At Sunday night’s Oscars, Selma Blair made her first public appearance since announcing that she lives with multiple sclerosis (MS). Selma looked incredible, of course, and was wearing a fabulous dress. But it was the cane in her right hand that made this so much more than a red carpet fashion moment.
I do not need to explain how central the media is to informing public perception. What we see in the pages of magazines and on our TV screens is key to influencing what we accept as beautiful, cool, or desirable. This is why representation in the media is not just a nice-to-have, but an essential component of any fair society.
To date however, media representation of disability has been verging on non-existent. More than 100,000 people in the UK have MS, and 2.3million worldwide. But while film and TV storylines have occasionally explored the condition, the starry world of red-carpets, models, and A-listers rarely seems to have room for a walking aid.
The Oscars and Vanity Fair are two institutions virtually synonymous with Hollywood, glamour, and success. And that’s why seeing an A-list actress attend the Vanity Fair Oscars party with a cane – albeit a custom made, diamond encrusted one – feels so pivotal. Because the potential repercussions for thousands of people living with MS, who until now may not have felt represented in this world, are undeniable.
As the old adage goes, you cannot be what you cannot see. This is a lifestyle and career path that the majority of people – disabled or otherwise – consider entirely out of reach. So to finally see someone with MS make an inroad – and such a defiant one at that – feels like a glorious moment for inclusion.
Of course, the appallingly limited representation of disability on the red carpet speaks of a much wider problem. Inclusion of disabled people in film simply isn’t happening enough. The fact we don’t see disabled people on the red carpet is because they are rarely there on the screen. But this is another – important – conversation for another time.
Since she was diagnosed, Selma has spoken candidly about the challenges living with MS can bring. We’ve heard about her struggles with balance and memory, socialising and getting dressed. She has talked about her difficulty receiving a diagnosis. We’ve even seen her getting a lumbar puncture. This form of visibility is vital, but here we have another form entirely – and one that is arguably even more important. Because Selma isn’t just using a cane. She is working it.
Her cane could easily have been hidden, disguised, or obstructed. Kept shyly out of shot to allow Selma ‘the actress’ to shine. But she has notably – marvellously – done quite the opposite. The cane isn’t even just a literal prop, it’s an artistic one. It is front and centre: an extension of each pose. She oozes confidence. She swaggers.
MS is a lifelong condition for which there is no cure. It can be painful and exhausting, yes, but it is not everything. People – many people – live brilliant, fulfilling lives with the condition. They run businesses, households, and marathons. They change perception and government policy. They start families and fundraisers and travel and teach. They do anything else you can think of. And as Selma so brilliantly illustrates, they can own a red carpet.
MS does not, by any stretch of the imagination, define a person. And that’s why this is the visibility that people with MS and other disabilities need.
Genevieve Edwards is director of external affairs at the MS Society. For more information about MS, visit mssociety.org.uk