After a long and checkered stint in the belly of the Hollywood beast, I am here to tell you what you probably already know — very few performers with disabilities have broken through in either fame or fortune. Sadly, you can count those with even a modicum of celebrity on your fingers — Marlee Matlin, Michael J. Fox, Peter Dinklage, Geri Jewel. The most popular character in a wheelchair in the history of American TV — no hissing, please — is Artie, the kid on Glee, played by an actor playing someone in a wheelchair.
Will this ever change? Of course it will. It’s as inevitable as gay marriage or the legalization of cannabis. Change like this is always long and frustrating. And often glacial. But if you look closely, there is a new, post-ADA generation of actors (and writers) with disabilities who will supply the talent and energy to push ahead. Some are people you probably know, like R.J. Mitte, the kid with CP on the highly-acclaimed Breaking Bad, and some are tyros who you don’t know but soon will — Teal Sherer, Zack Weinstein, Becky Jackson.
And, now, enter the Push Girls.
Have you heard of the Push Girls? If not, you soon will. The Push Girls are a group of five vivacious, bright, outspoken and sexy women who all happen to be in wheelchairs. First, through hook or crook, they came together as friends. Now they are stars of a reality show, called, duh, Push Girls, that will premiere on the Sundance Channel in June. Just like The Real Housewives of Tulsa or those crazy meatballs on Jersey Shore, the show will follow these adventurous, life-loving ladies in their daily lives, from girl talk over lunch to life events like getting a divorce or having a baby. The wheelchairs give them a bond, but it’s the (hopefully) engrossing reality of their lives beyond the wheelchair that will make or break the show.
I met the Push Girls recently at an Abilities Expo event, and what struck me most was their utter lack of self-consciousness. Clearly some of them — like Angela, a beautiful quadriplegic model, or Auti, a dancer, actress and punk-styled force of nature — are more out-there than the others, but just like the guys on Entourage, their collective alliance gives them all the courage to relax and be themselves. If you tune in, you’ll soon have your favorite. Maybe it’ll be one of the two above, or Mia, the quiet one (to use a Beatles label), or Tiphany, the flirty one, or Chelsie, the youngest one still trying to figure out where she’s headed. See, you’re already having fun.
Will Push Girls be a smash hit and change the perception of women in chairs forever? Who the hell knows. Unfortunately, there is a finely-honed cynicism among some media watchers in the disability world, a belief that nothing will ever really change and that people with disabilities will always be an afterthought — or a no-thought — in American film and TV. Push Girls will only succeed, goes this school of thought, by getting as trashy and shameless as Snooki or the Kardashianized Barbie doll reality stars who get in cat fights and dress like hookers. Why? “Because that’s what the people want.”
To use the pet phrase of Stuart Smalley, a character from the early days of Saturday Night Live, this is stinkin’ thinkin’. First of all, the “people” don’t know what they want until they see it. Lots of people like Jersey Shore. Lots of other people like Portlandia, or Dr. Drew dealing with real addiction issues. And the people who watch Sundance may fall into the latter category. They are, perhaps, smarter, younger and hipper, and if something is good, they remember it.
In the current TV landscape, Push Girls really can’t fail. Even if the series is short-lived, just as the movie Murderball was short-lived, it will leave a lasting impression. Seeing the Push Girls on a morning talk show or Access Hollywood will also leave a lasting impression. For the Push Girls themselves, this is a launching pad for other work on other shows and movies. And for the next generation of creators doing ground-breaking disability-centric shows, this may be their touchstone. Someday they will be asked what inspired them to shoot so high, and it’s likely they’ll answer, “The first time I saw Push Girls.”