Holly Norris’s "American Able": A Statement on Identity and Exclusion in Advertising & the Mass Media

Photographer Holly Norris’s “American Able” makes a powerful statement on the standard practice of excluding women with disabilities from the mass media and the othering that occurs through this exclusion. From her website:

“American Able” intends to, through spoof, reveal the ways in which women with disabilities are made invisible in advertising and mass media. I chose American Apparel not just for their notable style, but also for their claims that many of their models are just ‘every day’ women who are employees, friends and fans of the company. However, these women fit particular body types. Their campaigns are highly sexualized and feature women who are generally thin, and who appear to be able-bodied. Women with disabilities go unrepresented, not only in American Apparel advertising, but also in most of popular culture. Rarely, if ever, are women with disabilities portrayed in anything other than an asexual manner, for ‘disabled’ bodies are largely perceived as ‘undesirable.’ In a society where sexuality is created and performed over and over within popular culture, the invisibility of women with disabilities in many ways denies their sexuality, particularly within a public context.”

Ability is an identity category that I think is often ignored, even in anthropology, in the interest of looking at/analyzing other identities like race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, etc., even though identity is fluid and multifaceted. Norris (and her model Jes Sachse) do a great job of addressing the intersection of multiple identities and made an excellent choice in both medium and comical spoof. I like and wear American Apparel clothing and find their ads intriguing, but agree with Norris that they are, like most other advertising/mass media, not representative of diversity but of the normative, American ideal of a desirable woman (see an example of a typical American Apparel ad below). Click here to visit AA’s Photo Archive for more provocative images.

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