Hot girls in wheelchairs

A new “reality” program about the lives of a group of young female wheelchair users will be debuting in April on the Sundance Channel (Huffpost has details here.) “Push Girls” (yes, really) aims to give viewers:

“an unscripted look into the lives of four gorgeous ladies who became disabled after enduring tragic car accidents or debilitating diseases”


“an uncensored glimpse at what it means to be sexy, ambitious and living with paralysis”

For starters, I should say that it’s a good thing if there’s more mainstream awareness of the full, rich, non-tear-jerking lives led by so many disabled people. And insofar as programs like this work toward that goal, it’s likewise a good thing. So I’ll tune in with interest. But there’s so much not to like about the way this program is being pitched. My biggest pet peeves:

(1) Why do the women have to be young and conventionally hot? Surely the best way to overcome the stereotypes of disabled people as sexless or unattractive is to challenge our starting assumption of what sexy, attractive bodies can look like – not get together a bunch of women who look like models who happen to be sitting down. While it’s important to recognize that disabled people can be “hot” by conventional standards, there’s only so far that’s going to toward helping us appreciate non-standard bodies. Disabled bodies are never going to be “normal”. That’s part of their charm.

(2) Just for once, it would be nice to see a mainstream discussion of disability that isn’t laced with “tragic overcomer” rhetoric. Not strong, fearless people bravely facing the tragedy of disability. Not inspiring, motivational people showing us how to persevere against all odds. Just happy, flourishing people who as it happens are disabled.

14 thoughts on “Hot girls in wheelchairs

  1. “challenge our starting assumption of what sexy, attractive bodies can look like.” I completely agree, but wonder what you think this will look like.

  2. Anne, I was thinking something like the perspective Harriet McBryde Johnson describes in “Unspeakable Conversations”:

    “It’s not that I’m ugly. It’s more that most people don’t know how to look at me. The sight of me is routinely discombobulating. The power wheelchair is enough to inspire gawking, but that’s the least of it. Much more impressive is the impact on my body of more than four decades of a muscle-wasting disease. At this stage of my life, I’m Karen Carpenter thin, flesh mostly vanished, a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin. When, in childhood, my muscles got too weak to hold up my spine, I tried a brace for a while, but fortunately a skittish anesthesiologist said no to fusion, plates and pins — all the apparatus that might have kept me straight. At 15, I threw away the back brace and let my spine reshape itself into a deep twisty S-curve. Now my right side is two deep canyons. To keep myself upright, I lean forward, rest my rib cage on my lap, plant my elbows beside my knees. Since my backbone found its own natural shape, I’ve been entirely comfortable in my skin. . .
    Two or three times in my life — I recall particularly one largely crip, largely lesbian cookout halfway across the continent — I have been looked at as a rare kind of beauty.”

    (By the way, if anyone hasn’t read “Unspeakable Conversations”, stop reading this right now and go read it instead:

    There’s a lurking suggestion in a lot of public portrayals of disability that disabled bodies are only beautiful/attractive/hot insofar as they approach the norms set by non-disabled people. I see McBryde Johnson (among so many others) as showing how limited this is, and how many beautiful disabled bodies it leaves out.

  3. Hurray for that article. I love it and so do the students I’ve assigned it to for many years.

  4. It’s awesome, isn’t it? But apparently some people have a hard time getting the point – when McBryde Johnson died, the NY Times had Singer write her obituary and titled it “Happy Nonetheless”. Fail.

  5. So many good things about it–one was her attitude toward Singer. You’d think she might mangle and distort him, but no, I think she’s a very good interpreter of Singer. It’s also cool how well they got along, and how faithfully she reports his respectful behavior, even though she thought his views were appalling. This is a model of respectful interaction, despite profound disagreement. Did I see Singer’s obituary…hmm, not sure! I will look for it. That headline is obnoxious, but I’ve discovered from doing editorial work at a magazine that authors don’t create headlines. The editor is usually the one to blame!

  6. Agreed on all counts. Singer’s article (which was actually the commemorative piece from the NY Times magazine, not the official NY Times obituary – I’d misremembered that) is actually really good. You can read it here:

    My favorite bit is this: “According to her sister, Beth, what most concerned Harriet about dying was “the crap people would say about her.” And sure enough, among the tributes to her were several comments about how she can now run and skip through the meadows of heaven. Doubly insulting, first because Johnson did not believe in a life after death, and second, why assume that heavenly bliss requires you to be able to run and skip?”

    The fail seems to be entirely due to clueless editors.

  7. Thanks for the link. Oh yeah, that was another great thing about her. She responded to Singer with zero appeal to religion. She would have hated the heavenly bliss stuff as much as the bit about running and skipping! But back to your point–yes, there’s something beautiful about the picture of her that went with that article.

  8. What a wonderful article. I’m so impressed.
    Magicalersatz, my question about what you had in mind was really because some features seem to be fairly dependent on the pretty entrenched responses of (a few or many or all) others, while some don’t seem very dependent on much agreement. I’m not really sure about this, but let me take it into a different area to lessen the chances of being outright offensive. Suppose one has a population that declares that they detest vegetables. There are lots of ways in which one can work on the ways in which they and we think about and talk about vegetable, but getting them to experience vegetables as yummy might be fail despite all one’s efforts.

    Because of the possibilities of this kind of difference, I can easily see trying to enlarge ideas of beauty, but I’m less sure about sexy. Sexiness may be much more of a cultural fact that yumminess, but that does not make someone causally responsive to efforts made on the part of theorists. Now that said, our tastes in sexiness seem somewhat responsive to the efforts of the media, particularly if they create an association between something and a lot of other evocative traits.

    Even what one could think of as oddly shaped green creatures can look very attrative.

  9. >>(1) Why do the women have to be young and conventionally hot?

    Yeah, why aren’t they instead be radically obese, for example? I mean, there are some people out there who think that radically obese folks are hot! Why not cater to that crowd? The answer is obvious. Very few people find radically obese folks hot (though some do, of course). If you’re selling something almost nobody likes, you won’t make a living.

  10. Wow, thanks AnonGrad. It’s all clear to me now. We shouldn’t put a range of disabled bodies on TV because no one likes to look at them! Got it.

    Though I suppose, along similar lines, since your average man on the street doesn’t find feminism hot, I should probably shut up about this feminist stuff too. Guys don’t like it. It isn’t cute. That whole “This is what a feminist looks like” campaign was so misguided – they only should have let hot girls wear those shirts if they really wanted to make a point! (Or better yet – they could’ve dispensed with the shirts entirely and just used shirtless hot girls. Everyone likes to look at shirtless hot girls! That would totally have gotten the point across.)

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