Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Britain's Missing Top Model

I'm not the biggest fan of BBC3's "social" output - perhaps it's my age but I do find myself coming over all Daily Mail when I'm faced with "comedies" like Scallywagga that tick the urban ethnic minority box but fail to be funny and, in failing, do a disservice to the ethnic minorities they are trying to reach. However, last night I was enthralled and genuinely moved by the final of Britain's Missing Top Model, the culmination of a nationwide search for a disabled model.

I won't lie and say I don't know the genre and it's trashy charms - America's Next Top Model and it's world-wide sisters are all-pervading for the discerning telly-slut - and I was expecting BMTM to adopt a similar tone. At best I expect the programme to lightly touch on disabled issues and teach me that everyone is beautiful in their differences and move on, disabled box ticked.

Instead, I've witnessed informative, interesting debates about what the nature of disability is and how it affects us - all played out in an intelligent and accessible format.

I'm, of course, aware that a certain amount of caution should be applied regarding the editorial choices made in the presentation of reality TV of this kind but the most telling moment of the whole series came about three episodes in. A judge berated one of the contestants for her "difficult" behavior (which was clearly a result, in part at least, of the circumstances of her degenerative illness) and, after she had left, Wayne Hemmingway, also a judge on the show, turned on him for his "cruelty". The first judge defended his stance saying "she may be disabled but we're not here to take responsibility for her behaiviour, I'm not going to patronise her because you don't want to look bad on television".

Also interesting was watching the in-fighting between the girls, whose disabilities were many and varied. All of them had little understanding of each other's difficulties - a profoundly deaf girl was told on several occasions that her lot was "easier" and another, with a (physically symptomless) degenerative bone decease and chronic fatigue syndrome was clearly felt to be "weak" by the other contestants. On several occasions the audience was forced to think hard about the nature of disability - is one type of disability worse than another? Do we even have a right to evaluate someone's impediments until we inhabit their skin?

Ultimately, I can say that the programme changed my perceptions of disability and the issues that disabled people live with and I only hope that this is the start of other similarly intelligent programming from BBC3.

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