Being a luddite, I have proudly held out against updating to digital cable and/or Netflix for as long as possible. And until recently, my channel selection included peculiar omissions of 10, 28, 35 and 45.
Without access to premium channels like HBO or the Oprah Network, I frequently find myself settling upon quasi-informative offerings from Discovery Channel, or if I’m really up for some riveting entertainment, Spike. Did you know that someone once died of a brain aneurysm as a result of blowing a vuvuzela too loudly?
But here’s a synopsis of a show I recently came across on TLC: “Jen gives a presentation at a conference in Galveston. Bill goes along, hoping to spend some time with his wife.” From this description, I couldn’t see what viewership, apart from the terminally indecisive or background-noise embracing, this could possibly appeal to. What made this show even remotely marketable?
Well, you see, it was an episode of Little Couple, a show that follows the relatively mundane day-to-day life of a married couple — both of whom have dwarfism.
Turn to TLC or A&E on any given weeknight and you’ll find a line-up of similar shows including Hoarders, Heavy, My Strange Addiction, Intervention, Ton of Love and Little People, Big World. The shows can be neatly divided into two categories: those involving physical limitations, and those involving psychological disorders.
Shows in the former broadcast the challenges which people come up against in their daily lives due to some form of physical limitation or abnormality, be it dwarfism, morbid obesity or substance dependence. Shows in the latter category broadcast the experiences of individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, mood disorders and so on.
And all do so in the most crass and voyeuristic fashion imaginable.
Take for example Little Couple, a show I soon found to be every bit as unentertaining as it is condescending. The sole defining feature of this show is that the subjects are small — and thus it is assumed that they are terminally pitted against the odds, triumphant heroes and heroines deserving of our admiration and sympathy.
In the other category, the domain of shows like Intervention, My Strange Addiction and Hoarders, the disorders themselves are not externally visible — and this seems to make us all the more comfortable in passively adminstering advice or sympathy. (That is not to say that the signs and symptoms of these disorders are invisible — admittedly, eating half a roll of toilet paper a day or finding a kitten’s corpse under a pile of debris in your kitchen is not, by conventional standards, particularly “normal”).
An individual is usually labelled “disabled” if he/she has a physical, emotional or sensory impairment which limits their participation in day-to-day tasks or interpersonal interaction. Images of disability, like those on primetime TLC and A&E, perpetuate negative stereotypes and pander to the misinformed belief of non-disabled audiences that a disabled person is dissatisfied with his/her quality of life, is seeking pity or requires assistance.
Further, shows of this sort disguise the damaging belief that the best a person with a physical limitation can hope for is a next-to-normal life, earned through hard work, determination and the occasional helping hand from the more able-bodied around them. This rigid — if subversive — definition of normality does not allow for the natural range of difference in human form.
Every one of these shows followsÂ the same script and has the same end goal. Like spectators at a circus, the audience is given 44 minutes to ogle the parade of “freaks,” in hopes of leaving them more self-assured and inspired to tackle the comparatively minute challenges in their own life.
While some of these shows attempt to instill at least a basic sense of empathy, they do so in a manner which defines their subjects as little more than tragic heroes or living, breathing disabilities.
And we should remember that portrayals of mental health and physical disability can have a powerful influence on people’s real-life perceptions — especially when they are being broadcast on prime-time television.