Glee: The Halfway Point: Disability and Sexuality On Glee
Before I begin, I would like to highly recommend access_fandom’s representation linkspams on Glee, which have links to numerous writings on Glee from a variety of perspectives. I wanted to link to individual posts within my discussions, but there are so many that I could not choose. This is an ongoing conversation and there’s a lot going on.
The depiction of people with disabilities on Glee has been a central point of discussion here and elsewhere on the Internet, and there’s a lot to explore, from the controversy over whether or not disabled characters should be played by disabled actors to the handling of disability on Glee.
One of the main characters in the ensemble is Artie, a wheelchair user disabled in a car accident, played by Kevin McHale, an able actor. We’ve discussed the problematic aspects of Artie’s depiction before; the fact that he’s obviously not comfortable with a chair, the stiff choreography, that other characters push him around like a prop, that he is (of course) a Good Cripple who does things like donating money raised for accessible transport to building ramps at the school. Anna’s criticized the use of crip drag, and the fact that the Glee producers apparently didn’t look very hard for a wheelchair user who can sing and dance; the excuse for casting an able actor was that they “couldn’t find” a wheelchair user who met the specs, but I find that hard to believe.
Especially since Kevin McHale can’t dance in a wheelchair. If they wanted Kevin McHale, why not just make him an able character? If they wanted a wheelchair user specifically, why not seek out a singing and dancing wheelchair user? They do, after all, exist. It would seem more that Artie was written in as an afterthought to score some Diversity Points.
The fact that Glee went on to act like wheelchair choreography was some novel, new thing with “Wheels” was, quite frankly, offensive. They specifically hired a wheelchair using stunt double to do the tricky stunts in that episode (while implying that McHale did everything), which suggests that they were aware, on some level, of the fact that people perform in wheelchairs. But they didn’t seek out a choreographer who is accustomed to working with them, or seek out people who are comfortable with chairs.
“Wheels” also, of course, featured the disability simulation as very special learning experience plot (warning for comments), in which all of the able characters learned how hard it is to be disabled by using some very nice wheelchairs for a few hours a day. For a week. Disability-as-tragedy, something to be overcome, etc. This was the thing that so many viewers and reviewers found “inspiring” and “empowering” even as some people with disabilities were quietly throwing their Cheerios against the wall while watching this episode.
Tina is one of the most problematic characters on the show. Initially introduced as “the Asian girl with a stutter,” she was pretty much kept in the background until we got to “Wheels” and the big reveal: Tina’s been faking her stutter. The reason? It made things “easier” for her. Which pretty much goes against the experience of actual stutterers. Her stutter, of course, was not very believable, although the actress claimed to have done “research” into stuttering because she “didn’t want to ever make it like I was making fun of the stutter.”
Artie, who thought that he had common ground with Tina, rejects her once he finds out that she’s been faking. Keven McHale expressed confusion in his interview about Artie’s motivations for this. I think this goes to illustrate the profound disconnect between the writers and cast of Glee and actual people with disabilities. Had they perhaps consulted someone they might have been able to depict disability much more honestly, even if the disabled characters weren’t played by disabled actors. Instead, the writers and cast went with their perceptions of disability and how disability works. This type of thing tends to lead to fail.
Glee did use one person with disabilities to play a disabled character. Becky, a character with Down Syndrome, was played by Lauren Potter. She showed up in one episode, “Wheels.” She tries out for the Cheerios and gets a spot on the squad, something which Will suspects is a secret plot on Sue’s part, but of course this episode also features the revelation of Sue’s sister, so the implication seems to be that Sue gives Becky a chance because she wants to treat her like anyone else, and give her the experience of being a cheerleader. Which might actually be kind of neat.
Except that the two scenes in which we really see Becky involve her wanting a cupcake and being unable to afford one, with an able character loaning her money for it (why not have Becky loaning someone money for a cupcake? Why does she need to be dependent here?), and Becky grinning and saying “thanks coach!” after a grueling session with Sue. One could read that line two ways. Either Becky is saying “thanks for treating me like you would any cheerleader, instead of coddling me because of my disability,” or the writers are saying “look at the developmentally disabled character who is too dumb to realize that she’s being mistreated.” I leave it up to the reader to determine which interpretation was intended.
The Deaf choir, introduced at first as a running joke, burst into full flower with “Hairography,” in which we were finally invited to see the Deaf choir when they visited the glee club members and performed. Except that the masterful performance? That “inspiring” and “emotional moment”? It consisted of wooden choreography (apparently you can’t Sign and move at the same time) and the glee kids interrupting to make it all better with “real” singing. Some people read this as a “coming together and bridging divides” moment, I read it as “the Deaf kids are doing it wrong let’s rescue them.” And, as a reader on this ain’t livin’ pointed out, this episode wasn’t even captioned in all of Fox’s markets.
The Deaf choir’s head, of course, is a hearing impaired man who doesn’t know he’s hearing impaired, and isn’t it just hilarious that he can’t hear people, doesn’t hear his phone ringing, doesn’t understand conversations, etc? We got to see him for a moment in “Sectionals” when they broadcast the audience reaction to the Deaf choir…without showing the Deaf choir.
Did I mention that the main singer in the Deaf choir is not, in fact, Deaf?
My thoughts on sexuality on Glee are actually pretty brief, although I definitely think there’s more avenue for exploration here. I’m sorry to keep it so short; it’s not because I think it’s unimportant, but because otherwise this would turn into a five part series. But by all means expand upon it in the comments!
Sexuality on this show is primarily centered around the white and able characters, especially what with Quinn’s pregnancy and all, but it is worth noting that the show references disabled sexuality, without allowing it to happen. There’s Artie’s “I still have full use of my penis” line in “Wheels” and an awkward scene in which Artie and Tina, both in wheelchairs, kiss. One has to credit the show for illustrating that people with disabilities can and do have sex, if they want to (and are also raped at rates which some sources estimate are as much of twice that of the able community, which I suspect is something that the show will not be bringing up). It would be nice to see Glee taking that further and allowing Artie (or Becky, assuming she returns) to be a love interest. As several critics have pointed out, though, how many fans are shipping Artie/anyone? Are viewers ready for disabled sexuality?
Speaking of sex, Glee also has a small gay and lesbian contingent. There’s Kurt, who is striking as a gay male primarily because the show seems to be pushing the gay=secret girl trope by having Kurt behave exactly like the girls on the show. He is, of course, not allowed to have an actual boyfriend, because gay sexuality is something that mainstream television is not ready to allow to happen. The most interesting thing about him is probably his relationship with his father, an auto mechanic who seems largely accepting of Kurt’s sexuality, even when he’s getting nasty crank calls from members of the community about it.
Brittany and Santana are the show’s Obligatory Titillating Lesbians. Some sort of relationship between the two was obliquely referenced throughout the first half of the season, and in “Sectionals,” the cat is let out of the bag. Who wants to bet that we will see them kissing before Kurt gets a boyfriend? And who else was unnerved by the way the revelation went, which seemed to suggest that lesbians can’t be in “real” relationships because they’re all gay and stuff?
Coming up next: The wrap-up.