A Kid With Down Syndrome Becomes a Target Model: This is Only the Start of Progress

There was a very heart warming post in Jezebel this week. Target is, so graciously, running an ad campaign that features a boy with Down syndrome. I love heart-warming stories. Here’s another beauty! And another! (ok, yes. That’s my brother.) It’s great to see a progressive community that’s so proud and sure of their progressivism that they’re willing to let people with developmental disabilities do normal things. Like, things that typical kids are supposed to do. Who ever would have thought that a kid with Down syndrome could be a model? Or prom king and queen? Vice President? Guys, this is truly a mark of how progressive we are.

My overt cynicism and sarcasm was my not-so-subtle way of trying to clue everyone in on something: this isn’t really all that cool. Yeah, Target used a small child with Down syndrome to model a new clothing line they have coming out. Sweet. But I have two problems with this making national attention. 1) The kid is REALLY freaking cute. Why WOULDN’T you feature this kid? He’s guaranteed to rake in the cash. Kid’s gold. And that leads me into problem number two. The kid is an ad agencies dream. Cute and with Down syndrome. Not only does he make the clothes look fly, but he’s guaranteed to garner national attention because he has Down syndrome. Like, Christ people! This, this is not a sign of a progressive community. When you look at that Target ad and go “Awww, isn’t that nice?” you’re stepping into a bear trap. A progressive community is a community that sees a kid with Down syndrome modeling a pair of Levi’s and says, “Those are some nice jeans.”

I think I should take a minute to explain exactly what I mean by progressive. There’s a certain stigma attached to that word (for me at least) and a false sense of liberalism. I reflexively equate progressivism to equality. I like to think that a “progressive” community is a community that promotes blind equality. I realize that to say that is to play progressivism to it’s extreme, but here we are, patting ourselves on the back because Nordstrom put a kid with Down syndrome in their catalogue! Is that, at its heart, progressive? Is it even helping the movement? 

That last part, the “helping the movement” bit, is what I’ve been grappling with. My cynical, no-one-but-me-knows-what’s-best, gut response is no. This is a stalling engine. It sputters, it gives you hope, but in the end you call a tow-truck and junk it. Something like this, a “sign of progress”, lulls us into a false sense of assurance. We’ve made it guys, the world is good. My gut response says we need to skip go and get right to convenient parking.

Yet my more logical side (well, maybe just more naïve) says that we need this. We need our landmarks, and we need hope. All right, so Target was trying to make some extra bucks. This is capitalism after all; it thrives on the exploitation of workers. But when national chains notice a shifting status quo and see that using a child with Down syndrome will gain them positive national attention, that means something. It’s something that wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago, but received overwhelmingly positive feedback now. It bums me out that two kids with Down syndrome become prom king and queen is something that deserves national attention (another, “Aww, that’s cute” moment) but 20 years ago they probably wouldn’t even be in school.

So all, I’m giving this one the thumbs up (scale of 1-10, how conceded did that sound?) but with a bold print asterisk. This isn’t an end point; it’s a starting point.