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The George Takei Disabled Meme Controversy: The Offense, Response, & Public Apology

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George Takei, Headshot image 1

Over the past few weeks, the disability community has expressed its outrage regarding the inspiration porn-like meme that George Takei posted on his Facebook page.  George Takei is well-known for his role as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the television series Star Trek.  George Takei has amassed a strong following online, as many loved him and those who were a part of the series, and he is very outspoken about gay rights and marriage equality as a gay man of color.

The Meme Controversy:

The controversy surrounding George has to do with the meme he posted on his Facebook page.

George Takei - Screenshot of Meme

Though some found the meme’s caption, and George’s comment, to be hilarious, many of us in the disability community, myself included, did not see any hilarity in the photograph.  Why?  Because the image is an example of inspiration porn.  Inspiration porn is a term coined to describe images that objectify people with disabilities, both young and old, by showing us doing something ordinary such as playing, talking, walking, dancing, running, etc., and labeling those actions with captions such as “what makes your excuse valid?,” “before you quit, try,” and other sayings/lines with the purpose of “motivating” others.

The Damning Effects of Inspiration Porn:

Inspiration porn, regardless of the tone or degree of offensiveness, is detrimental to the disability experience of the group/culture it targets.  For example, the meme George posted portrays inaccurate and gross stereotypes about the disability experience.  The caption implies that it is “miraculous” that the person photographed can stand, though they are in a wheelchair. That is a harmful implication because it could lead to the idea that if someone is able to “stand,” then they do not “need” a wheelchair, or worse, that they are “faking” being disabled.  I, and much of the disability community, know that there are wheelchair users who can stand, but using a wheelchair makes life easier; that is the main reason why I use a wheelchair myself, though I can walk with assistance from a walker and leg braces.

The issue with inspiration porn like this meme is the fact that it not only spreads inaccurate messages about the disability experience, but it also shames those of us who do not and are not capable of doing what is depicted in the photographs. For instance, the memes of disabled athletes with the caption, “what’s your excuse?” is offensive because what if you are a disabled person who CANNOT work out/be physically fit?  Does your “inactiveness” make you less than? Of course not, but such images can be used to shame those who have limited abilities.

One pivotal point that needs to be made about inspiration porn images/memes:  a great number of the photographs are usually taken without the person’s consent, meaning that an able-bodied person took it upon themselves to capture a picture of a disabled person doing something normal, & calling it “amazing” or creating a hilarity tone, such as the one discussed for this article.  Personally, I would be absolutely horrified if I found a photograph of myself circulating on social media of me doing everyday tasks without my permission.  Folks are under the impression that it is okay to snap these photographs – it is not; it is an invasion of privacy, degrading, and disrespectful.

George’s Response & His Public Apology:

What fueled the fire of the controversy is the initial response George posted as a comment to his Facebook posting:

George Takei - Screenshot of Initial Response

His response came across as callous, insensitive, and downright clueless.  For me, it was quite upsetting due to George’s strong advocacy roots for equality and justice.  George’s “reasoning” in defense of the posting displayed his lack of knowledge about inspiration porn and ableism, which is discrimination against those with disabilities.  As someone who has dual membership in oppressed groups (being a racial minority and gay), George should have been the MAIN person to understand how such images are harmful, and be the first to look outside of his own privileges to fully grasp the offensiveness when it is brought to his attention.  The fact that he dismissed the statements made to him by those in the disability community was saddening, especially since George’s social media following is huge and folks look to him as a role model.  Many who are Star Trek fans expressed their bruised feelings about one of their television idols not respecting the opinions and experiences shared with him as to why the meme was problematic.

Last week, George posted a public apology about the meme on his Facebook page:

George Takei - Screenshot of Public Apology

When I read George’s apology, I felt that he finally grasped the true context of the meme, and was no longer on the defense about being urged to “take down” an upsetting status/image.  His apology seemed very genuine, and came across as he seriously reflected on the numerous emails, articles, and stories shared to him by his fans and those within the disabled community.  The fact that he understood that such portrayals fueled ignorance and prejudices of those with disabilities were significant words for him to relay as an advocate for human rights.  Though his response does not excuse his initial action and response, it was the kind of “I’m sorry/I apologize” that should have been delivered weeks earlier.  As the saying goes, better late than never… but earlier would have been appreciated.

Final Thoughts:

The George Takei social media firestorm showcased the power of social media, and how we should all be mindful of what we share on our personal and public accounts.  When members of an oppressed group voice that a word/phrase or image plays on gross stereotypes, DO PAY ATTENTION to their outcry.  We cannot be so callous on social media to dismiss such claims, especially when we ourselves may have membership(s) to equally oppressed groups.  Celebrities like George Takei have to remember that every move they make or words uttered, whether online or on the streets of Hollywood, are watched with eagle eyes, and will be scrutinized when missteps occur.  That kind of scrutiny may seem unfair, but it comes with the territory.  Being a celebrity means that you are in the position to right a wrong when you realize that your actions, behaviors, and/or words were offensive, and it is your duty to educate your followers as to why.  “With great power comes great responsibility” is the case when you are in the limelight as George Takei is, and I am pleased that he did the right thing by apologizing for sharing something he first viewed as an “innocent” picture.

Call for Action!:

Tell me, RYV! readers:  what are your reactions to the meme, George’s initial response, and his public apology?  Do you think that the disabled community was being too “sensitive” about the meme, or were the slights felt justified?  What lessons can be learned by celebrities and us “commoners” about social media etiquette, and having respect for each other?

When it comes to inspiration porn, do you view it as dehumanizing the experiences and abilities of those targeted?  Why or why not?  Share your thoughts with me in the comments section below, or reach out on the RYV! Facebook page about the new article! ~ Vilissa

(Featured headlining images:  Screenshots & image taken from George Takei’s Facebook page.)

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If you want to support the RYV movement, read the article stating ways you can become involved.  If you want to make a donation, make your checks or money orders out to Vilissa Thompson, and send them to:  Ramp Your Voice! – Vilissa Thompson, P.O. Box 1286, Winnsboro, SC 29180.

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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