What can Strictly Come Dancing tell us about representing disability on reality talent shows?

Last month, Paralympian Jonnie Peacock appeared as a guest on Channel 4’s The Last Leg. Adam Hills, the host questioned the fairness of Jonnie being judged on the same criteria as the rest of the contestants on Strictly Come Dancing. In keeping with the show’s aims of challenging the representation of disability on television, Hills asked #isitokay? that in week three of the competition, Peacock was criticised for sticking his bottom out when such a posture is a common result of wearing a prosthetic leg?

In the interview Peacock agreed that it was difficult for him to dance in the desired posture. He suggested that his incorrect posture was potentially due to the way he has to distribute his weight when using his prosthetic leg. Although Peacock downplays any sense of being at a disadvantage, Hills raises an important question. If reality shows want to increase the visibility of disabilities to their audience, there are some factors they must consider. It is worth discussing whether disabled competitors should be judged on the same criteria as their able-bodied competitors. The type of disability and/or prosthetic could also be taken into consideration when scoring these contestants. And perhaps most importantly, does marking disabled and able-bodied competitors on the same criteria lead to equality or exclusion?

Who is Jonnie Peacock?

For those of you who do not know who Jonnie Peacock is, here’s a little insight. Jonnie peacock is a two-time gold medal winning Paralympic sprinter, finishing top in London 2012 and again at the Rio 2016 games. Jonnie Contracted meningitis at the age of five and lost his right leg because of the disease- undergoing an amputation below the knee.

Reality Talent Shows and Disability: Is it fair?

Although Jonnie Peacock is the first Paralympian to appear on Strictly Come Dancing, he is not the first disabled person to compete on a reality talent dancing show. The US version of the show, Dancing With The Stars  has featured an Iraq War veteran amputee, Sergeant Noah Galloway in 2015. Royal Marine veteran Lance Corporal Cassidy Little, who lost his leg in the Afghanistan War, appeared on The People’s Strictly in 2015. Each of these competitors have had a very different narrative constructed for them by the shows. Galloway and Cassidy were both presented as “wounded heroes”, with the shows’ narratives highlighting their veteran identities. In many instances their prosthetics were deliberately foregrounded in the routines. Their video introductions each week focused on the practical and emotional difficulties of training for each dance. Most importantly, the judges’ comments acknowledged the difficulties they faced in performing the dances and took this into account when scoring.

In contrast, although Jonnie Peacock has talked about his disability, he has generally downplayed any sense that it should hinder his performance. The only dance so far in which Peacock’s prosthetic has been visible is the jive, after which he was hailed as a “hero” by the media.

In his Huffpost blog, Peacock says:

“I love reading that my prosthetic has got households across the UK talking about disability. I’m on this programme to show everyone that there is ability in disability and that if you put your mind to it, and work hard, then anything is possible.”

 The double Paralympic champion is an inspiration for many, his never give up attitude backed up with the charismatic flair makes his a very popular public figure. Despite being the first Paralympic to part take in Strictly Come Dancing, Jonnie showed no signs of nervousness or discomfort. He took to the stage with great confidence, backed up by the beautiful Oti Mabuse who complimented Jonnies performance. Jonnies dancing is unique, exciting and definitely the crowds favourite.

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 Jonnie Peacock praised by fans as an inspiration after appearing on the show. Victoria Jones/PA Images

 

Equality or exclusion?

Despite Peacock clearly setting up a narrative in the blog quote suggesting disabled people can achieve anything if they work hard enough, this has not been strongly woven into the Strictly story of his journey. Most weeks Peacock’s prosthetic has been hidden and unlike Galloway and Little, and especially in the early stages of the competition, Peacock has generally been able to pass as able-bodied.

Peacock’s ability to compensate for his disability has meant that the narrative set up by Strictly rarely refers to his disability and the judges don’t appear to take it into account in their scoring of his performances. After he was voted out of the competition in Sunday night’s show, Peacock thanked the judges for treating him the same as everybody else. But having repeatedly drawn attention to an issue caused by his disability without acknowledging the reasons, can the judges really claim to have treated Peacock equally?

Ignoring Peacock’s disability potentially puts him at a disadvantage in relation to his fellow competitors. Thus making it less likely that he will fulfil his hopes of demonstrating that if we work hard enough ‘anything is possible’.

Peacock’s inability to achieve the correct posture is a result of his disability, awarding him lower scores on this basis would inevitably result in him being unable to progress beyond a certain point in the competition. Indeed, his performance on Saturday night was greeted positively by the audience in Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom as they gave him a standing ovation. However, the judges’ comments repeatedly focused on Peacock’s inability to achieve the correct posture and his bottom sticking out. Consequently, he found himself voted off the programme.

If more participants with disabilities are to part take in the show, the programme will need to consider how this will work. Peacock hopes that his appearance paves the way for more contestants with disabilities to come forward and take part. As sporting organisations and academics begin to scrutinise the categorisation systems used in the Paralympics, perhaps it’s time for reality talent shows to consider how people with disabilities should be represented in order to ensure fairness and inclusivity.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “What can Strictly Come Dancing tell us about representing disability on reality talent shows?

  1. I love to see disabled people in the media and most of the time they end up working twice as hard as the AB people. Of course, asking for accommodations can be abused in competitions. A perfect example of this is Big Brother 19. They allowed a straight up grifter on the show. It was entertaining to watch her say crazy stuff like “I have an upside down spine.” and begging people at home to send her money, but it makes us all look bad.

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    1. I do agree with you, more disabled people should appear on TV to create awareness of disability. However, it shouldn’t be for the entertainment of the public, but instead to increase acceptance and equality. Most people supported Jonnie Peacock because of his “never give up attitude”, he never portrayed himself as having a disability, although it was the reason he couldn’t progress.

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