Laughing at the Disabled: Controversial PhD Slotted for Australian TV

0 Posted by - May 4, 2007 - Blog

In a recent call-out to mediamakers and academics alike, Film and Television professor John Hookham from Queensland University in Australia is asking for support in his efforts to review a PhD candidate's controversial thesis television project entitled, “Laughing at the disabled: Creating comedy that confronts, offends and entertains”. The uproar started at Queensland last April when PhD candidate Michael Noonan presented his work to date for the compulsory twelve month review by a PhD committee and others.

The audience was treated to twenty minutes of clips from a reality show that Noonan has developed and hopes to sell to Australian television broadcasters. The show features two mentally handicapped men who are filmed in what sounds like compromising scenarios. While it is hard to say without seeing the footage for myself, descriptions of an audience laughing at a man with Aspergers twitching uncontrollably and unable to answer a question about dating women sounds, well, exploitative…

And while some in the documentary film community (on various email lists presently circulating) cautiously call for restraint before moral panic sets in and censorship prevails, this issue sounds more like one of exploitation than censorship. If society has advanced this far—to deem “laughing at the disabled” as a PC-friendly and culturally acceptable activity—then perhaps we really have thrown the medium out with the trash.

Popular television is full of ridicule and exploitation of the poor and marginalized, from COPS to Fox News to To Catch a Predator. The brilliance of this new age of so-called reality television programming is that it has given the industry its biggest profit margin to date: productions without sets and the labour needed to build sets, without actors, without writing teams, and with decreased ground crews. It’s easy to get a junkie, or say a disabled person, to sign a release form, stick a video camera in their face, and let the antics reign! Add MTV-style ADD editing, crappy bling bling music scores, market the hell out of it to teenagers and males between twelve and twenty-six and you’ve struck boob tube gold.

The casualties are of course, not shown in the final product, and remain even more oppressed and marginalized than before so much attention was paid to them by an uncaring society. And of course, it’s a pilfering of the bottom rungs that has multiplatformed like so much of the mediascape. Take the wildly popular video series available online at YouTube, Bum Fights—where homeless men are paid in alcohol to fight over steaks (causing hospitalization in some cases) and have ridiculous tattoos stained into their war-torn flesh .

But some say calling for ethics in entertainment is like asking Al Gore to stop changing light bulbs and start changing car culture—it is organically impossible without radical intervention. So, back to the debacle over seemingly academic pursuit, measured in doses of disabled discomfort. Noonan wants us to laugh at the disabled, presumably as we do at everyone else on reality television, thus “normalizing” a marginalized group and giving them fair representation play in a field dominated by the non-disabled.

Two questions persist, among many more I’m sure: how do the two stars of the show feel about everyone laughing at them, as in, have they articulated a clear position on this to Noonan and presumably to Noonan’s ethics board at the University? And, does ridicule of those most oppressed, vulnerable, and least understood in society build compassion and understanding, or does it provide more exploitative fodder for reality TV and the millions who watch it?

More on this story here.

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