Our Daughter, The Mermaid Review: Poor Unfortunate Soul
BODYSHOCK – OUR DAUGHTER, THE MERMAID: Tuesday 17th May, Channel 4, 10pm ALERT ME
In a recent interview with Radio 4 Francesca Martinez defended her decision to appear on Ricky Gervais’ Extras on the basis that any opportunity to bring a disabled character into the mainstream should be leapt on. According to Martinez, Ricky Gervais was not mocking anyone with disabilities, he was in fact confronting the public with their own prejudices. In the same interview Victoria Lucas – who suffers from a facial disfigurement – challenged Martinez by recalling an event where the Extras creator and his cohorts mocked her repeatedly with Gervais at one point asking where, in Karl Pilkington’s opinion, she came in that year’s “freak list”. Even after Lucas had lodged a complaint Gervais continued his usual tired line of comic phrasing by telling Pilkington she “was bigger, at least head wise” for having supposedly not sought an official channel to have her grievances heard. Martinez was stumped and will probably be re-viewing her cameo in a different light.
At the heart of this debate was the issue of how disability should be represented on screen and what the nature of its dynamic is within the parameters of comedy. In the case of Extras there is a compelling and persuasive argument that Gervais traded off the perceptions surrounding cerebal palsy for a cheap and ultimately unfunny gag, a more sinister interpretation than that of Martinez’s.
There are similar questionable motives surrounding the rise in ‘disability documentaries’ whether it be the boy with ‘lobster claws’ for hands or Our Daughter The Mermaid which, like Pilkington, likes to associate a disability with an abstract comparison. In this documentary that explores the life of Shiloh Pepin – a girl born “with her legs fused together” – the programme makers can reasonably be accused of having crossed the line with several scenes of pure voyeurism and several strands of exploitation.
Our Daughter The Mermaid is not completely devoid of merit. It charts the frustrations, as well as the achievements, of being disabled from both the perspectives of those born with their respective conditions and the pressures that they can exert on the families who must learn to rapidly adapt to their childrens’ needs. The programme begins to lose merit when Shiloh’s parents begin their divorce procedure which changes the focus of the show. We see Shiloh putting on a brave face despite the upsetting scenes unfolding before her as the camera continues to roll.
In a shocking development, where again the cameras know few bounds, Shiloh loses the battles with her condition and we’re treated to a tear-jerking montage of her life including one sequence from her tenth birthday where she declares “this is the best day of my life”. Juxtaposed with images of her grieving relatives and a moving speech delivered by her family pediatrician you are left astounded that the makers of this fly-on-the-wall documentary didn’t leave the family to grieve and respect their privacy.
One suspects in allowing the cameras into their home the family saw an opportunity to let the world know about their undeniably life-affirming and charming daughter. The real discomfort comes from knowing the most likely candidate to watch this “freak show” will be Gervais and his ‘hilarious’ comic ensemble sniggering on their couches. The difference this time – to compound the cruelty of their earlier reactions – is it will be at the expense of a 10-year old girl. How funny.