The Internet has been abuzz over the past week of a new “bionic” pop star, Viktoria Modesta. Modesta’s meteoric rise is thanks to Channel 4’s “Born Risky” campaign, which provides resources and support for “alternative voices” that would otherwise struggle to break into the mainstream. Leading the campaign is Modesta with her song “Prototype,” the beginning of which demands the viewer to “forget what you know about disability.” But for a text that demands the viewer to “forget” what we know about disability, it seems to spend a lot of time marinating in the juices of all-too-familiar tropes and images of disability. Is Viktoria Modesta really revolutionary or is she simply Lady Gaga with one leg?
In some ways, this can be read as a resistant text
Simply put, Modesta the musician does present a radical crip embodiment that challenges dominant ableist imaginations of who the disabled are, what they can do, and how they behave and it is for this reason that there is merit to this work. In the video for “Prototype,” Modesta is cast as a freedom fighter whose body stands in stark opposition to a fascist repressive regime that, presumably, stands as symbolic of typical western body/gender policing. She then goes on to inject disability in places most often considered inaccessible to the disabled subject, such as the extended ballet scene which blends the technical grace of dance with the hard, metallic scraping of her sharpened prosthetic limb. More than that though, Modesta present us with a resistant depiction that demands we embrace her eroticism — this video doesn’t just claim she is sexual, it asserts it quite clearly. Whether it be the slinky clothing, the seductive dancing or the naked bed writhing, Modesta forces us to consider her as a variable sexual target that defies heteronormative conceptions of sexuality. In this way, Modesta embraces her disability and calls on others to do the same by living outside dominant bodily, gender and sexual subjectivities.
For this reason, on the whole, I think Modesta is doing a good thing popularizing the ideas of Disability Studies and mainstreaming disabled bodies.
But in other ways, it is just more of the same…
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of pop music and my original response to seeing this video was “meh”. My biggest problem with “Prototype” is the way Modesta has been packaged by Channel 4, as seen in this article which follows a typical super crip mythology. Simply put, how are we supposed to “forget” what we know about disability when the video spends an inordinate amount of time reminding us that Modesta is an amputee? Why must Modesta be a “bionic” pop star and not simply a pop star? Introducing Modesta as a “bionic” pop star and starting her video with the text “forget what you know about disability” followed by a scene of doctors surrounding her with scalpels and needles immediately frames her, forcing the viewer to see her through an ableist confining lens of “disability” throughout.
The problem is that the prosthetic leg, not Modesta herself, is the star of this video. Throughout the video, the viewer is provided voyeuristic close-ups of her glowing or angular prosthetic, including a befuddling dance scene that is introduced almost exclusively from below the waist and features a soundscape dominated by the grind of her prosthetic on the floor. Even Modesta’s sexuality is tethered to the prosthetic, situating her in a long and deep tradition of amputee fetishism. In fact, the only time we see her without a prosthetic leg is within the bedroom, where the focus of the scene is not her near-naked body but the taboo of witnessing her exposed amputation.
Perhaps one of the most powerful moments in this video for me is the young girl pulling the leg of her doll to replicate the embodiment of Modesta, but the power of this scene is then blunted when it is implied that people are now cutting off their own legs in homage to Modesta, playing into the all-to-common fear of contagiousness and the threat of bodily corruption the disabled pose to the normate. At the same time, this phobic angle may not be the dominant reading of the text, as the most popular comment on the Channel 4 Facebook post about Modesta is an individual lamenting that their leg doesn’t light up too.
This is not to say that Modesta must disavow all connection with disability in order to be radical or revolutionary, in fact claiming her disabled subjectivity is a strong political move, but this text seems to continually reinforce ideas of amputee fetishism, amputation as central to identity and disability as contagious. What’s more, the implication that Modesta is somehow new or unique is frustrating as it ignores the work of disabled artists (like Frida Kahlo, Christy Brown, Aimee Mullins, and the late Stella Young) and activists like Jes Sachse’s American Able, which poses almost the exact same type of bodily sexual confrontation without constantly reminding people that she’s “disabled”.
What would be truly revolutionary is if Modesta was allowed to simply be a pop star, fashion icon, or sex symbol — without “disabled” being perpetually asterisked beside her name.