Netflix’s much-loved reality show Queer Eye returned to our small screens earlier this summer with its fourth season. Audiences once again saw the Fab Five travelling through the Midwest, meeting different nominees of varying backgrounds, helping them to improve different elements within their lives. The Fab Five consists of food and wine specialist Antoni Porowski, interior designer Bobby Berk, culture and lifestyle expert Karamo Brown, grooming consultant Jonathan Van Ness and fashion designer Tan France.
Queer Eye’s popularity is partially owed to the show’s deconstruction of stereotypes, addressing polarizing issues whilst maintaining a level of respect and sensitivity for the nominees’ stories. In a nutshell, the show’s purpose is to help good people feel comfortable in their skin. The Fab Five focuses on self-love and empowerment, often bringing touching moments of shared experiences and struggles.
Episode 2 of Season 4 featured the reality show’s first visibly disabled nominee, Wesley Hamilton. Wesley was shot 7 years ago and was subsequently paralysed from the waist down. He is a wheelchair user and community activist, who formed a non-profit organisation that aims to combat mental and physical health issues faced by disabled individuals through the promotion of fitness and a healthy lifestyle. The organisation is named ‘Disabled but Not Really’ something that was also selected as the episode’s title. Queer Eye prides itself on the encouragement of empowerment and the celebration of one’s identity so this episode name felt contradictory to the show’s message. The titling of the episode perpetuates the ideology that identifying as disabled has a negative connotation, that disability is something to overcome. Inaccessibility is the issue that many disabled people struggle with and encounter daily, rather than the disability itself. This criticism isn’t towards Wesley as he is more than entitled to name his organisation ‘Disabled but Not Really’. He has the right to view and address his disability however he chooses.
However, Queer Eye’s episode titling left me feeling frustrated as it was a display of ignorance and disregard towards the wider disabled community, many of whom proudly identify as disabled. Disability is defined by the disability rights movement as the primary result of society’s exclusion of varying body types through structure and policy. This framework is known as the social model of disability and emphasises the social issues that affect disabled people. It was clear that the Queer Eye team didn’t consult the wider disabled community during production, neglecting their responsibility to utilise their platform to help change the narrative surrounding disability. The episode danced around themes of accessibility, independence and disability pride, barely scratching the surface of the issues and values central to the disability rights movement.
The trending hashtag #SayTheWord came to mind when watching this episode, reminding me of the shared sense of pride within the disability community I often see on the Twitterverse. First coined by Lawrence Carter-Young, this hashtag strives to empower disabled individuals to be proud of their disability, to say the word.
‘If you ‘see the person, not the disability’ you’re only getting half the picture. Broaden your perspective. You might be surprised by everything you’ve missed. DISABLED. #SayTheWord.’
The Fab Five failed to explore this mindset, engaging in the erasure of disability identity and pride.
Woven throughout the episode, there was a reemerging spotlight on the co-dependent relationship between Wesley and his mother, Dawn. Karamo took Dawn aside for a private conversation, commenting “You had to give up your life for 7 seven years”, later asking the question “Has he ever said thank you?”. Dawn simply replied, “He doesn’t have to say thank you.” Karamo attempted to delve into something that he has no business discussing, overstepping his boundary with no consideration as to the implications of the suggestion that Wesley should be thankful. The episode continued to convey the message that disabled people can only achieve independence through interdependence, fueling the stereotype that all disabled people are ‘invalids’, imposing a burden on their loved ones as they care for them. The issue at hand is the lack of accessibility and proper infrastructure which forms a barrier to disabled people seeking independence.
Many non-disabled audiences were inspired by Wesley ‘overcoming’ his disability, on the other hand, most disabled viewers perceived the episode’s narrative as ‘inspiration porn’ and a missed opportunity as Queer Eye chose a narrative that distanced itself from the wider disabled community. I appreciate that each episode is only forty-five minutes long, making it impossible for a total exploration of disability rights and issues, but the episode still missed a trick. It would have been wonderful to see Tan reach out to a disabled fashion designer to discuss adaptive clothing and the options available for Wesley, or for Bobby to consult with a disabled interior designer and collaborate on Wesley’s house. Despite this, I was relieved to see both Tan and Bobby undertaking a practical approach, restructuring Wesley’s house and clothing to accommodate him in every-day life. Bobby comments that “Wesley doesn’t need anyone to do anything for him, the house makes him struggle more than he needs to”. It was refreshing to see Bobby travelling in the city with Wesley to gain a better understanding of his daily commute and the difficulties he faces due to poor design.
Tan advises Wesley on the tailoring of outerwear such as jackets so that they don’t get caught in his jacket. In one heartfelt scene, Tan cries as they shared their experiences of struggling with self-confidence, Wesley asks Tan how he was able to become proud of his identity as a gay man. This would have been the perfect opportunity to discuss disability pride, that the shame a disabled person may experience stems from external reactions and stigma, rather than how their body works. Instead, Wesley comforts Tan and the episode continues.
In many ways, the episode was heartfelt, especially the scenes depicting Wesley’s strong relationship with his daughter. Nonetheless, I had high expectations for the Fab Five, and they weren’t met. They missed a prime opportunity to examine ableism as well as internalised ableism, a topic that is in dire need of discussion within mainstream audiences.
The Fab Five clinked their glasses to a toast of “Disabled, but not really” and the next episode began playing.