New year, old stereotypes

Happy New Year everyone – and I’d like to start on an upbeat note … but sadly not.

‘The Undateables’ returns to Channel 4 for a new series on Monday night.

For the last four years, this series has brought together people who have medical conditions, disabilities and disfigurements with others with similar conditions (and in some cases no conditions) in an attempt to find love.

undateables

And the good news is that there have been some notable successes, such as Brent and Challis, and our very own Steve and Vicky, whose wedding we’ll see in the new series. Sadly, however, the directors have made no attempt to correct the impression that people who look unusual don’t have love affairs – of course they do! And without the need for a TV show!

But like many programmes from the production company ‘Betty’, my biggest issue is with the show’s title.

As Changing Faces said before the first series back in 2012, the title ‘has the potential to cause unnecessary offence, to perpetuate stigma and encourage abuse or harassment of people with facial disfigurements and disabilities’.

Last summer, the issue was raised at the British Medical Association conference, when doctors accused the programme of exploitation; earlier, the UK Disabled People’s Council said the programme ‘posed a threat to the rights of disabled people under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’, and said it was ‘unwatchable’. Jessica Middleton provides an insightful analysis of the title in this blog on The Badger.

Clearly, however, the fact that the programme won a BAFTA nomination, high ratings and lots of social media noise indicates that it’s anything but unwatchable. But if you care to look at the social conversations taking place, many of them follow the line: “I hate the title, but love the show”.

One of the most troubling effects of the show’s title is the suggestion that people who have a disability or disfigurement are outsiders, people you wouldn’t expect to find on Tinder, or meet in a bar, or at a speed dating night. Other dating programmes perpetuate the stereotype.

I’m no fan of ‘Take Me Out’ – it’s rather vulgar in my opinion – but why has it never featured someone with a disfigurement amongst the 15 female contestants in each show? I’m sure some ‘Take Me Out’ fans will remind me of Tony, the man who lost a leg in a football accident, who appeared on the show. But he was the sole male contestant – choosing from fifteen female contestants. Hardly a balanced position.

Slightly better is the other Channel 4 hit, ‘First Dates’. In the last series we met Chuks, who was born with short arms. And in the new series – beginning later in January – we’ll see Arunima, who’s a wheelchair user. And so whilst we can – gently – applaud ‘Take Me Out’ and ‘First Dates’ for having some representation of disability, neither have ever shown someone with a facial disfigurement.

Is that because a facial disfigurement is just too undateable? Could it be that four years of perpetuating the myth of someone with a facial disfigurement being unlucky in love has pushed this form of physical difference beyond the pale?

Proof of the negative way that the title has played out comes in a number of forms. TimeOut magazine has an ‘undateables’ column in their New York and some other editions. Instagram and other social media channels are full of people, mainly teenage girls, complaining that they are ‘undateable’ on account of their looks. Even Battersea Dogs Home now use the word to describe hard-to-rehome pets, animals that the Dogs Trust have called ‘sticky dogs’ for a number of years.

Last spring, on the Changing Faces Facebook page, we invited our supporters to submit photos of their wedding day. It quickly became our most popular Facebook post ever, demonstrating that people who look different don’t love any different. Indeed, our recent supporter survey found that more than two thirds of our supporters are either married or living with a partner. Only around one in five said they were single.

And if you’re wondering: I’ve just spent a wonderful family Christmas which included celebrating the wedding of our third ‘child’.

Changing Faces publishes guidelines for broadcasters on the importance of the language they choose to use – and that includes in their titles. They align with our guidelines for journalists, with which we regularly challenge newspapers – sometimes with some success.

In my view, it’s not good enough to say, “Oh, it’s just a title, the programme is good once you watch it”. Three million people may do that. But what about the attitudes of the rest of the population? Still shaped by such worn-out stereotyping, I’m afraid.

Rightly in 2016, we wouldn’t tolerate a show about women looking for love called ‘Lesser Sex’, nor one about lesbian, gay or bisexual people called ‘Queer Love’. For me, ‘The Undateables’ is just as offensive, and until production companies and broadcasters can be responsible with their show’s titles, we’ll remain a depressingly long way from achieving face equality, eight years on from the launch of our campaign for it.

Let’s make 2016 a year to throw out these titles once and for all!

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A week of highs and lows

It was one of my proudest moments – walking down the aisle with one of my beautiful daughters on my arm to ‘give her away’, as the old words have it. Yes, last Saturday in a London 29th floor venue overlooking the Thames, we had a lovely family wedding and thankfully, I negotiated my speech without major pitfalls only going off-piste to quote from Kahlil Gibran on Children

Not surprisingly given the conjunction of my scarred face and all the beauty around me, I found myself discussing Channel 4’s The Undateables quite a few times. Although it has undoubtedly opened some people’s eyes and minds, my view remains that, to date, by failing completely to include people with disfigurements and disabilities in loving relationships, the series leaves the viewer with a very false impression – that this just never happens. I know lots of such people and whilst none of us – and I mean no-one – finds long-term relationships are a doddle, many thrive as I have done – coming up to 34 years married!!

I have found myself recently defending the Third Sector’s campaign to persuade the Chancellor to change his policy on tax relief for philanthropists. I was shocked on Tuesday to find that part of the argument being used is that ‘the rich abuse charitable giving’. ‘Some wealthy people are donating to charities which do not “do a great deal of charitable work” in order to cut their tax bills, Downing Street says.’ If that is the case, the Charity Commission should be asked to investigate each and every example – but it should not tar all philanthropists on which Changing Faces, like all charities, depend so much.

I see a figure just posted that the tax cap will cost the sector £1bn in donations with the HMRC gaining only £200m in tax receipts. There has to be a policy change.

And so to the launch of our new campaign calling for balanced portrayals of people with disfigurements in films and an end to the persistent stereotyping of those with scars and disfigurements as villains or as morally depraved.

The film that is the launch pad for the campaign is going to run for 2 weeks in every Odeon cinema up and down the country so I will report as this goes on. But there seems to be a good head of steam building already in the first hours of this campaign – and I doubt if, as I post, whether anyone has seen the short film in a cinema yet… So watch out for it in an Odeon near you! Join the conversation on our Facebook page.

My favourite comment so far has been “a long overdue challenge”. How right.