Thursday, August 23, 2012

Pushing beyond what's expected?

Since the Kardashians seem now to have spin-off shows for every combination of family members possible, the market for new reality TV shows seems rather saturated. But apparently, American TV channel Sundance thought otherwise and found a new twist on the genre: At the moment, it is airing the first season of a show called Push Girls

Push Girls

It centres around 5 sexy ladies living in California, but what sets them apart from Krazy Kim & co. is not only that they are not related, but also that they are all - wait for it - in wheelchairs, which is definitely a far cry from other reality TV episodes that include disabled people.

The Kardashians keep up with disability inclusion.. or something.

Intrigued, I started watching Push Girls, and so far I have mixed feelings about it, but I like it well enough to keep watching.
While the show definitely uses the supercrip trope and aims to portray those disabled women in a 'positive' light, it also addresses some social or political issues. Some of those are clearly linked to disability, for example when Push Girl Mia has difficulties finding accessible housing. Other issues, however, are relatable for everyone, and this is Push Girls' strong point. Auti, one of the main ladies, has difficulties getting pregnant, but the main reason for this is not her disability, but that she is 42 years old.
The advantage of using 5 disabled women as the main cast is that there is no token disability girl whose storyline is built only around her wheelchair.  The producers have to find other storylines that set the girls apart from each other, and for some parts of the show the wheelchairs fade into the background, and we might as well watch the Sex and the City girls. Those moments definitely make Push Girls interesting for me, as they provide a much needed example that disabled people, can be interesting and funny on TV even when the disability is not on focus. For a light-hearted genre like a reality show, this is definitely a step in the right direction, especially because I think disabled women who are not portrayed as damsels in distress or as de-feminized are still underrepresented in the media.
And those Push Girls are modern, feminine, girl power ladies: They all date, have careers, work out and always sport perfectly blow-dried hair and glossy lips. Indeed, they positively remind me of the Becky Barbie doll, who was released in the 90's and created a small scandal when her wheelchair could not access Barbie's dream house and thus was a bit too realistic for over-protective parents.

Push Girl Tiphany
Barbie's friend Becky

The main flaw of Push Girls are its narrow standards of both female beauty and disability. All five women were born non-disabled, and four of them had car accidents during their 'wild' youth that left them disabled. They all have bodies that look, at least in clothes, non-disabled and respond to the narrow Hollywood standard of female beauty.  It's not a show about disability, it's not even a show about women in wheelchairs. It's a show about women who look like models, had a car accident and are now paraplegic. Is this really the only way disability can be shown on TV in a sexy manner? I won't go on about Hollywood beauty standards, as I find it a tiresome and frustrating subject, but I do wish non-disabled viewers of Push Girls were not left under the impression that all wheelchair users had car accidents, and I think the show could stick closer to reality by showing someone with a body that looks different from a non-disabled body, as I think right now they leave out to represent a huge part of wheelchair users.

Push Girl Chelsie
The 'car accident' back stories, which are brought up in almost every episode, are there, I think, so that a non-disabled audience can relate to the women, thinking 'oh, they were just like me'. But because they are brought up so often, they do amount to a giant snooze-fest and are frustrating for the disabled audience, because such a narrow disabled identity is portrayed. It is interesting to see how different the women deal with their disability, butif the producers would add one person to the cast who was born disabled, it would bring much needed variety to the show and provide a different view-point, so the show would be much more representative of wheelchair users than it is right now.
It is good to see that a TV show portrays disability in a stylish, light-hearted and sexy manner and shows real disabled women. But Push Girls could be much more representative, interesting and less repetitive if the cast was a bit more diverse.

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