Bird Box Challenge or parody of disabilities for profit?

A self portrait image of Ted Tahquechi wearing a blindfold. He has grey hair and a grey beard and moustache.

Social phenomenon or fads have been with us likely forever and can arise from many different areas of influence. In the 1950’s, millions of teens took part in the hula hoop craze. Then, in the 1970’s and 80’s, we saw more examples of fads like the pet rock and the Rubik’s cube. Let’s also not forget about the Slinky, a springy toy introduced in the 1940’s that would walk down stairs seemingly by itself (alone or in pairs.).  Fads tend to eventually fade in popularity, but their effects remain ingrained in social folklore proportional to the extent they last, and their social impact. Social media outlets like Twitter and YouTube have become an integral cog in the machine that spreads the popularity of contemporary fads. The Bird Box challenge is the latest phenomenon to burn up today’s social media pages.

Fads in recent years

Today, we continue the fine tradition of fads. Some are like the ice bucket challenge of 2014, which ended up garnering worldwide attention and raised $15.6 million for the ALS Association to research Lou Gehrig’s disease. Other fads are not quite so benign: for example, the cinnamon challenge which started in 2001. Participants challenged themselves to eat a heaping tablespoon of cinnamon without choking. Things escalated quickly, spawning unhealthy challenges like the bath salts challenge and more recently the Tide Pod challenge, where YouTube stars and hopefuls ingest Tide detergent pods. All too often, the participants end up in the hospital, and some have even met an early demise from participating in these ill-advised extreme challenges.

According to data from YouTube, over 300 hours of video are uploaded to the platform every minute as of its January 2019 reporting. With 18 to 49-year-old viewers watching nearly 5 billion videos a day on the platform, it is easy to see how content can get lost in the deluge of uploads. In an ongoing struggle to stay relevant, content creators lean towards more extreme (or unique) themes in their creation methods. This is all in the hopes of going viral and hopefully rise to the top of a very busy pile of videos. Each minute of video watched on a channel leads to more impressions, ad views, and chance of revenue. It is with this in mind that we are seeing a shift from the short format (just showing the challenge) to longer videos which feature the results of the challenge – referred to as aftermath videos.  YouTube celebrity Chris Schewe (Shoenice) made a multitude of videos where he would drink an entire bottle of alcohol and then record the aftermath for his fan’s enjoyment. Shoenice was eventually banned from YouTube, as his videos were spawning copycat challenges, and young children were reportedly getting hurt from ingesting large quantities of alcohol. Since that time, many other YouTube celebrities continue to create extreme videos (L.A. Beast, Furious Pete) showcasing extreme eating and the eventual aftermath, which usually includes vomiting.

Bird Box

In December 2018, Netflix released their original production Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock – spawning the latest fad, The Bird Box Challenge. This challenge ranges from the safe to the insane. In the movie, the characters are haunted by mysterious bird-like creatures who cause anyone that looks at them to go insane and kill themselves. In the movie, to stay safe, the characters wear blindfolds while outside and try to survive their day-to-day lives without seeing. This has led to YouTube videos where people don blindfolds and try to brush their teeth, eat, and in one case drive a car.

I am almost blind, with only a small bit of light perception and no detail in my tiny field of vision. I decided to watch the movie, make an informed decision about the story and give my opinions on the Bird Box Challenge. I live my life with a visual field very similar to the way the characters’ vision is portrayed in the movie (with the blindfolds on).

Before watching the movie, I read several reviews that categorized it as a horror film. I would consider this a cliché’-riddled thriller. I love horror movies, and while this feature does contain some mild nudity, violence, and vulgar language, the content isn’t any scarier than one of the gorier episodes of CSI. The first thing I thought of when I started this movie was the 2018 Thriller A Quiet Place. For those who have not seen that movie, the characters are haunted by bird-like creatures who attack if they hear noises above a whisper. The characters survive their day-to-day lives by using sign language and being wary of where they step. I won’t go into spoilers about the hero of the movie, but suffice to say, if you have seen both movies you will notice glaring similarities in the plots.

Portrayal of being sightless

Before I delve too deeply into the way blindness was portrayed in Bird Box, I need to be clear that while I am visually impaired and advocate for the rights of the partially sighted, I was not offended by this movie. I was also not bothered by the way blindness was portrayed in the feature. I was, however, confused about the tools the characters used in the movie for navigating their environment. In most scenes, the characters chose to use fishing reels, using the line to lead them back to a specific location. Realistically, people who are sight-impaired use time-distance estimation when traveling and often count their steps. The glaring absence of objects used as “white canes” is also confusing to me. Even the fishing poles the characters used would be a perfect improvised cane, lending a reasonable amount of tactile feedback and flexibility when navigating the environment. These issues aside (and yes, I realize this is a movie and for entertainment and not intended to be reality) I liked the movie and thought it was worth watching. It will not go down as a stellar achievement in film history, but it was a good watch. If you liked A Quiet Place you should find Bird Box equally entertaining.

The way the characters dealt with their lack of sight in the beginning of the movie was accurate, but the scenes that fast-forwarded five years showed little progression in the character’s skill of completing tasks while visually impaired. The children in the movie, who grew up with the blindfolds should have been significantly more aware of their surroundings, and very capable of navigating their environment effectively. Again, I will reiterate I fully realize this is a movie and production decisions were made for entertainment over reality.

Putting yourself in other’s shoes

In Bird Box, the characters drive, defend themselves, and travel around their environment outside while blind. I can see how the Bird Box challenge grew from the tension and difficulty the characters experience in the movie while trying to survive without sight. However, this is a movie, and deciding to create YouTube videos that (in many cases) poke fun at and make light of a disability for the purposes of making money should be reconsidered. I’m not easily offended, but I know lots of visually impaired people who take their disability a lot more seriously than I do. Perhaps we should consider a more constructive way to put ourselves in other’s shoes.

Why not take a Saturday and really wear the blindfold all day? Spend the day trying to find your way around the house, cook breakfast for yourself, find the television remote and take the dog outside without being able to see. Take the challenge of really putting yourself in another’s shoes. If that is too big of a commitment for you, try putting that blindfold on and watching a movie you haven’t seen before with only the audio descriptions on. This article isn’t intended attack anyone for doing the Bird Box challenge: this is meant to shed light on the fact that people are making money off parodying disabilities.

Learn about visual impairments

One of the best ways to learn about visual impairments, and how they affect a person’s life is to talk to a person with limited vision. Many with low vision (myself included) are very willing to talk about vision loss and how it affects your life. You can always DM or email me – all the pertinent information to reach me can be found in my contact links at the end of this article. There are also numerous resources to learn about visual impairment, here are a few:

Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Royal National Institute of Blind People

National Federation of the Blind

Moving on

Like any fad, the Bird Box challenge will fade, and if the Tide Pods, Bath Salts and Cinnamon challenge are any indicator, it will not be long before the next extreme challenge takes its place. In the meantime, why not research vision loss and how people live with visual impairments.

I love to hear from my readers! Feel free to contact me on any of my websites or on social media.

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