I love Channel 4’s 2016 ‘We’re the Superhumans’ ad.But then, of course I’m biased, because the ad makes a perfect babysitter, it really does. My son, who is almost 18 months, is completely enthralled by the clip, wiggling his curly little head to the rhythm of the music. Whenever it’s finished, he grins at me, then points and grunts at the laptop until we start it anew, then he’s mesmerized for another four minutes. Everyone who has dealt with a teething, moody toddler knows that 4 minutes of complete peace can be a lifesaver. We even got to have a few sneaky glasses of wine while watching the ad with him. In short, since its release, ‘We’re the Superhumans’ has done more for our family life than ‘In the Night Garden’ and the Teletubbies together.
The response of the disabled community to the ad has been a bit more mixed than my son’s: People rightly criticise the overall idea of disabled people being ‘Superhumans’. It dehumanizes those described as such – to be human is to fail, to hurt, to tire, and ‘superhumans’ aren’t allowed to do that. To an extent, the ad engages in what Stella Young, who is so dearly missed, called ‘Inspiration Porn’:
“Let me be clear about the intent of inspiration porn; it’s there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, “Oh well if that kid who doesn’t have any legs can smile while he’s having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life”. It’s there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think “well, it could be worse… I could be that person”.” (Stella Young)
The ad’s tag line ‘Yes I Can’, lifted from a Sammy Davis Jr. song that is covered in the clip, encourages this idea further: Everyone has things they can’t do, but when it comes to disability, phrases like ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude’ take the emphasis from structural problems in society that disable us and instead place the sole responsibility to succeed on the individual, which is especially dangerous in a political climate where measures that would encourage the equality of disabled people are under threat and being taken away from us.
And yet despite all of that, in my eyes, Channel 4 did good with the ad, and not just because the baby likes it. For perspective, I would encourage you to watch the 2012, entitled ‘Meet the Superhumans’.
There, the only disabled people we see are athletes – seemingly the only way to become a ‘Superhuman’. The ad is targeted towards nondisabled people who need to discover the Paralympics. Disability is positioned as a horrible consequence of tragic events (car accidents, war, pregnancy complications). While the ad seems to have done an effective job in getting nondisabled people feel excited about the Paralympics, disabled people who are not Paralympians were not deemed worth mentioning, and there was no sense of a disabled community in the 2012 ad.
What a difference four years makes! The title has changed to the more inclusive ‘We’re the Superhumans’ – In the new ad we do not only see Paralympians, but also disabled artists, musicians, students, parents and dancers. It actually reflects the vibrant disabled community in the UK and shows the wonderful things disabled people can create when working together (Music! Dance! Art!). The Paralympics themselves are based on such a medical understanding of disability and still exclude many types of impairments, so it is a sheer joy to see such a wide spectrum of disabled people represented here, all working together.
Prosthetics or wheelchairs are not portrayed as something that should be feared, but instead the ad contains a hilarious scene of a man and a woman, tap dancing together with a circle of prosthetic legs (my son’s favourite – he squeals with excitement when we reach that scene. He’s also really really into the disabled rock band). The ad hints at the creative possibilities of disability. Of course, disabled artists have been playing with these possibilities for decades, but to see the mainstream finally catching on and actively using input from the disabled people to represent us is hugely exciting to me. There is also an extremely entertaining signed version and a charming audio described version of the clip, something that was missing from the campaign four years ago altogether. Channel 4 must have listened to some of the criticism that the 2012 ad received from disabled people and has actively tried to do better.
I’m definitely not a superhuman and can’t sing, dance, or do most of the other amazing things people do in the ad, but I’m extremely proud to belong to a community that has such creative talent, and happy that the ad provided a big opportunity to showcase said talent for those of us who do possess it. While I cannot bring my little son to exciting new theatre productions by disabled artists, I can celebrate disability pride with him through his enjoyment of this clip. To see disabled artists have another big moment in the mainstream after the magical London 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony is wonderful, and it sure gets me excited for the cultural side of Rio 2016.