Expert View: Broadcasting - Reality TV as a campaigning tool

Reality TV has the capacity to engage the public and challenge perceptions. The BBC's most recent foray into the genre, Britain's Missing Top Model, took the format and bent it towards the ends of social and campaigning broadcasting.

The programme pitted eight young disabled women against each other to compete for the chance of a photo shoot with a top fashion magazine and a possible modelling career. The scene was set for the usual mix of quickly established friendships soon to be pulled apart by bust-ups, on-camera bitching and fierce competition over beauty and talent.

The show raised serious questions for photographers, judges and viewers about how disability is presented. Mirroring the uncertainties and prejudices of both the public and the disability community, it exposed hierarchies of disability.

Within days, the models were at each other's throats about whether the two deaf contestants were really disabled given that there was no outward physical indication of their impairment. This was only partly resolved when the deaf women got everyone to wear earplugs over dinner to demonstrate the disadvantages of not being able to communicate.

All this was fought out with the usual coverage the next day in the dailies and with fierce debate on messageboards and blogs.

Sustained debate

Photographers were challenged to see if it was best to depict models with wheelchairs and obvious physical differences in shot, or to try to conceal their differences. A deaf model was dumped, in part, for not being able to mouth words properly, and a wheelchair user was dragged up flights of stairs to get to one location. Judges tried to judge the disabled women as models first but slipped into the mindset of wanting to pick an obviously disabled model. Not since the nude statue of a pregnant Alison Lapper in Trafalgar Square has there been such a sustained debate on disability and beauty.

The results? One of the models has now become the face of a major hearing aid company's campaign to make the wearing of hearing aids more acceptable, and the overall winner has her shot at a mainstream modelling career.

As a personal vehicle to empowerment and a social awareness tool, reality TV will remain controversial and flawed. But as a campaigning opportunity to push messages that would otherwise never get onto primetime television, it is priceless.

- Brian Lamb is executive director of advocacy and policy at the RNID.

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