Are Reality Shows Starring People with Medical Conditions Exploitative?

People may feel bad about going to freak shows at the carnival, but that same voyeurism is what’s keeping some series alive.

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People may feel bad about going to freak shows at the carnival, but that same voyeurism is what’s keeping some series alive.

Image via Just Watch

During an era when entertainment was not so easily found in the palm of your hand, the traveling circus was one of the most exciting events to happen. One aspect of those traveling circuses that commonly comes to mind is the freak show, which often featured people with some sort of rare deformity or condition, most often dwarfism. As freak shows waned in popularity, society began to pat itself on the back for moving past its tendency to stigmatize those born different. However, reality shows on modern television that feature such people are not much different than the circus freak shows from a hundred years ago.

To promote these reality programs, advertisements tend to focus on the fact that these people are different from those who are “normal” in order to convince viewers to watch them. The shows are meant to entertain an audience and bring in profit for the network that’s airing them. Most of the popular reality shows about those with medical conditions are aired on the channel TLC. One of their programs, which aired from 2009-2016, “The Little Couple,” is about Bill Klein and Jennifer Arnold, a married couple with dwarfism. Arnold is a neonatologist and Klein owns a pet store. The show followed the couple as they went to doctors to see if they could have a child on their own, before they ended up adopting two children from Asia who also have dwarfism. In the episodes, Arnold and Klein openly talk about their condition and other struggles that they’ve had in relation to it.

“The Little Couple” educates viewers about dwarfism without giving them the feeling that they’re watching an educational program, because it’s packaged as an entertaining, family-friendly reality show. In addition, the stars have successful careers and live like regular people, except for the fact that they have a few challenges that others might not have. Arnold and Klein debunk the stereotype that those with major medical conditions are heavily restricted in the kind of jobs that they can have or the kind of lives that they can lead. Audiences are learning positive lessons about dwarfism, but are also just following a family as they go through challenges like everyone else.

Another reality show about people with dwarfism is “Little Women of LA,” which has spin-offs that take place in Atlanta, Dallas and New York City. The Lifetime program follows a group of women, all with a form of dwarfism, who are friends. It’s your typical, run-of-the-mill, train wreck reality show, except the cast is made up of little people. The women have drama, fights and parties with lots of drinking. It’s a concept that’s been used over and over again since the early 2000s. The problem with this show is that it objectifies and sexualizes these women, making their condition a mere curiosity. Without any educational value nor much positive light, “Little Women of LA” and its spin-offs are the complete opposite of shows like “The Little Couple.”

Unfortunately, the objectification of little people seems to prevail over the “we’re just regular people” approach. As a result, people with dwarfism are pointed and stared at in public settings and sometimes even get pictures taken of them because they’re smaller than average. A good example of these kinds of encounters is the 2003 film, “The Station Agent,” starring Peter Dinklage, when his character stops in a convenience store and the clerk takes his photo without permission. Sure, it’s a fictional film, but similar scenarios have occurred in real life.

Reality programs are, of course, not limited to those with dwarfism. There are countless series and specials that highlight those with all sorts of medical conditions. TLC’s “My 600-lb Life” documents those who are morbidly obese as they try to reach a healthy weight. Since finding weight-loss tips is pretty much as easy as trying to find the sun, there’s little educational value in the show other than warning viewers what could happen if they allow themselves to gain so much weight. The program could be extremely beneficial to the patient, but, overall, it pretty much serves as something for people to gawk at and feel better about themselves after watching.

A current show called “Born This Way” on A&E is about a group of individuals with Down syndrome. Though I’ve never seen any episodes, the audience reception appears to be very positive. The series portrays the cast members as regular people with ordinary goals. Some live independently, some seek to do so, some are students and some have jobs. From what I’ve read, the show is praised because it reduces the stigma that those with Down syndrome have to live a completely different life than their able-bodied counterparts.

Image via TLC

Yet, one thing that I’m wary of about this show, as with many others about medical conditions, is that there’s the risk of “inspiration porn.” Inspiration porn is a term applied to situations when a disabled person is sooooooo inspiring because they do normal things. The problem with this is that even though the people calling the disabled individuals heroic and inspiring might have good intentions, it’s objectification. Having reality programs that feature those who accomplish so much despite being disabled could become inspiration porn that makes viewers pity and objectify them.

So, while we may have long abandoned the circus freak shows from a century ago, many people still have not evolved beyond stigmatizing those who are different than them. Society has made a lot of progress, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

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