The new show is a refreshing antidote to Hollywood's fraught relationship with disabled actors.
Most of the time, Hollywood seems confused about how to treat actors with disabilities. Movies and TV shows rely heavily on stories that focus on disabilities themselves rather than the people behind them. The most prominent disabled character on television, Glee's Artie, is played by the able-bodied actor Kevin McHale. And the show's played out a number of miracle-cure storylines for disabled people, from giving Artie mechanical legs that let him walk but that he never uses again, to first giving cheerleader Quinn a surprising recovery from a spinal cord injury and then having her manipulate other characters based on their sympathy for her. Disability is something to be overcome, rather than a vehicle to new perceptions and storytelling opportunities. Peter Dinklage, the actor with dwarfism who's had a critical and commercial breakout as Game of Thrones' acerbic Tyrion Lannister, is a landmark: a disabled person who is sexually desirable, self-confident, and gains, rather than loses, from his unique position. But he's more an exception to the representations of disabled people as saints or vehicles for others' self-improvement than a rule. When Snow White and the Huntsman wanted to cast its dwarves, the producers turned to actors of full stature like Ian McShane, Toby Jones, and Nick Frost, and digitally altered their bodies, rather than employing actors with dwarfism.
Into this confused environment comes the Sundance Channel's Push Girls, a reality show, premiering tonight, about four disabled women in Los Angeles. The show lives within familiar reality-show conventions: It displays attractive women navigating their friendships, relationships, and careers with a dose of producer-injected drama. But Push Girls also revitalizes the genre: The cleavage, flirtations, judgements, and relationship problems help dispel misconceptions about what women who use wheelchairs can and can't do.
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"Yes, I can have sex," declares Tiphany Adams in the pilot's opening scene. "Lots and lots of sex." It's a standard reality-show declaration of naughtiness and desirability, but it's powerful in its context. When Tiphany pulls into a gas station in a sportscar with her wheelchair (or, as she describes it, "26-inch rims on the side of my ass."), two men watch her get out her chair and start to pump her gas. Their initial glances are mildly incredulous, but by the end of the transaction, Tiphany's exchanging long, flirtatious looks with one of her fellow customers. It's rare to want to congratulate a random guy for finding a random woman attractive, but this sort of interaction—an able-bodied person showing clear desire for a person with a disability—is almost invisible from television. Take Glee: When Artie lost his virginity to his able-bodied girlfriend, the show didn't show their first time on screen—the audience learned about it when Artie told his friends he was in a sexual relationship.
In fact, one of the most enjoyable things about Push Girls is the show's comfort with its stars' bodies. We meet Mia Schaikewitz in bed with her boyfriend and follow her through her morning routine, including levering herself into the bathtub. Her nakedness is treated neither with prurience nor condescension. This is simply the way she goes about her day. Despite the reality show genre's attention to bodily imperfection, Push Girls doesn't seem interested into playing into the idea that disabled people have flawed bodies. Tiphany and Mia both discuss the expectation that disabled people will be disheveled or poorly dressed, then hit the gym as a display of strength rather than of weight-loss related anxiety. "I think most people haven't seen sexy in a wheelchair, and that's why they can't picture it," Mia explains. The show's association between strength and sexual appeal is something that pop culture does rarely, even for able-bodied women.