In an overview of the current state of media representation of disabled women, with emphasis on 'Push Girls' - the latest reality tv disability makeover show on the Sundance Channel, Rosaleen McDonagh asks who has control on how we are seen?
Glamorous, sexy, ambitious and sassy – Angela Rockwood, Auti Angel Tiphany Adams, Chelsea Hill and Mia Schaikewitz. are the ‘Push Girls’ on Sundance Channel Reality TV.
All the women have acquired impairments, and they’re all paralyzed. Details of their accidents are told in a very emotive, evocative voice over and illustrated using dramatic images. Previous escapades, of drug and alcohol addiction, add to the now wholesome, determined, survival testimony.
Triumph over tragedy, always makes for good TV. Every voyeur’s fetish about people with impairments is facilitated. Minimised and modified – dainty wheelchairs with the delicacy of haute couture clothes – impairments - in a shiny, neat package.
Viewers don’t have to deal with the complexity of speech impediments, sign language interpreters, mental health issues, or impairments that require an audience to work hard. These five women gave in to the easiest representation.
Objectification can be disguised as a form of empowerment when it’s glitzy, fast and full of repetitive positive phrases. It’s alluring - only for a moment - suddenly you’re colluding with something distasteful. There is an ambiguity in all of us. Shame catches us in all sorts of ways. In searching and developing a more accurate representation of impairment we’re all struggling. This is often done as a more internalised resistance to the ‘super crip’ phenomena that we are so familiar with. The narrative that mainstream society craves and desires.
’Push girls’ the title of the series – might well be a push back from traditional and familiar images. The alternative representation via ‘Push Girls’ is connected with a global homogenised image of how women should be and what disabled women could be. This one dimensional, patronising, linear notion of impairment creates a vacuum where any representation that’s too complicated is unwanted.
While there is diversity in the ethnic origins among the women, there is homogeny to their impairments. These women’s lives, relationships with their families, bodies, and their aims and ambitions are the main focus. Conversations are centred mostly on relationships, marriage and wanting babies.
Particular issues are explored in some depth, particularly when one of the women and her partner go back to the rehab clinic, where they mentor people who are newly paralysed. This session is about sexuality and confidence - ‘It’s all on the inside, how you feel about yourself.’
Regardless of the impairments, the sentiment and advice expressed resonate because they’re coming from women wheelchair users. The occasional ramp is visible in the house they share. The women demonstrate their ‘independence’ by stretching up to high shelves and the piggy backs from their partners to the toilet. It all feel so archaic. Rolling down three flights of stairs seems so easy. The non-disabled gaze is impressed with this manoeuvre. Why would five, clever women choose to live in an inaccessible environment?
The men that these women are involved with appear to have no impairments. This is troubling – out of four straight women, they seem to have a certain attraction for a particular type of male. Tiphany Adams identifies as being bisexual. Her female partner also appears to be non-disabled. Their lack of friendship, if not attraction, to partners with impairments seems a bit too calculating. These divas have no difficulty being a charm on a non-disabled lover’s arm.
The men support the women with their personal care. All the amplified attitude of determination and tenacity is a camouflage for vulnerability and perceived failure. Bodily integrity for all women is very important. The messiness and reality of our lives is not captured in this series. Globally, the disability movement, lobbied hard for the rights and means to live independently. In particularly, we lobbied for the role of personal assistants. Compromising relationships by putting themselves as disabled women in a subordinate position to their non disabled partners is dangerous on many fronts. The co-existence of lovers and service providers in our lives is valued necessity.
This reversion of blurring boundaries between intimacy, domesticity and dependence diminishes many struggles. The applause, however, is for these handsome, sensitive, non-disabled men.
Control over images by the mass media is central to the maintenance of any system. Representations of people with impairments, in this context, are controlled by non-disabled people and dictated – wittingly or unwittingly - by ableist values. Emulating a non-disabled body and lifestyle makes it easier, allegedly for a mainstream audience.
Essentialist ideas about the ‘authentic’ disabled experience enable production companies to reject diverse portrayals of disability. Instead of allowing individual disabled people to shape and determine their own ‘authentic’ experiences, the media encourages them to conform to non-disabled people’s essentialist notions of disability. ‘Push Girls’, the series, ticks all these boxes. There’s a sense of betrayal. An opportunity with so much potential for something refreshing and challenging is missed with this series.
There’s a feeling of resignation that fifty years of the disability civil rights struggle can lead us to this point. Was this struggle to achieve a primetime TV slot, by Sundance Channel, that offers us a dumbed down version of living with an impairment, with no reference to poverty or discrimination?
The perniciousness of the programme challenges us to address the realities of a younger disabled generation - wealthier, more socially mobile and mainstreamed. The results of the disability rights movement working towards changing public policy means people can make decisions on how they work the media for their own careers.
'Push Girls ' are a media-savvy quintet. These women represent themselves. There was a void in the media. We weren’t there, now we are, but we don’t have control over the representation. Working my way through this confusion, I remember the discourse of activism is about passing on a gift to another generation. That gift is about freedom.
There is an inertia from a previous generation, a silent knowing and understanding which brings with it adopting non-judgemental positions. Thus allowing younger disabled people to make choices that do not seem to honour disability politics, culture and identity.
Steadfastly repeating the mantra: ‘the personal is political’ - in this context it felt obscurely irrelevant. These women are showcasing their sexiness. Non- disabled people gazing at them. The women are the objects never the subjects. That stare – that gaze – that judgement!