A Disabled Person Reviews: Sickness & Lies (BBC)

Screenshot of BBC's title, Sickness and Lies, but above it I added text so it now reads "A Disabled Person Reviews: Sickness & Lies"

Note: this documentary is not good, and if you’re disabled you might find it very upsetting. You might also find this review upsetting as a result, so feel free to skip it if you need to.


It has taken me a week to watch a 25-minute video.
Obviously, some of the reason for that is the cognitive fog that comes of holding an alphabet soup of mental health diagnoses, and that I’m supposed to be writing a dissertation. But most of the reason it took me a while is because, friends, this one hurt.
The disabled community is not unfamiliar with being mocked and/or dissected in mainstream media, having their diagnoses doubted and generally being treated like shit, within documentaries and outside of them. I was expecting this to be bad, so it’s not that I was disappointed. It was an extremely angry kind of hurt.
The first thing I saw about this documentary was Jessica Kellgren-Fozard’s Tweet about it, stating that she firmly declined to take part in the project because she disagreed with the premise. I’ve followed Jessica’s career for a number of years now and I respect and trust her as a content creator, meaning that I also trust that what she has said is true. So yes, I started from an angry place in watching this doc, but only because I knew that footage of Jessica Kellgren-Fozard had been used without her permission. I hoped, though, that this little sprinkle of unethical journalism would be an exception, not the rule.
The premise of this documentary, apparently, is to investigate the recent phenomenon of “Munchausen’s by Internet” (which, I would like to note, was invented by a white man). Essentially, Munchausen’s by Internet is a factitious disorder linked to and driven by online interactions with other people, and I personally (as someone with, admittedly, zero qualifications on the matter) don’t think it’s a real thing. It’s my opinion that yes, some factitious disorders are probably made worse by unregulated internet access, but the vast, vast majority of these people are legitimately disabled, enjoying community and acceptance for possibly the first time and eager to share in a space where that’s welcomed. Regardless, the documentary also looks at people trying to diagnose others with MBI or otherwise trying to prove that they are not, in fact, disabled.
Sounds like fun, right?
Infuriatingly, the documentary provides no numbers about most of these things. We’re informed that “many of the accusers are people with chronic illnesses themselves,” but there’s no clarification as to an exact number or proportion. They have no stats on how often people are malingering (which, I should note, then also makes them ill as someone suffering from a factitious disorder or similar), nor on how often disabled people are harassed about it. They don’t present any data about disabled people’s internet usage or about their wellbeing as it relates to internet usage; it’s all interviews and broad statements. One statement that was absent of numbers but caught my attention was when the online chronic illness community was described as having “spiralled” in recent years. Not “grown”, not “exploded”, but “spiralled”, because obviously the expansion of our community is a negative. They also draw attention to the fact that the number of chronically ill people is growing, especially among young women, to which I say two things: 1. Your data only shows you the growing number of diagnoses, which could be due to a huge range of factors including more comprehensive healthcare access, changes in the diagnostic criteria of certain disorders, etc., etc., and 2. Young women are one of the most thoroughly silenced groups out there. If the number of diagnosed-disabled young women is growing, could it be possible that it’s because cultural shifts have allowed them to be diagnosed? And could it also be possible that a supportive and informative online community is helping with that? Of course, they don’t dwell on any of this, because they’re too busy panicking about how many disabled Instagram users there are nowadays.
I tried to draw hope from the fact that the presenter of the program is also disabled, but a cynical voice kept asking me whether, perhaps, the BBC had chosen a disabled presenter to mitigate the obvious yuckiness of the program’s premise. She expressed that she began making the program as a result of falling down an online “rabbit hole” about chronically ill people, and the people who accuse them of faking.
Allow me to stop everything right there. I’m doing a Linguistics MA. I spend a lot of time investigating the way people frame things, what they bring to the foreground and what they do not. I noticed almost immediately that, wherever possible, the term “chronically ill” was being used instead of “disabled”. I’m not sure why, but I have two theories: the optimistic one is that this is because the BBC knew that not everyone identifies with or wants to use the label “disabled”; the cynical one is that they didn’t want to emphasise disability, because disabled people are, in the UK, a minority group protected by law (specifically, the 2010 Equality Act) and even if this documentary doesn’t constitute a hate crime, acknowledging that you’re closely dissecting the disabled community might make you sound like more of a prick than if you say “chronically ill”. (This documentary does a lot of work to avoid seeming prickish. None of it is successful.)
Then there’s the online bit. Yes, these are predominantly online communities that are being examined, both of ill people and of their doubters, but there was no discussion of disabled people forming community IRL, and, more annoyingly still, the discussion about backlash and suspicion was almost entirely focused on Reddit. A lot of people who watch this documentary might be inclined to think, “Ah, yeah, but Reddit is full of know-it-alls, argumentative bastards and people who are just generally cunts, so I don’t imagine this happens anywhere else online, and ill people can just click away from Reddit if they’re upset,” which wouldn’t be unreasonable. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens on every platform I’ve ever used – Tumblr, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… they all have some lurkers who are hoping you’ll “disprove” your own disability. This behaviour is oppressive and inescapable, it is directed at members of our community within our own online community spaces, and, as even the documentary highlights, it can lead to real-life harm.
The trouble is that the documentary suggests that the harm that comes to ill people most often is self-inflicted as a result of trying to “prove” the existence of one’s disabilities; it shows interviewees recounting their experiences with coordinated harassment and doxxing, but then immediately returns to the topic of people intentionally making their symptoms worse or inventing new ones. One influencer makes reference to people who “list off every single diagnosis, or sometimes even their medications” (emphasis mine), her tone suggesting that this is a psychologically unhealthy behaviour that is driven by a need to disprove Redditors and their ableist friends. It’s my experience that when people list their conditions and/or medications, at least part of their reasoning is that someone else with that same condition, or using that same medication, can spot that someone is willing to talk about those things and can ask questions, compare experiences and receive encouragement. Again, yes, I do imagine that there are some people with actual factitious disorders who should maybe avoid that kind of content for their own sake, but I also imagine that they’re a very, very small minority.
This was another bit of framing that frustrated me. Consistently, throughout this doc, behaviours like posting symptom lists, lists of diagnoses, photos related to medical care, etc., have all been treated as though they are done solely for the purposes of proving yourself to be ill. They did mention, sort of, that the disabled community can be quite supportive and caring, but they didn’t consider for a moment that the things disabled people post are for the sake of other disabled people, rather than for the abled audience trying to expose them as liars. There was no use of the word “destigmatise” even though that seems like a pretty high priority for many disabled people, especially people with more “gross” disabilities like those related to digestion, or diagnoses which make you behave differently from your neurotypical peers. Wanting to destigmatise the specifics of disability, one’s healthcare journey, bodies that look different from what’s typical and the difficulties associated with being disabled is certainly the reason I post about mine, and it seems to me to be the main reason people share this information, for a disabled audience, an abled audience or both.
Lots of things, actually, that could look like signs of Munchausen’s By Internet to an outsider are actually very typical parts of being disabled. Someone mentioned illnesses “piling up” as though that ought to raise suspicion, when in reality, 1. Lots of conditions are comorbid with one another, so plenty of people have multiple and/or changing diagnoses and 2. Once you’re under the care of a certain healthcare team or similar and you’ve been diagnosed with one thing, it’s way more likely you’ll be tested for or could raise concerns about other things. Dr. Dickhead, who coined the term Munchausen’s By Internet, also lists “miraculous recoveries” as a sign of MBI, which frustrates me since “miraculous” can be so subjective, and sometimes bodies really do just glitch badly and then figure themselves out. Moreover, it highlights “clones” who apparently imitate disabled people so closely that “they get the same chair, the same colour service dog”, but listen. Wheelchairs are very expensive, and I personally wouldn’t want to choose one without checking out the opinions of people who already own one. Service dogs, whilst being very very good boys and girls, do not come in a huge range of colours to begin with, so statistically you’re pretty likely to see two people with a service dog of the same colour (you tit). The whole documentary feels like, regardless of its host, it has been put through a very particular lens that just cannot capture the nuances of being disabled, let alone being disabled online, because that diverts from the bit where disabled people are naughty lazy fakers. (It also feels like this should have been an hour long, partly for this reason and partly just based on the choppiness and the half-arsed interviews that answered like two questions.)
The investigation into the actual twats doxxing people for being disabled wrong was, in my view, less prominent than the discussion on faking/MBI itself, but it was also very “both-sidesy”, interviewing a moderator for one of the subs where doubters cluster together to try and find signs of faking, and finding that she considered it “a failed experiment” rather than something that could cause actual harm. Quite tellingly, she also said, “Sometimes we forgot we were dealing with human beings,” and acknowledged that “there is a line” but neglected to define where it might be. It seems like parts of the documentary are defending others’ right to scepticism, which, y’know, whatever, but that also means they’re implicitly defending behaviours that make others’ scepticism the problem of disabled people. Public internet forums debating whether or not you’re actually ill will always be hurtful, and sometimes dangerous (I convince myself I’m not disabled on a near-daily basis anyway; I don’t need any encouragement to stop taking my antipsychotics).
The thing is, this documentary does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a world where we know that chronic conditions are underdiagnosed, especially among minority groups like women, POC, LGBT+ people etc., and it will be viewed by the people who have the power to provide or withhold these diagnoses and the treatment one could subsequently receive. It will be viewed by nosy and ableist next-door neighbours who will make you feel unsafe claiming benefits in your own home in case they glimpsed you in the garden last week. It exists in a world where the disbelieving of disabled people is already causing suffering and deaths, so maybe it’s clear why I’m angry about this documentary, which suggests that disabled people should be disbelieved.
I’m angry that they used Jessica’s image without her permission. I’m angry that they then said that “big-name influencers” like her had declined to be part of the documentary “because they’re afraid of being targets”, when Jessica states clearly on her Twitter that her motivation for declining was the ethical implications of the premise, and I suspect that was the case for many of these “big-name influencers”. Mostly, though, I’m angry that this exists. I’m angry that this was made and aired, and that whoever made those decisions either didn’t care, or didn’t care to learn, how it might affect IRL disabled people. I feel betrayed that the host was disabled but didn’t seem to bring any nuance to the table regarding disability, and was clearly there to portray “both sides”, not to advocate for other disabled people. I’m angry that it was weirdly short, so it gave only a very brief overview of campaigns of organised harassment, which are both fascinating to me as a linguist and terrifying to me as a disabled queer. I’m angry that most of the people featured in this doc were white, and that the focus was so heavily on physical disability, and a whole bunch of other things. And I’m hurt, because I feel like actual humans chose views and ratings over my actual wellbeing.
The documentary did a couple of things I didn’t hate, though! The host used they/them pronouns for a nonbinary interviewee, instead of misgendering them or carefully avoiding using any pronouns at all. She also did acknowledge that disabilities and medical interventions affect everyone differently, and what might hold true for her is not necessarily true for others. I liked some of the cool projection effects they used.
…that’s about it.
So, should you watch this wildly irresponsible and/or directly malicious documentary? Honestly, if you’re disabled, I wouldn’t recommend it – you won’t learn anything new, you’ll just be reminded how many people think you’re a liar and just how unsafe disabled people are in the world. If you’re not disabled, it might be worth watching just to know what discourse is floating around about disabled people, so that you’re positioned to be a better ally and advocate… but really, it’s not even terribly interesting, so maybe you’re better off reading reviews of it (like this one! But read multiple! I don’t represent every single disabled person!) and not giving the BBC the views. I can only really recommend it to people who, like me, sometimes want or need to get recreationally angry at the TV and who can’t find anything more infuriating on iPlayer.
I’m not here to tell you what to do, but if you want to complain about any aspect of this documentary, you can get in touch with the BBC by clicking here. If you want to support your local angry disabled person, you can buy me a coffee through Ko-Fi here. If you’d like to see some calming pictures of kittens, click here.

Review: Mums Make Porn Episodes 2 & 3

I’m going to start by begrudgingly acknowledging that episodes 2 and 3 of Channel 4’s three-episode docuseries, Mums Make Porn, did address some of the criticisms I leveled at it in my review of the first episode. To my overwhelming relief, they discovered the work of Erika Lust (whose name the subtitles just could not spell correctly, much to my chagrin as a freelance captioner) about halfway through episode 2. They visited a set of hers and waxed lyrical about how much “better” her porn was than the stuff they’d seen thus far – “better”, in this context, meaning “more closely aligned with their own values” and also “produced with a bigger budget”. This is not to say that I don’t love and respect Erika Lust’s work – I really fucking do – but it was always placed at odds with mainstream porn, and was described more than once as more “intelligent”. I’m not sure what, exactly, they mean by that, but as a developmentally-disabled person who enjoys a bit of plotless, carnal, seemingly “unintelligent” porn, I didn’t love it as a piece of terminology.

What I did love was the fact that Anita, mum-of-four and my sole source of solace throughout this series, finally spoke up during a roundtable discussion and articulated what I’d been thinking throughout all of episode 1 – that the other mums’ continued assertion that what mainstream porn depicts isn’t “normal” is insulting to the people who do do those things. Unfortunately, after apologising, mums Sarah and Sarah-Louise continued to use a lot of the “normal” and “real” rhetoric that I criticised last time, but Emma (another fave of mine) didn’t bring those words into play again. Like the aforementioned discovery of Erika Lust, this came as a huge relief to me, a kinky weirdo who literally has “unintelligent” porn sex for funsies all the time.

Another relief was Jane’s departure from Mums Make Porn. That sounds unkind, but I wasn’t relieved because I disliked her – I was relieved because she was obviously so viscerally uncomfortable with the whole thing that watching her suffer through it would have been painful and joyless. She sought advice from her reverend, who said some unfortunate things about “dysfunctional sex” and the fact that fucking “is not a spectator sport” (I beg to differ), but who ultimately seemed to give her the validation she needed to walk away from something that she just couldn’t participate in enthusiastically. Consent is important in non-sexual settings too, and I just couldn’t imagine that Jane was actively, mindfully consenting to see some of the things she’d had to see during the research phase of the project. Her values might be wildly different from mine, but she seems like a nice lady and I was glad to see her walk away from what must have been a truly horrible experience.

Episode 2 continues with the mums interviewing prospective cast members, and I cringed the whole way through. I would be mortified to turn up to a job interview as under-educated as some of the mums were on sex, porn and kink terminology, let alone to host an interview whilst so under-prepared. Nonetheless, the interviews proceed, the interviewees patiently explain terms like “shibari” to the mums, and they finally settle on… the candidate who would be the most mainstream in any other field. I’m sure Daisy is perfectly nice, but the fact that they picked an eloquent, educated, middle-class, able-bodied white cis girl whose pornographic filmography didn’t feature any of the things they personally disapproved of struck me as a bit impotent. They spend the whole series talking about challenging the industry, but all their performers are cis, able-bodied and what they term to be “intelligent”. I will give them props for hiring a plus-size lady and two actors of colour, but they could have gone further with the “diversity” they kept promising us and they did not.

Episode 3, for the most part, managed not to elicit any new criticisms from me in terms of rhetoric and so on, but it did further showcase their lack of education and preparedness in two distinct ways. The first: whilst shooting their first scene, with girl/girl couple Heidi and Katana, they have the actors for their second scene, Romeo and Daisy, just… waiting around. For ages. In dressing gowns. I appreciate that maybe they only had their filming space booked for one day, but could they not have scheduled it a little bit better so that Romeo and Daisy could have made better use of their mornings?

The other, more irksome thing I noticed was that they kept talking about portraying safe sex, but that only seemed to appear in the form of condoms and lube. And I’ll admit, I haven’t seen the full film, but there was nary a dental dam nor glove in sight (except the gloves that Emma wore to clean the dildos) and no discussion of whether they should be included at all. The toys didn’t seem to be condom’d either, and I spotted at least one utensil of the jelly variety. The inclusion of condoms and lube in porn isn’t quite as radical as they seem to think it is, especially not when paired with those oversights, but I suppose it’s cool that they thought of it at all.

(It’s also cool that they thought about showcasing consent, but less cool that there was a whole uncomfortable scene in which a delivery man arrives at Sarah-Louise’s house and she makes a few jokes about his “package”. I really hope this was scripted, but since the bloke’s face was blurred and he didn’t joke along with her, I imagine it wasn’t.)

The theme of the whole series seems to be criticising mainstream pornography and then not quite following through on the promise to deliver the opposite. I think this can be adequately summed up by the fact that all the mums talk about wanting to portray diverse bodies (but not disabled or trans ones!) in a positive light, but Sarah-Louise ends up making a statement about wanting to see porn where “the bits don’t look quite right”. I think what she means is that she wants to see more genitals that are hairy, asymmetrical, coloured differently to the rest of the performers’ skin, featuring more prominent labia minora and so on… but it comes across as judgey.

And on the topic of coming across as judgey, one key aspect of the series I neglected to mention last time is the clips of various teenagers, some alone and some with a pal, sitting in front of some exposed brick wall and being asked leading questions to produce soundbites about mainstream pornography. I didn’t mention this in my previous review because I thought it’d be unfair to criticise kids who (presumably) haven’t engaged with much feminist or sex-positive discourse and who are (definitely) being asked pointed questions about material they don’t even look old enough to legally explore and critically reflect on. I think that, as with recruiting Jane for this project in spite of her obvious discomfort around sex and porn in order to generate conflict, Channel 4 acted irresponsibly in enlisting these teenagers to feed their narrative that mainstream porn is bad and damages children, and their desire to create good TV seems to have overwhelmed their desire to behave ethically or do any real research.

Did I hate Mums Make Porn? Sometimes. Sometimes it exasperated me so thoroughly that I mashed barely-comprehensible notes into a Google doc, such as, “Weeeird reaction to trans porn – trans people fuck!!!” and, “sarah-louise.. No”. But it did feature a few redeeming moments like Anita being brave enough to tell the other mums they made her feel judged, Emma cleaning dildos in her nice mumsy jumper, Erika Lust being her delightful self and the mums’ daughters expressing genuine excitement and pride at the final screening of Fourplay. 

Should you watch it? Maybe, if you like yelling at your TV a lot. Should I go and knit until I calm down about the whole self-contradictory, poorly-researched and self-serving goddamn series?

Fucking definitely.

Mums Make Porn, Episode 1: Review

I really, really wanted to like Mums Make Porn.

The premise is promising: five mums, all with different backgrounds, band together to create a porn film that reflects their own values, showcases consent and depicts sex in a light that they’d be happy for their children to absorb. I was tentatively excited about it.

Now, I tentatively hate it.

At the time of writing, only the first episode has been aired, so it’s the only one I’ve watched. In this first episode, mums Emma, Anita, Jane, Sarah and Sarah-Louise meet for the first time, watch some cliché PornHub slush, start to brainstorm their ideas for their own pornographic production, visit a couple of porn sets and say a lot of things that made me so angry I felt nauseous. You know, standard documentary fare.

From the outset, porn is depicted as an evil and abusive monolith. There is no mention of the porn that already exists which does exactly what these mums hope to do: depict consent, communication, intimacy and women actually, genuinely enjoying themselves. I began to feel a bit insulted on behalf of all the feminist porn producers and stars out there, but I resigned myself to this being the “angle” of the show and pressed on. One of the porn sets they visit, wherein a Domme named Zara films a scene with a nice-looking boy named Sam, does actually seem to feature a woman enjoying herself and some communication regarding consent, and to be fair, the mum who’s watching, Emma, responds quite positively to the whole affair. (There was even a very sweet little moment where Emma helps Zara with her lingerie.) Unfortunately, this seems to be the absolute peak of positivity regarding porn, and does not set the tone for the rest of the episode.

Three of the other mums visit a set where a clip creator (and “mum of two” – we’ll come back to that) is filming a scene for the cheating girlfriend genre with her real-life boyfriend. They fuck, they talk dirty about her fictional boyfriend, they stop when his cock goes soft, they continue, you can fill in the blanks. And then the three mums go outside because Sarah-Louise needs to puke into a bush.

I don’t want to be unkind. People are squicked by what they’re squicked by, and she is apparently viscerally disgusted by the sight of the male performer’s cum. However, this woman has had six children. How did they get into her womb? I’m reluctant to suggest that the vomiting is theatrical, but there’s clearly some kind of separation in Sarah-Louise’s mind between nice, private cum and dirty evil porn cum.

It’s also Sarah-Louise who says that porn “does not represent normal women.” I assume that she means it doesn’t represent statistically average women, or all women, but indirectly calling the women who appear in porn abnormal is, um, not my favourite thing. The word “normal” gets thrown around a lot, and never in a way that I appreciate. One of the mums (I forget which) mentions that porn is causing young people to think “threesomes, foursomes, fivesomes are normal.” In my world, they are! When I was in a triad, I had threesomes so often I once forgot the term “partnered sex” and accidentally called it “1v1 sex” instead. I think by “normal”, they mean “common”, “frequent” or “easy to organise”, but still, I was unimpressed.

Another thing which mystified me throughout the entire episode was the mums’ assertion that what’s happening in porn “isn’t real”. I understand what they mean – that porn is performative, that there are tricks and clever editing involved in making it look the way it does, that the kind of sex represented in porn isn’t as common outside of it and that there’s usually some conversation beforehand – but the fact of the matter is that people do have sex like that. People do get double penetrated, they do get bukkake’d, they do get the shit beaten out of them, and all sorts more besides. And again – and I feel I cannot stress this enough – if they’re looking for representations of sex that they deem “real”, that looks more like the sex they have, that literally already exists.

You know what else already exists? Mums who make porn! The voiceover literally introduces the clip creator whose set the mums visit as “Roxy, mum of two”. Mums direct, produce and feature in porn all the time. (Has anyone told them what the M in MILF stands for?) I wonder how much of the choice to title the series Mums Make Porn was to make it as eye-catching as possible, and how much of it was influenced by the fact that these mums, and the documentary, seem not to understand that a lot of the women involved in porn are there on purpose, and that they actively contribute to the making of the porn. The only way I can comprehend perceiving mums making porn as a novel concept is if we assume that the women (including mums) who are in porn have no agency, and are just there as objects – which is not a terribly feminist assumption to make.

There was also, throughout the whole thing, an emphasis on the ease with which people (especially young people) can access hardcore porn. Now, I understand that porn is not an educational resource and that mainstream porn in particular portrays a very narrow, very misogynistic view of what sex can look like, but I truly don’t believe that making it harder to access will help anyone. What will help is conversations with kids from an early-ish age about consent, being kind to other people, the fact that different things make different people feel good, the fact that porn is performative and is not, statistically speaking, representative of every sex-haver on the planet, and the fact that there exists a much wider range of it than whatever you stumbled onto on the front page of PornHub.

The other problem with emphasising how easy it is to access hardcore porn is that it sort of kind of implies that if you’re into some weird shit (as I am, and as I assume some of my readers may be too) then you should have to work hard to view it, or else not view it at all. I fucking hate TikTok, but the fact that it’s advertised to me and is only ever two clicks away is not the problem – it’s how the internet works. It’s also great for people who enjoy TikTok! People can enjoy things! And, since the legal viewing age for porn is 18, it shouldn’t matter whether the weird, kinky and even the misogynistic stuff is easier to access than the nice, loving, intimate stuff – if you’re following the letter of the law, you shouldn’t be allowing your resident young person to view any kind of porn at all. And if you are allowing them to view porn, you should be talking to them about it, regardless of its contents, because it is just always going to look different to how one navigates sex in the real world. It’s usually better lit, for one thing.

There were some bright spots throughout episode 1 – primarily in the form of Anita, who talks openly about enjoying porn from many genres and who doesn’t express any disgust when watching consenting adults fucking. And I suppose it has opened up a dialogue between some of these mums and their teenagers, although it’s not my favourite thing when Sarah responds to her 16-year-old daughter having accidentally seen some pornographic adverts by saying, “There’s a lot of vile stuff out there. Vile.” rather than asking her any questions about it, and then goes on to repeat the insistence that porn is “not real”.

There’s no neat takeaway here because there’s just so much cultural bullshit to unpack and we’re only on episode 1. I am, I guess, glad that this is facilitating conversations about porn and our cultural perceptions of it, both between these mums and their kids and in the wider world, but I wish that we could have these conversations without dismissing the agency of women who do porn, subtly shaming people with weird kinks and ignoring the vast body of feminist, queer, and otherwise loving, intimate and consent-driven porn that people are working so fucking hard to produce.

Shall I review episode 2? (Update: I did!)