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The Undateables: a look at disabled lives beyond the stereotypes

The ads for Channel 4’s show The Undateables are crass—but the programme itself is a different matter, writes Roddy Slorach

Issue No. 2298

Channel 4’s new series explores disability and sexuality through the lives of (clockwise from top left) Hadyn, Carolyne, Shaine, Penny and others—but adverts for the series have been criticised as exploitative

Channel 4’s new series explores disability and sexuality through the lives of (clockwise from top left) Hadyn, Carolyne, Shaine, Penny and others—but adverts for the series have been criticised as exploitative


I had distinctly mixed feelings when I read that the new series of Mad Men on Sky attracted 47,000 viewers, compared to a whopping 2.9 million for the first part of Channel 4’s The Undateables, which looks at the love lives of disabled people.

Rupert Murdoch’s juggernaut grabs lots of the good stuff terrestrial channels used to show. Meanwhile Channel 4, once a refreshing antidote to the mainstream, now stands accused of producing yet another “freak show” disguised as cutting edge TV.

Channel 4 says its “provocative” billboard marketing for The Undateables was designed to challenge prejudice and misconceptions.

But that’s exactly what they said about their obnoxious adverts for Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.

The ads are certainly provocative, to the point of being offensive. These are far from unusual tactics, of course, and its real aim is undoubtedly to maximise viewing figures.

The UK Disabled People’s Council and the European Disability Forum issued a joint press release condemning The Undateables—although their statement doesn’t actually discuss the programme’s content.

So is The Undateables indefensible, or is it gold dressed as garbage? The opening title sequence is more inviting than one might expect. Each of the three episodes begins with a Cupid’s arrow cutting through the “un” of “undateable”.

I found the first programme well made and sympathetic without being patronising. The three disabled people featured were warm and ordinary people. It was easy to identify with them.

The commentary didn’t dwell on their individual impairments. It avoided lazy stereotypes while being sensitive to the many stigmas associated with disability.

The message—that disabled people are sexual beings like everyone else—came across clearly.

Disabled people face distinct as well as familiar obstacles in dating or in having relationships. We shall see whether or not the series maintains this standard over the coming episodes.

The very idea that disabled people should have a sex life at all has been a taboo for as long as I can remember.

That’s why I welcome a subject like this getting a viewing slot that isn’t hidden away in the schedules.

Some of the recent debate quotes an Observer newspaper poll from three years ago that showed 70 percent of respondents saying they wouldn’t consider having sex with anyone physically disabled.

All this comes at a time when disabled people are being demonised by government and the media, losing their jobs and benefits. The brutal reality is that many aren’t going to be able to afford to even get out of the house, never mind go on a date.

Nevertheless I hope lots of people watch this programme. But the problem is far more people will remember the ubiquitous billboard campaign—which could fairly be summed up as “Crasser. Nastier. Tackier.”

Roddy Slorach has written on Marxism and disability for the International Socialism journal. Go to isj.org.uk/?id=702 to read it. The final episode of The Undateables airs on Channel 4 on Tuesday of next week at 9pm


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Reviews
Tue 10 Apr 2012, 18:20 BST
Issue No. 2298
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