Guest blog post by Bob Vogel
There was a huge amount of press coverage leading up to the June 4 debut of Push Girls–a 14-episode reality TV show about the lives of four women with SCI (spinal cord injuries) airing on The Sundance Channel, Monday evenings at 10:00pm—including an in-depth cover story in New Mobility magazine.
Like it or not, media plays a huge impact on the way in which people view the world, and all too often wheelchair users are portrayed as two dimensional characters in film or on TV–usually falling into stereotypes of “heroic inspiration”, “bitter victim”, “evil villain” or in the case of “Artie” on the TV show Glee—a caricature.
My background includes a BA in broadcasting, with an emphasis on television production. I don’t get the Sundance channel, so I’ve popped for the $2.99 per episode on iTunes to view the five episodes that have aired to date and critically viewed them, pausing to take notes, and replaying to look for flaws—I’ve been pleasantly surprised and entertained.
The reality of reality TV is that an editor can only fit so much into a 25-minute show, including bringing it to some type of conclusion. The show is done well, starting with camera angles that are set at the women’s eye level or below (wheelchair height—rather than shooting from standing height looking down). This is a big deal as it portrays the women as strong and powerful.
The show does a good job blending day to day issues like paying bills, dating and relationships, with SCI issues like transferring into the shower, using a standing frame to help keep bones strong, transferring a chair into and out of the car and answering questions that wheelchair users hear all too often like “can you have sex?”. I love Tiphany’s answer “Yes, lots and lots of sex.” By the way, that question isn’t always unwelcome, in fact it is quite inviting when asked by a person you find attractive!
The five episodes thus far have covered a lot of ground, from a ball room dance competition—with Auti showing very cool dance moves, both individual and with her partner–break-ups, speed dating, to Auti and her husband going to a fertility specialist as she tries to have a child at 42—yes, women with SCI can and do have children.
The key to the show is the power of friendship–the four women support each other, have each other’s backs and provide honest feedback to one another. It is also cool to see the way they help mentor a 5th Push Girl, Chelsie, who is still learning the ropes as she approaches her 2nd year as a para.
When it comes to media portraying people with SCI, my biggest pet peeves are two all-too-common “sensationalized” and incorrect headline themes “Not being able to walk and using a wheelchair is terrible, the end of the world.” and “A person with SCI can walk again if they have the willpower and work hard enough.” The “Walking again” headlines fail to mention that the a person that is finally able to walk had an incomplete injury, meaning there still is still some sensation and/or voluntary movement below the injury and that sometimes people continue to get more functional return over time. With enough return, intensive therapy and hard work can enable a person to walk. But in a person with a complete injury—meaning there is no sensation or movement below the level of injury—all the willpower and hard work in the world isn’t going to create more muscle movement, much less result in walking. By neglecting to report this information, the general public is left with the idea that “If you aren’t walking, it’s because you don’t have the willpower and aren’t trying hard enough”.
The impact of these stories becomes evident in episode 3 “You Don’t Get It” when Mia (at 32, has been a para since age 14 when a blood vessel ruptured in her spinal cord) is visited by her mom for the first time in 3 years. Her mom is a recovering alcoholic and the two have had a difficult relationship. At the beginning of the show, Mia’s mom says “When I heard that Mia may not walk again I just wished she’d die because I didn’t know what her life was going to be like.”
When Mia opens the door for her mom, one of the first things her mom says, in a disappointed voice “You mean you’re not walking yet?” We see Mia’s uncomfortable look of disbelief (she has been injured 18 years). Next Mia gets into her standing frame and her mom says “Can you still move your toe? Did you get any other movement back?” Mia responds flatly “I can move two toes.” Then her mom says, “I would think that Mia would want to walk if she could but it’s like that is all closed off to her.” Insinuating that Mia isn’t trying. She starts telling Mia she keep reading about the progress they are making in SCI research. We see Mia say “My mom has this misconception that if you can’t be walking then there is no possible way you can be happy or live a fulfilling life. So I need to show her that I am living a fulfilling life.”
Throughout the episode there is difficult discussion back and forth—Mia brings up how difficult her mom’s alcoholism was on her. Strain is evident in Mia’s face as different issues are brought up.
Mia takes her mom on a day of errands and shopping—at one point Mia does one of the coolest up-a-set-of-two stair transfers (going from her chair, up to a patio chair then back to her wheelchair) I’ve seen–to show her that she is leading a fulfilling life. While this is going on we see the other women buying a cake and getting ready for Angela’s 10th “Celebration of Life” (celebrating 10-years since her accident) party. Later Mia and her mom join the other Push Girls for lunch, as Mia’s mom meets the women for the first time she says “As I walked into the restaurant I was amazed at how glamorous her friends were.” By the end of lunch it appears that for the first time Mia’s mom gets the big picture and lets go of focusing on the wheelchair. Mia says “The girls had an amazing effect on my mom, I could see it. I could feel her energy change, like a sense of relief. It was amazing progress to make with my mom in one trip.”
As I write this I am anticipating tomorrow nights episode, which says “takes on one of the most controversial topics of our times” and will feature Chelsie’s continued pursuit of dreams of walking. Trailers show Chelsie doing physical training at a SCI clinic designed to help maximize functional ability. And she is considering stem cell treatments, which are only done in other countries, are extremely expensive and scientifically unproven. For an in depth story on stem cell treatments see New Mobility magazine. It will be interesting to see how the episode plays out.
As the show progresses, I hope we learn more about how the women make ends meet. Thus far, we have seen Mia in her job at a graphic design and branding firm and Angela is trying to re-start her modeling career.
It is apparent from the comments on the Push Girls website, they are connecting with fans. I hope the show continues to grow in popularity and gets picked up for another season. Perhaps a spin-off, Push Guys?
Bob Vogel, 51, is a freelance writer for the ROHO Community blog. He is a dedicated dad, adventure athlete and journalist. Bob is in his 26th year as a T10 complete para. For the past two decades he has written for New Mobility magazine and is now their Senior Correspondent. He often seeks insight and perspective from his 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, and Schatzie, his 9-year-old German Shepherd service dog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of Bob Vogel and do not necessarily reflect the views of The ROHO Group. You can contact Bob Vogel by email at email@example.com.