Briony Williams, one of the many front-runners for this year’s Great British Bake Off, has been making me think. She has a disability that one of my oldest friends shares, and equally calls, her ‘little hand’. Just as it took me months (I promise I’m not as bad a friend as this makes me sound) to notice it on my friend, it took multiple episodes before I noticed it on Briony, in a close-up of her kneading bread. The reason that I failed to notice, is because neither Channel 4, nor Briony herself, made me notice.
Nobody brought it up, nobody – on camera – fannies around her offering help, and nobody makes her feel like it identifies her. Should we be praising this or does that just make a big deal out of it? Well I’m praising it. When I noticed, I text my friend with excitement that there was somebody on telly just like her, and that, as with her, I never even noticed. Her excitement was mirrored not only because of the representation of her ‘disability’, but because Briony, like herself, did not make a big deal of it. Unlike the presenters of ‘The Last Leg’, for her it is not a personality trait.
This is not to say that Alex Brooker and Adam Hills do not do wonders for disability representation on television, by foregrounding their disability as a part of them that does not definewho they are, but is a partof who they are. Though they, admirably, openly discuss their disabilities in a public format, thus reducing the stigmas, and opening up conversations, this is not necessary for everyone.
There are two sides to this: some people believe that you ought to foreground that which makes you different, in order to provide support and conversation for those who are similar to you. Others, however, believe that in foregrounding our differences, we separate ourselves; call ourselves out for being different, and thus cement it as a difference. This is difficult, because without so many people speaking out about their own differences, we wouldn’t have so much radical social change. On the other side of the coin, without such casual media representation as on the Great British Bake Off, we wouldn’t see that, actually, such supposed ‘differences’ are a lot more common that people think. For me, visible representation is the key, as it leads to understanding and to community. Nobody is asking Dan to talk about his homosexuality, nobody is asking Ruby to talk about being a second-generation immigrant, and nobody should expect Briony to chain herself to an oven and demand a conversation about a hand that is her own normal.
Having a disability and being in the public eye does not give you a responsibility to push for change. Sometimes representation in itself, where young people at home can turn on the TV and see someone who looks just like them succeeding as an individual – not an individual with a disability – is enough.