The Undateables

In the couple of weeks before Valentine’s Day thoughts of love, relationships and finding ‘the one’ plague our brains, our shops and our television screens.

And so, in the run up to the fourteenth, Channel 4 has launched the second series, of its controversially named documentary, The Undateables, which details the love lives of people suffering from disabilities. The first series was launched last spring and was a big hit, attracting an average audience of more than three million, making it one of Channel 4’s highest-rating shows of last year. However, it received much criticism with the advertising watchdog receiving complaints that it was offensive towards disabled people and encouraged stereotyping and bullying. Despite that, the Advertising Standards Authority cleared it of any breach of the advertising code- allowing it to return in January of this year.

Although there has been nothing proved technically wrong with the documentary, there is something somewhat ethically challenging about sitting down to watch a documentary, that arguably makes a spectacle of the autistic, Tourette’s syndrome sufferers, and others suffering from disabilities, attempting to find love.  Journalist, Sharon Brennan criticised the show heavily claiming that it highlighted differences between those who have disabilities and those who don’t and pointed out that the title The Undateables was incredibly offensive to those suffering from a disability.

There is also the added moral complication that The Undateables is, without a doubt, entertaining. It would not receive the ratings it does if it were not so. Let’s face it, as a television audience; we are not merely satisfied by challenges to our perceptions or new information, we need something that appeals to our desire to be entertained. For example, in the first episode of the second series, it is difficult not to giggle as autistic Michael practices for his date with his mother. And it is hard not to shed a tear in the second episode when Raymond, who suffers from learning disability, invests all of his time and effort into a date for it to fail completely. All the while, pangs of guilt are plaguing you for laughing or sighing or cringing at the expense of these people.

However, The Undateables is saved as not just a legitimate but also a good, documentary through the fact that audiences are left at the end of each episode, not with thoughts of the differences between themselves and the participants on the documentary, but rather with the realisation of the similarities. They are human beings who, like everyone else, desire companionship and physical affection. The show conveys that it is not so much the disability that affects the participants’ love lives but more the lack of confidence that those disabilities bring about. And, rather surprisingly, you find yourself seeing a lot of your own insecurities in their plights to find ‘the one’. The show never suggests that disabilities and dating don’t mix. It conveys what everyone is already aware of- that dating is an incredibly difficult game to play for anyone.

Although many will remain cynical and judgemental about the show, largely due to its title and branding, those who make the decision to watch an episode may find themselves pleasantly surprised. The description ‘undateable’ is not one which takes over the documentary- it was simply a way for Channel 4 to strike a controversial chord with audiences in order to generate hype and interest. The show itself challenges preconceptions of disabilities rather than entrenching them, leaves audiences with feelings of similarities, not differences, and thoughts of encouragement, not pity.

-Claire Flynn

-Image courtesy of Lwp Kommunikáció (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lwpkommunikacio/)

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