This article analyzes three popular TLC programs that are emblematic of contemporary reality televisual representations of the extraordinary body: Abby & Brittany (2012), The Little Couple (2009-), and My Big Fat Fabulous Life (2015-). Extending Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's concept of "misfitting," I demonstrate how the non-normative body fits seamlessly into the mediated domain of reality television precisely because of its misfit in material and social spheres. The representational mode of these programs appears as a corrective to oppressive depictions of people with non-normative bodies, yet, I argue, the discourse of extraordinary normalcy built into the narrative framework of these programs is in fact supported by a scaffolding of normativizing logics that hinge upon casts members' whiteness, upward class mobility, and fulfillment of conventional gender and sexual norms. As such, I examine how specific bodies—heterosexual, white, gender normative, affluent—are called upon to perform disability on reality television. I assert that these programs dangerously depoliticize disability by narratively isolating it from other facets of identity and power, and furthermore regard ableism as an individual and moralistic matter perpetuated by antagonistic "haters" rather than a concern of the State.

The camera pans over a mess of outfit choices that have exploded from rolling suitcases into mounding heaps across the Italian hotel floor. Sweeping into the bathroom to follow the program's anchoring subjects of interest, the frame tightens on the reflections of two young women leaning into the mirror and carefully applying eyeliner. In a voiceover, conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel exuberantly chime "We love doing our makeup. It's definitely our favorite part of our day!" 1 Once they've artfully painted their faces, the twins move on to the next stages of their beauty routine in preparation for their first vacation adventure, a gondola ride. To their friend and travel mate's awe, Abby and Brittany toss their heads upside down and tousle their wet wavy locks: "Watching them do their hair is just fascinating to me. I can't always figure out how to do my own hair symmetrically, so I don't know how they do each other's so well." In this episode of TLC's reality television show Abby and Brittany ("Italy," 2012), their friend's enthrallment, perhaps mirroring that of viewers at home, is not simply inspired by the Hensel twins' completion of a mundane task but, tellingly, an intensely gendered one. Abby and Brittany is just one of an ever-proliferating roster of media texts that, like the freak show of the 19th to mid-20th century, position the extraordinary body as a site of public spectacle. However, reality television programs like Abby and Brittany are structured by a narrative of normalcy that troubles their conflation with the historic freak show's othering enfreakment of nonnormative corporealities. As the Hensel twins insist in each episode's title sequence, "The most amazing this about us is we are just like everyone else!," and this televisual discourse of normalcy is backed by a performance of conventionally white middle-class femininity.

In this article, I draw from critical disability theory, intersectional feminist theory, and media studies to analyze three popular TLC programs that are emblematic of contemporary reality televisual representations of the extraordinary body: Abby & Brittany (2012), The Little Couple (2009-), and My Big Fat Fabulous Life (2015-). Extending Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's concept of "misfitting," I demonstrate how the non-normative body fits seamlessly into the mediated domain of reality television precisely because of its misfit in material and social spheres. Even though the freak show of the turn of the 19th century has certainly primed modern-day viewers to regard the extraordinary body as an object of public spectacle, the programs I investigate in this article operate on a different discursive register than this historic display of freak bodies. Cast members are saturated by what I call a conjoined discourse of extraordinary normalcy in which they are figured as extraordinary because they are so profoundly ordinary. Accordingly, the representational mode of these programs appears as a corrective to oppressive depictions of people with non-normative bodies. Yet, I argue, the discourse of extraordinary normalcy built into the narrative framework of these programs is in fact supported by a scaffolding of normativizing logics that hinge upon casts members' whiteness, upward class mobility, and fulfillment of conventional gender and sexual norms.

As such, I examine how specific bodies—heterosexual, white, gender normative, affluent—are called upon to perform disability on reality television. Thus, I illuminate how cast members' bodies ostensibly signal disability alone because they are privileged and unmarked on all other fronts. I reveal how these programs consequentially fail to acknowledge how one's fit in the world is composed at disability's intersection with class, race, gender, and sexual privilege. These programs "about" disability therefore deemphasize systemic oppression and one's misfit in the material world to individualize embodied difference into a moralistic battle between non-normatively embodied neoliberal subjects and their often curious and sometimes cruel "haters." I assert that these programs dangerously depoliticize disability by narratively isolating it from other facets of identity and power, and furthermore regard ableism as an individual and moralistic matter perpetuated by antagonistic "haters" rather than a concern of the State.

Reality Television Misfits

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's concept of misfitting describes the disabled body's vacillating degree of incompatibility with its ever-shifting material surroundings. "Fitting and misfitting," she explains, "denote an encounter in which two things come together in either harmony or disjunction […] The problem with a misfit, then, inheres not in either of the two things but rather in their juxtaposition, the awkward attempt to fit them together. When the spatial and temporal context shifts, so does the fit, and with it meaning and consequences" (592-3). As a material feminist expansion of the social model of disability, misfitting resists the notion that the disabled body itself is the problem in need of correction and locates the material world as the site of ableist oppression and injustice. The past three decades have witnessed a marked contextual shift as the Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights legislation have literally widened and smoothed the scope of possible fit by legally mandating public spaces be (more) accessible to people with disabilities, thereby making participation in public life more accessible. Misfit is thus a play on two mutually informing meanings: it is the disjuncture between nonnormative corporeality and a physical environment that presumes universal able-bodiedness; it is also to experience this misalignment "renders one a misfit," an ostracized and minoritized Other excluded from full cultural citizenship (593).

Garland-Thomson explains that "Fitting occurs when a generic body enters a generic world, a world conceptualized, designed, and built in anticipation of bodies considered in the dominant perspective as uniform, standard, majority bodies." (595). The word "generic," here, is meant to describe that which is commonplace and nondescript. My theoretical extension of Garland-Thomson asks what happens when the disabled body enters another though not all together tangential type of generic world: the genre of reality television. I argue that Garland-Thomson's conceptualization of misfitting, which aims to "theorize a way of being in an environment, as a material arrangement" that "emphasizes context over essence, relations over isolation, mediation over origination," can be expanded to consider the contextual and mediated relation between the nonnormative body and the pop cultural environment (594, 592-3). In extending Garland-Thomson's theorization of misfitting I seek not to undermine her material feminist intervention by recentering the discursive but to theorize the terrain of our contemporary media landscape as an environment that emerges out of and has consequences on the material domain, thereby highlighting the inseparable imbrication of materiality and representational practices. "The utility of the concept of misfit," Garland-Thomson argues, "is that it definitively lodges injustice and discrimination in the materiality of the world more than in social attitudes or representational practices, even while it recognizes their mutually constituting entanglement" (592-3). I aim to foreground this entanglement to highlight the inseparable imbrication of materiality and representational practices: the programs discussed here are not simply linguistic or visual constructions but are focused on embodied people who are filmed in material places and consumed by audiences ideologically as well as materially.

Paradoxically, the disabled body misfits in the material world yet fits seamlessly into the framework of the media industry generally and TLC's brand of reality television programming specifically. In other words, cast members' misfit in the material world and resulting status as misfits renders them ideal fits with the reality television industry's narrative priorities, generic frameworks, and mediated conventions. This paradox of the casts' misfit with the material world and the fit of these depictions of misfitting in the generic world of reality television speak to the complex, even contradictory fit that results when multiple environments are in dynamic relation. Reality television, I argue, is particularly well suited for the serial narrativization and depiction of the nonnormative body such that it is easily adopted by and fits into this generic world. In part, this is because reality television itself is a misfit, a hybrid format that adapts to the rapidly-shifting media landscape and therefore troubles the unifying logic of coherent genres. As Misha Kavka explains, "reality television changes so quickly that flux is one of its key attribute, and hence any attempt to discuss it as a genre must incorporate its mutability rather than sidelining it as incident to the form" (8).

While many channels now offer reality television programming fixated on casts with non-normative bodies, there is perhaps no better place than TLC's lineup to examine the extraordinary body's intriguing status as reality television's most recent object of fascination. Formerly known as The Learning Channel, TLC was originally founded by NASA and the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1972. Acquired in 1991 by Discovery Communication, TLC's content has shifted away from educational programming to lifestyle reality television series. A brief scan of TLC's current and past offerings reveals the channel's preoccupation with the spectacular. As their titles suggest, shows like Strange Sex, Extreme Cheapskates, Extreme Couponing, and the recently retired controversial 19 Kids and Counting focus on supposedly bizarre, even excessive, behaviors regarding everything from one's sex life, finances, and reproductive capacities. In this way, TLC's framing of the extraordinary body as a public spectacle is both in keeping with the representational history of disability and the channel's investment in the shocking and unusual.

TLC's serial reality programming requires a story, if even a thin one. The body is always in and defined by its dynamic relation to the world, and its dialogical movement through time and space stiches together a narrative trajectory. People with physical anomalies, however, are expected to account for their embodied histories to a degree that others are not. G. Thomas Couser explains that life writing and disability are also particularly well suited for one another: "Whereas the unmarked case (the 'normal' body) can pass without narration, the marked case (the scar, the limp, the missing limb, or the obvious prosthesis) calls for a story" (604). Similarly, the social expectation and obligation for people with corporeal difference to narrate their embodied lives translates well into the industrial apparatus of reality television's demand for and construction of a story around which to build a series that resonates with audiences' curiosities and interests.

Reality TV's generic structure and the machinery of celebrity more holistically hinges upon the coupling of two contradictory archetypes in which the disabled body has also been historically invested: the extraordinary and the ordinary. Richard Dyer argues that the star persona, as an object of enthrallment, envy, and emulation, is conceived by viewers as simultaneously average and special, undeserving and deserving of fame and our attention (1998). In this way, celebrities are imagined to be both like us and not like us. The manufacture of celebrity figures on reality television in particular hinges upon this oppositional pairing. "Reality television," Kavka explains, "offers a particularly potent mix of these contradictions because its own mechanisms place it on the cusp between the ordinary and the extraordinary. As a celebrity-making apparatus, reality television can turn ordinary people into celebrities just as easily as it can represent celebrities as ordinary people" (146). It is therefore not surprising that the enlarging roster of reality television shows preoccupied with the nonnormative body (and celebrity normalcy) is characterized by the coupling of the extraordinary and the ordinary.

However, the fastening of the extraordinary to the ordinary inherent in the conventions of the reality television is compounded by the politics of normalcy in which the disabled body is historically steeped. Ordinary, after all, signals that which is unremarkable, yet nothing and no one can possess this nondescript quality unless it resides comfortability within the invisibilizing range of the normal. Disability scholar Lennard J. Davis argues that the notion of a norm entered the cultural consciousness between 1840 and 1860, uncoincidentally the dawn of the American freak show, when words such as norm, normal, normalcy, and normality became cataloged in the dictionary. The rise of the norm as a concept can be attributed wholly, he asserts, to the development and advancement of statistical analysis ("Constructing Normalcy"). On the suffix "-cy," he writes

many words that describe not simply a corporeal state but a political state use the suffix- 'democracy,' 'autocracy,' 'plutocracy,' or 'aristocracy'…I would call 'normality' the alleged physical state of being normal, but 'normalcy' the political-juridical-institutional state that relies on the control and normalizations of bodies, or what Foucault calls 'biopower.' Thus, like democracy, normalcy is a descriptor of a certain form of government rule, the former by the people, the latter over bodies ("From the Rule of Normalcy" 208-9).

Davis' discussion of normalcy highlights the cultural and political power dynamics that produce and police bodies according to contextual and shifting standards of the corporeal norm. People with disabled bodies have long been figured as the simultaneously wondrous and monstrous objects of public spectacle at sites such as the freak show which served the social function of dramatizing the binary between normal and abnormal embodiment. After the rise of professional medicine in the 20th century, the disabled body was no longer the object of organized and formalized public viewing. Transported from the freak show stage to the institutionalized domains of medicine, the disabled body became the locus of doctors, specialists, and researchers' clinical gaze. Under the medical model, disability and disease are pathologized as abnormal and in irrefutable need of classification, observation, and, above all, correction to more closely approximate the golden, yet elusive, standards of able-bodied function and appearance. Lodged in the medical model is not only the fantasy that disability can be easily eradicated through the joint miracle of a doctor's skillful use of a scalpel and a patient's positive thinking, but also the compulsory belief that medical intervention is irrefutably desirable. It is thus impossible to discuss disability without engaging in the concept of embodied normalcy for it, in conjunction with race, gender, and sexuality, categorically demarcates its boundaries. Consequentially, people with disabilities have a specific relationship to the conjoined discourses of the extraordinary and the normal, a relationship that has very real, material consequences on the lived, embodied experience of disability. Celebrity culture and reality television, each with their own investments in the extra/ordinary dynamic, taps into this relationship to produce televisual representations of people with nonnormative bodies who are already socially compelled to offer up a narrative of their difference.

The Conjoined Discourse of Extraordinary Normalcy

When industry preoccupation with and production of the extraordinary and the ordinary combine with disability's sociohistorical relationship to the politics of normalcy, the discourse of the extraordinary is coupled with the ordinary in a way that is both specific in its intensity to the programs under investigation here and yet not fully elucidated in scholarship on reality television. In her analysis of the various ways reality television is now a crucial component of media's "celebrity-making apparatus," Kavka identifies three discrete subgenres of reality TV defined by the mechanisms they employ in the production and maintenance of stardom. The first, talent formats, include competition shows such as American Idol and Top Chef "in which celebrity is constructed as both deserved and the self-conscious product of hard work" (148). Shows like Big Brother and The Real World constitute the second subgenre, the no-talent format, which transforms "ordinary people into celebrities, even if- or precisely because- this has little to do with their talent" (156). The Osbournes and Dancing with the Stars are examples of the final format in which people already in possession of celebrity status comprise a program's cast. If we were to attempt to slot reality television programs fixated on the extraordinary body and their corresponding mode of celebrity construction into Kavka's taxonomy, the closest fit would be the no-talent format that "insist upon ordinariness rather than exceptionality" (160-1). The type of reality television shows under investigation here similarly features casts who exhibit no remarkable talent and are framed as profoundly ordinary.

But reality televisual representations of the extraordinary body operate on a different discursive register that cannot be fully accounted for by Kavka's triad. Cast members are not the "'dregs' of ordinariness," a term Kavka employs to crystalize the "widespread disdain for participants who appear in no-talent formats, especially those who seem unjustly to have been promoted to pubic visibility" (162). Ordinariness is framed in this subset of reality television not as disdainful mediocrity but positively as an accomplishment of normalcy. Furthermore, no-talent celebrity is marked by "a will to be seen rather than having anything to be seen for" which clearly does not apply to this representational archive (156). Whereas the exceptionality of the stereotypically attention hungry no-talent reality television star rises in the wake of their on-screen debut, reality television misfits do have "something to be seen for" and their corporeal difference renders them extraordinary before their mediated appearance on the pop culture stage—indeed, this is the very reason they have captured the attention of industry producers and audience members alike. Their perceived talent is that they can still be normal even while being marked by (and televised due to) their extraordinary corporealities. Reality TV misfits, then, are a category unto themselves in which the industry's discursive streams of the ordinary and the extraordinary are not only blended together but also merge with disability's representational history. What results is a magnification of the discourses of the extraordinary and the normal such that reality televisual representations of the disabled body are thoroughly saturated and defined by them.

Epitomizing this larger trend is Abby and Brittany which offers a blunt articulation of the conjoined discourses of the normal and the extraordinary. Identical conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel have incited curiosity from medical communities and public onlookers since birth, and despite the sisters' insistence that they do not desire media attention, the first and only season of their own TLC reality television show Abby and Brittany aired in the fall of 2012. The twins' conjoined corporeality complicates understandings of privacy, autonomous personhood, and the bounded body, yet Abby and Brittany is replete with a neoliberal thesis of normalcy. In the forty second title sequence alone the word "normal" is uttered four times. Normalcy in Abby & Brittany is not only a linguistic occurrence but also a profoundly performative one. As such, the camera work in Abby and Brittany focuses intently on the twin's enactment of rather mundane activities such as eating, driving, attending school, going to job interviews, and spending time with family and friends. To be frank, not much actually happens in the course of the season. There is no conflict in need to resolution, little overarching storyline woven into the eight episodes besides their impending college graduation and pursuit of post-commencement employment. The twins' conjoinment is the narrative pulse of Abby and Brittany: the storied quality of their embodied experience as conjoined twins moving through an otherwise mundane existence and the social mandate that corporeal difference account for itself is narrative enough to warrant and structure the program.

Intertwined with the theme of normalcy in the program is one of exceptionalism, forming what I call the conjoined discourse of extraordinary normalcy in which the twins are figured as extraordinary because they are normal. In each episode's title sequence, Abby and Brittany energetically maintain a concise, concentrated expression of the conjoined discourse of extraordinary normalcy: "We like to think the most amazing thing about us is we are just like everyone else!…This is the story of our normal, regular life. Well, our normal, conjoined life. This is our life!" Difference between the twins and singletons 2 is not emphasized in the series; only the difference between the twins themselves is highlighted and in a way that underscores their individuality. Friends and family speak at length about how though they share a body, there are most certainly two distinct people inhabiting it with two divergent tastes in colors, foods, and fashions. For the most part, however, the discourse of difference is tweaked into a kindred concept of the extraordinary and functions to underscore sameness. As Abby succinctly states in the show's title sequence "We really are normal, but I'm definitely more normal than Britt!," The idea of difference serves to underscore their faithful dedication to the norm rather than evidence their deviation from it. For instance, when applying for jobs as elementary school teachers, the twins insist their extraordinary embodiment will make them ideal, extra-capable educators that exceed the requirements of the position. Before their first job interview in episode "Spring Break, Here We Come," the twins assert "Obviously right away we understand that were going to get one salary because we are doing the job of one person. As experience comes in we'd like to maybe negotiate a little bit, considering we have two degrees, because we are able to give two perspectives or teach in two different ways. One can be teaching and one can be monitoring, and answering questions like that. In that sense, we can do more than one person." As two for the price of one, Abby and Brittany argue that they are extraordinary neoliberal citizens that can offer two perspectives, two sets of attentive eyes, double the problem solving skills, and a greater ability to multitask in the classroom. Though the discourse of the extraordinary may seem to run counter to the shows investment in the normal, within the narrative framework of the show, the twins are extraordinary because they are profoundly normal, one could say even doubly so.

Whereas Abby and Brittany presents the most salient and adamant example of the discourse of extraordinary normalcy, the narrative frameworks of The Little Couple and My Big Fat Fabulous Life are nevertheless structured by it even if in slightly variant and more subtle incarnations. As in Abby and Brittany, the discourse of normalcy mandates a performative display, perhaps because the casts' corporealities already evidence the extraordinary. Both My Big Fat Fabulous Life and The Little Couple spotlight the mundane: viewers of My Big Fat Fabulous Life tune in to watch Whitney take her cat to the vet, squabble with her parents, practice dance routines, and spend time with her best friend Buddy; and The Little Couple is similarly animated by images of Bill and Jen at work, caring for their dogs, and raising kids.

We might be tempted to view such depictions as a corrective to oppressive portrayals of people with non-normative bodies, yet I argue we should be critical of their discourse of extraordinary normalcy for it hinges upon heteronormativity, gender normativity, whiteness, neoliberal citizenship, and upward class mobility. Gender normativity is particularly important in the successful framing of non-normatively embodied cast members as extraordinarily normal. For instance, as our opening example illuminates, Abby and Brittany's ordinariness is communicated to viewers through their explicit performance of conventional femininity. The series overall dedicates substantial camera focus and air time to the positioning of the twins as normal, affluent, white, Midwestern college girls by fixating on the twins applying their makeup, doing their hair, shopping for new clothes, and picking out their outfits. The episode "Spring Break, Here We Come," for example, dedicates half of its twenty-two minute air time to following the twins as they shop, try on potential new outfits for job interviews, sunbathe, and get a manicure and pedicure. In a similar vein, a recurrent theme in My Big Fat Fabulous Life is Whitney's disciplinary body practices to approximate heteronormative standards of femininity. In addition to dancing and exercising with a personal trainer to lose weight, Whitney battles the masculinizing side effects of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), balding and facial hair growth, with regular visits to the salon for hair extensions and diligent chin-hair plucking. Additionally, Whitney's fat body makes it more difficult to complete some stages of her beauty routine such as shaving her legs, a task for which she recruits her mother Babs. In some ways it is transgressive to hear Whitney so transparently discuss the intersection of PCOS and gender in her life and to see her enact intimate disciplinary body practices in which all women are expected to participate yet are typically concealed from public view. Practices that maintain a stereotypical feminine appearance, such as dieting, shaving, and the display of certain gestures such as crossing one's legs are commonly accepted as being completely voluntary yet are in actuality compulsory. Sandra Lee Bartky's Foucauldian analysis insists that the docile body is often a feminized body and women have internalized a patriarchal male gaze through which they view their own bodies, police their bodies through gendered practices, and measure the success of their femininity. Ultimately, Whitney's beauty routine is never discussed as optional; it is implicitly a necessity, not only because Whitney is a young woman but also because her illness threatens her performance of conventional femininity.

In conjunction with gender normativity, these programs' narrative frameworks rely upon depictions of normative sexuality to convince audience members of the casts' extraordinary normalcy. Sex and disability, as Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow write, are "two terms that are, if not antithetical in the popular imagination, then certainly incongruous" (1). Because people with disabilities are assumed to be eternally dependent, they are frequently presumed to be infantile and asexual. In response to this desexualizing cultural impulse, most of all reality television's representations of the disabled body emphasize sexual desirability and prowess. As a general rule, the shows' subjects are in or pining for nuclear heterosexual coupledom for it would be nearly impossible to uphold the narrative thesis of extraordinary normalcy if they included queer disabled subject as part of their representational domain. An adoring couple forging a nuclear family, Bill and Jen of The Little Couple are a paradigm of white middle-class heteronormativity. Indeed, the majority of the show details the couple's struggles to conceive through in vitro fertilization, their eventual adoption processes, and the joys and challenges of co-parenting children as both little people and busy professionals. Ever entrepreneurial, Bill and Jen add public speaking to their long lists of career endeavors. As champions of not only disability education but also heteronormativity, the couple has crafted complementary talks for businesses, colleges, and organizations on how to "Be a Man" or "Empowered Woman" in which Bill and Jen respectively focus on "the age old question of 'How do I do right by my spouse and not lose my identity as a guy?'" and "topics women can relate to" (thelittlecouple.com). In My Big Fat Fabulous Life, the feisty and innuendo-slinging Whitney actively pursues online dating, embarks upon flings with old classmates, and navigates the blurring boundaries of friendship with longtime pal Buddy. Whitney is depicted not solely as a fat girl who desires sex and love but successfully finds them: throughout the first season she dates a slew of men who fetishized her fatness only to secure a committed boyfriend in season two.

When subjects' corporealities fundamentally challenge heteronormativity, as is the case with the conjoined Hensel twins of Abby and Brittany, explicit acknowledgement of sexuality is absent. Though Abby and Brittany state briefly that they wish to marry and have children thus promising a heteronormative reproductive future, discussion of their current dating life and experience of sexuality is notably absent from the program. The discourse of sexuality in this program, then, is a discourse of silence. As a result, the twins are framed as asexual figures, and childlike ones at that. The title sequence and scenes throughout the episodes are captioned with looping, pink cursive one might imagine on the pages of a young girl's diary. Friends repeatedly discuss feeling protective of the twins; additionally, their 22nd birthday party, with its streamers, balloons, and dancing games, looks more like a pre-teen ice cream social than a college rager. From implications of criminal incest and group sex to violations of privacy and heterosexuality, the sexual subjectivities of conjoined twins gesture towards sexual taboos that deeply trouble many facets of compulsory normative sexuality. It would be difficult to maintain the thesis that the Hensel twins are "just like everyone else" if anything related to their desire for and experience of sexual intimacy were incorporated into the show's narrative framework. Evacuating the program of sexuality and replacing it with an asexual discourse of silence are therefore imperative to advance the show's thesis of normalcy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all the cast members of the three programs of focus are white. More generally this is also the case: on TLC and other channels as well, people of color are not the primary subjects of reality television programs focused on the extraordinary body. Only in series with larger casts, such as Sundance's Push Girls and Lifetime's Little Women: LA are disabled people of color present, yet generally only one per program sharing air time with four or more of their "friends." Conversely, they may be the young adoptive children of couples featured in programs like The Little Couple and Seven Little Johnsons focused on the families of little people. Furthermore, the programs depend on affluence or the promise of class mobility to propagate the discourse of exceptional normalcy. The program may not depict a lavish lifestyle but The Little Couple's Bill and Jen are nevertheless both incredibly successful and high income-earning professionals who over the course of their show's nine seasons have pursued life paths accessible only to the wealthy, such as designing and building a large custom home, attempting in vitro fertilization, and adopting three children. I quote the home page of their business website at length here because it offers an interesting example of how The Little Couple, as a brand that emerges from but extends beyond the show, foregrounds class in its articulation of the discourse of extraordinary normalcy:

Bill & Jen aren't your typical couple. He is a serial entrepreneur and she is a board certified neonatologists. He received his bachelor degree from NYU and has consulted and generated millions in incremental revenue for companies like GE Healthcare, Siemens, and Tyco Healthcare. She received her bachelor degree from University of Miami, a Masters of Education from University of Pittsburg and her medical degree from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and is now the Medical Director of a state-of-the-art simulation center at Texas Children's Hospital and is a practicing physician at the largest NICU in the country. But that's not what makes them unique…Where they truly differentiate themselves from other people is in their ability to persevere through difficult times, triumph over adversity and all the while, find enthusiasm in every challenge that comes their way. And they do it together" (thelittlecouple.com).

This introduction to Bill and Jen touts advanced degrees from prestigious schools, employment at large national firms, and pioneering careers at the cutting edge of business and medicine. Yet, this is not what makes the couple different, nor supposedly is it their embodied difference as little people. Their status as highly educated and affluent professionals, then, is implicitly regarded as unremarkable even while it is emphasized at the beginning of their introduction. In other words, their class standing is regarded as noteworthy but ultimately normal while their extraordinariness is attributed to their hetero-love for one another and supercrip 3 tenacity to overcome hardship.

Of the three programs, The Little Couple is the only one that features wholly independent and affluent cast members. Nevertheless, middle class stability, and more specifically, the promise of independence and upward mobility is promised in both Abby & Brittany and My Big Fat Fabulous Life. At the end of their single season series, Abby and Brittany graduate Bethel College with matching degrees in education and successfully land a position as elementary school teachers. Throughout the eight episodes of Abby & Brittany, the twins' parents loom supportively in the background as Abby and Brittany take their first few steps towards adult independence. Similarly, My Big Fat Fabulous Life features Whitney's journey to literally and figuratively get back on her dancing feet. For the duration of the first season she lives at home with her parents and, save the weekly dance class she instructs, is unemployed. Whitney's financial dependency on her parents, however, isn't framed as the freeloading of a failure in her late twenties but as a necessary step in her mission to control her weight and focus on holistic wellbeing. Like the Hensel parents, Whitney's parents appear unconditionally loving with, importantly, the material means to support their child with medical needs. Culminating on the same note as Abby and Brittany, in the last episode of the first season of My Big Fat Fabulous Life Whitney, with a burgeoning career as a dance instructor, decides to flee the nest and rent a home with her best friend Buddy. A leap off the precipice of childhood dependency into adult autonomy characterizes both programs, as does the presence of stable nuclear family units with marked class privilege that enables them to catch their children should they stumble. We must not forget, moreover, that as fleeting as celebrity may be and as much as, in the case of the Hensel twins, fame is purportedly not desired ("Big Moves"), obtaining and maintaining the shine of celebrity as a reality television star is a form of labor meant to increase one's social status and material wealth. Even while Abby and Brittany's futures as recent college grads are perhaps uncertain and despite Whitney's incremental success in her small Southern town teaching dance, we see the twins and Whitney "making it" as reality TV celebrities, at least temporarily.

In summation, a striking majority of cast members are exceptionally privileged and occupy a position of privilege on account of their race, class mobility, and normative gender presentations and family structures. The only facet of their positionalities that is marked and denies them social capital is their non-normative embodiments. Significantly, the cast members are not "to blame" for their deviant corporeality and therefore can more easily be recuperated into normativizing logics. Conjoinment and dwarfism are not results of tragic accidents or personal irresponsibility but are rather happenstances of birth. This implication of blamelessness is present in My Big Fat Fabulous Life despite the association between fatness, laziness, and moral failing in the American imagination. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is immediately identified in the first season's pilot episode as the villainous cause of Whitney's rapid weight gain. We are shown images of skinny Whitney in these introductory moments, perpetuating the notion "that the real self is always slim and that excess is both superfluous and grotesque" (Palmer 308). Illness pre-dates fatness, rendering Whitney's fat body as not "really" hers and in turn more sympathetic to viewers.

Hater Blocking and Other Neoliberal Lessons from Reality Television Misfits

What is now commonly referred to as the social model of disability was originally conceptualized in the 1970s by The Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), a disabled people's organization in the UK. The social model's foundational objective is to disrupt of the conflation of disability and impairment. In their 1975 "Fundamental Principles" document, the UPIAS writes,

It is necessary to grasp the distinction between physical impairment and the social situation, called 'disability,' of people with such impairment. Thus we define impairment as lacking all or part of a limb, or having a defective limb, organism or mechanism of the body and disability as the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and this excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activity (Shakespeare 13).

Once popularized in the 1980s by sociologist Michael Oliver, the social model achieved academic currency and was quickly adopted by the emergent field of Disability Studies as its epistemological bedrock. Cleaving impairment and disability into two distinct concepts enabled the UPAIS and the disability activists and scholars who have adopted the social model to make crucial interventions upon medicalized and individualistic approaches to the disabled body. In locating the source of one's limitation to be the architectural structures of our culture rather than one's physical body, the social model de-essentializes and politicizes disability to shift the frame from one focused on the individual, pathological, and isolated body to one that emphasizes the collective experience of misfitting.

The social model is predicated on the notion that people with impairments are disabled by human-built barriers that are oppressive but possible to remove or change such that a better fit can be facilitated. While the social model has been rightly critiqued and has since its inception been usurped by more nuanced models of disability, 4 disability rights movements for accessible spaces are enabled by the conceptual cleaving of impairment and disability; without this analytical intervention, the political activism that resulted in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 would not have been possible. Our post-ADA world, however, has not seen the eradication of all inaccessible built environments, a fact that reality television programs about the non-normative frequently highlight. Some, like TLC's Little People Big World, are even titled to highlight this theme of misfitting. In The Little Couple, Bill and Jen talk extensively about their struggles as little people to navigate a world built for those of average height and the audience is invited to witness their resourcefulness when reaching items off of higher shelves, strategic use of step stools, and apt selection of tailors. Most substantially, over the course of several seasons Bill and Jen design and build an impressively large home that is customized to their short stature. With shortened countertops and step heights, the abode is by and large accessible to the homeowners while still user-friendly for their average height guests. My Big Fat Fabulous Life highlights the perhaps less often recognized issue of navigating a world constructed by and for thin people in a fat body. With humor and raw pain in equal measure, Whitney describes in the first season's premier episode "Fat Girl Dancing" that dating for her is riddled with a myriad of difficulties. Among concerns that her date will either reject or fetishize her fatness are considerations of the physical location of the date itself: is there a wide enough path in the restaurant to get to their table, will the chairs be large enough? As Whitney and her friend Buddy house hunt in "Leaving the Nest," viewers are confronted with scenes similar to those in The Little Couple in which the non-normative body misfits not in public structures but (potential) homes. In one house, Whitney can barely move past the sink to access the toilet in a narrow bathroom. Additionally, Whitney laments her limited outfit options and the occasional wardrobe malfunction such as the comical splitting of her leggings while out shopping with her mother ("The Say-Yes Philosophy"). Abby and Brittany's corporeality, though visually unusual, fits comparatively well in a world built for singletons. The twins seem to struggle most with finding clothing that fits their conjoined embodiment and conflicting personal styles.

The programs' emphasis on, and visual representation of, misfitting is in some ways a magnificent televisual occurrence for the disjuncture between ableist environments and the disabled body; this is an important part of the lived experience of disability that is erased by the prevailing medicalized and charity narratives of embodied difference. After watching these episodes audiences may in fact view public spaces and even their own homes with a newfound awareness of the assumptions built into physical spaces and experience a shift in their own perspective by understanding disability as a social construction. The problem, however, is that even while these programs draw attention to build environments' inaccessibility to people with disabilities in a way that aligns with the social model of disability, they do not demonstrate ableism's intersection with other axes of power and oppression. People variably experience disability across lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality in part because the social phenomena that result in or intensify impairment often differentially affect how disability oppression operates. Access to basic resources, such as affordable health care, nutritious food, shelter, and clean water is not a given for those without class and racial privilege. Brutality such as sexual assault and racial violence result in the disproportionate prevalence of physical disability and emotional trauma among women and people of color. Additionally, ideological and attitudinal ableism collide with racism and classism to form stereotypes that associate racial and class minorities with mental disability. Disability poet, performer, and activist Cheryl Marie Wade critiques the social model for privileging a category of people she calls the "able-disabled" who live so-called normal lives once physical accommodations have been instituted (Rainey 16). While the able-disabled also excludes those with more severe disabilities whose limited mobility is not ameliorated by the simple widening of a bathroom stall or ramp installation, the achievement of a life that approximates able-bodied standards of behavior and comportment after physical accommodations are made is also bolstered by (if not wholly dependent upon) racial, gender, and class privilege. The social model, when it is employed without consideration of disability's intersectional constitution, creates a hierarchy of disability in which the able-disabled are prioritized over multiple marginalized people with disabilities who are constrained by more than one oppressive system.

Garland-Thomson briefly gestures to the complicated constitution of one's fit or misfit: "Although misfit is associated with disability and arises from disability theory, its critical application extends beyond disability as a cultural category and social identity toward a universalizing of misfitting as a contingent and fundamental act of human embodiment" (598). One's fit, in other words, is multiply composed at disability's intersection with class, race, gender, and sexual privilege, a fact that is obscured in The Little Couple, Abby & Brittany, and My Big Fat Fabulous Life. Bill and Jen in The Little Couple, for instance, manage their fit within their domestic space by designing and building a customized home, an option only possible for little people of economic means. Ostensibly these shows, in their casting of visibly non-normative bodies and focus on their misfitting in the material world, open up a space to consider the lived embodied experience of disability. But this is only because the subset of reality television enamored with the extraordinary body only calls upon particular extraordinary bodies to perform disability. In depicting white, affluent, and gender and sexual normative subjects, these shows can allegedly be "about" disability and disability alone because it is the only expressed marker of difference saturating the cast members' otherwise privileged bodies. As a consequence, the narrative framework of these shows suggest they are pure, distilled, unadulterated representations of what living with a disability is "really" like—as if it the experiences we see on the screen are not always already the products of disability's intersection with racialized, gendered, sexualized social positions, and as if the representations we watch are not constructed by the media industry.

In addition to problematically presenting disability as if it isn't already inflected by other facets of identity and privilege, most of the programs' examples of misfitting discussed above involve environments that are not covered by ADA's accessibility mandate like private homes and articles of clothing. These examples offer a more capacious look at accessibility by expanding our understanding of built environments beyond buildings and stairs but also dangerously depoliticizes disability by implicitly regarding misfitting as an individual matter rather a concern of the State. Even depictions of misfitting that do concern public spaces, however, are depoliticized. In the episode "The Say-Yes Philosophy" Whitney adopts a more spontaneous mindset to break out of her comfort zone, explaining "For me, I find that I often say no to things because of kind of an anxiety I might have about it, like usually surrounding my weight. Like, I really want to go see that movie but can I fit into that seat? I don't know." The problem, the series suggest, isn't primarily one's built environment but one's pessimistic attitude or personal philosophy. The very word 'disability' is rarely uttered in these programs: it is never spoken in Abby & Brittany and Whitney only employs it once in My Big Fat Fabulous Life to say "I don't want my weight to be a disability" ("A Fat Girl Dancing"). This is significant because, as Lennard J. Davis insists "As soon as we use the term 'disabled' we add a political element: there is suddenly a disabler and a disabled" (Enforcing Normalcy 10).

The narrative framework of these programs espouses their casts as extraordinarily normal and thus is entirely dismissive of the ableist politics of normalcy and upholds the principles of neoliberal citizenship. Laurie Ouellette and James Hay argue that as a pedagogical tool designed to govern from a distance, reality television teaches viewers to privately manage every single aspect of their lives from their cars and their finances to their homes and romantic lives as entrepreneurial and self-sufficient neoliberal citizens like the cast members they see onscreen. Reality TV misfits, even though (or perhaps especially because) their corporeality upsets understandings of the body and the self as autonomous and discretely bounded, are not released from neoliberal obligation; indeed, they become signposts of its effectiveness. Abby & Brittany, as an example, disregards the influence of social systems and ideologies on the lives of people with disabilities by constructing a narrative of individualism and meritocracy that faithfully enacts a neoliberal agenda. The Hensel twins are figured as independent, self-actualizing neoliberal subjects that do not conceive of their challenges as the product of an ableist cultural environment. As one of their friend's states, "They really just choose to have joy in all of their situations." Likewise, their mother observes "It doesn't matter if it is a challenge; they are going to go after it." Epitomizing this neoliberal sentiment, the introductory voice-over of each episode includes the twin's framing declaration that "We are identical twins that are conjoined, but our parents never let us use that as an excuse…Our parents raised us to believe we could do anything we want, so we do!" As in My Big Fat Fabulous Life, disability is imagined within the neoliberal logic of the show as the product of a bad attitude and poor work ethic, and the ableist "political-juridical-institutional state that relies on the control and normalizations of bodies" underpinning the politics of normalcy are rendered invisible (Davis "From the Rule of Normalcy" 208-9).

Saturated by a discourse of extraordinary normalcy, these programs emphasize a narrative of overcoming challenges through hard work and a positive outlook despite the "haters." "Haters," or prejudicial adversaries the cast members encounter, are in all of the programs imagined as the primary if not sole problem facing people with nonnormative bodies. While sightseeing in the episode "Italy," the Hensel twins are careful not to loiter in highly populated public areas for too long as not to draw a crowd of intrigued onlookers. They also use umbrellas, which they cleverly call "hater blockers," to shield themselves from the public's cameras and stares. Garland-Thomson explains that those like Abby and Brittany develop "fluent staring management routines" to assert dignity, avoid mutual discomfort, and shape self-representation (Staring 87). Staring in Garland-Thomson's theorization is not a one-sided dynamic in which an active starer visually scrutinizes its passive object; rather, the stare is an intensely contextual and interpersonal exchange in which both the starer and staree participate. In Abby and Brittany's world some cameras are desirable while others are not—they block the cameras of curious tourists in Italy, all the while inviting the camera of the reality TV show—and hater blockers are essential to the twins' staring management system.

Haters, real and imagined, play a villainous role in My Big Fat Fabulous Life and The Little Couple as well. Several episodes fixate on Whitney's experiences of fatphobia. While sipping wine Whitney and her friends pour over the cruel and sometimes violent comments left on her social media platforms ("Hate Mail"). Channeling the voices of the online haters, they take turns reading the comments aloud to their friends' cathartic amusement. In her first "big girl dance class" Whitney demos for her dance students choreographed footwork, instructing "right leg step 3, flick that left leg 4. I like to feel like there is a hater on my toe or something, okay? Just flick him off!" ("Hate Mail"). However, in Whitney's life, haters are not simply internet trolls or imaginary imps to be kicked aside but prejudicial antagonists in face-to-face encounters. In an example so explicit and gut-wrenching as to be played in most episodes' title sequences, occupants of a nearby car shout "Seaworld, Shamu got out!" while Whitney walks across a parking lot ("Hate Mail"). The Little Couple does not capture moments of such explicit prejudice nor do Bill and Jen employ the contemporary slang of "haters," yet the prejudice of their peers is still a matter of great concern in the program. In several episodes, the pair visits schools to deliver talks to children about their embodied difference and the importance of empathy. Beyond schoolchildren in their local area, Bill and Jen have capitalized on their celebrity as reality TV misfits to launch auxiliary careers as speakers who present professional and motivational speeches at colleges, businesses, and governmental bodies on everything from neonatal resuscitation and sales to "overcoming obstacles" as little people and disability-specific diversity training. Through their professional engagements as speakers, Bill and Jen position themselves as educators committed to thwarting the development of future haters among schoolchildren and dislodging the prejudices from adult ones.


The lack of an intersectional dialogue and hater-obsessed depoliticization of disability in these programs is perhaps not unsurprising but nevertheless worrisome. As media Disability Studies scholar Beth A. Haller explains, "Because people with disabilities still face many architectural, occupational, educational, and communication barriers in the U.S., interpersonal contact between ablebodied and disabled persons is still limited. Therefore, mass media images still provide many of the cultural representations of disability to American society" (29). Media depictions of disability serve a pedagogical purpose in a cultural context wherein people often learn about disability from media representations rather than disabled people themselves. This is perhaps particularly so for reality television, especially when produced by a channel that formerly billed itself as The Learning Channel. Audience members by and large are aware that reality television is subject to industry editing, yet they are more likely to accept the lessons about disability presented in these programs than, say those in novels and cinema, because reality television's presumed relationship to the real.

The programs investigated here are representative of a broader subset of reality television preoccupied with the extraordinary body that leverages the real material misfit of the non-normative body in a world designed for able-bodied people yet actually serves to deemphasize this misfit. The narrative framework of the shows, then, highlights misfitting while attempting to convince us that its reality isn't so acute and pervasive after all. Moreover, the narrative pulse of the shows perhaps hopes to assure us that we, as empathetic viewers who tune into TLC to chuckle along with Whitney and her friends at internet trolls or to catch another twenty-two minute glimpse of Abby and Brittany's "normal, conjoined life," are not part of the "real" scourge of non-normative bodies: pervasive and evasive "haters." In doing so, Abby & Brittany, The Little Couple, and My Big Fat Fabulous Life attempt to deemphasize the structural dimensions of normativizing body politics and obscure the role of racial, class, gender, and sexual privilege in mediating one's experience of ableism. Unlike the historic freak show, these reality TV misfits are saturated in a discourse of normalcy that resists the enfreakment of the non-normative bodies in previous centuries. While we might be tempted to view such normalization as a corrective to oppressive depictions of people with non-normative bodies, we should be critical of this mode for it is frequently dependent upon heteronormativity, gender normativity, whiteness, neoliberal citizenship, and upward class mobility to convince viewers of its narrative.

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  1. Quoting Abby and Brittany Hensel raises interesting and complicated methodological conundrums. The twins often finish one another's sentences or speak in unison. This oscillation between mono- and duo-vocality is difficult to demonstrate on the page. For clarity of reading, I thus quote the twins in not a single but rather one conjoined voice.
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  2. A term for non-conjoined people.
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  3. The trope of the supercrip is a common mode of disability representation. Characterized by a celebratory tone for people with disabilities' mundane and extraordinary accomplishments, the supercrip may at first appear to be a positive style of representation. However, this trope is undergirded by the notion that disability can (and should) be overcome and upholds able-bodiedness as the golden standard of achievement. For more on the supercrip, see Haller ("False Positive," 2000) and Schalk (2016).
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  4. For an elaborated critique of the social model, please see Shakespeare (2006). For a model that maintains the social model's important contributions as well as critiques and complicates it, see Kafer's political/relational model of disability (2013).
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