The Undatables: A Failed Journalist’s Opinion

Wednesday 25 January, 2017

(I originally wrote this at some point following a bunch of conversations I was part of over twitter and facebook. Much thanks to Good Pal Lynsey for reading my word-vomit and editing it up for me so it was more coherent. I’ve become aware that sometimes my long winded sentences only make sense to me, and not much to other people!)

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I’m going to talk about the Undateables. Why? Well, it’s come up again in the disabled community and I’ve had these thoughts floating around for a while, and I thought it was time to put all my thoughts about it in one place.

I think it wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear (or read) that I do not like the show. I don’t like the premise and I don’t like the tone. Yes, I have seen one episode of it, and I’ll never watch it again. No, that’s not because I’m as romantic as a rock (I can be romantic, I just never am. Let’s not go down this road. Anyway…)

The reason why I don’t like the show is because it is a beacon for inspiration porn. What is inspiration porn, you might ask? Well, it’s using the existence or circumstance of a disabled person to inspire able bodied people to feel better about themselves. It comes out in many forms and disabled people see, hear and feel it every day. When someone on the bus congratulates a wheelchair user for getting out and about, that’s inspiration porn. When someone shares a picture of a disabled bride walking down the aisle, that’s inspiration porn. When someone shares a picture of a bride in a wheelchair going down the aisle and the words “good for her!” are the caption, that’s inspiration porn. When a big fuss is made of an able bodied person going to the prom with a disabled person, that’s inspiration porn. When a Paralympian athlete is photographed at a training session and there’s a big caption over the photo saying “If this person can do it, you’ve got no excuse!” that is inspiration porn.

Yes, some disabled people indulge in it, but I’d say the majority of us dislike it and want rid of it. It’s only inspiring because these things are seen as exceptional, but when you come to understand disabilities beyond the “disability binary” then you come to realise that most wheelchair users can get up and walk (a bit, relatively speaking. When I get out of my wheelchair, it’s usually to make it easier to put my coat on or to go to the bathroom with crutches). You also realise that a lot of wheelchair users get on the bus to go about their fairly unexceptional day (when there’s not a sodding pram in the wheelchair space!) and a Paralympian athlete is just like any other athlete. They are fitter and stronger than the average joes of the world. Do people point at Jessica Ennis-Hill, Mo Farah, Gregg Rutherford or Rebecca Addlington and say “If these athletes can do it, you’ve got no excuse!” ? No. Because first of all, people would probably assume you’re implying that black people and female athletes are somehow less capable in the first place than white male athletes, and also implying that having ginger hair impedes a person’s ability to be good at sports. Second of all, because in this enlightened day and age, you know that these able bodied athletes are at the top of their game, because that’s where their training and hard work got them. Disabled athletes train to be athletes all the same. You’ve got “no excuse” regardless of whether Tanni Grey Thompson is doing a marathon or not. We are not a measuring spoon for how capable able bodied should feel about themselves.

So that’s inspiration porn summarised for you.

And that’s what Undateables wreaks of. That show is presented so that people go “Look at all those disabled people, bless em, they want true love, isn’t that sweet?”.

My other problem with it is this “have your cake and eat it too” notion from the makers of the show. Channel 4 have said this show is to highlight disabled issues, and to normalise disability. They say it’s a show for disabled people to connect with, but if you ask on Twitter, most disabled people will reply saying they’ve felt alienated watching the show by the way the editing process and undertone treat the people who go on it.

Normalising disability actually means treating it as if it’s so unexceptional that you take it as just as normal as seeing able bodied people everywhere. We once thought the Spork was amazing, now it’s an everyday item we eat salad with, and new generations wonder what all the fuss was about back in 2003.

Channel 4 are not going to achieve “normalisation” with a whole show dedicated to only disabled people in a dating show, usually being set up on dates with other disabled people, edited to highlight how bizarre and weird (*cough* undateable *cough*) a person’s disability makes them. There’s a thin line between recognising perseverance through adversity, and pointing at the freak of the circus and saying “Dear God what is that thing!”, and I think this show skates firmly past the line into the latter.

I think if Channel 4 really wanted to achieve normality for disabled people, they’d ditch the show and accept more disabled people on to their other dating shows. I believe there’s a show called First Dates, and that that has, on the odd occasion, featured a disabled person looking for love. Now I’ve not watched that show and I don’t know how they treated that person, but I imagine there was less of turning a disabled person into a freak show and more of drink, food and awkward conversation that the rest of the participants also go through.

Keeping disabled people to a speciality show is segregating us from mainstream programming, it is that simple. People will categorise it as a special needs show, and they’ll either not watch it because they don’t want to watch disabled people, or they do watch it because they want to get teary-eyed and warm-hearted over it. It is plain to see who these shows are made for, and it is for the able bodied community. It is a narrative of disabled people skewed so people can lap it up and weep over. And you might ask yourself what the difference is when people do that for the Undateables and when people do that for First Dates. The answer is tone.

Which brings me on to my third point. The show makers keep defending that the name of the show, the “Undateables”, is irony. It’s a nod to the culture that says disabled people aren’t dateable by showing that is an untrue stereotype. As in, they’re not undateable, because they’re on the show to go on date! (YAY~) Skimming over that, I just don’t see them destroying this stereotype via the content of the show. It’s obvious that the subtle irony is lost on most people who watch it.

Look on Twitter, look on Facebook. Read the reactions. It’s The Feels coming from a place of ~Feels~. Because, again, if dating and disability were normalised, I don’t think we’d see as much of a maternalistic reaction as we do now. How do I know that? Because First Dates doesn’t get those same reactions.

And worse is the mockery. There’s a meme that goes around on Facebook and Twitter where people announce that they’ve got through the selection process to appear on The Undateables, with the joke being that of course they’re not “retarded” to go on “that show”. There’s people who live tweet and make horrible comments and jokes about the participants, about the way they look and how they act. There’s people who call other people names of memorable participants. And it doesn’t matter what defence they use, they follow the same formula, and don’t let pathetic reasons tell you otherwise. They’re not calling someone Tourettes Adam* because of a facial feature or personality trait that they admired in the participant who had tourettes, they are using tourettes as an insult towards these other people.

Americans love this defence, it’s called the “But it means something different here and they’re not even disabled”. It doesn’t matter what you say your intentions are, if you are making fun of someone by using an aspect of disability (such as retard, spaz, mong), then you are making fun of disabled people. You are saying that this aspect of disability is bad, it’s something to mock. And the same goes for when people on twitter call their mates “Tourettes Adam*”. They aren’t making fun of JUST their mate, they are making fun of someone with Tourettes.

And for the record, Retard, Cretin, Spaz, Mong, and other such words, were born from use against disabled people. It doesn’t matter if your chair is fire retardant and that that meaning is something different in that context, no one is telling you not to call your couch fire retardant. We are telling you that using the word retard (or the other words) in a context where you are making fun of someone for an aspect you would find in a disabled person, who is less able than you in some way, or not as smart as you academically, then it goes right back to the disability slur. Yes, even if it’s because your friend got a D in their Maths GCSE when you got an A. There is no defence in using these words.

So, back to The Undateables. With all those reasons combined, Channel 4 are not kidding me, nor many other disabled people.

It’s up to you if you keep watching, but I hope after you read this you question why you watch it. I hope you compare it to other dating shows and see the differences that we can see, and think about how each show makes you feel. If you know there’s a difference in how you feel watching it, then you know there’s a difference in how and why they make it.

And I hope you come around to our way of thinking and realise that the show, and the way it makes you feel, is hurting disabled people. It is not helping us, it is definitely not normalising dating and disability, and with that in mind I hope that you eventually stop watching it.

This has been AFJ.

Please come back soon!

*- Tourettes Adam does not exist, as far as I’m aware, however I have seen a similar nickname be thrown around on twitter and I did not feel right about using it.

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