Just find a way around it

Curator's Note

“People would Tweet: ‘I’m sure Briony had a hand last week,’” said Great British Bake-Off semi-finalist Briony Williams on the BBC podcast Ouch. Williams has what she calls a little hand—a birth defect that affected the development of her left hand. Williams did not want to make a big deal about her disability, and it was not mentioned during the course of the show. She explained on Ouch that her mother always encouraged her “find a way around” obstacles. For example, when she had to construct a biscuit chandelier, rather than ask for help to tie the hanging structure together, Williams used a stapler to secure pink and purple ribbons to her teardrop- and diamond-shaped biscuits. She explained a few other kitchen hacks, like using a heavy marble rolling pin to roll out pastry and a blender or food processor to mix flour and butter together for shortcrust. These are hardly special accommodations—all can be easily purchased for a modern kitchen—but Williams’ suggestions are useful for home cooks of all abilities.

In honoring Williams’ wishes, GBBO avoided a trope used by many reality television shows when featuring a contestant with a disability: inspiration porn. As William Cheng wrote, some reality television producers exploit the heartwarming stories of contestants with impairments for profit. “Narratives of overcoming disability are prone to sliding from good-natured celebration into patronizing lionization,” Cheng said. And this narrative can work to devalue and dehumanize people with disabilities, as if everyone should have some reality-TV worthy superpower to offset their difference.

Williams’ achievement and talent as a baker is unquestioned. But by not mentioning her disability, was Williams, as Tobin Siebers wrote, passing? Is there a place of comfort where disability can be acknowledged, addressed, and celebrated without being exploitative? “I would have liked to have felt solidarity with her from the very beginning,” wrote Rasia Hassan, “instead of it being treated like a minor detail.”


This presents us with a really interesting set of dilemmas. Should we showcase disability? What if the individual doesn't want it showcased? Should someone with a disability be bound to speak for or to a disabled community? In what way? Similarly, is not addressing it "passing," especially if that disability is visible? If it's invisible (say, schizophrenia or depression) should someone be called out for not wearing it on their sleeve? What's the line between inspiration porn and inspiring stories of incredible individuals (doesn't every figure on reality TV that "succeeds" have some story that makes them distinctive?)? 

Thanks for bringing up these questions! It's a fascinating case study.

I really enjoyed this essay! This line really struck me: "Is there a place of comfort where disability can be acknowledged, addressed, and celebrated without being exploitative?"

I feel like some of it depends on whose creating and leading the content. Content created by apolitical people with disabilities who are motivational speakers would be different from content created by politicized disabled people would be different from non-disabled made content like the show Briony's on. I haven't watched this show, but it seems like having her on the show demonstrating hacks is a nice balance. In the context of a mainstream, non-disabled show, to bring up her disability boldly runs the risk of everyone crying onscreen about how inspiring she is. By folding it quietly into how she does things, maybe it avoids the invitation for that abled gaze making itself known. But I can't neatly answer any of your questions. They raise so many different tensions. Thank you for that!

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