I adore reality television. It’s a shameful, guilty pleasure that I regularly resolve to quit only to return to the insanity of the Kardashians, the Basketball Wives and the Housewives, all too real and desperate. That, and the fact that my fiancé is a C5/6 quadriplegic, is why my best friend recently e-mailed me a link to this story.
Enter the Push Girls. These are four dynamic, beautiful women negotiating life, love and body image in Los Angeles. It has all the makings of regular reality show: romantic interests, photo shoots, lunches and gym dates, and – the reality show staple – a group of women who genuinely care about one another but who could start entertaining fights with one another (I’m talking to you, Basketball Wives). The only difference is that all four of them live with paraplegia and quadriplegia.
I was instantly drawn to the show. My fiancé was injured in a diving accident almost nine years ago, and lives with quadriplegia. He is paralysed from his chest down, though he has limited use of his arms and fingers. Our life together is not more complicated than yours, but it is differently complicated. There are a number of day-to-day things that are a part of my life now that my closest friends won’t be able to share. So as you can imagine, representations of people living with disabilities similar to my fiancé’s are extremely important to both of us.
When we first started dating, he solemnly sent me home with a copy of Murderball, the brilliant documentary that follows the lives of members of the US’s and Canada’s wheelchair rugby teams. Murderball is a masterful exploration of the complicated lives of wheelchair users. One of my favorite parts of the movie explores the recurring dream of Bobby, a member of the US team who lost all of his limbs to a childhood illness. In Bobby’s dream, he is free of the limitations of the laws of physics and biology, and he is a child again, flying through the sky. I found that moment – amidst all of the moments of the film that show Bobby driving a car, cooking a meal and, of course, playing a mean game of rugby – to be a poignant beautiful commentary on the paradox I have witnessed in my fiancé. It is important to resist the endless pathologising of your humanity – if my fiancé succumbed to the ag-shame discourse, he would not have made it, and continue to make it, out of bed.
The American psychiatrist Dan Gottlieb gave a powerful interview to NPR in which he makes exactly this point as he talks about the car accident that landed him in his wheelchair:
“…an 18-wheel truck was driving west-bound and a wheel broke off – not just a tyre, the whole wheel, metal frame and all – and bounced across the turnpike and crushed my car. The last thing I remember seeing was big black thing in the sky, coming down, and seconds later, of course, my life was forever changed. I believe, though, that most of us have been hit by a black thing – that in a millisecond, your life is forever changed…what’s happened to me is not unusual at all, looks different, but at the deepest levels it’s not different”.
On the other hand, it is important for my fiancé to acknowledge the trauma he went through, and lives with, and tofind space to process what it means for him, away from the (albeit legitimate) concerns, worry of those who love him the most. So, you’ve got to go on with your life, as all of us do when faced with unexpected trauma. But you’ve also got to acknowledge ongoing loss.
Representations of people negotiating this paradox in everyday life are what make movies like Murderball so important. The fact that most of these representations feature men make shows like the Push Girls doubly so. Though I have never actively sought out stories of women in wheelchairs, I am struck by the dearth of these stories. If the question for the movement exemplified in the movie Miss Representation is ‘where are the stories of strong, empowered, non-objectified women’, I would say another good question is ‘where are the stories of strong, empowered, non-pathologised women living with disabilities?
The Push Girls tries to ask and answer this question. In the first episode, we meet the girls and see them go on dates, go to work, have drinks and go to the gym. We also see the girls confront their trauma: Angela is a model, battling to find work in an industry that does not do nuance; Auti is a dancer, who is trying for a baby, a complicated process in and of itself, that is further complicated by her injury; Tiphany, the youngest Push Girl, struggles with negotiating romantic relationships.
These are women who are simultaneously facing issues that women like me face every day, and issues that I can never fully grasp. By doing this through the popular reality TV medium they are representing and popularizing a complex reality that is often left out of cultural discourses, popular and otherwise. The show’s tag line is “When you can’t stand up, stand out”, and in a world that rushes to label people with disabilities as pathological or reduce their daily trauma to ease its own discomfort, the Push Girls absolutely stand head and shoulders above the rest and I’ll be trading in my Basketball Wives obsession to spend a bit more time with them.