Editor’s Note: Based in Sydney, Australia, Hannah Diviney is a writer, disability advocate and editor-in-chief of Missing Perspectives, a global grassroots newsroom dedicated to addressing the marginalization of women and girls. You can follow her on Instagram at @hannahthewildflower or on Twitter at @hannah_diviney. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was 4 years old, but I never could have imagined then, as a wide-eyed little girl fascinated by words and their power, that one day I’d be writing for, talking to and mentioned in the world’s most recognizable media outlets. Well, at least not for this, anyway. But I guess that’s what happens when you call out two of the biggest names in pop music, and they actually hear you.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me take you back to roughly six weeks ago when Grammy-winning singer and rapper Lizzo released the song “Grrrls” off her latest album, “Special.” Mixed in with the catchy beat and empowering lyrics that I could imagine millions of girls dancing to was an ableist slur; the word ‘spaz.’
Short for “spastic,” spaz is often used in an everyday sense as a sort of shorthand for someone losing control, on the verge or in the middle of an emotional meltdown, or lacking intelligence. But in a medical sense, for someone like me who lives with Spastic Diplegic Cerebral Palsy (CP for short), the word spastic means something entirely different.
It refers to spasticity, otherwise known as a constant and unending tightness in my legs and body that can be extremely painful, doesn’t have to be triggered by anything specific, makes my life difficult and becomes harder to manage in colder weather. It’s not fun, nor does it have any bearing on my emotional control or intelligence. And yet, for as long as I can remember, that word has been a schoolyard insult, used against me and other people I know by those who might not have known what it meant but knew enough to weaponize it.
So, to hear that word in a Lizzo song, knowing what an incredibly important space she occupies in conversations about representation and marginalization, was confusing and hurtful. It didn’t make sense with the acceptance and body positivity she has championed throughout her career. It took me less than five minutes to write a tweet and post it, alongside other disability advocates. I outlined why the word was hurtful and how I hoped she’d do better.
Now, I’ve tweeted thousands of times over the years, but I’ve never had a tweet do this: It went viral, spreading around the world. If I had to guess why, it might be because I was so direct and clear but I think it also helped that in 2022, the world is more open to learning and being allies than ever before. It landed me in international media and made me the target of trolls. The disabled community made so much noise that Lizzo issued one of the best apologies I’ve ever seen and gave us all a masterclass in how to be an ally. Stepping past the part where she might’ve tried to double down or get angry, she instead moved straight to openly learning and taking action.
In a statement posted on her social media platforms, Lizzo said: “As a fat black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against me so I overstand the power words can have (whether intentionally or in my case, unintentionally). I’m proud to say there’s a new version of GRRRLS with a lyric change.” She re-released the song without the slur.
And then last weekend, I got a snarky Twitter mention from a stranger, asking me if I planned to call out Beyoncé, too, for using the same slur. Confused, I did a search and quickly discovered the word hidden under sound effects on a song she’d co-written with Drake, called “Heated.” The song’s featured on her new album “Renaissance,” the long-awaited follow up to 2016’s “Lemonade.” This time, the hurt went deeper.
Hadn’t we all just explained why this word was hurtful? Hadn’t the world heard us as we started a conversation with the music industry that ableist language wasn’t OK? How could Beyoncé’s team, no doubt paid to keep their eye on every music industry detail, have missed the Lizzo moment? How had they not worked out that if they released the song with this word in it, they’d run into the exact same problem?
Though frustrated and exhausted by the continuous emotional toll that comes with being a disability advocate, I tweeted again. I was less hopeful about a response this time, well aware of the untouchable mystique that follows Beyoncé. Her status as a pop cultural icon is achieved by few, and was rightfully earned after decades of being at the top of her game artistically. But three days after my tweet, my world exploded again as Beyoncé announced she, too, would be re-recording her song without the slur in yet another show of expert allyship.
Words matter. They always have and they always will. Language is one of the few tools in the world most people can wield with ease and on social media even more so. That’s why it’s worth paying attention to how we use it. That’s why my mom always taught me the pen was mightier than the sword. If anything, this week has taught me that thanks to social media and the power of a well-crafted tweet, we have access to the mightiest pens of all. And that’s why I hope we can use this global attention to have bigger conversations about the inequalities disabled people face. From little things, big things grow.