Monday, 24 June 2013

In which I make the mistake of having an opinion about The Voice and disability.

Saturday night saw the final of The Voice on BBC1. Yes, I watch The Voice. Deal with it. It was won by Andrea Begley, who has a severe visual impairment.

But why am I mentioning her disability before her (really rather good) voice, you ask? Well frankly, it was impossible to ignore, the show rammed it down our throats so much.
  • Every video, every link, it was mentioned.
  • I began to think her middle name was Inspirational. Andrea Inspirational Begley. What makes her inspirational over any of the other competitors? Could it be...maybe...nope. No idea. At all. /sarcasm
  • In training videos, Andrea dressed pretty much like the other female competitors: skinny jeans, heels, fitted tops. This makes me suspect that the way she was styled for each show was not her own taste, and was possibly designed to elicit the "ahh" factor. While the other women were in short skirts and tight trousers, Andrea was wearing what I described one week as "my first grown up party dress, aged 12". And always, always the milk-bottle glasses, reminding us of her visual impairment, though I discovered on Google Images while finding pictures for this post that in fact she doesn't always wear them. This chimes with the infantilisation of disabled people, seen as permanently child-like, their every achievement seen as more praiseworthy than that of someone able-bodied.
  • Andrea's coach on the show, Danny O'Donoghue, habitually referred to her as having "the voice of an angel". Andrea's voice is good, but I wouldn't characterise it as particularly angelic. (What does an angel sound like anyway?) Could this be an example of a disabled person being perceived as the eternal innocent? During one of her songs, the tangentially relevant My Immortal, the production even projected a pair of angel wings behind Andrea's shoulders. One (non-disabled) person on my Twitter timeline commented that Andrea was lucky to be blind: she couldn't see them.

So far, so irritating. This was when I made my big mistake. Immediately after the result was announced, I tweeted the following.

Tweeted in anger, I fully admit, and also in pique because my favourite, Leah McFall, hadn't won. But I thought the meaning was clear, specifically the use of the word "if". IF you voted for Andrea because you think she has a wonderful voice, that's cool. But IF you voted for her because she's disabled and brave and inspiring and aww,  then...well, the tweet says it.

Twitter's a funny place, though. If you dare to express an opinion, there are quite a few people who won't actually bother to read it properly, and just attack you instead. I was called quite a variety of things, most of which I wouldn't repeat on here. My block button was red-hot.

But the interesting thing was that several of them said I was the first person to mention that Andrea was blind. Really? Had they been watching the same show I had? Some of what I've mentioned above is fairly subtle, I agree, but the show had been blatant in their mentions of her disability, from her audition on.

As had Andrea herself, in fact. Despite saying she wanted to be judged on her voice rather than her disability, she talked about it in nearly every video. Reality show contestants are always victims to the edit, of course, but editors can only take things out, not add them in.

So what conclusions can I draw from this? I could try not to have so many opinions...but I don't think that's going to happen any day soon. I definitely need not to engage with trolls, just to ignore and block them. I don't need the stress. But you know, isn't it kind of worrying how ingrained disablism is in our society, that people don't even notice something as obvious as this?

PS As I've finished typing this, there's been an interview with Andrea on BBC Breakfast News. First question. "Tell us about your sight?"


  1. Cannot imagine every interview with Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder starting with them being asked about their blindness ! As for the ingrained disablism a few years ago sexism was just as ingrained and homophobia - hopefully over time and with better education and more role models it will change. I really never thought I would see the day when gay couples could get married - happily I was wrong.

  2. Some very good points here. One thing I would say in Andrea's defence on the subject of her talking about it in all of her videos: obviously I can't speak for Andrea or for The Voice, but my understanding of the majority of reality shows is that any given talking-head video is basically created by a producer asking a contestant a question that's designed to get the contestant to give the answer the producers want to play into the role that's been storylined for them. Andrea could, of course, still have refused to discuss it, but I imagine it would've made her time on the show pretty difficult.

    Despite not particularly enjoying her audition, I ended up quite liking Andrea a lot, and I think part of the reason was that even though her blindness was so heavily-foregrounded, she was always very matter of fact about it. Actually, to be fair, the main reason I liked Andrea was because once the auditions were over and we got a bit more backstage footage of her, it became clear that she was very sarcastic, and I always warm to *that* contestant.

    1. Fair point about her being asked questions, Steve. She could indeed have refused to answer, but as a relatively young woman, new to the business and hoping for a career, she might not have the confidence to do that.

      I also liked her sarcasm!

  3. I felt exactly the same way about Jack Carroll on Britain's Got Talent. He WAS genuinely funny, incredible timing and delivery for a young boy. Prayed every episode they wouldn't pigeon hole him just to get the "sympathy" vote.
    To his credit, he pretty much managed to walk the line, but I still cringed at v many moments.

  4. well done to Andrea, pity there wasn't as much criticism by those disabled "campaigners" who are labour and proud, they must have Stockholm syndrome.

  5. Didn't watch The Voice, but, , been there, done that. When I and a bunch of other regulars at Ouch objected to BBC3 doing Dancing on Wheels it turned pretty nasty. Part of the problem was they created the forum for the show within the Ouch forums, so you had a bunch of politically aware crips arguing how crap the concept of the show was, when in trooped the choreographer's fan club, convinced he was being marvellously caring towards all these poor, benighted crips. It didn't go well, apparently we were all bitter about our disabilities. The highlight was BBC3's Commissioning Editor attacking me in his company blog - he really, really didn't like my comment that they'd reinvented the Black and White Minstrel Show ;)

  6. I sympathise with you about being dumped on by idiots who don't read what you've written, but are ready to be upset on behalf of someone they've never met because it makes them feel better about themselves to jump up and down on others ...

    ... one of the great things about The Voice, is that it does showcase people that don't match the manufactured pop mold ... so it doesn't matter about your age, your looks, or your physical infirmities, provided you can sing and the judges like your voice.

    I'd imagine that neither Andrea or Leah would have made it through X-Factor auditions ...

    ... and yes, I'd spotted the bad dress selections ... and the close up on the eyes behind the magnifying lenses so you got to see them darting around and it was emphasised ... and of course having someone there to help her off stage after each song was also kind of obvious too ...

  7. The Voice showed off Britain's inherent racism.....or did it? Or was it mine? I don't know, but the people with the voices I enjoyed, were not in the final 3 (sometime's through their mentor's choosing and sometimes through the audience vote). I thought Leah's voice was strange, Andrea's voice goodbutnotspecial, the other guy (Mark?) was quite good but not as good as others.

    To sum up, I don't know what point I'm making. Much like the whole show itself really

  8. I didn't watch The Voice apart from one episode when my Mum was staying over.
    It just so happened that it was Andrea's first audition. She sang and then said that she didn't know if she had passed as she was partially sighted and couldn't see if anyone had turned their chairs round. Cue lots of "awwwwww" from the audience and the judge running up to give her a hug.
    I didn't think there was much wrong with that as these initial auditions were fairly stressful and emotional for anyone, but I remember betting there and then, regardless of any other contestant, that she would go far if not win it.
    Enough said.

  9. I love Andrea for voice and song choices. She won because her voice is beautiful, and because she used it to sing lovely songs.

    You make good points that I hadn't considered. This post is well written. I'm going to link to it at Same Difference.

  10. Frances Ryan noted that she had to actually learn the words to the songs she sang as she couldn't read them off a monitor. Which, of course, is what normal singers (or at least serious ones rather than bubble-gum type ones) do, so she may have come across as a more serious singer who was more attached to the songs than the others.