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Thursday, 5 April 2012

Britain's "The Undateables" Explores Disability and Dating

The Undateables  - I didn't know how to react. I've always found British television to be very edgy
and imbued with a humour that American and Canadian television just can't seem to replicate (for example, the British version of The Office, which predated the American version and is howlingly funny - and I'm a fan of the American version as well). Is naming a reality television show about people with disabilities trying to find love another example of this edginess? Or is it just a poor, poor choice of title for a show that's a step backward for people with disabilities?

Who are The Undateables?


I couldn't access clips from the episode that has aired already, but I read the descriptions of the three episodes that air this season. The first episode follows three people on at least one date:

  • Richard is an amateur radio enthusiast with Asperger's syndrome. He will only date women who live within a five-mile radius of his home, and won't eat on a date.

  • Luke, a stand-up comedian with Tourette's syndrome, is scared to date for fear that his disorder might cause him to call his date an insulting name.

  • Penny has brittle bone disease. A trainee teacher who has never dated, she is 3'4" tall. Her  ideal man is 6'0".

Future episodes of The Undateables include an amateur poet with learning disabilities, a skateboarder with facial disfigurements, and a student with Down's Syndrome.

Reactions to The Undateables


Many people, both with and without disabilities, found the billboard campaign that Channel 4 used to advertise The Undateables very insulting. The title of the show, and the implication that people with disabilities are "undateable" seemed a huge issue among the people that left comments on Channel 4's website about the show's first episode. However, most people seemed willing to at least watch it, and that's where the viewership became more divided. While the majority of commenters seemed to feel that The Undateables could be very useful in breaking down stereotypes about people with disabilities and dating, others argued that the show was humiliating for and exploitative of those involved , more focused on getting ratings through controversy than educating people about disabilities, and naive in its presentation of the issues that people with disabilities face on a daily basis.

Even the press seems divided. Samir Raheem of "The Guardian" used the word "ridicule" when talking about how The Undateables treated its participants in the first episode. From the way he described the episode, it sounds like I'd agree. The show apparently referred to the participants as "extraordinary singletons" and the dates with whom they were paired as "extraordinary people"; "In the world of matchmaking, people with disabilities can be a hard sell," Raheem reports the voice-over saying; finally, the show seemed to make it a point to pair the participants with other daters with disabilities (as if we can only date "within group"), or with people that would set the participant up for failure, such as the dater that found Luke's Tourette's funny and was disappointed when he didn't call her a name. For Luke, who believed that the Tourette's wasn't necessarily the problem, but more his extreme shyness around women, that's only going to cause a scenario that practically ensures that Tourette's would become an issue.  Read Raheem's entire review here of the first episode of The Undateables here:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9183670/The-Undateables-Channel-4-review.html

Lucy Mangan of "The Guardian", however, felt that The Undateables was "kindly, thoughtful, and full of inadvertent comedy", and not at all exploitative. She felt that leaving in bits like Richard putting on far too much aftershave and then  explaining that "when you're going out on a date, you've got to be sure," was less patronizing than leaving them out. I disagree. It's one thing to have a camera follow you around on a date. It's quite another to have people point out grooming faux pas that, because of your disability, you might not realize you might be making, and include it in a matchmaking program. It *is* patronizing, and the role of people with disabilities in our society is not to make us smile nostalgically and say, "Wow, I did that once...poor bastard."

Which leads me up to things being inadvertently funny. I know from working with people with intellectual disabilities that they sometimes do things and have conversations where they don't mean to be funny, but are. It does happen. But the key there is, "they don't mean to be funny". So you don't laugh. Because no one likes to be laughed at because they misunderstood how to say or do something.  It's not "kindly" or "thoughtful".

Read Lucy Mangan's review of the first episode of The Undateables here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2012/apr/03/the-undateables-horizon-tv-review?newsfeed=true

The Undateables airs twice more in the UK. I'm hoping that it doesn't have a second season, let alone an American version.

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