Let's say this first: Popular television is bad at lots of things, and one of them is representations of people with disabilities. Even where they're present – Artie on Glee, or Walter, Jr. on Breaking Bad – they tend to be in isolation. When there's more than one person in a wheelchair, for instance, like when Jason Street was in rehab on Friday Night Lights, the story is usually about the disability itself.
I sat down to think about the last time I saw television pass a sort of invented variation (not parallel, but similar in intent) on the Bechdel test: two people with disabilities talking in depth about things other than their disabilities. I'm sure it's happened, but I strained to think of examples.
Tonight, the Sundance Channel debuts Push Girls, a new documentary/reality show about four women who are friends (and were friends prior to filming) who all use wheelchairs. Three of them – Angela, Auti and Tiphany – got there through car accidents when they were adults, while Mia had a blood vessel burst in her spinal cord when she was a teenager. The show follows them around, as lots of reality shows do with their subjects, as they go to work and date and think about whether to move in with their boyfriends. (The show's web site lists a fifth, Chelsea, but she's not in the pilot episode or most of the promos.)
It's absolutely true that one of the things that makes Push Girls interesting is that it offers a view of what their lives are like that acknowledges that they have to worry about things other people don't have to worry about, but that doesn't contain even a whiff of pity and doesn't try to make them heroes. They're allowed to be vain sometimes, to mangle their syntax like everybody on a show like this is wont to do ("she still holds a candle for Matt," says Angela of Tiphany and her ex-boyfriend), and there's no apology for the fact that like everybody else on television, these are exceptionally charismatic and good-looking women. (Angela worked as a model before her accident, and the pilot sees her trying to get back into it. Auti was a professional hip-hop dancer. They're the same people from whom much of reality television good and bad is cast, other than the wheelchairs.)
It lets you see them go to the gym and improvise a way to grab the pull-down bar, and it lets you see them navigate clubs and cars. It's interesting, and it's not always what you expect to see, as when Tiphany bumps herself down a set of stairs, where a lot of lesser shows would turn that into a big, meaningful scene about accessibility and why there are no ramps. It lets the girls have a sense of humor about certain things, and the show has a sense of humor, too: when Angela starts calling around about trying out in modeling agencies, one person tells her the office is wheelchair-accessible – except for the staircase. "Just walk in!" another person says cheerfully, and Angela hangs up and chuckles.
And their sexuality is not back-burnered in the slightest, which is also a common problem with Hollywod portrayals. Tiphany is seen early on flirting with a guy at a gas station (yes, it seems a bit staged, but in a pilot where they're trying to establish personalities, I can give it a pass), and she explains that flirting is one of her favorite things, and she has no trouble finding targets. "I have 26-inch rims on the side of my ass," she says breezily. "It's hard not to get attention."
But precisely because there are four of them and they all use wheelchairs, they are and must be defined beyond that fact alone, and they all have other stories that are only partially related to it. Angela is trying to break back into modeling and is pressed for money, Mia is hesitating to move in with her boyfriend because she treasures her independence so much, Auti is questioning whether she wants to have a baby at 42, and Tiphany – in the great tradition of practically every show about young women in the city – is dealing with a breakup and doesn't like putting unnecessary limits on her sexuality, since she broke up with a guy but is now seeing a woman.
They seem to have the right balance here of stuff that is about the wheelchairs, which is interesting and helpful to share with an audience, and stuff that isn't about the wheelchairs, which is important to avoiding making the women seem precious or one-dimensional. It's a solid show of just the kind it's nice to see as networks explore where they can go with reality programming.
It's still a reality show, like many others. It's still a reality show about people who are way too hot to be representative of the population, and about people who gossip about each other and share more personal details than most of us would. To a degree, it truly does just happen to be a show about people in wheelchairs, and that's probably the best thing it could be.
You can watch it on Sundance tonight if you have it, but you can also watch the pilot episode on Hulu right now, if you can access it. (Apologies to those who can't; if there were an available-everywhere video, I'd include it.)