This post was written by graduating student Kelly Smith.
The idea for my DST99 project came from my mum. On days that I would have dinner with my mum we would chat about our day and watch some T.V. Over time I started noticing some of the shows that she was watching. Little People, Big World, The Little Couple, My 600lb Life to name a few, and I want to be clear that these are not the only shows that my mum watches but these were the shows that would engage my attention critically whenever I saw them.
Around this time, I took several classes that also made me look critically at these shows and I started feeling like TLC (the channel) had their very own Modern Day Freak Show.
I know many people watch these shows which makes me wonder 2 things: why people watch this shows and what it is that they get out of it? As the scope of this question was far too large I decided to use the question “How do these shows clarify disability”?
To start I chose to focus on 3 shows mainly: Little People, Big World, The Little Couple, and My 600lb life. I used the term “little people” as this is the term that the people on the shows that I watched used to refer to themselves and their families. I am used the term “fat” when speaking about the people on the show My 600 lb Life and Skin Tight because that is the term used in the Fat Acceptance Movement.
Some of the most interesting parts of my research came from the informal conversations that I had with my mum. When I first explained what my project was going to be about, I remember my mum saying, “you know, until you mentioned it I never thought about the people as having a disability before.” That surprised me as I had thought that would be the point for people to watch to see.
What I discovered through this exchange was, that although shows like Little People, Big World do show the people on the shows in very normative ways, in doing so there is a danger that people will no longer see the systemic issues which people with disabilities do face, and while we definitely want to see people with disabilities in roles that they aren’t typically seen in on television, when we only show representations which are hegemonic and perpetuate neo-liberalist ideology, that says that anyone can rise from nothing to achieve great wealth through hard work and determination.
Instead we should be showing different lived experiences to dismantle this idea of “normal” and create a place where difference is valued and where people are shown with all of their intersections.
Another interesting conversation we had was around the show Skin Tight. One week my mum told me that there was a new show called Skin Tight that was about people who had lost large amounts of weight and as a result wanted to have surgery to remove the excess skin. I asked why she didn’t like watching that show and she told me that it was because when she watched it she felt like she was watching something that she shouldn’t be. We had further conversations like this and didn’t come up with a definitive answer but thought it was interesting that when someone weighed 600lbs they almost become objectified and un-human as we see them naked and by somehow losing the weight their humanity is returned to them so we aren’t comfortable seeing them in their “less than perfect” state.
I also found that the framing of these two types of shows were vastly different. On the one hand, the shows about little people were very positive, disability was mainly only shown incidentally. The same family was followed each week so viewers get to learn a little more about the individuals.
In my 600 lb life, however, embodied difference was the only topic of each show, there was a new person featured each week, and the entire show was very medically focused. Each week the show started with a new person shown naked with their private areas only covered with folds of their skin….for some reason that I cannot really understand except to allow the viewer to see all of their fatness.
The framing theory would say that media frames people who are fat in such a way because they are seen as being culpable for their stigma (Backstrom, 2012). Because it is acquired, fatness is seen as being within the control of an individual. Programs such as this one perpetuates and legitimizes already held beliefs to reinforce social reality for many people.
One last insight that I would like to share is around the Para-social Contact Theory. This hypothesis relates to the idea that through repeated ‘interaction’, people may feel that they come to know the individuals on the shows that they watch, much in the same way that we may feel that we know the ‘Kardashians’ or the President of the United States although we have never personally met them. Schiappa et al (2005) believes that this contact can lead to reducing prejudice, especially if the audience have not had much interaction with the minority group members
I was surprised that in the end I do feel that there is some value to these types of reality shows but that we must be cautious. I feel that we must be cognisant and show a range of stories so that people can join their voices together and be heard because disability does not occur in isolation and instead is always read with all of its intersections such as race, age, gender and sexual orientation.
Representations should be different. They do not need to be normalized, but they do need be authentic in their telling and it should be those who own the stories that tell them in the way that they want them to be told.