Channel 4’s “The Undateables” is attracting a lot of media attention on both sides of the pond, despite the fact that it’s not (officially) available in the United States. The show features a series of people with disabilities set up on dates, with the producers following them through the process as they prepare, go out, and dissect what happened in a debrief afterward.
Before the premiere, numerous critics had hostile things to say about the show, and they were understandable, given both the name and the slant on the early marketing. Calling a show about dating while disabled “The Undateables” suggests that disability is an automatic barrier to intimacy, and so did the early tagline for the show, which stated that it would feature “a range of people whose ability to form relationships is affected by an impairment or challenging condition,” implying that disability makes it impossible to become romantically involved.
Frances Ryan at The Guardian pointed out that the giant billboards featuring the faces of people with disabilities labeled with “undateable” did little to dispel myths about people with disabilities and dating; “According to Channel 4, the title of The Undateables refers to society's preconceptions -- although I'd argue that it's optimistic to think this sort of analysis has gone through the mind of many drivers who've passed the ad on their morning commute.” And she was right; a shock value campaign like this presented in a noncritical context does nothing but reinforce existing attitudes.
It’s easy to pick apart shows like this -- I was actually asked to do so by a number of people, but for once in my life, I wanted to reserve my judgment1. Though I found a lot of the marketing distasteful for the same reason that critics did, the actual show itself flips a lot of the critical assumptions on their heads.
“The Undateables” is a show about dating. And the people on it happen to be disabled.
They talk frankly about their conditions and the way that ableism interacts with their ability to get dates; as our very own Fem Korsten has pointed out in comments here, there is an assumption that being disabled makes you undateable. Pretending that this attitude doesn’t exist doesn’t actually accomplish anything and in fact can put people with disabilities into the position of feeling like there’s something wrong with them if they can’t individually overcome social attitudes and land themselves a date.
Lisa Egan, quoted at Salon, notes that “The Undateables” falls down a bit on this score:
“My problem with the show is its obsession with ‘confidence,’” she says. One of the issues with “the confidence rubbish” is that “there’s an element of victim blaming going on,” she explains. “If you’re disabled and you can’t get a shag it must be because you’re just not confident enough. ‘It’s nothing to do with our prejudices, oh no. It’s you. You must try harder.’”
Are there segments of the show that make me cringe? Absolutely. There is a whiff of a freakshow aspect to “The Undateables,” but it’s also in keeping with reality television in general, where the lives of people are held under a crass lens for the entertainment of the masses.
Honestly, I'm almost more disgusted by the parade of nondisabled journalists falling all over themselves suddenly to get quotes from disabled people when they've expressed no interest in covering disability prior to now.
Viewing clips from “The Undateables,” I was struck by how many of the segments I saw were actively challenging assumptions about disability. This segment on Penny, an aerialist with a condition that makes her bones extremely brittle, focused on her desires in a partner -- not her disability. At the start of the clip, we see her performing while she talks in a voiceover about her interests -- she loves a man in uniform -- and at the end, she’s sitting in a wheelchair in her living room, grinning.
Luke, with Tourette’s, talks about how frustrating it can be when he experiences a tic, and how difficult it can be to make a good first impression on women he’s interested in. “The Undateables” explores that honestly; one of Luke’s friends says in this segment that even when people know Luke has Tourette’s, they still move away from him when he has tics or breaks out in cuss words.
Social attitudes make it hard for some people with disabilities to find dates. Why not openly admit that, and interrogate it on national television?
That’s what “The Undateables” appears to be doing, although of course it’s also working the freakshow aspect for ratings; it’s an example of media with a mixed intent and message that is, in the balance of things, doing some overall good along with the bad. It will change the way some viewers think about disability if it maintains a careful framing, which, thus far, it seems to be doing.
Rather than presenting people with disabilities as inherently gross and undateable, “The Undateables” is exploring why society views us as undateable, and it’s challenging viewers to reconsider their own embedded attitudes. It’s also highlighting commonalities and in some senses breaking down barriers by pointing out that people with disabilities have lives, and dating preferences, and nerves about first dates, because we are first and foremost people, not our disabilities.
There’s a tendency to knee-jerk about portrayals like this and I am among the kneejerkers, so I can see why; I’ve been nervous about the show since I started seeing the hype, and was disgusted by the promotionals. Given that media and pop culture rarely treat disability with any degree of respect, I was fully anticipating rage and horror when I started watching segments from the show, and I was pleasantly surprised.
While “The Undateables” is by no means a pinnacle of perfection, it has a lot going for it -- and acting otherwise is a disservice to viewers, who are smart and savvy enough to get something out of this show beyond basic entertainment.
1. Everyone, please admire my restraint. Return