In her new column, Reality Check, Alissa Quart delves into all things documentary.
The new Sundance Channel reality-show Push Girls, about four paralyzed women, is unexpectedly riveting. It’s also unseemly.
It’s the story of four friends in Hollywood who have been paralyzed from the neck or waist down by accidents or illness. They all try—and mostly succeed—to live independently despite their disabilities while keeping up their high-maintenance LA looks.
Push Girls, which premiered June 4, is part of a trove of reality shows about really underrepresented Americans-Little People, Big World (dwarves); the adept Transgeneration (trans people), and on and on. According to these shows’ logic, peeping into the lives of failed actress/handbag designers or suburban hoarders is now banal. However, the private lives of the marginalized, these shows argue, may still hold interest for the jaded viewer. The auteur of this reality show subgenre is Gay Rosenthal, the producer behind Push Girls, as well as Little People, and Ruby, a show about a morbidly obese woman.
This new type of reality show fuses the requisite wine-glass-clinking, Real Housewives silliness with stories of the differently abled, historically the purview of earnest documentaries.
The combination can be truly weird. At times, it can seem flat-out wrong as well. Group after group of the differently-abled are poured through a Real Housewives or Big Brother machine, coming out the other side slathered in bronzer and hysteria. For instance, the women of Push Girls may be paralyzed, but they really, really like spike heels and fawn-colored foundation. They also want to model, win dance competitions, and bother the bakeshop guy about the calories of a birthday cake.
Floating beneath these programs is an argument that we are all the same underneath the surface, whether we are dwarves or obese or what have you. On Push Girls, however, our supposed shared humanity includes group rituals around high heels and talking to anyone who will listen (in their case, millions of people) about our sexual “exploration.” And the truth is that we are not all alike and indeed, few of us are like reality-show characters at all.
Yet despite Push Girls’s trite conventions—another scene of cocktail hour with the girls, another seemingly reenacted lover’s quarrel—the show is strangely compelling, even moving. The friends get down steps in their wheelchairs on their own, shower, work out on machines, have relationships with able-bodied men and women, even powder their faces without the full use of their hands. And that’s where the show is riveting and unlike both most reality programming and the rest of Rosenthal’s edgy/exploitative oeuvre. Somehow, enough realness seeps through to make the show compelling. Viewers get insight into the real drama of being disabled, almost in spite of Push Girls itself.