Actor Christina Applegate took right-wing pundit Candace Owens to task this week for resurfaced disparaging and ableist comments Owens made in 2022, in which she criticized Skims, Kim Kardashian’s shapewear line, for running ads with an underwear model in a wheelchair — comments Owens doubled down on on Wednesday.
Applegate, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2021, and whose quality of life has been dramatically affected by the disease, tweeted: “This Candace person making comments about companies who see we need help. It’s f---ing gross. I thank skims … for seeing us.” In a subsequent tweet, Applegate explained how she needs help getting dressed since the deterioration of her MS, and praised Skims for promoting “accessibility clothing for me and my community.”
The episode exposes some telling points about the right’s antagonistic relationship to inclusion and the reality of the perceived threat (spoiler alert: There isn’t really one).
Owens, in typical fashion, unleashed a series of hateful screeds in attacking the inclusion of minorities in modeling campaigns.
In a number of her Daily Wire podcast-cum-YouTube videos, Owens, in typical fashion, unleashed a series of hateful screeds in attacking the inclusion of minorities in modeling campaigns, and used bad faith arguments to lash out at her detractors. In her most recent episode, published Wednesday, Owens shared that one viewer who uses a wheelchair wrote to the host and explained the Skims ad campaign made her believe she could fulfill her lifelong dream of being a model. Owens responded: “Okay, so what you’re saying there is you want to be patronized. You want people to essentially hand out participation trophies — you’re perhaps not the best person suited for this particular role, but you want people to give it to you anyways … you’re seeing Victoria’s Secret fashion shows with clinically obese people.” Companies do this in part to pander to liberals, Owens contends, but also to “placate the literal mob,” who threaten violence unless they get their “token Black person, token fat person, a person that is disabled, [and] the trans person” in ad campaigns.
Owens escalated the absurdity: “People were accusing me of not wanting disabled people to wear underwear. … That’s true, everybody knows that I can’t stand that. Everybody knows you have to see a model doing something to know that you’re allowed to do it. Until I saw a Black woman wearing clothes on a billboard, I was naked my whole life. I was just butt naked walking around. Until I saw Tyra Banks on Top Model, I was butt naked. So, thank you, representation matters.”
OK, Candace …
But this whole conversation touches on an increasingly fundamental tenet of the right-wing culture wars: “Diversity” as a boogeyman has entered every facet of the far-right zeitgeist and become an obsession, a catchall scapegoat for reactionary pundits and politicians across the country.
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On Thursday, World Athletics announced a total ban on transgender women competing in the female category for international events (there are currently no trans female athletes competing internationally). Self-penned anti-woke leader Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blamed the fall of Silicon Valley Bank diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
Scapegoating minorities and associated fear-mongering is not a new tactic. It’s a trusted go-to in the reactionary playbook. But as inclusion, perceived increased influence of minoritiesand DEI initiatives gain more steam than ever, we’re seeing a predictably loud retaliation from the right.
Unsurprisingly, the right’s fear about the threat of inclusion and diversity is, well, not real. Yes, improved inclusion can help on the margins. Endless studies have made the case that diversity can help avoid “groupthink” and promote innovation and creativity. And, generally, giving marginalized populations opportunities they’ve historically not had is a good idea. But, as I made the case in my article about Rishi Sunak’s ascent as the U.K.’s first prime minister of color, we often confuse tokenism with meaningful diversity, and simply including more minorities in systems designed to oppress them is not progress.
“Diversity” as a boogeyman has entered every facet of the far-right zeitgeist and become an obsession, a catchall scapegoat for reactionary pundits and politicians across the country.
A 2020 Harvard Business Review paper titled “Getting Serious About Diversity: Enough Already with the Business Case,” makes the case that “there is no research support for the notion that diversifying the workforce automatically improves a company’s performance. … To fully benefit from increased racial and gender diversity, organizations must adopt a learning orientation and be willing to change the corporate culture and power structure.”
And here is the crux of the issue. Institutions and power structures predicated on white supremacist, patriarchal, ableist, heteronormative systems designed for the dominant classes cannot fundamentally be reshaped by the simple inclusion of women and minorities.
Building on the work of Black, lesbian and radical feminists, author and cultural critic Marcie Bianco makes this case in her forthcoming book, “Breaking Free: The Lie of Equality and the Feminist Fight for Freedom.” The proclamation that inclusion equates equality is a lie that merely helps expand the harmful systems we want to “smash,” Bianco rightly contends.
So, yes, empowering oppressed classes is, in theory, threatening to those in power. But, no, the extent of the right’s fear is not warranted. The inclusion of an underwear model in a wheelchair in a Skims ad campaign and general DEI initiatives are not going to lead to the French Revolution. But the sheer terror, fear and hatred exhibited by the right every time DEI initiatives make modest advances speaks volumes about how tenuous they believe their own power to be.