Tag Archives: BBC

Cerrie Burnell: Maybe She’s Just the Best Person for the Job?

Laurie and Debbie say:

The Internet and the newspapers are buzzing with the story of Cerrie Burnell, established actress now co-hosting the BBC young children’s channel, CBeebies.

upper body shot of Cerrie Burnell showing her shortened arm

No one is complaining about her work, her acting ability, her manner with children, or how she shows up on TV. She sounds like a perfect host for a children’s channel.

So why is she news? Because she was born with one shortened arm.

Having a shortened arm can be described as a disability (because of all the things that are designed for two-handed people) and/or can be labeled as a disfigurement (because of exactly the responses she’s getting). In this story, disfigurement is the issue–no one is saying that Burnell can’t do the job because of her arm, or that she’s not good at it because of her arm. The people who want her off the show are saying they don’t want (their children) to see it, which very frequently means they don’t want to see it themselves. Since toddlers don’t post a lot of blog comments, we’re not getting a lot of response from the core audience. But everyone who has ever made anything for young children knows that the money, attention, time, and prioritizing all come from the parents, and the parents have a lot to say about Burnell’s appearance.

“There’s a time and place for showing kids all the “differences” that people can have, but nine in the morning in front of 2 year olds is NOT the place! Little overboard on the need for political correctness, perhaps?” says one father.

One point he’s missing is that Burnell’s visibility has the potential to make his kid see a one-armed woman as ordinary, part of life as she knows it. The more kids see, get accustomed to, ask questions about, and interact with, the bigger their world gets.

He’s not the only commenter to use the phrase “politically correct” (a phrase which, to put it mildly, neither of us has much patience with). In this case, however, using that phrase implies a particularly noxious position–i.e., that Burnell was chosen only or at least primarily because she has one arm. The vision is of BBC executives sitting in a smoke-filled room somewhere saying, “Hmmm. Let’s see what young children need. I know! They need to see people with disabilities! Let’s hire a disabled person!”

Somehow, this doesn’t seem too probable. Far more likely is that Burnell was one of the top choices for the job and the BBC executives had a long, difficult internal negotiation that sounded a lot like the arguments going on in the comments section of the CBeebies website: some of them thought it would be good for kids to see her arm, some of them thought it was too disturbing, and some of them thought that maybe the choice should be made based on her personality, her talent, her voice, her manner with children, and whatever other criteria they used to pick the other finalists.

And in that negotiation, somehow Burnell got the job, which shifted the discussion into a wider forum. This also allows people with direct experience to weigh in:

My 3-year-old daughter has a congenital upper-limb deficiency just like Cerrie’s. It’s there at nine in the morning, it’s also there at pre-school, it’s there at the supermarket and it’s there when we go on holiday. Some people stare, some people ask questions and many other people just don’t notice.

We are bringing our daughter up to believe that she can be anything and do anything that she sets her mind to. Not because we are politically correct but because she IS capable of anything and everything. The sheer excitement and delight on her face when she saw Cerrie’s little arm was priceless and just reinforced everything that we have taught her.

What Burnell’s detractors are really saying is that regardless of how good she is, regardless of whether or not most kids like her, regardless of anything except nine inches or so of missing flesh, she shouldn’t have her job. That’s not about political correctness, that’s about civil rights.

What should the BBC executives have said to Burnell? “Sorry, dear, we’d love to hire you, but you don’t have two arms?”

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for being first with the pointer.