Queer Eye: Erasing Disability Identity?

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.

The Queer Eye team are standing alongside each other and are wearing suits. They are posing and looking into the camera. The words QUEER EYE more than a makeover are below the Queer Eye team

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.

Karamo is sitting on a couch, Wesley is in his wheelchair opposite Karamo and they are talking
Karamo (left) and Wesley (right) / Netflix

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 in 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, fuelling 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.

The Queer Eye are posing with Wesley in the middle of them
Netflix

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.

Caption This

Imagine that you’re at the cinema to see the latest blockbuster: you’re sitting in your seat, overpriced popcorn in hand, waiting in anticipation for the film to begin rolling. The film starts to play! But… there’s no sound. You begin to realise that the entire film is in British Sign Language. There’s one problem… you don’t know any sign language.

Now imagine that less than 2% of film screenings in your area are provided with English audio and dialogue, with screenings often taking place in the morning during a weekday. Now replace ‘audio’ with ‘subtitles’. This is a real issue faced by Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) individuals in the UK who wish to attend a cinema showing of the latest film.

Between February and June 2018, #SubtitledCinema campaigners Ellie Parfitt and Michelle Hedley studied four cinemas and the subtitled showings these establishments individually provided over the course of four months. The cinemas are based in Norwich, Northumbria and their surrounding areas.
The lowest statistic found from their research was an astounding 31 subtitled showings out of a total of 7,618 screenings, this is 0.4% of screenings per week. The highest statistic was 153 subtitled showings out of a total of 5,898, an average of 2.6% of screenings per week. Their research revealed that during these four months there were more than 5,000 screenings that hearing people were able to attend. In comparison, Deaf/HoH customers were provided with 150 projections that were at convenient times. This is only 3% of the opportunities afforded to hearing customers.

Many multiplex cinemas argue that there is a lack of demand for subtitled showings, with low numbers of attendance. 11 million people are living with a hearing loss in the UK, this is the equivalent of 1 out of every 6 people. However, if cinemas continue to screen subtitled showings at unreasonable times, such as 11 am on a Tuesday, when most people are working, there isn’t going to be an audience. This isn’t because people don’t want to attend, it’s because of inaccessibility. If these showings are rescheduled to more convenient timings, with efficient and proactive advertising, this would increase demand and audience presence.

Since the arrival of streaming services such as BBC iPlayer and Netflix, the popularity of subtitles has risen with many hearing users opting to switch on captions. Many people struggle to understand the dialogue of films for several reasons, regardless of whether they are hearing or not. Subtitles can also be beneficial for those whose first language isn’t English.

On a more anecdotal note, the first-ever captioned screening I saw was Star Wars: The Force Awakens during my family’s Christmastime tradition of a cinema trip on Christmas Eve. I didn’t even realise the screening we were attending was going to be captioned. I hardly ever went to the cinema as I preferred to wait for the DVD to be released so I could watch the film with subtitles. I never even realised captioned film screenings at cinemas were available. Watching films without subtitles means I have to concentrate a lot more than hearing people would, and I would still miss out on important plot points and dialogue crucial to the film’s storytelling. This accidental subtitled screening completely changed my cinematic experience, as it meant I was able to complain about the plot holes and laugh about the punchlines during the car ride home. I wasn’t left out of a shared experience. Even though subtitled cinema screenings are sparse, these showings allowed me to gradually fall in love with film, leading me to join my University’s Film Society and to becoming President of said Film Society. We even went on to organise a subtitled short film festival at our local independent cinema, the Belmont Filmhouse.

If you would like to learn more about this issue, then visit Action On Hearing Loss. If you would like to help, then you can sign this petition!

YourLocalCinema.com is a website that displays all of the subtitled showings available in your local area, this is a website that I use religiously so that I don’t have to check all of the individual cinemas’ websites for subtitled showings, I highly recommend it.