The Undateables - Challenging stereotypes or creating mockery

10 Jan 2013

So armed with mugs of tea and left over Christmas chocolates, the McKiernan household sat down to watch the return of Channel 4 Series The Undateables. The show has been described by its creators as following the attempts of people living with challenging conditions as they find love. The controversial show follows people with a variety of conditions from Tourette’s to Autism.  Channel 4 has never been one to shy away from hosting documentaries of a highly risky nature, but at what point does simple broadcasting become an excuse to mock those different to us?

 

Last year around 2.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the first series. And despite the announcement of the series causing social uproar with comments such as “The Undateables seems unwatchable” being thrown around twitter it was eventually dubbed as one of Channel 4’s highest rated show of the year. The show last year received complaints to Watchdog that it was offensive to disabled people and encourage stereotyping and bullying. However, on announcement of the latest series, Jay Hunt, chief creative officer at Channel 4, said: "The Undateables was Channel 4 at its best – compelling public service television that engaged an audience and changed attitudes. I am looking forward to it returning for a second series."

Always one for a healthy debate, it seemed only natural that we sat to watch it, so that we could form our own opinion on the show. Granted, some parts of the show left a sour taste, and weren’t handled perhaps as well as they could have been. However, personally I found the show really interesting, especially listening to Tourette’s sufferer Michael who spoke honestly about how finding love before had completely freed him. It was interesting to see how people with these challenging conditions are supported, but also reached out to my softer side, when you saw some of the struggles they faced. For me, as (I believe) am an open-minded young person, I took the series as a way to make myself more aware as to what other people have to face. 

However not everyone felt the show did this, and I can completely understand, the concept itself is a difficult one to approve and we had plenty of arguments within the family over it. The Telegraph gave the first series a scathing review saying “There’s something uncomfortable in treating the experiences of the disabled as exaggerated versions of an able-bodied person’s inner turmoil". 

I thought I’d take a stroll through twitter so see what people’s opinions had been of the show, and I must admit there were mixed reviews. Many people took to twitter, to complain about the unnecessarily harsh titling of the show, whilst others focused on probably Channel 4’s selling point, the fact that ‘It shows that there is love out there for everyone, you’re not alone’ and calling those involved in the show ‘brave’ and ‘touching’. However, it was quite shocking to see how many young people had tweeted that their teachers had expressed surprise at ‘not seeing them on the show’. 

Whilst others took to point fun at things said on the show, it brought up the point of just how much are people rather than watching this to challenge their own stereotypes, just using it to make fun of people. At least some people had the decency to apologise for laughing, and could see that what they were doing was wrong. But the question is, are you laughing at the comment that person just made or at the person? Because, if you’re watching it purely to mock and laugh at those with particular conditions, then whether the show is at fault or not- you should be ashamed. 

Personally, I think the show is one you take with a pinch of salt. If you go into it with the right mindset, it can be a touching and informative documentary, showing modern challenges faced by people with disabilities.  However I can somewhat agree with charity Mencap who said the show “reinforced negative, unflattering stereotypes, positioning disabled people as being ‘different’” which is of course evident from the title, which I think is poor and gives out the wrong image not only about the show, but about those who feature on it. 

So I’ll leave you with a quote from Channel 4 themselves, and ask you what your opinion is? 

Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt said: “The Undateables has achieved something most disability programming fails to achieve: it has engaged an audience of over 3 million in issues directly affecting disabled people, and it has changed attitudes. Bold programming that brings issues to the fore is what Channel 4 is about. We are proud of our track record in tackling difficult subjects like this with compassion, sensitivity and creative flair.”

Has a program which aimed to challenge and free people of stereotypes done just that? Or have we just paved the way for bullying and abuse? After all if you check twitter, you might just find the person who directs you to the link and asks you to ‘point and laugh at it (in a nice way)’.

By Jilly McKiernan

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