Going into the final on Dancing With the Stars, there are two Olympic athletes left among the four finalists, ice dancer Meryl Davis and Paralympic Team snowboarder Amy Purdy. Amy is a double amputee, having had to have both legs amputated below the knee due to a bacterial infection she acquired at age 19. Her accomplishments to date as an athlete, actress, and activist for people with disablities would be impressive for anyone, amputee or not.
Something that bothers me about people’s reactions to Amy, though, is that I keep hearing variants of “If she can do it, anybody can,” for instance, in the way that guest judge Abby Lee Miller used Purdy as a model for her students:
Amy Purdy and Derek Hough performed a breathtaking, creative, precise Argentine tango using a bar stool as a prop. The judges struggled to put into words how impressed they were with both the execution and the effort. Miller said to her girls in the audience, “I better never hear ‘I’m too tired, I’m hungry, I have homework.” Judge Bruno Tonioli said it had power, control, precision, and immersion into the character. It also had a perfect score of 40.
Read more at http://www.commdiginews.com/entertainment/tv-cable-streaming-video/dance-mom-vs-maks-smackdown-on-dancing-with-the-stars-16891/#OHGuuYiWB6cmqsc4.99
No matter how well Purdy danced, people (including Purdy, who has been showing a good bit of stress in some of her video rehearsal packages) get hungry, they get tired, and if they are in school, they get homework. I don’t like it when people who don’t belong to a particular group pick a person who is an outlier in that group and then hold that person up as a model. First of all, it is unrealistic, and second of all, it detracts from that particular person’s accomplishments. Not every amputee can become an Olympic snowboarder, any more than every person can become an Olympian. And amputees who struggle more than Purdy does deserve empathy and help, not to have one person’s experience held up to them as the norm. What Amy Purdy has accomplished represents not only a great deal of work and determination, but also a great deal of talent, talent that did not disappear when her legs did. So while I admire her tremendously, and understand why people are inspired by her, I am not about to point her out as an example of how anybody can succeed by putting their mind to it. She is not just anybody. That’s the point of having competitions.
Then there is the whole problem of using Amy as inspiration. The word in its many forms comes up over and over again in the judges comments on her dancing: you’re so inspiring. You are such an inspiration. I’m sure people are inspired by her, but I see a difference between “I’m inspired by you” and “You’re such an inspiration” in that to me, the latter objectifies Amy. It’s one thing to derive life lessons from watching how other people cope with hardship. But Amy Purdy is a unique person. She’s the star of her own life, not a bit player in someone else’s. To reduce her from the woman who has been honest about her fears and struggles as well as her pride in her performance to an object lesson for others is to reduce her to just that: an object.
Of course, I am writing this as a person who is not an amputee and doesn’t have other orthopedic disabilities. Sure, I’m getting older and have Meniere’s disease and arthritis, but if you were going to draw a line between “able-bodied” (to use an older term) and not, I’d fall on the “able-bodied” side of the line. So it is quite possible that my take on this is far, far from what I would think if I were an amputee, or had Cerebral Palsy or MS or Parkinson’s Disease. Maybe if I did, I’d be happy to be an inspiration to somebody, although my hunch is, if it were me, my conduct would be far from inspiring. If anyone who does have experience with these conditions is reading this and has a completely different take on it, feel free to chime in in the comments. You won’t hurt my feelings, unless maybe you begin a comment with “Listen, you idiot.” (OTOH, I’ve heard worse.)
Until then, my take on it is going to be that Amy Purdy is an athlete who can do a lot of things the majority of us cannot do. I admire her, but I’m not going to run right out and take up snowboarding because of her example, and not just because I live where it doesn’t snow.
ETA, on June 14, 2014: I found out today, via a Facebook link from a friend, that Stella Young, a comedian and disability activist, doesn't like to be referred to as an inspiration, as her use of the term inspiration porn makes clear in this video. She makes the same point about objectification as I do, only a lot clearer and better.