One of today’s top stories has centred on children’s TV presenter, Cerrie Burnell. The Daily Mail ran an insidious, scaremongering feature about how she is supposedly frightening the young kids she presents to on CBeebies. Listening to Cerrie talk on the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 today, I was struck by her calm dignity in the face of some extraordinarily nasty remarks by parents. Responses on the Vine Show were also overwhelmingly in support of Burnell and her right to be a talented and empathetic TV presenter who just happens to have a malformed arm.
Last year, I was an enthusiastic viewer of Britain’s Missing Top Model, which set out to prove that disabled women could be models just as easily as their able-bodied counterparts. The contestants had a very diverse range of disabilities but all were depicted as real women who wanted to model and just happened to be disabled. The camera gaze never lingered pornographically on their particular disabilities but it did focus on just how hard these women had to fight to be treated equally in society. It was an inspiring series and the winner, Kelly Knox, was gorgeous, funny and smart. She also happened to have a missing forearm, just like Cerrie Burnell. Kelly was a deserving winner. She not only won a fashion photoshoot in Marie Claire but a leading model agency gave her a contract as they saw no reason why she could not work in what everyone knows is a very competitive and tough industry where you are judged on how you look.
Kelly was depicted as normal on BBC3 and attracted no adverse publicity (undoubtedly because it was a minority programme on a minority channel). Cerrie, likewise, has been depicted as normal by the BBC, which is fulfilling its remit of reflecting the diversity of our population. That remit includes employing the disabled as well as ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians. The children who watch Cerrie doing her job on CBeebies don’t see Cerrie as weird, abnormal or scary. How can they? Children are born without prejudice and accept whatever’s around them. They only learn prejudice from those who teach it to them. Those parents who claim in the Mail that Cerrie will send their kids to bed with nightmares are not talking about how their children really see Cerrie but displaying their own fears and prejudices.
And that’s exactly why we need Cerrie on TV and others like her. We need to see Britain’s diversity reflected back at us on our screens. The alternative is too awful to think about – a return to a medieval past where the different are locked away from sight or euthanised so only perfect humans can exist. It’s only 60 years since the last hideous experiment in deciding who was fit to be part of society was carried out. I’d like to think society has moved on since then and that the prejudiced minority will not be allowed to push this warm, talented women off our screens.