Last week, Queer Eye released its fourth season on Netflix, in which the Fab Five travel to Jonathan’s hometown in Illinois and Kansas City, Missouri. One of the most hotly debated issues with the new season is the Queer Eye “Disabled But Not Really” episode, which is dividing fans on whether or not the show perpetuates an ableist view. Members of the disabled community have argued both sides on Twitter, alternately praising and critiquing the Fab Five’s approach. Some were thrilled to see a hero with a disability represented on the show and became emotional about the improvements made to his home. Others felt the core message (“disabled but not really”) was flawed from the start and that the Fab Five’s attitudes only compounded the problematic implication.
The episode features hero Wesley Hamilton, a “former bad boy” who became paralyzed from the waist down after being shot six years prior. While Hamilton suffered acutely for many years, he ultimately feels he’s been given a new lease on life. He started over as a community activist and adaptive athlete and founded the organization Disabled But Not Really to instill “a physically limitless mindset that breeds courage, confidence and competence” in people with disabilities, according to its website. Hamilton helps people with disabilities improve their physical fitness and nutrition: two areas he found invaluable to regaining a sense of confidence after losing the use of his legs.
As many viewers point out, it’s impossible for one disabled person to represent the community as a whole. But given the sad, limited state of disabled representation in movies and TV today, some members of the disabled community were still disappointed by the framing of the story the Fab Five chose to tell. Dan Freeman, a disabled writer and academic, created a popular Twitter thread on the subject, focusing largely on the internalized ableism he believed the message of “disabled but not really” represented. “This framing of disability isn’t all together surprising,” Freeman wrote. “We aren’t even three minutes in and the dominant narrative is ‘Disability is something that I’ve overcome, but other ppl still worry about it, so I try to fit into their narratives around disability.’”
The issue of internalized ableism struck a chord with many members of the disabled community, particularly those whose activism have focused on taking pride in one’s status as disabled, which is exemplified by the #SayTheWord, a campaign that reminds those to not erase one’s disability. Again, Hamilton can’t exactly be blamed for the attitude he takes toward his own disability. But given that this is the first disabled hero Queer Eye has chosen, many wish they had chosen someone who embraced their disability and how it made them different — instead of trying to pretend it didn’t exist.
Problematic aspects (momentarily) aside, it’s worth noting that a large faction of viewers were deeply moved by the content of this episode, particularly seeing Bobby transform Hamilton’s house into an accessible space, and Tan tailor Hamilton’s wardrobe to mitigate wheelchair-specific concerns.
Others felt that Hamilton’s attitude toward his disability should be celebrated for its positivity — even if it isn’t representative of the larger community. “We’re always harping about how we should ask disabled people what they want to be called. Well, Wesley is disabled and he named his foundation “Disabled But Not Really”, and that’s how he wants to be seen,” one tweet reads. “Is everyone like that? No. But that doesn’t mean we should shame him or #QueerEye for shining on a light on him or helping him out.”
Finally, other members of the disabled community pointed out that the race plays an important role in Hamilton’s story too — and should be considered when critiquing the attitude he takes toward his own disability. Social worker and activist Vilissa Thompson posted another popular Twitter thread on the topic, pointing out that many of the people most vocal about the episode lacked the appropriate context for what they chose to critique.
“We need to notice how doting of a father Wesley is to his daughter & how his daughter views him,” Thompson wrote, noting an element of the episode that has been largely overlooked. “It’s critical to observe the fatherhood of Black disabled men. Again, something you all won’t get fully.” Many on Twitter applauded Thompson’s statements and directed other Queer Eye viewers to read the opinions of black disabled people first and foremost.
Ultimately, expanding onscreen representation of any underrepresented group is bound to spark discussion like this, both from those unfamiliar with what they’re seeing and those who see themselves in the depiction. Queer Eye doesn’t bear sole responsibility for educating the masses on how to discuss disability and treat the disabled community. But given the show’s massive platform, it does seem fair to ask the Fab Five to carefully consider the implications of the episode’s message, and certainly to consult other members of the disabled community when crafting that message.
What we need, more than anything else, is to continue broadening the diversity of experiences we show onscreen. Right now, the burden remains on marginalized groups to present perfectly representative individuals and to educate the masses when existing representation leaves them frustrated. Including Hamilton’s story in this season of Queer Eye was a step in the right direction — but not a perfect one, and far from the only one we need.
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