“The Undateables” – nasty concept, poor execution
This week “The Undateables” hit our screens: a channel 4 documentary about 9 disabled people who are looking for love. The trouble is, the show starts off with a bad name and doesn’t get much better from there on…
Before the series had started, I was reading about people who had been affected by the billboard posters (which show 6 obviously disabled people, next to the term “Undateables”). Twitter was ablaze with comments such as “My wheelchair using daughter was called Undateable, thank you Channel 4”. No matter how sympathetic the show turned out to be, the billboards were a problem. Many more people will see the posters than will bother to watch the show, and the only message they will take away is that disabled people are “undateable”. Isn’t that charming? Channel 4 is clearly trying to draw people in to watch the programme, but I feel this sensationalist tactic has backfired.
Undateables billboard poster: original ownership of photo unknown
The show follows 9 disabled people (3 per episode) who have a variety of impairments, and who are looking for a romantic partner. The first programme dealt with Richard, who has Aspergers; Luke, who is one of the 10% of people with Tourettes who actually exclaim profanities; and Penny, a wheelchair user with “brittle bones”.
I followed the show while reading my favourite TV-centric messageboard. I usually read that forum for watchalong threads during the Apprentice or other reality TV programmes, when I find the comments fun and fair, in a community where I feel I belong. I had no such luck with The Undateables – and although the comments I saw were just made in ignorance, they made me want to cry. All my fears were founded – particularly as it became apparent that many people were watching the programme as some kind of freak show. Disabled people as the stars of car-crash TV.
Comments were unknowingly cruel. When we were initially introduced to Luke and Richard, respondents said that we were being broken in gently by not being shown anyone who looks different. Yet when a wheelchair user did appear, comments alluding to how she would only get a “fantasy f***” were made. When Richard was shown driving his car, viewers were surprised that “they give driving licences to people with mental problems” – er, actually it’s not a “mental problem” – the term is “neurodiverse”… oh what the hell, I’m fighting a losing battle trying to promote awareness in this case. At best, the comments about the disabled participants’ new relationships were things like “I think it’s sweet”. We are not children, you know. We do not exist for you to pat us on the head.
One comment which made me cringe suggested that disabled people shouldn’t be too picky in who they date; that we can’t afford to pick and choose, so we shouldn’t turn people down. When one “undateable” decided not to meet their date again, this was criticised. Why? There are words for those who force a sexual relationship on those who don’t want one. Disabled people have just as much right to say no as anyone else. We have a right to choose who we date, and if someone doesn’t float our boat, we shouldn’t go along with it! I’m sure that in time, the new daters will learn whether they are setting their sights too high, but that’s another issue. Doesn’t everyone want to score above their weight?
To be honest, I think the programme suffered from the sensationalism which it had allowed to creep into the promotional posters. For example, why was Richard accepted for a dating show? He clearly doesn’t get out enough to learn social skills, which is why his first date ended when he started helping himself to his partner’s food. There was no chance he would succeed.
I believe that in general, disabled people – like any other singletons – should make the effort to join social clubs and groups. If you don’t go to work, this is even more important. Eventually, as you get to expand your social circle, hopefully you’ll encounter someone that you fall for. Someone who will accept you for who you are – disabled or not. And if this doesn’t work out, then after a few years of exhausting all the social avenues open to you, by all means try dating agencies as an extra route to find somebody special.
But it was cruel to put Richard in the position of a blind date, when he clearly had no idea how to behave in polite company. He liberally sprayed his clothed body in deodorant. He stole food from his date’s plate. He flexed his muscles at length – something which he clearly thought was clever, when it was just gross! In short, he was set up to fail. Really, Richard should have been joining social clubs and learning how to interact with other people before even considering meeting one-on-one. And maybe after spending months socialising, he might find a girl who he liked – or at least be better equipped to deal with a romantic experience. Throwing him in at the deep end with a date was not fair to either party. To that extent, the programme made me cross.
Luke was at the other end of the spectrum. A charming, good looking chap, all that was “wrong” with him was his coprolalia – obscene Tourettes tics – calling out “dirty slut!” for example. But Luke proved himself to be friendly, quick witted and appealing. I’ve canvassed my friends and none of them would be put off by his tics – so in many ways he had it easy compared to the other “undateables”. Luke was soon paired up with someone he liked, and to be honest he didn’t seem to need any special help when dating. He was just a normal person who happened to slip up now and then. Don’t we all?
Finally we met Penny. She is a wheelchair user, 3 feet tall, with osteogenesis imperfecta, who was hoping to meet a 6 foot tall policeman. She was shown with her friends, so she obviously doesn’t need help to get out more or to learn how to behave. But Penny was picky – making a decision about her date as soon as she saw him (she didn’t like the fact that he was a wheelchair user, ironically enough) and so she was determined to have a bad time no matter how hard her date tried to engage her. I felt rather sorry for him. She didn’t seem like a very good advert for disabled people – she was close minded and determined that things would be a failure whatever happened. I know people like that, who are attractive and outgoing but they tell me that they won’t fall in love because they are so dislikeable. And that’s the key to it all – disability or not, if you are sure you will not find a soulmate, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy! Given how quickly Penny formed her opinion, I felt that speed dating might be better for her.
In future shows of the Undateables we will meet people with facial deformities through to a man with Down’s Syndrome. I hope they have better luck in love. But more to the point, I hope that they will be able to show that disabled people are just ordinary people with a slight difference here or there – and that we are not “undateable” at all. Based on the first episode, I don’t hold out much hope.
Incidentally, I hear that unsuccessful applicants for the show were invited to be “dates” for the people featured. So expect some more disabled pairings – and if the programme makers are resorting to that, it seems that they have missed the point of disabled people wanting to reach out and find dates that they wouldn’t normally meet. It also sounds like Penny was never going to be paired with a policeman!
If you are disabled and would like to make friends or find dates among the disabled community, I recommend you try joining The Outsiders – don’t apply to become part of a televised freak show.