Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Rethinking superheroes

Another emotionally stirring Oscar night image was everywhere on the day after. At the celebrity-studded Vanity Fair party after the show, actress Selma Blair made her first public appearance since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) last fall. She stood for photographer Mark Seliger's camera with cape flying and gold-embossed patent leather cane in hand.

Jennifer Brea—who lives with the debilitation of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and who, from her bed, made the very fine documentary Unrest about the frustrations of ME sufferers in their quest for sensitive and competent medical care—tweeted a simply gorgeous reflection on the Selma Blair portrait.

Jen Brea:

Until I saw it, I didn’t know how much I needed this photo of Selma Blair at the Vanity Fair Oscar party last night: beauty, pain, glamor, real life—all in a single portrait.

Blair came out about her MS diagnosis in October: “Going out, being sociable holds a heavy price,” she wrote in a post after her diagnosis. “My brain is on fire. I am freezing. We feel alone with it even though the loving support has been a godsend and appreciated.”

“People write me asking how I do it. I do my best,” she continued. “But I choke with the pain of what I have lost and what I dare hope for and how challenging it is to walk around.”

The portrait is by Mark Seliger, a master celebrity photographer. What I love about this is how every element of the photograph lives on more than one plane. It’s beautifully lit but also kind of dark. Her expression could be interpreted as downcast or signifying strength.

Her dress is fantasy, fragility and royalty at the same time. Representations of disability need to be complex in the way pop culture often isn’t because our lives and experiences can be wonderful and awful all at the same time (or depending on the minute, hour or day!).

Of course that complexity is true of all humans! But we—disabled people—don’t often get to be portrayed in this way.

And in the fantasy, we-all-want-to-see-that-movie-get-made version of the photo: is her cane an assistive device? A family heirloom? The source of her power? The object that helps to channel it?

She’s has Wonder Woman-level goddess-like power, but if she uses her cane for too long, her brain is on fire. Or she turns to ice...or she collapses and can’t move. Just sayin’.

BTW: The superhero universe whether or not it is self-aware has incorporated many of the dynamics of disability, chronic illness, and mental illness in many of its characters without actually plumbing the depths and potential of these experiences.

Imagine a film that attempted to do that. And you could cast Selma Blair as the hero!

I am so inspired by this photo, I might just go write some stuff!

One of Jen Brea's commenters added this:

They probably didn't mean to add this aspect, but it also highlights the inaccessibility of the world for a lot of disabled people—her cane on the first step of a long flight of stairs, maybe she's contemplating how she's going to navigate that huge obstacle.

To which Jen replied:

How did I miss that??


It's possible this image was so moving to me because in truth, I should be using a cane. But despite my own pain and precarious balance when walking, I mostly leave it at home. It embarrasses me. It makes me think that people will judge my mutinous gait as the result of my girth rather than structural issues inherited from my slender and petite mother, who suffered severely with arthritis and the premature dissembling of joints. Admittedly, carrying extra weight all my life has not helped these conditions. And of course, Selma Blair is beautiful and slim, so the correlation here is not exact. But by God she wields that cane like a frickin' superhero and makes me think maybe it's all about the attitude we bring, which means I can be a frickin' superhero too.


  1. This post is beautiful in every regard.
    I am humbled.

  2. "But by God she wields that cane like a frickin' superhero and makes me think maybe it's all about the attitude we bring, which means I can be a frickin' superhero too."

    A beautiful truth.

  3. This rings true to me in so many ways. Especially, this:

    “People write me asking how I do it. I do my best,” she continued. “But I choke with the pain of what I have lost and what I dare hope for . . ."

    To do our best. What a curse this is and yet, there is no other way.

    So I ask you, please: Go and do your best, for yourself first and foremost, use that cane and use it like a weapon against the dragons that want to silence us into being unwell.

  4. I would use the cane. It will make you more stable on your feet and you can also use is as a weapon should people annoy you:) You could trip people with it, accidently whack them in the shins, the possibilities are endless. I think I probably won't be a nice old lady. Just saying.

  5. a frickin superhero indeed. you both are.

  6. That IS a beautiful image. Maybe, if you DO use your cane, you could bedeck it with rhinestones and celebrate the hell out of it. If it's helping you get around and preserving your body and your health, why not? The heck with what people think.

  7. Oh yes do use the cane. Falling would be so much worse. I used one after each of the three foot surgeries, they're not so bad. It's just one more thing to occupy a hand, which is a nuisance.

  8. What a beautiful photo. It embodies everything; disability, strength, sorrow, fierceness, acceptance.

    Thank you for posting it.

  9. what a stunning photograph/portrait. I had not seen it before. the most insidious thing about pain is that it cannot be seen. we cannot look at someone and know that they are suffering, how they are suffering and so those of us who move through the world without thought have no idea what others endure to simply be out in the world. they are all superheros. wield your cane as if it is your crown.

  10. What you need is an amazing cane that expresses who you are and that you're not afraid to use it because it enhances your life.

    Love this post.

  11. This is an incredibly beautiful post. I can relate to your feelings about your cane. I have issues with my feet and I’ve been in a knee high boot since April of last year. It sucks to put it bluntly. I too feel embarrassed as I’m slower than others. I too have insecurities with thoughts that my weight impacts the problems I’ve been having. I wish we could just take care of ourselves the best we can without thoughts of others. I’m reminded that most people are busy thinking of themselves. I wish you less pain and greater ease in taking care of yourself.