‘Push Girls’ Is a Smart Critique of Hollywood’s Narrowness

We’ve had some, if not enough, discussion on this site about the people rendered most aggressively invisible by Hollywood norms: people with disabilities. Which is part of the reason I wanted to call everyone’s attention to Push Girls, Sundance’s new show (it premieres last night at 10, episodes are available on Hulu) about a group of four friends who also use wheelchairs as they navigate their lives in Los Angeles. The program’s a sly double whammy: it’s an effective execution of a standard reality show format, complete with sexual adventurism, marriage and pregnancy challenges, and some impressively, er, forward styling. But it’s also secretly a show about the narrowness of Hollywood. As I wrote for The Atlantic in reviewing the show:

Push Girls is most dramatic when it’s exploring the characters’ attempts to make careers in Los Angeles, the most appearance-obsessed place on the planet. Where Bravo reality shows treat the Hollywood ambitions of their stars as ridiculous even while urging them into the recording studio or on stage, Push Girls takes its characters’ aspirations seriously. Angela Rockwood and Auti Angel both had entertainment careers before their injuries, Angela as a model and Auti as a backup dancer on hip-hop tours. The show portrays their desires to get back into the game not as a function of boredom, greed, or self-aggrandizement. This is a career, not a dalliance, and one that’s driven by financial as well as creative needs. Angela is separated from her husband, and explains that Social Security doesn’t pay for the nursing care she needs. And the challenges they face are not a result of their own deluded lack of talent, but a manifestation of Hollywood’s narrowness and lack of creativity.

When Angela, who was breaking into movie and television roles when she became a quadriplegic in a car accident, decides to start looking for a new agent, she’s treated as if she’s some sort of bizarre anomaly. “To my knowledge, I can’t think of much advertising featuring people in wheelchairs,” a woman at an agency tells her. Later in the conversation, she insists, “We’re wheelchair accessible, but there’s a staircase.”

Anthony, the photographer Angela hires to take her new headshots, initially acts the same way. “Angela has a lot of work,” to do, he says. “It’s like the guy who didn’t have any arms who wanted to pitch in baseball.” And he wants to lean the seat back so he can take shots that will conceal that she uses a wheelchair. But she insists that “I have to show a part of the wheelchair to show that I am in a wheelchair,” recognizing it doesn’t make sense to take shots that might get her in the door only to encounter a shocked reaction and an instant rejection. As Angela talks Anthony through what’s happening to her body when she has a leg spasm, he begins to relax, and the photos he takes of her are beautiful. It’s a perfect encapsulation of what the show hopes to accomplish, as familiarity overcomes fear and an able-bodied person and a disabled one work together on a project that’s a credit to them both.

In a way, Push Girls is an interesting counterpart to The L.A. Complex. The latter is a show about how the decisions you make can make it harder for you to work, and to work on your terms in entertainment. Only one of the characters in that show, Tariq, bumps up against professional limits created by how other people perceive his identity (Raquel, to a certain extent, is limited by her age, but also her own personal rigidity). Push Girls is about what it means to have talent an industry doesn’t know how to accomodate. In between the pressure to be a certain kind of thing and to behave a certain kind of way, I don’t know how anyone makes a career in Hollywood and stays mentally healthy.