Hipster Ableism

Note: This post contains spoilers for current episodes of Glee, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

There’s a particular brand of humour which seems to be extremely popular in the United States right now. It may, of course, be popular in other regions of the world as well, but since I’m American, I’m speaking to the American experience here rather than trying to conjecture about humour in other nations. I call it “hipster -ism,” in a reference to the fact that it’s especially prevalent in the hipster community and riffing off Carmen Van Kerckhove’s “hipster racism,” and it involves the use of -isms for supposedly comic effect.

Hipster -ism works like this: Someone uses an -ism among a group of friends, and the friends laugh, because the idea is that they know it’s an -ism, they know it’s not acceptable, and it’s funny because of this. It’s ironic, geddit? Over at this ain’t livin’, I’ve discussed hipster racism and liberal sexism, and today, it’s time for hipster ableism.

It’s important to note that there are a number of things built into the structure of the hipster community which are important to consider when evaluating hipster ableism, or any hipster -ism, in strict point of fact. The first is that the hipster community is primarily young and liberal, comprised of people who have grown up being lectured about racism and other -isms, while still living in a society which is rife with these -isms, and retaining the cultural values which prop these -isms up and directly benefiting from the entrenched -isms in their culture. Most hipsters also have class privilege, coming from the middle classes, and they are usually white and able bodied. Please note that these are generalizations. I am well aware that there are non-white hipsters, disabled hipsters, hipsters from the lower classes, etc, but I’m speaking to general demographics here.

Hipster -ism is a type of humour which people use because they mistakenly identify it as edgy and transgressive. The idea is that it’s funny because it’s pushing social boundaries and norms. Indeed, it’s a way of thumbing one’s nose at the “PC police.” But, there are a few things about it which suggest that this is not the case.

For starters, it’s primarily used in safe spaces, among other hipsters, which would seem to suggest that it’s actually a form of in-group humour. In fact, it’s a way for people to continue internalizing and believing in -isms, using their humour as a defensive wall. “Oh, I don’t really believe it, that’s why it’s funny,” they say, but if that’s the case, then why don’t they use this humour outside hipster circles? If it’s funny to make jokes about people with disabilities, for example, why don’t hipsters make those jokes around people with disabilities?

Another hallmark of hipster -ism is that people who challenge it are informed that they “don’t get it.” Another example of a technique used to silence and marginalize people; when those who question are told that they don’t get it, it often means that those being questioned are feeling uncomfortable. It’s true that different people have different senses of humour, but when entire classes of people fail to see something as funny, that may be a sign that, you know, it’s not funny.

Hipster -ism also props up cultural values, rather than breaking them down, by normalizing exclusionary language and ideas. When you make jokes about people of colour in a society which marginalizes people of colour, you are not being edgy, transgressive, or particularly funny. You are instead propping up the status quo. And, in a sense, privately justifying your privilege, although some hipsters are not even aware of the concept of privilege or of how it affects them.

And this brings us to hipster ableism. Hipster ableism relies on using jokes about people with disabilities as a form of humour, or using disability as a shorthand to make something appear funny. This can be seen in many forms of hipster art and expression, from films where disability is a joke to the entrenchment of ableist language in hipster discourse.

In Glee, we have Artie, a wheelchair user, constantly being used as a prop and being marginalized to the edge of the discourse. “It’s funny,” people say, “because that’s how people treat people with disabilities and Glee is making fun of that.” Uhm, no, actually Glee is just normalizing the marginalization of people with disabilities by constructing an entirely one dimensional disabled character (played by an able bodied actor) and using him as a prop. Artie does not defy social norms or break boundaries, he is a rolling caricature. And a cruel one, at that. Every time I see someone push Artie’s chair, every time Sue calls him a “cripple,” I cringe, as a viewer. I’m not seeing humour here, at all. I’m seeing what happens to people with disabilities every day.

The popular mashup series blending Jane Austen books with monsters is another terrific example of hipster ableism (among other hipster -isms). It’s kind of a fun idea, and I liked the concept initially, but the way the books have chosen to alter the plot is really reprehensible. They’ve added in things like racism and ableism because it’s “edgy” and “funny,” except that they don’t seem to recognize that readers have internalized the values supposedly being mocked, so actually the books just reinforce social norms.

In Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, we have Wickham being “punished” for his misdeeds by being severely beaten and developing quadriplegia, which is deemed just punishment, and Lydia is punished for her supposed sluttiness by being doomed to a life of caring for Wickham. The book makes sure to dwell on his incontinence to make sure that readers get the message, which is: Lydia is a slut, so she should be shamed and punished, and being a caregiver to a person with disabilities is a punishment and a burden. So, why isn’t this funny? Because this is what people actually think, right now, in the world. That sluts need to be punished, that developing quadriplegia is a tragedy, that caring for someone with quadriplegia is an impossible burden.

That plot isn’t funny, it’s not transgressive, it’s just a repetition of what society believes. It uses sexism and ableism to advance itself, rather than refuting these cultural norms. And it was totally unnecessary. The book could have turned the Lydia/Wickham plot on its head and played with it, but instead it decided to take the cheap and easy way out.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, aside from featuring some rather horrific racism and colonialism, gives Colonel Brandon a “cruel affliction” in the form of “perverse tentacles” attached to his face. When discussing his unsuitability as a marriage prospect, the girls make sure to stress how “repulsive” he is, and they throw in some ageism when they suggest that a 27 year old unmarried woman might settle for him, but a 17 year old girl certainly shouldn’t. Adding gas to the fire, Elinor suggests that a woman who was “say, visually impaired somehow” would make an ideal match for Brandon.

Again, this is not edgy humour. People are discriminated against in love, among many other things, because their faces do not meet with society’s standard of attractive. And people also say that people with disabilities should just settle for loving and marrying each other. Or that people with disabilities are not sexual, and therefore should not be upset that they are missing out on intimacy and love. Able bodied people in relationships with people with disabilities are repeatedly told how “brave” they are and informed that they are “so courageous” for staying with their partners, while people privately speculate on how on Earth a nice able-bodied person like that could possibly date a gross person with disabilities.

The sad thing about both of these modifications to the novels is that they don’t really add anything. A cute, fun concept is actually ruined by the insistence on bringing hipster -ism into the plot. The writers think it’s edgy and transgressive, or they write it in to appeal to the audience they are trying to reach, and people lap it up. Meanwhile, people like me who went “cool idea” when they first heard about the books are reading and going “sigh.”

The most insidious thing, for me, about hipster ableism and other hipster -isms is that they are a thinly veiled way to continue being a prejudiced bigot. People can go right on thinking their prejudiced thoughts, and they can hide behind the shield of “humour” and “you just don’t get it” when they are challenged. Hipster ableism, far from being edgy and transgressive, is in fact very safe and affirming.

Indeed, ignoring and marginalizing challenges to -isms are built right into the hipster culture, where “PC” is hurled like an insult, social justice movements are mocked, hipsters engage in cultural appropriation to make themselves feel cool, and members of marginalized communities are deliberately excluded.

By 5 November, 2009.    media and pop culture   


  1. I have not read the books, but the ableism in Glee is one of the things that makes it hard to enjoy.
    Sue, in particular, is a very beloved character with the fans. They enjoy (and I am ashamed to say that I sometimes fall for this as well) her outrageous behaviour. It’s hipstr-ism at its best: We don’t actually believe any of the horrible things she is saying! She is the bad guy (why is there no gender-neutral word for this? Because bad woman sounds wrong). We know she is wrong for saying these things! The show is making fun of prejudiced people by showing how crazy she is! (I am intentionally leaving in the ableist expression here)The writers clearly want us to see how wrong her views are…but yes, we love her for saying them, for not caring about being PC or any of that stuff. It is so refreshingly honest!

    If only being PC, being dishonest is keeping people from constantly spoutin ableist and otherwise prejudiced language, than that right there proves how far we have left to go.

    Also, to get back to a previous thread: I really wonder if they would feel as comfortable making all those ableist “he’s a prop”-jokes about Artie if he was played by an actor who actually uses a wheelchair.

  2. I love Glee (choir nerd, can’t help it), but I can’t watch it without cringing. Course, I also TA’ed in a high school and I couldn’t get through a day without cringing either.

    Type of humor I could do without, seriously. Because it’s not even laughing at a situations, it’s just making fun of people, and often to their faces.
    .-= nuri´s last blog ..Rukus says Feminist like it’s some sort of dirty word =-.

  3. I, too, have been having some issues with Glee– I think we’re being shown that Sue is in the wrong with her comments, because she’s set up so clearly as an antagonist within the first episodes; but it’s never directly addressed, and there are other issues with her characterization as a single fortysomething woman who has prioritized her career over other areas of her life.

    I haven’t read the books, so I can’t speak to them, but I’m much less likely to purchase them now. (I still may borrow one or both from a friend or the library to see how I feel about them, personally.)

    But I’ve encountered hipster -ism near-daily in the past few weeks–my friend has a new boyfriend and his friends (and him, to a certain extent) subscribe to it quite a bit. He said at one point, “It’s funny, because I don’t believe it,” and I said, “I don’t see how it can be funny when there are people to believe it.” It leads back to Melissa McEwan’s Terrible Bargain– swallow shit, or ruin the afternoon? It’s a no-win situation.

    But it is WONDERFUL to have someone dissect it so thoroughly and cogently.

  4. I always get a bit confused when people talk about how they LOVE Sue, or how her character is SO hilarious. I wince constantly at the things she says, because they’re thing I’ve heard people say and mean on a fairly regular basis. ‘Yes we cane’ just isn’t amusing when you’ve heard people you grew up around–your parents, or friends of your parents–viciously argue to bring caning back.

    The trouble with how Artie is treated started early in the first episode–did anyone else notice how he’s the only ‘main’ member of Glee who didn’t have their audition featured? And I cringed when Rachel said she needed a male lead who could ‘keep up’ with her. And of course, he started being used as a prop in that episode and has been in every episode (I think) since.

    His Very Special Episode is coming up. I predict it’ll be an ableist mess.

  5. Yes, it’s coming up next week, and I expect that Anna and I will have Something To Say About It, at length.

  6. I look forward to reading it. I’m not very good at analysing television shows until I’ve watched them a few times, so I haven’t been doing reviews of Glee, but I always enjoy yours and Anna’s. :3

  7. Thanks for explaining why I cringe so violently whenever anyone praises “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”.

    I think the hipster whatever-ism irony also implies that “those people, the ones that are ableist, racist etc.” are a whole separate group from the hipsters that find this stuff funny. There is a denial that these young, liberal, educated hip white folks can be sexist etc. They voted for Obama! It is just another way to deny and ignore the fact that ableism is everywhere are to chalk up our experiences as p.c. whining. They are once again centering their experiences over ours.

    Also, the only way this stuff doesn’t touch a nerve is if you don’t have to experience it on a daily basis. Which. They. (For the most part) Don’t.
    .-= KatieT´s last blog ..Because I Can’t Sleep =-.

  8. I haven’t seen Glee, but I was really excited about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Then I read them. While we can take the guy off the hook for ageism (that bit was written by Jane Austen and was to highlight the age difference b/t the characters, not to imply that 27-y-o women are too old to be loved), I was so upset by the blatant racism, sexism and ableism in both of them. The op covered the othering of non-Europeans and the use of disability as both a joke and a punishment, but one of the other things that really bothered me about those books was another aspect of the Lydia/Wickham story that he changed from the original. Instead of Lydia running away w/Wickham, he kidnaps and rapes her. The implication is that she goes willingly, but he still calls it rape, and her family is ashamed of it. So when she is punished with her husband’s disability, the author is being ableist and slut shaming and blaming rape survivors all in one go.

  9. At first I was really frustrated by the treatment of Tina (Asian girl), Kurt (gay boy), Mercedes (Black girl), and Artie. At this point they’ve done some work to fill out Kurt and Mercedes’ characters, but nothing for Tina and Artie. Every. Single. Time. someone just grabs Artie’s wheelchair and pushes him around, I cringe. And it happens several times an episode. They never ask before touching his wheelchair, never give any indication that he might not want to constantly be physically pushed around by the other characters. I am dreading next week’s episode. At first I thought Will would ask the members of Glee to spend a day, possibly as much as a week, in a wheelchair but apparently he just asks them to perform in a wheelchair. -sigh- Gosh, I’m sure they’ll learn some Really Important lessons from that!

    @calixti I was so confused the first episode when he didn’t get an audition scene! But now that I’ve seen all the episodes since, it makes perfect sense; they don’t treat him as a character, but a prop.


  10. Capital-F Fantastic piece, and I think KatieT hit the nail on the head. Too many people treat the deconstruction of -isms as a discrete action with a definite endpoint, as though there is a point in one’s life where we can say, “I’m not racist, I’m not misogynist, I’m not ableist.” The discrete action can be something as simple as voting for Obama, which some manage to conceptualize as their complete rejection of all things -istic. Thanks for taking this phenomenon to task.

  11. yep @8, that sounds like the author not only missed the point but didn’t bother reading the original book in the first place. Ye gods.

    And Meloukhia, thank you for this post. It touches on a lot of stuff I’ve noticed lately but phrases it much better than I could ever do.
    .-= Nomie´s last blog ..public transit =-.

  12. I think every kind of -ism has become cool recently, as well as jokes about rape. The Guardian in London did a feature on this type of “comedy” back in July (I blogged this response).

    The past couple of weeks, one well-known “comic” whose stock in trade includes rape jokes got into trouble when he told a joke in front of an audience in Margate, a rundown beach resort in east Kent: “say what you like about those servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we’re going to have a f***ing good Paralympic team in 2012”. Anyway, there has been a lot of sanctimonious guff spoken about this incident in the popular press, with some people demanding that his career should be over just like that, and it’s mostly from people who haven’t complained about his jokes up until now. (He was interviewed for yesterday’s Guardian; here’s the result.)

  13. Oddly enough, Matthew, The Guardian actually just linked to this post. I’m checking out the Carr interview and it’s rather interesting to see how it’s framed.

  14. Great post, and definitely something I’ve been railing at for some time. It always frustrates me when people frame their -isms as transgressive comedy, when it is anything but. It is the most conservative, least-challenging form of humour there is.

  15. I find that 99.99 percent of TV is a mess of racism, sexism, ablism, LGBT-hate and particularly sanism/psychophobia and therefore virtually unwatchable. The fact that most shows I’ve discovered are dreadfully scripted, mechanically structured and only passably acted doesn’t help, either. So I have not watched nor do I intend to watch Glee (though I do like a few of the songs I’ve heard). Still, I find these posts excellent and highly informative, particularly since I can read synopses of the episodes or ask my Glee-watching friends to fill me in.

  16. I’ve not watched Glee, and I don’t particularly intend to, but I have read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and was terribly disappointed when what started as amusing went downhill so fast.

    But I do have a thought about hipster-ism… more an internal niggling doubt. Because I don’t like that humour at all. But here’s a situation; I’m with a group of my friends, and somehow the lighthearted conversation turns towards race. And there is an opening for someone to make a racist comment that everyone will find funny. I know it is coming. I know that after it is said I will tell the person off and talk about respectful language and everyone will go “Yes, yes, we get it, we didn’t mean it, we’re sorry,” and it will be dismissed as Jo banging on about respectful language again and it won’t make much impact.

    If I make the racist comment myself (and I have done this once, and I doubt myself over whether it was the best thing to do) there is an audible gasp. The conversation stops. Because they know how important respectful language is to me, when I say it it is not glossed over, it is not funny, it is commented on and the conversation can continue respectfully.

    Of course this wouldn’t work if it was done often, and nor would I be at all happy with myself if it was done often. I would also not be likely to make the same approach with ablism, (perhaps hypocritically) because it’s an issue I’m a lot more sensitive about.

    Though this was an old post, it’s the first I’ve come across which addresses this idea much at all… I’m still trying to figure out if my approach is an acceptable one by which to spark conversations or if I, too, am just perpetuating.

  17. I am interested in whether or not you see humor as a means to resist or refute oppressive stereotypes within “oppressed” populations. This is a discussion I’ve had with some classmates/co-workers/comrades-in-arms. For instance, does the use of racial stereotypes in the Chappelle Show classify as racist when they are performed by a Black man, for a Black audience? Or does a disabled girl calling herself “cripple” among a group of friends count as ableism? Is it homophobic for queer folk to call each other fag? Do these things reflect an adoption of oppressive stereotypes among oppressed groups (psychological oppression)? Or can these be seen as a mode of resistance? I think that taking stereotypes away from the majority and refashioning them to be either ironic or images of empowerment qualifies as resistance. I suppose the question arises whether these images, when fed back to the majority, then confront or affirm the stereotypes in their minds. I know this is not exactly the topic of this blog post, but I would be interested in what you had to say on this topic. I only just found your blog, and was just having a poke around and found this post. Anyway…

  18. Thank you for this. It’s something I run into a lot more often than I should, and it’s good to see it set out so clearly and specifically. Thank you.

  19. Drive-by comment (although I’m here quite late, I see)… I agree, and I am heartily sick of the phrase “politically correct”/”pc”, because I swear 99% of the time it’s used, the person using it is using it as shorthand for “Waaaaaaaah, but I WANT to be able to say shitty, hurtful things without getting called on it! Why should I have to actually consider my language or actions? Other people don’t matter; I shouldn’t have to hear about how my words or actions affect them! Stop oppressing me :(” etc. “Political correctness run amok” = “being the least bit considerate is haaaaaaard”. “I’m so un-PC!” = “look what a shithead I am, isn’t it funny”.

  20. This is an awesome post, thank you so much. All these thoughts and concerns have been floating around in my head for years, but I just didn’t know how to explain why I found hipster -isms so offensive.

  21. Thank you for making me more aware of this. It is the type of thing I would not notice without being sensitized. Even having been on the receiving end of this type of behavior once or twice (chauvinist who pretended he was joking) I still did not notice the many forms that it can take.