The Modern Freak Show? Our Obsession With The Weird and Wonderful.

The recent slew of TV programs about ‘weird and wonderful’ people raises interesting questions. What is the purpose of these shows; to inform and educate, or to entertain? From “The Town that caught Tourette’s” to “Obsessive Compulsive Hoarders”, 4od is awash with documentaries about extraordinary people. But, they aren’t just extraordinary, some of the subjects of these shows are very, very ill. Some of them struggle to function in everyday life as a result of their conditions or disabilities. 

The Undateables” is a channel 4 documentary that has become a hit show, and has just been commissioned for its third series. The premise is that people living with challenging conditions are often considered ‘undateable’. The series meets some of these people and follows them on their quest for love. So what is the point of putting cameras in their life to document their perspective’s and struggles? Is it to give us a right old laugh at their expense, or to sympathise with their needs? And is it all doom and gloom, or can they inspire us by demonstrating a positive outlook in often dire circumstances?

It features a range of people with a range of difficulties. We have met a couple of Tourette’s sufferers, whose attempts to suppress their less-than-appropriate-date-time tics are excruciating to watch. On the other hand, it is also refreshing to see this condition represented in a serious light. The coverage of people with Tourette’s Syndrome tends to focus on the hilarity of involuntarily shouting obscenities. Having worked with people with Tourette’s I know this is far from the truth; it not only affects their love lives but every single aspect of their daily life.

We have also met a couple of people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. From Michael whose conversation relies on catch phrases he has rote learnt, or prompts on his phone from his mum, to Richard, to whom the prospect of dating someone from outside of a 5-mile radius is terrifying. Again, I find a tension; between documenting how the mundane and everyday to you and I is extremely challenging for these individuals, and exploiting their difficulties to pull in viewers like spectators to a circus.

As one would expect public opinion has been mixed on this… a quick search on twitter reveals an awful lot of encouraging tweets such as “I really do love the #Undateables …they are all inspiring people…”*. On the other hand, there is also some rather less ‘positive’ exposure, for example, “I got my mum a bunch of flowers. I am sitting at the front of the bus with them looking like a fat virgin on his first date #Undateable.”*

*Tweets have been paraphrased to protect author anonymity!

The advertising watchdog has received complaints that the show is offensive towards disabled people, and encourages stereotyping and bullying. And, the individual’s featured ability to make an informed decision to consent has also been called into question. While Channel 4 argue that they hope to change perceptions of disability, the show has been attacked in the media for clearly setting up a distinction between disabled people and non-disabled people. Surely the way to address this is normalise rather than emphasise the differences between us all? Whilst showing disabled people dating is a rather radical concept, the show capitalizes on the paramount difficulties this poses the individuals featured. Instead it should focus on the fact that everyone, disabled and non-disabled alike, wants to find “the one” and that for many people it is a challenging and demoralizing experience!