A few weeks ago, with my husband, I was at the Avengers. During the previews, an ad for a new television show on the Sundance Channel appeared and sure enough, the moment it came on the screen I knew I was going to have issues. Push Girls is a television series about 4 women in wheelchairs who live in Los Angeles and happen to be friends.
I would LOVE to see a television show about disabled women in mainstream media. Except in order to have that show, apparently we have to make the mainstream world comfortable with the the idea of disability.
Just from the images, I could tell that this was not going to be about a variety of women. It would be about attractive women, preferably with wheelchairs that look really awesome. All of them are former athletes, dancers, and models. In one scene where Tiphany and Mia are at the gym, they talk about their feelings about how other wheelchair users look. Mia says: “I think people have an image when they think of people in wheelchairs. I think its nice if they see somebody who takes care of their appearance. I don’t think most people have seen sexy in a wheelchair before.”
Tiphany agrees with her earlier in the show when she says at the beginning that most people think of people in wheelchairs as being “in sweatpants.”She also states that she is in better shape now than she was when she was out of the chair.
It saddens me that these women, who clearly live their day to day in a wheelchair, cannot manage to feel a kind of kindness or comraderie with others who are in wheelchairs. Perhaps it is because I am visually impaired, but I never think of a fellow blind person as giving everyone else who is blind a bad image. Because of these statements, it is very easy to see the thread of exploitation throughout this show.
When I first saw the images for this production, I said to a friend “Well, we all have to go through a period of exploitation before we can be found sexy, but really?”
The extra shiny wheelchairs, the ex lingerie model trying to go back to work… it all feels as though you can ONLY be attractive if you’re still normal looking.
What I really want to know is, why the Sundance Channel had to go and pick the most attractive women, with the most glitzy former jobs in order to give us a show about disability? Where are the normal people?!
Which brings us to the second telelvision show to have a disabled woman in it this week: Masterchef.
For the first time ever, a blind woman is on the show. I find this INCREDIBLY inspiring, as I’m a total hopeless blind woman in the kitchen. I cut myself, I burn myself, I can’t chop things evenly, while this lady is getting praise from Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliott.
But yet again, she’s a beautiful woman, and if you looked at her and she didn’t have her cane you’d have no idea that she was blind. Her eyes aren’t clouded, nor are they wandering. While I admire that she can so much as braise a catfish on screen, I feel like the image of the disabled woman is one where you still have to conform to the mainstream expectations.
I don’t live that way. Most of the disabled women I know do not conform to traditional standards of beauty, and for me at least, it is hard to see images where they’re all prettier than me.
Furthermore, every single one of these women had something taken away from them. Every single one of these women was blinded, or paralyzed during their lifetime, rather than born with their disability. The perception then becomes about people having to “overcome” and that dialogue really does pull at the heartstrings.
But for many of us with disabilities, we have had to overcome too – but our struggles are different. Our struggles come at the age of 4 or 6 or 10. These struggles come out as adults when we are fully capable, but there are things we have to learn in order to function as adults. I’m 26 and I still can’t cook. I have a friend who lives in a wheelchair and she still can’t get herself to work on her own without a cab. I have another friend who fought with her school to let her be a dance major – and she has CP. We fight. And many of us aren’t what you see on television.
In the end, though – we can see so much prejudice even with these beautiful women. Even going mainstream doesn’t change the way that people treat the disabled.
Angela goes on a fashion shoot and her photographer says “it’s like the guy with no arms wanting to learn how to pitch”. Apparently just because she’s in a wheelchair means she can’t be attractive as a model.
And then there’s Christine. In an article about her on Huffington Post the comments are rife with statements about how people wouldn’t eat her food because she’s a blind chef, and people commenting on her technique with a knife.
Apparently, even with exploitation in the form of attractiveness, we still can’t win.
NB: A post on growing up with a disability is in the works, I promise!