Occasionally, my satellite TV provider will provide free weekend long access to a few of their paid channels, such as HBO, Sundance, Cinemax, etc. These free weekends usually serve to reinforce my decision not to pay for any of these channels. I sift through the weekend offerings and find the same few movies repeated, movies I have no interest in, movies that I can see on regular satellite channels, and episodes of ongoing series that only serve as teasers. I recently saw a few episodes of the Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep,” a comedy about life in the vice president’s office. Very funny stuff, but not quite enough to tempt me to pay for HBO.
One show that I had heard about but never seen was “Push Girls,” a reality show featuring four young women in wheelchairs. These are not able-bodied actors, these are women who are paraplegic and quadriplegic in real life. While my weekend free trial only gave me access to four episodes, there were a lot of things I liked, and a lot of things I didn’t like about the series. Let me start with the things I didn’t like and get them off my chest.
These women are all young, very attractive, and seem to have fully made peace with the fact that they are facing the rest of their lives in wheelchairs. Granted, I’ve only seen four episodes, so there may have been moments when one or more of these women expressed the anger, frustration, and pain of facing the limitations of their disabilities. They are either independently wealthy, or have amazing insurance policies. All four of them drive very snazzy wheelchairs, one or two of them drive very nice adapted minivans, one has a full-time, live-in attendant. They live in very nice, fully adapted homes. This being a “reality show,” it is probable that the network/production company paid for or provided many of these items which tend to be out of the reach of most disabled people.
Now, all the things I did like about the show. I have always found it disturbing that the three television programs I’ve seen featuring disabled characters use able-bodied actors pretending to be disabled – Artie in “Glee,” Billy in “Legit,” (to their credit, Legit does include an occasional cast of characters with a variety of physical and mental disabilities) and Blair Underwood as “Ironside.” (NBC has gotten a little bit of flack for putting an able-bodied actor in a disabled role, one critic comparing the practice to putting white actors in blackface.) A notable exception is RJ Mitte, who plays the part of Walt Jr. in Breaking Bad, and really does have CP. Marlee Maitlin, who is deaf, is another. I’m sure there are others, but not that I’ve seen in mainstream network roles. In “Push Girls,” when these young women talk about the difficulties they face, they’re not reading a script, but speaking honestly about their own lives. I know, I know, maybe this is scripted – it is TV after all. But it is validating to see a young man, newly disabled and being counseled by one of the Push Girls, break down in tears over the frustration of his situation, and his fears of the future, and to know that what we are seeing is real. When one of the women needs to hire a new full-time nurse, it is eye-opening and startling to see her coaching the new nurse through her morning routine. Even the simple act of getting her dressed is difficult and frustrating for the nurse, and the patient. Knowing that this is, again, not just an actor in a scripted scene but a disabled woman showing us the honest intimate details of her life is very powerful.
While I will admit to fast forwarding past a lot of the soap-opera-like parts of the show (two of the women attempting to pick up men in a bar, personality clashes over competing wheelchair dance troupes, etc.) I found it very moving and very validating to see these women express their emotions, their fears, their frustrations, and their pain, and to know that these expressions were real, and not scripted: the fear one woman faces when learning how to get down three flights of stairs in her wheelchair, a skill she needs to have in case there is a fire in her building, the joy another feels when discovering that there is a way (though an expensive one) that she can drive again. The cynic in me has always felt that these “reality shows,” are far more scripted then we choose to believe, and there is no reason the think that “Push Girls,” is any exception. Except that these four women really are disabled. The fact that The Sundance Channel has put this program on the air gives me hope that we will eventually see more physically disabled actors in disabled rules.