There is a particular branch of media known as ‘car-crash entertainment’. Films and TV programmes that for one reason or another cause their audience a masochistic mental torture and yet still have the ability to keep them watching. In fact, one of my favourite podcast is totally dedicated to analyzing and celebrating movies that are eye-wateringly terrible. But also in this category, I would place the Channel 4 series The Undatables which returned to our screens this Monday. It’s series 5 for the show that follows individuals with a variety of conditions as they search for love and romance and while I have watched it from day 1, I can’t honestly say that I enjoy it, mainly because I find the subject matter and the way it’s handled difficult to take.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe that everyone, disabled or not has the right to look for love if they feel that having a partner will make their life complete. I also think that if they choose to do that process on national TV that is also entirely up to them. And in theory, any programme that is showing that disabled people have the same feelings and desires as anyone else has got to be a positive and enlightening thing. But watching The Undateables leaves me, personally, feeling that the whole attitude of the programme-makers towards the subject is one of cutesy-whimsy and wry amusement. Yes, they do show that people with problems can find love like everyone else, but it’s always with a look of light-hearted superiority and voyeuristic curiosity that reminds me strangely of the old PG Tips chimp adverts or those antiqueillustrations of black people in western dress. A tone that seems to smile at the audience and say ‘Look, they’re talking about what they look for in a partner, they’re getting dressed and made up for a date. They look so much like you and me, isn’t it adorable?’ The whole programme is dubbed with that God-awful comic ‘plink-a-plonk’ music that sounds ripped straight from a CBeebies show, underscoring and prompting that the audience should find the daters interactions and social awkwardness amusing. But anyone who has been on a blind date (and even those like me who haven’t) knows that a first date is an awkward nerve-wracking environment so why do we need it pointed out? What are we meant to do? ‘Look, the conversation is drying up and he doesn’t know what to do because he has learning difficulties! LAUGH, DAMN YOU, LAUGH AT THE FUNNY CHILD-MAN. It’s okay because we’ve just shown you he’s normal because he likes football and fancies Holly Willowby, so it’s not demeaning.’
Yes, first date nerves are something pretty universal that might be seen as a leveller between the disabled people on the show and the audience at home and like I say everyone deserves a chance at love no matter what challenges they have. But I can’t help but have an issue with the types of disability shown on the show and question the motivation behind why the programme-makers choose who they do. They do, after all, want to make as entertaining and ‘upbeat’ show as possible. But you have to question, with this motive in mind, is having your first meeting with your prospective boy/girlfriend filmed for broadcast really the best way for them to find a relationship that lasts after the cameras stop rolling. Looking over the lonely hearts who have appeared on the show in the past, it seems like a good majority of them have learning difficulties or autistic spectrum problems. Many of these people struggle with understanding and dealing with the delicate norms of social interaction at the best of times, let alone doing so under the watchful gaze of a camera and film crew. Yet their struggles make good TV so who cares if being watched has an effect on how they deal with forming a relationship that will last longer than the episode? Those with Tourette’s Syndrome are another favourite group for this programme and it’s easy to see why. Here we have people whose impairment doesn’t really affect their physical ability to go out on a date but whose ticks make more amusing viewing. I’m not saying that Tourette’s isn’t an exhausting and debilitating condition to live with. It must be a constant frustration to never know what is going to come out of your mouth without warning. But people with Tourette’s can go out and spend time with a prospective partner without the need of an assistant or chaperone which makes things a lot easier, especially for this programme. Their condition can be reduced to an amused quirk, their funniest ticks selected and edited for affect. Yes conditions on The Undateables are varied, but you aren’t likely to see a severely physically impaired person who needs 24 hour care looking for love because it’s a great deal harder to show a romantic date between two people and the additional third wheel of a carer. It’s one of the reasons I choose not to date but even for those in my position who do, the extra addition of cameraman, sound guy and director would turn the event into less of a date more of a group activity. A pretty overwhelming prospect for the other person.
And while we’re on the subject of the able-bodied people on the show, one has to consider their motivation and what the whole experience is like for them. There are cynics (aka my mother) who suggest that the whole reason they agree to go one these dates is to show what nice people they are to consider being in a relationship with a disabled person or just have the opportunity of being on TV. But even if that isn’t the case, even if they initially saw that person’s profile and thought they were someone they would like to get to know, there’s always the chance that they might feel differently by the end of the date. It could be they couldn’t accept the other person’s disability, it could be that spark of attraction just wasn’t there. The problem is, knowing that their date was going to be viewed by thousands, would anyone want to be seen as admitting that they wouldn’t want to go out with a disabled person again? That’s what would be going through my mind if I was on this show. Even if the person I met seemed to really like me, I would have a little voice in the back of my head reminding me that our date was going to be broadcast and that the other person might just be trying to make sure that they didn’t look bad on TV.
It’s not that I don’t believe that some of the relationships that come out of the show aren’t genuine. I’m happy for those couples who have found love in this particular way. It’s just that I’m overly aware that being a TV show, the whole way that these relationships begin is contrived and orchestrated. A friend of mine attends a disco for people with learning difficulties and at one event, there was a researcher from Channel 4 going round looking for people to be on the show, asking them if they would like a boy/girlfriend. To me, that seems to reduce love to a commodity, looking to prompt people’s desires and feelings just to get content for the show. I don’t have a problem with companies like Stars In The Sky who exist to help people find partners because that is their soul purpose but when such companies align with Channel 4 they are consenting to another agenda, an agenda of allowing their clients search for love to be viewed as entertainment.
I’m in no doubt that all the people who appear on The Undateables go into the process with open eyes and, if needed, the right support to deal with appearing on television. Perhaps the problem lays with my personal notions of privacy and relationships. We live in a world where people can and do share details of their private lives with a wider public via Facebook and similar sites. This is something I find very odd as I stick to the old-fashioned notion of a romance should develop between two people and has nothing to do with anyone else. This doesn’t seem to be the case with many others and that’s their choice. This week also saw Channel 4 launch a new series of First Dates, The Undateables for the able-bodied if you like, proving that many people are happy to look for love in the spotlight of the media. But perhaps if this is the new face of 21st century love we should combine these shows together instead of isolating the concept of disabled people dating as a novelt