Glee‘s been in the news a lot lately, have you heard?
Basically, after a three week hiatus, the show came back last week, and wow, was there a lot of press about it. Not because of the show’s performance, or the show’s “diversity” award, but because of the controversy that has been suddenly generated by the show.
That’s right, suddenly, with no history of protest whatsoever, people with disabilities were complaining about the show! Just days before it aired its Very Special Disability Episode, “Wheels”! Who would have imagined!
Or, more accurately, people with disabilities have been talking about issues with the show since the first trailers hit the internet, with incisive commentary after the first episode was aired, but this only became of interest just a few days before the show wanted everyone to see how “serious” they were. As I said in an angry comment elsewhere:
“Now we’re listened to, when it will get people irritated at those uppity people with disabilities who should stop complaining and just enjoy the show.
We were here before. And I don’t appreciate our concerns being used to generate hype for the show.”
[Anna, you're so oversensitive. First you were angry because they didn't listen to your concerns, and now you're angry because you don't like when they chose to listen to your concerns? There's no pleasing you, is there?]
This is not listening to our concerns. This is giving our concerns very short attention so you can ask cast members about the “controversy”, and so nice able-bodied people can say things like this in a spoiler-filled review of the show overall:
“Wheels” Doesn’t Just Feel Good, It Does Good: Aside from what you may or may not have read from the Associated Press regarding the usage of wheelchairs and disabled actors in this week’s episode, I think you’ll discover that “Wheels” is all about empowering people with disabilities and sends out an uplifting message to the disabled community. It should also be noted that the series now has a recurring character with Down’s Syndrome (who it is will surprise you), which I don’t think has happened on network TV in a very long time.
Thanks, Nice Able-Bodied Lady! I will take your words to heart and just ignore what those silly people with disabilities are saying! It will be better that way!
[Before I go any further: I didn't feel "empowered" by Glee, nor did most of the women with disabilities that I know. That said, my goal here isn't to tell you or anyone you know how to feel about the show. My objection to the above is not only the condescending tone and dismissal of everything that people who actually work in the industry are saying about representations of disability and how that affects their work, but also being told how I should feel about the show.]
I pointed out my two biggest issues with this show at my Dreamwidth [in short: three different characters fake a disability in this episode, and we find out that Tina has been faking her stutter since sixth grade in order to get out of things she didn't want to do. As kaz points out in the comments, that's not how that actually works], and although I intend to talk about that more later, this post is going to be about the media and general response to people with disabilities discussing the show and their reactions to it.
Disabled advocates vs. ‘Glee’
The protest: Some disabled Hollywood actors protested last night’s episode of ‘Glee,’ because it focused on Artie, the wheelchair bound member of the glee club, who is played by a non-disabled actor, Kevin McHale.
Protesting the protest: That anyone would call Ryan Murphy’s series discriminatory fails the laugh-test almost immediately. Last night not only dealt with the trials that Artie must go through on a daily basis while being handicapped, but also the fallout from Kurt coming out of the closet. And did I mention that the episode featured not one, but two actresses affected with Down syndrome? We defy you to find another show airing in primetime that would deal with one of these issues, let alone all three in one episode. This is a show that prides itself on acceptance and understanding. That McHale isn’t handicapped doesn’t make it less so. What’s next: Teen actors protesting that Cory Monteith is actually 27 years old and not 17?
Unlike the earlier post, this one doesn’t even bother to link to what people with disabilities are actually saying, which makes it really easy for people to just shrug and agree with their edgy “protesting the protest”. This, of course, means they can tell you that the whole of people’s comments are that they didn’t give the role to an actor with a disability.
Most of the people I know who think the show is poorly done crip-drag talk about not only McHale’s ability-status, but also the way that his character, Artie, is treated by both the explicit text and implicit subtext of the show. To give an example, Artie’s wheelchair is basically a prop that other members of the show push around whenever they want. To give another one, he’s shown before “Wheels” as the only ‘main’ character who doesn’t even get flirted with by a character who tries to flirt all the boys into accepting her into the Glee Club. Because teen boys with disabilities are non-sexual, I guess.
But, obviously the creators of the show have taken this all into account when discussing the controversy, right, because they are very respectful of the “disabled community”.
‘Glee’ executive producer Brad Falchuk backs him up. “We brought in anyone: white, black, Asian, in a wheelchair,” he told the AP when discussing the hubbub. “It was very hard to find people who could really sing, really act, and have that charisma you need on TV.”
He too understands the concern and frustration expressed by the disabled community, he said. But McHale excels as an actor and singer and “it’s hard to say no to someone that talented,” Falchuk said.
Again, how nice it is of people to lump all criticisms together, and then give a nice happy answer about how they “understand” what people are complaining about, without actually addressing any of it. “Oh, there just weren’t any people with disabilities who could really act and sing and be on t.v.!”
According to everyone associated with Glee, they didn’t mention that Artie was going to be a full-time wheelchair user (or, as the folks in most of the articles I’ve read put it, “wheelchair bound”) when they were casting for the show.
I wonder if any of their casting calls actually encouraged actors and singers with disabilities to apply, or if they just figured they didn’t need to do that type of recruitment to get actors with disabilities – used to being overlooked for any role that isn’t explicitly about disability – out. I guess I won’t know until they tell us, and that’s not the sort of question anyone in the press seems to want to ask.
Of course, as always, the fun is in the comment sections. On Thursday, melouhkia put a post up at Bitch magazine called Glee-ful Appropriation, about the issues she had with the episode. It was also mirrored at their Facebook Account.
Very first comment can be summed up as “Stop your whining.”
It seems to me if you’re going to have an issue with a non-disabled person playing the role of a disabled person, you cannot appreciate any level of acting because all acting is a lie. Maybe that’s why it’s called acting. Just sayin. So, you should also be up in arms about the actress who is portraying the pregnant teen because she’s not pregnant in real life, and likewise, you should also feel your feathers ruffled by the cheerleading coach because she’s not a coach in real life. See where I’m a-going with this?
Yes. Where you’re going with this is ignoring the real concerns about presentation, appropriation, and the lack of job opportunities for actors with disabilities on television so that you can tell us that our feathers are ruffled. It would probably be easier if you told melouhkia to not critique pop culture on a pop-culture criticism blog.
Oh wait, someone else did that for you.
I get that this is “responses to pop culture” and you can all have your moment of fit-throwing (I had one after seeing “Next to Normal” on Broadway). But so far your response hasn’t opened up any useful political space…it’s just tried to punish your political allies for not being as perfect as you are. So you know, go get your waders. You’ll need them when you start digging yourself out of this claptrap.
Which I read as “I’ll be your ally unless you start critiquing pop culture I actually like, and then you’ll be sorry, because I will stop supporting you.”
Other people may read it differently.
All of this, of course, is an awesome way of dismissing some very serious and real concerns about the way the show has chosen to portray disability. If you make the entire discussion about how those uppity people with disabilities should just shut up and stop complaining because their ideas are stupid and they should feel stupid, then of course it’s easy to dismiss them out of hand. And who needs to discuss nuances in the presentation of disability, anyway? Everyone knows that there’s no connection between how identifiable groups are portrayed on t.v. and how other people react to them, right?
In fact, I think the best way to sum up where my issue with McHale portraying Artie really comes into play is from this quote from McHale himself, from the NY Post’s interview with him after the episode aired:
PW: Which was more shocking Tina’s fake stutter or Artie’s reaction?
Kevin: Well, we kind of figured her stutter would go away, but we never know what to think on that show. So I’m going to say Artie’s reaction was more shocking. At first I couldn’t figure out why he was being so dramatic. But I really think Artie fell for Tina because they were set apart by their disabilities. They’re already kind of outcasts being in glee, but within that group they shared a connection. So he based their whole relationship on that and when it went away, Artie didn’t know what to do.
You know, Kevin, I can think of some very good reasons why people with disabilities might be angry at someone saying they’d been faking their disability for years. Maybe if you spent any time dealing with people assuming you were faking, accusing you of trying to “game the system”, telling you that you’re just a whiner for wanting extra time on an exam, or not been able to get into half the shops in your town because of “just one step”, you might get it a bit better.
Something that, had you even talked to someone with a disability about the issue, you might have understood.
I guess that’s why we call it acting.