Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pushing The Wrong Way

This April the Sundance Channel is planning to air a new 14 episode reality show called “Push Girls” which seeks to provide a glimpse into what life is like in Hollywood on four wheels. It stars Auti Angel, Tiphany Adams, Angela Rockwood, and Mia Shaikewitz, who devotees will likely remember from Ms. Angel's "Colours N. Motion" dance crew, amongst other efforts to popularize wheelchair dance throughout the years.

To quote from the show's website, “In the same way "Murderball," winner of the 2005 Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, took the lid off the competitive world of “wheelchair rugby,” Sundance Channel is bringing an unfettered, uncensored glimpse at what it means to be sexy, ambitious and living with paralysis in Hollywood with PUSH GIRLS, a new original non-fiction series from producer Gay Rosenthal.”

If you're not familiar, Mrs. Rosenthal's work I'll give you a tiny review.

Long ago, in the 90's, TLC was more than a colorful R&B trio, it was also “The Learning Channel”. Playing Robin to the Discovery Channel's Batman, it cut its teeth playing educational documentaries that fell outside of Discovery's emphasis on nature. As with History, and other educational channels, it gradually warped and morphed its way out from under the onus of educational content until the mid 2000's when its focus shifted to reality based dramas like Gay Rosenthal's Little People, Big World. Here is how the show describes itself, “Parents Matt and Amy Roloff are both little people -- 4 feet tall -- but they are determined to succeed in a world that isn't always accepting of differences.”

It was a success, and two years later along came Gay Rosenthal's Ruby on the Style Network. Again, I will let the show speak for itself. “Savannah resident Ruby Gettinger is beautiful, charming, charismatic and at one time weighed a life-threatening 500 pounds. With no-holds-barred honesty and unwavering optimism, Ruby shares the story of her personal struggle to lose weight and get healthy,”

And so, now we come to 2012, with the Sundance Channel bravely seeking to step out and do what no one has done before, to make a real change in the world of entertainment, by showing how poorly integrated it is. Except, it's been done before, and it doesn't change anything.

Shows like these have already been rightly criticized for having more to do with letting us stare while making us feel good about it than imparting any tangible change. In some ways it recalls the voyeur scene from The Cost Of Living, or a less honest version of Jerry Springer. Their tacit premise is that through familiarity boundaries will be broken. Yet this plausible premise is shackled by a fundamentally flawed approach.

There is a common complaint laid against devotees which says that we only see the disability, not the person. While I can't say that it's never been true, I certainly doubt that it's always been true. I feel much more confident making that claim about the entertainment industry. The Daily Mail happily misquoted Angela Rockwell as saying, “Our common denominator is our wheelchairs...” She meant to say “is not”, as you can see in the interview they did at Sundance, but the mere presence of the error suggests a telling Freudian slip on author's part.

I applaud their effort because as anyone could tell you, lack of exposure is definitely part of the problem. However, this seeks to solve that problem the wrong way. It is dangerously simplistic to say the only problem is one of underrepresentation. Certainly that exists, but it works to magnify the additional problem of poor representation.

We rarely see the disabled portrayed in our media, and when we do it is most often the story of their injury or an update about their recovery on the nightly news. Say what you will about devotees, but if you look at say, the fiction of an out proud devotee like Ruth Madison, and compare it to what news channels often run, I think you'll find more than a few differences. What you'll find is the root of the problem.

When we cast minorities as the other, when we point out and focus on their differences, we run backward against attempts at integration. They are treated as separate and thus unequal. They are not placed alongside us, but on a stage in front of us, often accompanied by a great degree of fanfare. I'm reminded of Britain's Missing Top Model, which spent a lot of time and money in marketing pointing out how groundbreaking they were to ever think of having a reality show about the disabled. You can practically hear them saying,“We're an incredibly forward thinking network, see we treat THESE DISABLED PEOPLE OVER HERE, THE ONE MISSING AN ARM, AND THE WHEELCHAIR-PERSON, I MEAN UH PERSON IN A WHEELCHAIR just like anyone else really.” There are though, some wonderfully notable exceptions to this.

In the UK there was Hollyoaks, a soap/drama about good looking rich white kids dealing with all the ups and downs of being good looking rich white kids. They hired an actor who was actually disabled and barely mentioned her disability, and even then, only lightly. Then there was Beeswax, an indie film which was notable for having a paraplegic protagonist whose injury, disability, or possible hope for a cure, never came up. It never mattered, and it was an utter breath of fresh air that sadly soon ran stale. For every Hollyoaks, or Beeswax, we have easily ten or twenty cases of the helpless invalid, the relentless fight for a cure, or the athlete who won't let anything hold them back.

The honest approach
Push Girls seeks is of course better than practically everything that's been put to film since the television was invented, but it will be just another a drop in the bucket unless the media is willing to take more concrete steps to change the climate it's operating in. Here's hoping.

“All television is educational, the only question is what is it teaching?” - Nicholas Johnson, former chair of the FCC

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