Netflix's Queer Eye and Disability Representation
I want to begin by making something very clear: I love Queer Eye. I think it’s a fun and sometimes inspirational show that encourages people to examine how they present their masculinity, femininity, or combination of each to the world. I also think it’s important, though, to recognize that even the media that we enjoy consuming can (and often does) contribute to the marginalization or alienation of certain groups. While there are a few places that Queer Eye “gets it wrong,” I will be looking at its representation of disability.
It took four seasons for Queer Eye to have a visibly disabled person featured as one of their “heroes.” Disability did make an appearance, however, in the first episode of the rebooted series, which featured Tom Jackson. Tom has lupus, a debilitating autoimmune disorder which can effect almost every organ system in your body. Rather than dealing with the question of how this disorder affects Tom’s physical and mental health on a daily basis, the Fab Five only brings up his lupus when it comes to color correcting. Tan makes the comment that because Tom has lupus he shouldn’t be wearing reds, and Jonathan provides him with products to reduce the appearance of his butterfly rash on his face (and JVN cheers quite intensely when Tom remembers to apply it before he leaves the house).
This pushing aside of Tom’s chronic illness is one thing - after all, Tom may not have really wanted to discuss it anyway. The more disturbing erasure of disability in this episode occurs during a conversation with Tom and Karamo. Karamo sits in front of Tom’s computer and asks him about his dating life. When Tom reveals that he has recently broken his back, and has chronic pain as a result, Karamo gives up his seat but then immediately repackages Tom’s disability as another issue. Tom tells Karamo that a woman recently broke up with him because of his physical inability to walk around, and Karamo repeats this problem back to Tom as: “So the last real relationship you [had] ended because she thought you weren’t adventurous enough?” Here, Karamo ignores the real issue that Tom is identifying (a previous date’s ableism) and puts the impetus on Tom to learn to be more “adventurous” (or act more able-bodied).
Tom falls into the category of disabled people that Susan Wendell calls the “unhealthy disabled.” Unhealthy disabled people of course exist in opposition to people who are “healthy disabled.” As Wendell defines them: “When I speak of people who are ‘healthy disabled,’ I mean people whose physical conditions and functional limitations are relatively stable and predictable for the foreseeable future. . . . [T]hey regard themselves as healthy, not sick, they do not expect to die any sooner than any other healthy person their age, and they do not need or seek much more medical attention than other healthy people” (19). Healthy disabled people are those that we are the most used to seeing represented in media: the blind, deaf, or paralyzed but otherwise “normal” character in the show. As Michele Lent Hirsch makes clear in her book Invisible: How Young Women With Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine, unhealthy disabled people make able-bodied people uncomfortable. According to Lent Hirsch, unhealthy disabled people remind the able-bodied of death. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that they are considered unpalatable for many audiences.
Queer Eye seems to have kept this in mind, as Wes Hamilton, the first visibly disabled hero of the series, is the definition of healthy disabled. I want to make it very clear that my critique of Wes’s episode that follows is in no way a critique of Wes as a person. Instead, it is a critique of the ways in which Queer Eye perpetuates harmful stereotypes about people with disabilities, while also failing to examine the larger issues that are important in disabled people’s lives.
The title of Wes’s episode is “Disabled But Not Really” - which automatically set off alarms in my mind, and the minds of many others, including Alex Haagaard and Liz Jackson. The name Disabled But Not Really comes from the name of Wes’s organization which focuses on CrossFit training for disabled people. As Haagaard and Jackson explain: “The fact that Wesley has named his organization Disabled But Not Really is a reflection of his own truth and identity. But the people behind Queer Eye have a different responsibility, as media spokespeople and influencers of popular culture if nothing else. The show didn’t address what discounting the disabled community triggers for many in wider disabled communities, especially those of us who devote our time and careers to disability activism and awareness. Framing the episode this way discounts an important reality: that disability is an identity, like many others—not something that needs to be overcome.” In other words, the issue is not that Wes chooses himself to identify as “Disabled But Not Really.” Instead, the problem here is that Queer Eye is representing Wes’s story as the disabled story, the one narrative that all disabled people should aspire to fit within.
This flattening of the meaning of disability is always dangerous, but this flattening seems particularly harmful, as the episode promotes the supercrip stereotype. The supercrip narrative promotes the idea that all disabilities can be overcome with hard work. In Wes’s case, it seems as if he has internalized this narrative. In fact, he literally compares himself to a superhero. He says that his daughter calls his wheelchair his “Superman chair” and that he therefore had to become Superman. Queer Eye latches onto this idea, and shows multiple clips of Wes excercizing - doing chin ups, pulling himself up a rope while still in his chair, etc. Again, if this is the way that Wes wants to represent himself, that is one thing. It is the perpetuation of this stereotype both within the space of the episode and in the distribution of this episode that is problematic. For example, the episode includes a short clip of Wes trying to recruit people for his organization. While on a bus, Wes is sitting next to another man in a wheelchair. The other man’s fatness is put on display as the complete opposite of Wes’s thinness and fitness. When he tells the other man that he should join the CrossFit group the message is clear: you are an unpalatable disabled person and you should work to become more like me.
The supercrip narrative is also promoted in the ways that the show represents caretaking, specifically in terms of Wes’s mother. The Fab Five focus on what his mother has lost in having to care for her son - the ways that it has ruined her life, robbed her of having her own life. The narrative goes from disabled son who is a burden on the mother to supercrip son who does not need help anymore. This narrative not only implies that disabled people are burdens that family has to “put up with,” but also that disabled people should strive to be supercrips in order to stop being this burden on their families. This representation of caretaking, while importantly shedding light on how difficult being a caretaker can be, forwards the neoliberal assumption that we are all individuals who can exist separately from other individuals. Many disability scholars are working to push back against this assumption, and argue that codependency can be liberatory for both disabled and able-bodied people.
There are many more things that I can discuss with Wes’s episode - the discussions about accessibility, the discussions about his past life, his thanking the man who shot him. In the end, though, all of these different examples get at the same point: we need more disability representation in our media. Disability representation needs to expand to include both the healthy and unhealthy disabled. It needs to feature actual disabled people like Wes, and not able-bodied actors who sit in a wheelchair or throw a cannula onto their faces. In short, this representation needs to be as diverse as the actual disabled population.
Lent Hirsch, Michele. Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine. Beacon Press, 2018.
Wendell, Susan. "Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities." Hypatia, vol. 16, no. 4, 2001.