Thursday, December 03, 2009

Missing is in the Eye of the Beholder

Apologies in advance if this post comes across as offensive, insensitive, blunt, cruel, or clueless.

The other night I watched this show on BBCAmerica, Britain's Missing Top Model. It's a reality show which follows a group of women competing to win a a photo shoot with a famous photographer (someone most of us have never heard of--it isn't with someone like Richard Avedon or Stephen Meisel), a spread in a fashion magazine (one of the second tier ones--it is never with Vogue), a modeling contract, and, subsequently, fame, fortune, love, and happiness (at least, this is what is suggested are the results of winning the competition. But, quick, name a winner of a reality show modeling competition who isn't married to a former cast member of The Brady Bunch and isn't named Yoanna or Jaslene. See, if you can't even be famous enough for me to remember your name...) Anyway, this show is different because all the contestants have a disability. Two are deaf, two are missing their arms (one was born without an arm, one lost it in a car accident), one had her leg amputated due to congenital defects, one has neuropathy and chronic fatigue syndrome, one is a paraplegic (car accident), and one has partial paralysis (also, due to a car accident).

It is a fascinating show for a variety of reasons.

What does it mean to be a model? Society tells us that models are the ideal form of human beauty. In looking at models we can see what a society considers perfection. What does it mean to suggest that someone who is physically imperfect can also represent this ideal of perfection? Should a disability which doesn't affect one's appearance be considered a disability in a competition like this? Are there disabilities which fundamentally would prevent one from being considered model material?

In the first episode, the models were told that they would be judged for their photos. However, when it came down to deciding who to send home, one of the judges wanted to get rid of one of the deaf models because she wasn't visibly disabled and, therefore, her becoming a fashion model wouldn't make her a role model for the disability community. Since there had not been this discussion surrounding the other models whose disabilities were not front and center in their pictures (i.e. everyone except the two women who are missing arms), I suspect this discussion was trying to argue why one should go home and not the other. However, the judges decided (not unanimously) that the woman who uses a prosthetic leg should be sent home because her picture was the worst and that was what they had told the models they would be evaluated on. Then there was a teaser for what happens in upcoming weeks and they showed a clip of the paraplegic woman suggesting the woman with chronic fatigue and neuropathy wasn't really disabled.

I found the judging exchange and the teaser to be interesting because they simultaneously challenge our notions of what we mean by disability and how context can color our perceptions.

I'll admit, when I first heard about this show, I read about it on Wikipedia and had the split second thought "oh, they have two deaf people. Isn't that sortof cheating?" Because modeling is about appearance and, as the judge pointed out, you can't see someone is deaf. Theoretically, being deaf isn't necessarily a hindrance to being a model because one can still be gorgeous, even if one can't hear. While I realize that deviation from the norm is a problem for everyone, precisely because the world is created to cater to the norm, to not have one's hearing strikes me as being a far greater disability than not having a leg and using a prosthetic (Oscar Pistorius runs with prosthetics and is accused of having an unfair advantage over runners who must use their own legs). I am not suggesting missing a limb is not difficult, but so much of our lives revolves around hearing that to not have it would seem to be a greater hardship. But that is day to day life, in terms of modeling, as I said, no one can see whether you can hear or not. A deaf person can pass in a way that someone missing a limb cannot which obviously will lead some to suggest that they don't count as disabled, because we so often assume that discrimination occurs only when people cannot hide the ways in which they are different.

As the teaser suggests, the question of who is more disabled and who has it worse will rear its head and will, if this conforms to reality show guidelines, be wholly unsatisfactory and remain unresolved. Perhaps it is impossible for this issue to even be resolved. Who can judge another man's journey? Obviously, some of the contestants disabilities create more difficulties for them in day to day life and, as I discussed above, modeling has demands which allow for some disabilities more than others. However, we make our judgments about disabilities being greater or lesser based on our own biases. If both women are ultimately unable to walk a runway due to their physical disabilities, why is paralyis caused by a severed spinal chord more serious than severe fatigue? Are both of them trumped by the woman who has brain damage as well as physical problems, despite the fact that she can walk? Are the people who became disabled due to accidents in their teens worse off, disability-wise, because they were forced to adapt to a new set of circumstances, whereas the people born with their disabilities have never known anything else?

We the viewers are constantly reminded the show is looking for the person who is most likely to have a successful career, not the most disabled model they can find. So is a person who is paralyzed from the waist down or a person who, in her own words, "walks like Frankenstein" automatically out of the running because they will not be able to do runway work? The judges keep talking about personality, which is another way of saying that how one deals with the challenges is as important as the challenges themselves. If personality is as important as appearance (because, let's be honest here, all these women have beautiful faces and bodies) will the disability eventually become irrelevant and the judges will just be judging the model on her own terms or does the disability and its severity gain even more importance?

It should be noted that this whole notion of who is more disabled is brought up not in the context of who can do the work, but in the context of who deserves to win the prize. Is this show, by its very nature as a competition, creating false divisions and distinctions where there are none?

So many questions and since this aired in Britain over a year ago, I can't get too emotionally worked up over the storyline since I know how it will end, so I can spend all my time looking for the greater implications of whatever happens and how the producers have chosen to edit the show.

Is it strange that no one thought of doing a show like this earlier? It is a sad commentary on the fashion industry in particular and on our society's perceptions of beauty in general that this show seems so revolutionary. It has been fifteen years since Heather Whitestone became the first disabled Miss America and nine since Theresa Uchytil became the first visibly disabled Miss America. Isn't it a strange turn of events that the Miss America pageant, something so many of us see as antiquated, is more progressive in its views of beauty than society as a whole?

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