Who are you calling superhuman?

Feminist friends, hello! This is my first regular post for the blog, although I’ve been guesting for Sam and Tracy for a while now. I’m honoured to have been asked to join the community, and will be contributing on the last Friday of every month.

(I also write weekly at The Activist Classroom, my own teaching blog. If you are a teacher, if you’re a performer, or if you’re just interested in issues in higher education, please check it out!)

For today’s inaugural post I’ve been inspired by the debate ongoing on the blog this week about disabled and non-disabled experiences in relation to fitness and wellness. Tracy shared some thoughts on this on Tuesday, and invited responses to the question of whether or not this blog, fitness-forward, is inherently biased toward non-disabled bodies. A range of compelling commentary has emerged.

I am a non-disabled amateur athlete (cycling and rowing) and professional theatre scholar at Western University; for me, the overlap between work and sport happens when I think critically and politically about how bodies perform, are received, and are expected to behave in social space. (Sport is, after all, a form of spectacle, a kind of performance!) So when performance work related to sport crosses my desktop or TV screen, I get especially excited, and I want to share my thoughts about it.

This week, serendipitously, exactly such a performance appeared in my Facebook feed: it’s Channel 4’s trailer for Team GB (Great Britain) ahead of the Rio Paralympics, titled “We’re The Superhumans.” Here it is:

 

I was living in London during the 2012 Olympics when the first “Superhumans” campaign emerged; for that year’s Paralympics, the slogan was “Meet the Superhumans”. (Channel 4 was the official broadcaster of the 2012 games and the agency 4creative was the marketing brain behind the campaign.) This earlier campaign was designed to address, head on, the ablest stereotype that disabled bodies are “freaks of nature”; here is a description of the project’s ethic, which comes from a case study of the campaign prepared by the advertising association D&AD (the campaign won an award from D&AD):

In August 2010, two years before London 2012, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary called ‘Inside Incredible Athletes’ – its first Paralympic-themed programming. This was supported by a marketing campaigned called ‘Freaks of Nature’ designed to challenge perceptions of disability in sport and encourage viewers to question their own prejudices.

“The intention was to change people’s attitudes and to do that we needed to take them on a journey,” Walker says. “‘Freaks of Nature’ was intended to challenge by turning the meaning of the phrase on its head. The idea was that if great athletes are considered exceptional and different, why not apply the same standard to Paralympians?”

The concept and the attitude it encapsulated provided an important part of the foundation for the campaign that would become ‘Meet the Superhumans.’

I remember feeling incredibly ambivalent about “Meet the Superhumans”, billboards for which were plastered all over London during the summer of 2012. (Although, notably, they didn’t start appearing in full force until the “main” Olympics had closed.) On the one hand: what a great idea, to reclaim the idea of the “freak” and rebrand it with the kinds of superlatives we reserve for only the most powerful among us. On the other: to call someone “superhuman” is necessarily to imply that, on some level, they are not entirely human. It’s a double-edged sword – especially for those who have historically battled the gross prejudice that they are indeed not quite human.

Meet the Superhumans

A still from the original “Meet the Superhumans” campaign, 2012.

Obviously, the first campaign had its heart in the right place, and I salute it for that reason. But I am also glad Channel 4 didn’t stand still when it returned to the “superhuman” handle for 2016, and instead chose to rethink some of the first campaign’s assumptions.

What do I like about the new campaign? A couple of things.

First, I love that it’s jazzy, warm, enormously fun. (Damn, it makes me want to dance!) Singer Tony Dee belts out the Sammy Davis Jr. song “Yes I Can” with tongue in cheek and twinkle in eye as 140 disabled people, athletes and not, pass across the screen, dancing their way through life, sport, art, and more. In case you thought you might want to pity these folks, well, don’t. Don’t gasp in awe, either! They know that’s your impulse, and they have no time for it. They are too busy swinging and grooving – and getting on with doing stuff.

Second, I appreciate that the emphasis in the new trailer is not only on exceptional sports figures, but on humans of all kinds doing ordinary human things, from brushing teeth to flying a plane to bouncing a baby. The affection the camera produces for these quotidian acts isn’t sentimental, either: the pace and the cheek (lots of winking!) of the music balances a certain amount of awe with plenty of “whatever”. (As a non-disabled person, I’m astonished to see a disabled person fly a plane – just because I never have before. Now I know!) In fact, the music yanks us quickly from “awe” to “whatever” and back again deliberately, as it punctuates the shifts with pauses and percussion, drawing attention to them. That call-and-response style has the effect of reminding us to stop being so awed already, and instead to regard all the stuff we see in the trailer as, well… pretty normal for the people on the screen – who are all pretty rocking human, after all.

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Tony Dee grooves it out. Channel 4 spotted him on Youtube!

What doesn’t work so well for me? I would really like to see a couple of vignettes in the trailer that include both disabled and non-disabled bodies working together. The trailer rightly makes disabled bodies its focus, but it doesn’t take the opportunity to show collaboration across bodily difference, which is a shame. (The only non-disabled body in the piece, as far as I can see, is the cranky headmaster who tells the young wheelchair athlete he “can’t” – only to be proven definitively wrong, of course.) If we are to think more globally about access to and opportunities in social space for all human bodies in the future, representing cross-ability collaboration is essential. It gives the firm impression that all human bodies count equally, and helps to demonstrate that equal access doesn’t mean “the same thing for all of us”, but rather “different stuff according to our needs that lets us all do the same things to the best of our abilities”.

There’s a “fait accompli” feel to the trailer that is, of course, part of its jazzy, groovy feel, but that also covers up access issues in troubling ways. It’s reasonable to argue that it’s not Channel 4’s job to show us the complexity of ability politics in a trailer that is designed to get a predominantly non-disabled population to regard bodies with other abilities more positively and fairly; one thing at a time. But it’s also reasonable to argue that it *is* their responsibility not to make disabled lives seem somehow “naturally” easy in a world biased toward non-disabled subjects and their bodily experiences. Because that just ain’t true.

So that’s my verdict on “We’re the Superhumans”: better than last time, inspiring and loads of fun, but not perfect – and more work remains to be done. (Luckily, the 2020 Paralympics are just around the corner!)

I offer this reading in full awareness that, as a non-disabled woman, I’m part of the demographic Channel 4 is targeting and trying to warm-and-fuzzy, and that my embodiment makes my position as a reader partial and imperfect in any case. Which is, of course, why I’d love to hear YOUR take on the trailer, too. Please share in the comments below!

Kim

About Kim Solga

I am a university professor currently based in London, southwestern Ontario, half way between Toronto and Detroit. I teach theatre and performance studies at Western University; previously, I was Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. I am a feminist, both intellectually and politically; I believe that my research makes its greatest impact in the classroom. On Wordpress, I'm also a regular contributor to the popular blog, Fit is a Feminist Issue.

9 thoughts on “Who are you calling superhuman?

  1. mlennon2012 says:

    Such a thoughtful post. I wanted to mention the work of Simona Atzori — former UWO arts student, an Italian, born without arms who is a professional dancer and works with able bodied dancers and choreographers. She has an amazing career — she is also a talented writer (two books, in Italian so far, the first: What is keeping you from happiness — a rough translation of the title) and is invited world-wide to speak about her work, as well as to dance with the top troupes. When the winter Olympics/Paraolympics were in Italy, she was the opening performer, and it was an amazing show. She convinced the Italian authorities to give her a driving licence (she drives an ‘adjusted’ car) among other achievements. Look her up!!

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  2. Tracy I says:

    Thank you, Kim, for continuing the conversation with this thoughtful and reflective post. In addition to critical analysis of the idea of “superhuman,” which I’ve never reflected upon before in quite the way you’ve framed it, another important area of critical analysis is around the concept of “disability” itself. As some people pointed out, there are lots of “disabilities” that are not considered such by the people who have them. So the very idea of disability perpetuates normative assumptions about what bodies “should” be able to do. These (and others) are the sorts of critical discussions I hope we can venture into, at least some of the time, on the blog.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Susan says:

    Stylistically, I think the trailer was great, but valuable points were missed in the effort to make sure they didn’t oversentimentalize. Your post is, I think, a very fair introspective comment on both the positive and the areas of needed improvement.

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    • Kim Solga says:

      Agreed: the sentimentality was going to be in there, for sure, partly because it’s a great British tradition to create these sentimental nationalist trailers for big events. (The Internet explodes every Christmas when the John Lewis Christmas advert is released.) But this is a massive improvement on the tear jerker quality of the last one. Hopefully further improvement will come!

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  4. Kim Solga says:

    Reblogged this on The Activist Classroom and commented:

    Happy bank holiday, Scottish readers, and happy August long weekend, Canadians! To celebrate, I look ahead to the Rio Olympics, opening on Friday, and which will, no doubt, include plenty of political performances in amongst the sport. (Let’s just hope nothing else collapses!)

    Last week, I began my new regular, monthly blogging gig at Fit is a Feminist Issue with a post about how Team GB (Great Britain) is supporting its Paralympians with a campaign called “We’re the Superhumans”. The campaign is a terrific example of how popular representations of minority groups can be both intentionally supportive, and yet fall short of the mark in terms of the messages they send to those in the majority.

    In other words: visibility is complicated, and incredibly political, making this campaign a teachable moment.

    I’m reblogging the post here; it includes both the trailer for the campaign as well as my reading of it (the good and the not quite there yet). Feel free to add your two cents in the comments, either here or on FFI; we would love to hear your thoughts.

    Enjoy the summer sunshine!
    Kim

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  5. I am a disabled woman (though not an athlete amateur or professional ) I was born missing my left forearm and I found this blog post very interesting because I experience to a certain extent people acting in a manner that suggests my ability to do simple everyday things from fixing my own hair to cooking or crocheting as if it were a “superhuman ” accomplishment. It’s a bit disconcerting at times because my mother was born missing both her lower arms and in many ways was much more “accomplished ” than I am. I am interested in viewing this programming. I am very impressed with your empathy and understanding towards the disabled community. For a “nondisabled “woman you seem to understand some challenges unique to the disabled community. Accesibility, accomodation and inclusion .very important.

    On Jul 29, 2016 3:13 PM, “Fit Is a Feminist Issue” wrote:

    > Kim Solga posted: “Feminist friends, hello! This is my first regular post > for the blog, although I’ve been guesting for Sam and Tracy for a while > now. I’m honoured to have been asked to join the community, and will be > contributing on the last Friday of every month. (I” >

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    • Kim Solga says:

      Thanks so much for your comments! I really appreciate hearing from people in the community; for those of us living in non-disabled bodies it’s important to listen and learn as much as we can. Please keep contributing to the ongoing discussion on ability issues here on the blog – and thanks again!

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  6. […] Tracy Isaacs; I reblogged my first regular post with them at the end of last month (check it out here), and this week I contributed my second regular post, on the exercise challenges my mom faces as a […]

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