'Push Girls' Shows the Normal Lives of Women in Wheelchairs

The new show is a refreshing antidote to Hollywood's fraught relationship with disabled actors.

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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.

"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.

And Push Girls is most dramatic when it's exploring the characters' attempts to make careers in Los Angeles, the most appearance-obsessed place on the planet. Where Bravo reality shows treat the Hollywood ambitions of their stars as ridiculous even while urging them into the recording studio or on stage, Push Girls takes its characters' aspirations seriously. Angela Rockwood and Auti Angel both had entertainment careers before their injuries, Angela as a model and Auti as a backup dancer on hip-hop tours. The show portrays their desires to get back into the game not as a function of boredom, greed, or self-aggrandizement. This is a career, not a dalliance, and one that's driven by financial as well as creative needs. Angela is separated from her husband, and explains that Social Security doesn't pay for the nursing care she needs. And the challenges they face are not a result of their own deluded lack of talent, but a manifestation of Hollywood's narrowness and lack of creativity.

When Angela, who was breaking into movie and television roles when she became a quadriplegic in a car accident, decides to start looking for a new agent, she's treated as if she's some sort of bizarre anomaly. "To my knowledge, I can't think of much advertising featuring people in wheelchairs," a woman at an agency tells her. Later in the conversation, she insists, "We're wheelchair accessible, but there's a staircase."

Anthony, the photographer Angela hires to take her new headshots, initially acts the same way. "Angela has a lot of work," to do, he says. "It's like the guy who didn't have any arms who wanted to pitch in baseball." And he wants to lean the seat back so he can take shots that will conceal that she uses a wheelchair. But she insists that "I have to show a part of the wheelchair to show that I am in a wheelchair," recognizing it doesn't make sense to take shots that might get her in the door only to encounter a shocked reaction and an instant rejection. As Angela talks Anthony through what's happening to her body when she has a leg spasm, he begins to relax, and the photos he takes of her are beautiful. It's a perfect encapsulation of what the show hopes to accomplish, as familiarity overcomes fear and an able-bodied person and a disabled one work together on a project that's a credit to them both.

Whatever happens to Push Girls, it's clear the show is only the beginning for some of the women featured on it. Angela and Auti are involved in My Next Breath, a movie due out in 2014. Their co-stars are members of their acting class, including Mark Povinelli, an actor with dwarfism who was one of the better things about cancelled NBC sitcom Are You There, Chelsea?, Geri Jewell, who with her role on The Facts of Life became the first actor with cerebral palsy to have a regular acting job on television, Farrelly Brothers regular and quadraplegic Danny Murphy, and Lexi Marman, who is deaf. That's a lot of talent, if only Hollywood has the imagination to make use of them.