady Gaga’s use of disability iconography in her own work).