Wholesome? Yes, wholesome
I was in LA for a disability art show. Fortunately I was able to fit in dinner with a longtime friend who lives down there. We were sharing all our disability news when I was surprised a moment I didn’t expect. My friend brought out a laptop to show me a 30 second TV ad promoting graham crackers, of all things, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4TncEFoI3Q. The ad shows a woman teaching a young child how to layer apples and cheddar cheese onto a graham cracker and melt it in a microwave. My shock had to do with the women in the ad. She’s an actual aunt and wheelchair user. We see her power wheelchair half way through, as the camera pulls back for a medium shot. It’s done smoothly and is well integrated into the spot. It’s a very nice slice of life ad and a revelation. It’s been decades since we’ve had this kind of positive disability portrayal. The ad equates the relationship between a wheelchair user and a child as positive.
My real amazement, though, was the ad’s tagline—“This is wholesome.” Seeing it made me feel all warm and glowy. Wholesome is usually not in my vocabulary. It never applies to disability or disabled people. “This is wholesome” is the tag line used for a number of TV advertisements promoting Honey Maid graham crackers. The series uses diverse families to illustrate “wholesome.” The ads are slice of life style and have featured people of different races, genders, sexual orientation and, one of my favorites, a heavily tattooed rock and roller father. Through the Honey Maid lens wholesome becomes a good thing. It’s a good reminder of why we work so hard on the language of disability; when a word changes how we think about the world it’s powerful.
Wholesome rarely enters my consciousness. I’ve spent much of my life avoiding wholesomeness. I was afraid that if I embraced any kind of wholesome identity I would be shuttled off to that place of smiling, ineffectual, bored, disabled people. I have found it hard to be hip or cool while being wholesome. I’m not sure it’s possible, actually. Back in the early 70s I realized I could join the disability community when I met a wheelchair user with a very humorous, dark, and unwholesome view of disability and the world. His attitude matched my perspective of the disability experience, and life. If disability could be this edgy, I wanted to be a part of it.
For the twenty years after I got my disability I avoided disabled people. It’s not that I thought they were wholesome, probably the opposite. I thought they were unable to reject their debased identity. I, being young and someone who actively rejected the disabled label, worked hard at being hip and cool. Before the internet and 1,000s of TV channels it took real work to stay at the cutting edge. In those days, mid 1960s, one part of being a cool outsider was to be a bit degenerate, a freak or head, hardly wholesome. I guess I thought my 60s rebel persona would cloak me from my disability identity. But, things change. The world changes. The heads/freaks of the 60s become the mellow retirees of the 2010s. It might not be a bad time for me to make wholesomeness be also hip and cool. It might not be a bad goal for me to wrestle with for the next couple of months. There’s still ableism and disability discrimination, but we also work on the stereotypes and public images of disability. Wholesome might be a powerful tool to change attitudes.
All of the ads are explicit in their diversity without dramatization or paternalism. It’s lovely to see the same treatment of disability. When the ads were first rolled out there was, not surprisingly, a hue and cry from conservative, traditional family groups. The company, Melendez International, didn’t back down. They created an art work, first using the critical emails, and then adding the positive. They then created a wildly popular response, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMY8_cllOGY. They met the criticism directly by having two artists use print outs of both the negative and positive emails to make a really nice piece.
That was last year. This year disability was included, as were blended and immigrant families. In honor of ADA25 the ad was also captioned and video described—a first. If this is wholesome, then I’m all for it. If wholesome reinforces who I am, with my disability pride intact, it’s a good thing. Whew! What a relief. I like being on the inside every now and again. I guess wholesome isn’t so bad. We spent decades changing how the world saw disability. We wanted to be seen as tough, capable, resourceful, and for some of us, edgy and a little dangerous. The job isn’t over yet, but we’ve come a long way. These days I’m looking for nuanced ways to photograph disabled people. I want to show our more human and vulnerable side. It’s time to connect our experiences with the experiences of non-disabled people, without forgetting who we are as a cultural group and how much more needs to be done to include us in society.