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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‘Ugly’ is offensive and facist, and should be banned

I have been greatly saddened this week to see a word which I consider to be so offensive that it should be consigned to the dustbin of history, ‘ugly’, being used in two mainstream contexts.

First, repeating the howler it had first committed in 2011, the TV company Betty, has persuaded BBC3 to broadcast a documentary about disability hate crime with the nauseating title of The Ugly Face Of Disability Hate Crime.

The show as featured on the BBC Three website

The show as featured on the BBC Three website

It may be a very good programme – we will see tonight. Changing Faces has certainly contributed significantly to make it so. But with Adam Pearson, one of our Face Equality champions as the lead – a man with a condition known as neurofibromatosis – its title is guaranteed to perpetuate the stereotype that it’s okay to refer, albeit obliquely, to Adam’s face – and that of anyone with outstanding and distinctive facial features – as ugly.

It’s not the first time this company has used this tacky title trick either. Four years ago, we protested to no avail when Channel 4 agreed to run a series called ‘Beauty and the Beast: the Ugly Face of Prejudice’ again fronted by Adam – which exposed facial prejudice in many parts of British society.

The company and Channel 4 claimed then that having a prime time TV programme pointing out this prejudice would be helpful and help to eliminate it. So by 2015, say, there’d be no more facist – that’s facist, not fascist – discrimination? [NB: I’ve just added facist to my Microsoft Word dictionary.]

I doubted that logic then – see this blog – and I doubt it even more so today. It is very disappointing that BBC3 has fallen into the same trap.

Second, I was sent a notification of one of my favourite portrait exhibitions of the year, the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery. But the notification I received – I’m sure not deliberately – featured a picture of Robert Hoge whom I only know about and have never met – a man who has helped to put facial disfigurement on the Australian radar.

The artist has captured Robert very well, I suspect, in a serious, thoughtful pose – but, yes, he’s named it ‘Ugly – Portrait of Robert Hoge’. Here’s what I was sent.

Both of these instances are doubly distressing in my view because the use of the word ‘ugly’ has clearly received the tacit or perhaps even explicit acceptance of Adam and Robert, two men who should not have to belittle themselves in such a demeaning way to get ‘on the programme’ or ‘in the picture’.

Ugly is an adjective which connotes unattractive and displeasing to the eye. Nothing about a human face should be considered like that. Faces are what they are: a human being’s canvas for the world to see – and our respect for that person should override any aesthetic judgement.

My view is that it is time for those of us who wish to see a society which truly respects face equality (like race equality) to define ugly as an offensive word which is not to be condoned any longer, and we should begin to insert asterisks to demonstrate its unpleasantness: the ‘n-word’ is rightly considered beyond the pale and accepted as racist, u**y is facist and it’s time it was no longer used to describe human beings.

Let’s outlaw it.

  • The U**y Face of Disability Hate Crime; BBC Three, 2100 on Thursday 23 July