I wrote a column in February questioning Channel 4’s judgement when it came to invasive documentaries. The Wedding Proposal, a show engineered to make the most garish and over the top proclamations of love possible for its participants, made me seriously question what the channel deemed sacred enough not to air. And if new show The Undateables is anything to go by, I’m still not sure.
The programme seeks to explore the lives of people who are unlucky in love, get them signed up with a dating agency and hey presto – Channel 4 to the rescue of the lonely hearted. But there’s a problem: all of the participants either have learning difficulties, disabilities or deformities. What goes from a simple dating experiment then immediately transforms into some kind of grotesque Victorian freak show, where we are ogling at these people simply because they have some kind of health issue.
This just cannot be right, can it? Yes, the people involved have willingly agreed to be featured, but as the programme shows, their judgement is not always sharp, and had they known they were being signed up purely to entertain audiences with their idiosyncrasies, they might have thought better of it. Take last night’s programme, where poet Shaine, who has learning disabilities, was telling a woman he loved her after meeting her once. If it were any other show, we would be condemning the man for being so ridiculously forward, yet because he has learning difficulties, it becomes a source of entertainment and empathy for the viewer. Laughing may be deliberate mockery of their situation, but is pity any better? Is condescendingly cooing over how ‘sweet’ these inept daters are really dispelling the myth that people with deformities or disabilities are an entirely different breed to those without them? I suspect not.
The title sums up everything that is wrong with the show, and that is it purporting that people who have learning difficulties and the like are undateable. To my mind, there are only two possible reactions to the show: one being that people find it ‘cute’ (although they would never date any of the participants themselves, of course), and the other being that the show makes a rather vulgar mockery of those involved with it. Having Tourette’s, as Luke from the first episode did, understandably made him nervous around the opposite sex, but to label him undateable? And to expect the viewer to be jubilant because he finds a girl who doesn’t mind his outbursts? The people that truly believed those with Tourette’s and the disabilities featured in the programme are undateable are the ones I feel sorry for, not the participants. Maybe Channel 4 should make a documentary about them – they could call it ‘The Ignorants.’ Oh, sorry, they already did that. It was called Make Bradford British.
Had The Undateables shown a mix of people – disabled and otherwise – who were struggling to find love, this entire social pigeon-holing issue would have been avoided. But by dedicating an hour a week for us to gawp at the ineptitudes of deformed daters, they have turned it into something far more sinister. From the patronising voice-overs to the regular inorganic Twitter hash-tagging the channel has decided to introduce at every ad break, I suspect that this programme did not set out to broaden people’s awareness of disabilities at all, but to yet again exploit some sort of freakery in a bid to make headlines.