Jessica Long’s Story
CW: discussion of abuse and filicide
Toyota’s 2021 Super Bowl spot, titled ‘Jessica Long’s Story’ was immediately lauded by non-disabled folks, with one YouTube comment proclaiming it the “Best Ad ever.” Actress and writer Mindy Kaling, who has 11.7 million Twitter followers, tweeted “I’ve never been more moved than watching that Toyota ad”, to which disabled writer and advocate Mx. Charis Hill responded, stating, “Disabled people hate this ad. Full stop.” This ad reminds us that few people outside of disability circles seem to know or care about the difference between disability representation and disability exploitation.
‘Start Your Impossible’ is a multi-year Toyota campaign that began in 2018, and has become a vehicle for telling ‘inspiring’ stories of Paralympic athletes. Last year, we reviewed a different ‘Start Your Impossible’ ad, featuring Wheelchair Motocross athlete Lily Rice. At the time, we were struck by the soundtrack, which opened with “tentative, solitary notes on a keyboard to suggest loneliness and isolation.” ‘Jessica Long’s Story’ begins the same way.
On the screen, we see 13x Paralympic gold medalist and double amputee, Jessica Long, floating in dark water. In a close up, she puts on goggles as we hear a phone begin to ring. The music begins to grow as Jessica swims into a dark abyss, revealing a woman sitting at a partially submerged desk, basking in a divine light signaling that she has been cast as the savior in this disability story.
“Mrs. Long?” The woman picks up and we hear a voice on the other end, “we found a baby girl for your adoption, but there’s some things you need to know.” The camera cuts to a dark room that reveals itself to be a partially flooded orphanage. Babies lay in cribs, that line an aisle that Jessica swims through. As one of us tweeted, “Why do all Toyota’s disability ads have horror movie art direction?”
The eerie atmosphere suggests another reading of the surreal imagery of Mrs. Long’s partially submerged desk: her life is about to be engulfed by that of her disabled child. Mainstream narratives that are ostensibly about disabled children frequently turn out to be about the challenges their existence creates for their parents.
This is a particularly troubling subtext to introduce to a story about a transnational disabled adoptee, when we reflect on high-profile cases such as those of Myka and James Stauffer, who re-placed their adopted son Huxley after he was diagnosed with autism, or Natalia Grace Barnett, a disabled teen whose parents abandoned her in the United States upon their relocation to Waterloo, Ontario, when their prodigiously talented son began attending the Perimeter Institute at the age of 16. Subsequently, the Barnett adults claimed that they abandoned Natalia because she was a predatory, mentally unstable adult who behaved violently toward the rest of the household.
The narrative of the disabled child who dominates and overwhelms the lives of their parents is a well-established trope, and one that is routinely used to justify neglect and abuse.
Within the ad, the adoption agent continues “She’s in Siberia and she was born with a rare condition. Her legs will need to be amputated.” Adult Jessica remains in the dark as she swims past a brightly lit house, where a toddler version of herself is using crutches to walk through a flooded living room. Her mother looks on proudly.
We then see a child version of Jessica in a red swimsuit and goggles while the adoption agent reassures Mrs. Long; “I know this is difficult to hear, her life, it won’t be easy.” The child version of Jessica dives into the water, where initially her coach, and then a small crowd, and finally an awe inspiring Olympic sized crowd rise from the stands to cheer her on. As we stated in our Lily Rice review, “Swelling strings signify overcoming and inspiration.” If there was a disability trope that was the origin of sins, this would be it; a tragic tale revealing itself to be a story about overcoming.
In the final scene, adult Jessica swims into her family living room, where she looks back in time from the water to her mom, who is standing in the kitchen on the phone. Her mom is smiling tearfully as she tells the adoption agent “it might not be easy but it will be amazing. I can’t wait to meet her.”Jessica smiles as her mom reaches to hold her husband’s hands across the dinner table. Longer musical cords provide a resolution to this story.
Both Lily Rice’s and Jessica Long’s ads open with surreal imagery, stark lighting and spare acoustics that serve to immediately establish a sense of isolation and trepidation. Over the course of both ads, these feelings are resolved into a narrative of triumph over adversity. There is a reason why Toyota’s disability ads look like horror movies: they begin by positioning disability as a site of horror in order to set up a “surprise reveal” that heightens the audience’s sense of inspiration and relief when that horror is overcome through exceptional athletic achievement.
This ad was not originally intended for the Super Bowl, it was supposed to air during the 2020 Paralympic Games. Regardless of the occasion, we’re ultimately left wondering the same thing Aaron Chu, a Researcher in Cultural Studies and Accessible Design asked Toyota, which is “just out of curiosity, what even is the point of the ad?”