“Push Girls”: Exploiting Disabilities or Promoting Inclusion?

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© Sundance Channel

By Valerie Martin

The Pitch:

Another reality show about attractive women in Los Angeles hardly sounds like something we need…right? That’s what Sundance Channel executive Sarah Burnett thought during the first few moments of the pitch tape of Push Girls that producer Gay Rosenthal brought to her. But then the camera zoomed out, and Burnett saw that all four women were in wheelchairs.

For those who’ve followed Rosenthal’s career, Push Girls likely comes as no surprise as she was responsible for the TLC hit, Little People, Big World, a docuseries about an Oregon family comprised of both little and average-sized members. Rosenthal believes Push Girls is a groundbreaking concept. She told the New York Post, “I am always trying to forge new frontiers. I started developing the show as soon as I met the girls.”

The Stars:

As Rosenthal says, “Push Girls [is ultimately about] four girlfriends juggling dating and babies and careers. Their lives are interesting, with a dramatic twist.” Because of the subject matter, many are already comparing the show to the likes of the Real Housewives franchise (complete with bad puns like “wheel housewives”). However, as the New York Times mentioned in its recent write-up, “it’s worth noting that unlike the tense casts of, say, Bravo’s ‘Real Housewives’ series, the women on ‘Push Girls’ are genuinely friends, not acquaintances hurriedly bundled together before shooting began.”

The idea for the show originally came when a mutual friend introduced Rosenthal to Angela Rockwell, a 36-year-old former model and actress. Rosenthal originally wanted to chronicle Rockwell’s marriage with 21 Jump Street star Dustin Nguyen, but Rockwell persuaded her to meet “the girls.” Though the producer planned on a quick drop-by, she was still there five hours later. “They’re amazing. I knew: This is the show.”

Angela Rockwood © Sundance Channel

Rockwell, the only quadriplegic in the group (due to a 2001 car accident), was the third American to have stem cell surgery: “[The surgery] helped me tremendously from [being in] a power chair, controlling everything with my mouth, to now [using] a manual chair,” she said. Rockwell requires a live-in caretaker, and she doesn’t shy away from making this evident on Push Girls. “I need someone to come in and catheterize me. I need someone to bathe me. I need someone to lotion me up… This is my reality, and it was important that the show capture that.”

Rockwell also discusses another difficult reality of her condition (including the need for a full-time caretaker): the finances. In the pilot episode, she contacts modeling agencies to see if she can get any work to help pay the bills. It also helps that she has a roommate, 28-year-old friend and fellow Push Girl, Tiphany Adams. Adams was the only survivor of a drunk-driving accident during her senior year of high school, and was given a five percent chance of living by doctors after having been pronounced dead at the scene. “I was in a coma for three weeks, and when I woke up I was like, ‘I’m going to get through this, and I’m going to live my life to the fullest.’” On the show, Adams is portrayed as the confident, sexy provocateur, who “never wants to put a label on” her sexuality. And she doesn’t let her chair keep her from the dance floor, either.

Auti Angel © Sundance Channel

Next up is former hip hop dancer Auti Angel, who had been dancing with LL Cool J at the Grammy’s in 1992 shortly before the car accident that changed her life forever. Now 42, Angel and her husband of five years are hoping to get pregnant with their first child. Angel’s husband calls her a “firecracker,” which is evident in both her intense determination and frustration with her limitations as she competes in a ballroom dance contest in episode 2 where she is the only contestant in a wheelchair.

As the only Push Girl whose condition was not the result of a car crash, former competitive swimmer Mia Schaikewitz, 32, was instantly paralyzed due to a blood vessel rupture in her spinal cord at the age of 15. “Since being in a wheelchair I’ve done other adaptive sports, but the one I never went back to was swimming, mainly because of the emotional impact it would have on me,” she said. The series will document Schaikewitz’s return to the water, as well as the challenges she’s facing in her relationship with her able-bodied boyfriend who does not share her desire to have children.

Push Girls also checks in with Chelsie Hill, 20, who became paralyzed just three years ago as a result of a drunk driving accident. A dancer since age three, Hill was first introduced to Angel while in rehabilitation after her accident – and “the girls” have since taken her under their wing. Barnett says that Hill brings a different perspective to the show, as she “doesn’t want to identify as someone who’s always going to be in a chair.”

The Bigger Picture:

Rosenthal is no stranger to criticism and scrutiny for her controversial subject choices. As Virginia Heffernan wrote in her New York Times review of Little People, “We get to stare at unusual bodies while pretending to do something good for us.”

In the Times’ recent look at Push Girls, reporter Megan Angelo wrote, ”It may be impossible to turn a lens on a group with defined physical differences without being called exploitative. In any case, Ms. Rosenthal is used to this and used to dismissing it. ‘A lot of people are cynical and just go to that place,’ she said. ‘Fine. Say that. It’s not true. It could be, but we’re telling the story with respect.’”

Rosenthal contends that depicting the lives of these women in a way that is honest, real, and respectful of both the Push Girls’ stars and other people with disabilities (whom she knows will be among the show’s audience) is far more significant to her than opinions of potential critics. “It’s so important to them, this message that we can live our lives to the fullest and have a positive outlook,” she said. “They’ve been waiting for this.”

So does Rosenthal expect the show to change the general public’s perception of disability? Although she hasn’t made a direct statement about it, she recently told the New York Post, “I absolutely believe that ‘Little People’ helped carve the way [for Push Girls]. I sold that show seven years ago. Now little people are so accepted.” [Author’s note: I’d say that’s more than a bit too definitive.]

For Barnett, it was the Push Girls’ angle of unscripted female friendship that sold her on the show, not the wheelchairs. “I never thought, ‘Oh, we need to make a show about disability,’” she said.

My Verdict:

One thing I found omitted from all the recent coverage on Push Girls is the obvious but controversial point about how the show continues to play into our society’s narrow perceptions of beauty. Although it’s refreshing that the characters are diverse culturally, one thing they do have in common is that they are all thin and, by traditional standards, highly attractive. On the one hand, this can be a good thing: people in wheelchairs have not typically been shown as attractive or sexy in mainstream media. Thus, the show brings us the message, “women in wheelchairs can be hot, too!” Now that’s a message I can get behind.

What concerns me is that, just like able-bodied people who are almost exclusively shown images of highly attractive people in the media, people with disabilities who watch Push Girls may feel that they simply don’t measure up to the high beauty standards depicted in the show. Even though saying this is controversial in itself, and I welcome discussion of it – would it have killed Rosenthal to add just one average-looking woman in a wheelchair into the mix? Of course, it’s more complex that that, especially given that these women are real-life friends. The phrase “birds of a feather flock together” could apply in this situation, given that some studies show attractive people befriend others of roughly equal physical attractiveness.[1]

All things considered, however, I can’t help but be excited by Push Girls. Even just watching the show’s opening credit sequence feels extremely empowering. The women are so full of life and energy that it seems like they’re about to roll out onto a track and start a derby bout. Beautiful or not, people with disabilities are woefully underrepresented in mainstream media. When they are cast in shows or movies, too often their disability is the defining trait and storyline of the character. Though it could be argued that Push Girls does this in the sense that the show is stars all women in wheelchairs, I agree with Rosenthal and Burnett’s assertions that the wheelchairs are not what this show is all about. Yes, show the real life challenges that are a reality of paralysis – skirting around that would be problematic in an entirely different way. But after just watching just the first two episodes, I am already much more interested in these women’s love lives and career goals than I am in their wheelchairs. I expect good things from Rosenthal’s latest creation – and I hope you’ll tune in to see if you agree.

Season 1 of Push Girls, which consists of 14 half-hour episodes, debuted on the Sundance Channel on June 4, 2012.

Visit the Sundance Channel’s Push Girls website to watch the pilot episode and additional clips from the show.

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Comments

  1. haven’t seen it, but i’ll check it out. i had the same reaction as you to their beauty–and more than that, the high fashion. but still, i think the positives out weigh this typical hollywood flaw. in fact, how exciting to have a show about a group of women who aren’t scratching each others’ eyes out! i’m always telling my daughter, who gets caught up in toddlers in tiarras, dance moms and other hideous “reality” shows where women treat each other like crap, that women aren’t like that. if she has to watch reality tv, i would love for her to see a show where women treat each other with kindness and respect.