Everything Chadwick Boseman Taught Us About Inspiration Porn

Featured Image: Mark Seliger/Vanity Fair

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In the weeks following his passing, I continued to see this flood of messages making the rounds with the same subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) lament, that Chadwick Boseman went so long hiding his cancer from the world, battling in silence without inviting a throng of fans to share in his suffering. And the reason this sentiment rubs me the wrong way isn’t due to the intentions behind it — I have no doubt that the vast majority truly would have been able to extend their empathy and support, offering up genuine compassion. It’s the accessibility that we covet when it comes to celebrity. The illusion of closeness that makes us think we are owed a front-row seat to their most intimate trauma and pain. We have long since destroyed the flimsy barrier between an artist’s work and life outside it. But the harsh truth is, at no point did he owe us a somber announcement explaining his diagnosis. He wasn’t hiding, because we never had a right to know to begin with. 

The instant a celebrity of Chadwick’s caliber comes out with the news of a terminal illness diagnosis, everything in their career thus far is squashed down to make space for this weighty new label. Every future project comes with this new baggage thrust upon the audience — keep in mind, he made this film for you while fighting, and the reviews better reflect that. The narrative shifts from an actor being praised for a breathtaking performance to the same actor being applauded for performing so well for someone with cancer. And those who don’t have the same glowing resume Chadwick built up over the years, run the risk of jeopardizing their entire career by publicizing a disability that could otherwise be masked.

Behind the romanticization of someone “working through their cancer” lies the rancid, murky truth. This isn’t an act of voluntary courage or an ultimate show of creative brilliance. It is ableism, plain as day, that forces the disabled to hide their diagnoses to keep a job. Chadwick worked in the face of his illness because of his love for his craft and his fans, not to prove the “no excuses” missive put forth by able-bodied folks in the wake of his death. By propagating this notion that with enough willpower and passion, anyone with a life-altering condition can suppress its mental and physical symptoms and carry on with their life, we drown out the voices of those for whom Chadwick’s journey is more than an empowering self-motivator. 

For those of us that are able-bodied, posts about Chadwick’s unrelenting work ethic even at the trough of his illness are a reminder to cherish the art he put out, but for those with disabilities, they can be interpreted as an unspoken reminder that they are only considered worthy, respected, extraordinary, if they can produce work that is just as marveled upon. While it may not be the intention, a vast majority of these inspirational tweets are aimed at the wrong audience. They imply that to not channel all your energy into your work 24/7 automatically makes you lazy, an underachiever. Working through pain isn’t inspiration, it is an indicator that the system is so broken that those with terminal illnesses can’t take time off without fearing everything around them coming crashing down at a time where that’s the last thing they can afford.

This is why I think it’s prudent to keep this quote from Imani Barbarin in mind when we navigate the way we react to events like Chadwick’s passing. It’s a reminder that while a celebrity can inspire in their strength and passion, the same standard cannot be applied to everyone in a similar boat without invalidating their unique struggles.

His illness was discounting in life, 

but in death it is currency.