Glee: The Halfway Point: Disability and Sexuality On Glee

This is post three of four in a multipart series on Glee. Previous posts included the introduction to the series and “Women and Race 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.

Yum, irony.

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.

By 24 December, 2009.    media and pop culture, television  ,  


  1. A note on Santana; I believe an earlier episode referenced her having sex with Puck, so she’s more likely bisexual than lesbian. Given that context, I read the revelation of the relationship between Santana and Brittany as a typical homophobic attempt by the girls themselves to still present as straight.

    If they pull a Joss-Whedon style erasure of bisexuality – well, I guess that’s just one more thing to be annoyed about.

  2. Heather, you are absolutely correct! I should have mentioned that. I think it’s safe to say that she’s a teevee bisexual either way.

  3. I never saw Brittany & Santana as gay (or even bisexual) at all, but then again, I don’t specifically recall any moments referencing their involvement with each other except that “big reveal”. I kind of interpreted it as the kind of thing a lot of (especially young) women do in a “I kissed a girl and I liked it/hope my boyfriend don’t mind it” culture — make out with other girls/women only to attract men who, of course, imagine themselves as the main player in any “lesbian” fantasy. d

    I feel weird about Kurt. I love him, and there certainly are gay boys/men who are very feminine in nature (without identifying as female), but I think you’re right that his boyfriend-less status is not an accurate portrayal of being gay in high school these days. When I was in high school 8 years ago, out gay students were so few and far-between that we didn’t have a lot of chances to date (at least not people our own age — which is why so many gay men have their first sexual experience with someone much older). But these days, more and more kids are coming out in *middle school*, so by the time they get around to high school bf/gf drama age, they can participate in it themselves.

    Finn is pretty much my least favorite character, but I’m still voting for him to have a Big Reveal and fall in love with Kurt. 😉

    Re: the singer in the deaf choir: Do you mean the character wasn’t deaf, or the actor wasn’t? Based on Glee’s inability to have actual disabled folks play their disabled characters, I wouldn’t really have expected the deaf choir kids to be any different.

  4. Re: Santana and Brittany, weren’t they in the Celibacy Club? Because that adds an extra layer of nasty to their relationship, imo–they can still be members because lesbian sex isn’t ‘real’ sex.

    Or, I may be misremembering and they may not be in the Celibacy Club at all. Or maybe it was supposed to be taken as them being hypocrites.

  5. julian, good question, I should have made that clearer; the character was supposed to be Deaf, the actor was not. And in fact wrote a little deal about how “inspiring” it was to play a Deaf character; I think Anna found that and I should poke her and see if she can track it down again.

    You do raise an interesting point about Kurt’s sexuality, in that it’s not entirely unusual for a gay teen to not have a boyfriend in high school. And there is an implication that the high school is in a conservative area, which could potentially make it dangerous for Kurt to actually have a boyfriend (as opposed to just “acting gay” in a picture-perfect teevee portrayal of a gay character). And I want to hasten to note that being feminine and being gay is not the issue, here, for me, in how I read Kurt, although I wish that network television could find some other gay characters to play with because, of course, gay men express their sexuality and identity in a lot of ways. The problem for me is that he’s characterized like the girls in the show, and that seems to be pushing the “if you’re gay you’re really a girl” thing, which some people really do believe.

    calixti, I believe that Santana and Brittany were both in the celibacy club, as was Quinn. Funny that we only saw that in the first episode and nary a mention since! And it’s interesting that one of the lines from that scene was “all about the teasing, not about the pleasing,” or something along those lines, and it’s since been shown that all of the members of the celibacy club are sexually active.

  6. I understood perfectly what you were saying about Kurt’s “might as well be a girl” characterization. It’s just too often that discussions about how the media turns all gay men into an Kurt/Will’s friend on “Will & Grace”/Emmett (from QaF) heads down the road into, “Yeah, all the gay men I know are REAL men!”

    When, of course, Kurt is just as much of a “real man” as Puck or Finn. Some gay men (and some straight ones, if homophobia & misogyny doesn’t keep them from faking traditional masculinity) *are* like Kurt — but some are indistinguishable from straight men. The media just hasn’t gotten the memo yet.

    EXCEPT! I don’t know if any of you have watched “Trauma.” It’s your basic medical drama show, following a handful of EMTs. It’s really nothing interesting, with the exception of one of the male medics being gay — and he’s just like everyone else. There’s no “Will & Grace” feel to this character whatsoever. He’s just a dude who happens to be interested in other dudes.

    It’s honestly really sad how excited I was about that particular portrayal of teh gay. I can’t think of *one* other depiction of gay men that doesn’t turn them into drug/sex addicts or women.

  7. meloukhia, good point on the celibacy club not being mentioned again. In retrospect, it seems like it was only mentioned to show how hypocritical the ‘good girls’ are and give the producers a ‘look, we’re progressive! and EDGY! ooh!’ moment with Rachel’s speech. Ugh.

  8. Oh, great point about the character on Trauma, which I actually haven’t been keeping up with. I really like the way his character is done, immensely. (I also like that they managed to retain some of that starryeyed character that young gay men who have just moved to San Francisco tend to have.)

  9. I love that his partner’s homophobia is really fading, too, because I think in many instances that’s all homophobia is about — ignorance about what gay people are actually all about.

    I can’t remember any of the character’s names (except Rabbit, lmao), but in the last episode I saw, the partner invited the gay guy to his home to have Thanksgiving with his wife & kids. Aw, the sweetness.

    I don’t know anything about San Francisco, but there is certainly a starry-eyed thing when you finally come out and realize the world isn’t ending and you can be HAPPY. And that there are other gays in the world.

  10. A lot of very interesting ideas in the post and comments. This is somewhat OT, but Heather, you are so, so right about Joss Whedon’s erasure of bisexuality. That annoys me so much. Not that it’s any better to have characters who act like bisexual women just to attract heterosexual male attention, as Glee does. Because that’s totally the way it works, apparently. It’s not like there’s any social stigma about bisexuality or anything.

    With Kurt, I really think the show is conflating sexuality, gender identity, and being transgender in a lot of inaccurate ways. It’s one thing for Kurt to enjoy fashion and act otherwise “feminine.” But when he preferred to work with the girls when they did mashups, things got kind of dicey. Identifying as a gay man does not equal identifying as a woman.

    As for Artie’s sexuality, I do get the sense that some fans are shipping Artie/Tina (as suggested by “Wheels”), but the show hasn’t exactly called attention to that plotline. (We need to see the Puck/Finn/Rachel/Quinn/Kurt Love Pentagon instead, apparently.) I think there are some potentially interesting issues there, though I have zero confidence in the show’s ability to handle them in ways which are at all sensitive to disability rights thinking. It’s interesting that the Artie/Tina relationship was originally portrayed as a relationship between two PWD, but was revealed to actually be a PWD/normative-abled person relationship. Because these different relationships *definitely* take on different social meanings.

  11. 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.

    I disagree that this would be neat, because Becky’s tryout wasn’t better than any of the people Sue didn’t let on the team (and IIRC she was mean to all the other kids who had bad tryouts). It’s not treating Becky like anyone else for Sue to put her on the team when she wouldn’t put any of those other kids on the team.

    Although I agree that the scene with Brittany giving Becky money makes Becky seem dependent, I’m much more bothered by the fact that they didn’t just have Becky be a talented cheerleader. This goes perfectly with the portrayal of the deaf choir–people with disabilities can only succeed because someone else is trying to help them, or feeling sorry/emotionally moved.

    Additionally, it’s really fucked up that the show portrayed Sue’s sister as living in an institution*–I mean, not that no intellectually disabled people are in that situation, but I don’t think the show was trying to draw attention to the problem of institutionalization. It was portrayed as normal for her to be living there.

    *(I guess it wasn’t exactly an institution–maybe it was just the creepiest group home ever–but still. It really bothered me that Sue’s sister seemed to just be lying in bed waiting to be visited. If I went to visit someone in a group home, I’d expect to find them watching TV with the other residents, or eating dinner, or out on a trip. And I live in Ohio too, it’s not like some cutting-edge east coast thing for an intellectually disabled person to not be shut up in a room all the time. If Sue is so rich and loves her sister so much, why doesn’t she pay for a better group home?)

    Kurt is a good character but I feel sort of bitter about it–like, Ryan Murphy is gay, so of course he cares about developing the gay character well, but he sure doesn’t care about any other minority characters, because developing them might actual involve putting in effort, and having to consult people. Oh noes!

  12. With Kurt, I really think the show is conflating sexuality, gender identity, and being transgender in a lot of inaccurate ways. It’s one thing for Kurt to enjoy fashion and act otherwise “feminine.” But when he preferred to work with the girls when they did mashups, things got kind of dicey. Identifying as a gay man does not equal identifying as a woman.

    I don’t know that that was implying that Kurt actually identified AS a woman, just that he much preferred to work with his female peers than his male ones, which, can you blame him? But, full disclosure, Kurt is my favorite character on the show because he reminds me SO MUCH of one of my best friends since ninth grade. SO MUCH. The fashion sense. The hilarious-but-mean “oh my god did he actually just say that i am going to hell but i can’t stop laughing” sense of humor. The general sense of disdain for his peers. The being-friends-with-girls-exclusively. If he’d he did use the girls’ bathroom in our usual hangout spot (& he isn’t trans, he said the boys’ bathroom was just really gross). so… I guess I don’t have anything to contribute about Kurt, because he is the character that actually rings truest for me just because he reminds me SO MUCH of someone I actually know (& love). (I mentioned this to him and he told me he didn’t have a male partner on a group project till sophomore year of college)

    Except maybe – I don’t know that it’s that unusual for gay or even just non-gender-conforming boys – speaking here specifically of teenagers, that general age range – to wind up basically being “one of the girls” socially speaking, because straight teenage boys can be so awful in terms of… a lot of things, but especially if you’re not up to snuff in terms of standards of boy-ness. I definitely have one close heterosexual male friend who is far from a typical straight boy and, partly because of that, has no male close friends and never has (and he went to an all boys’ school all his life), and I’ve known other boys who were either gay or otherwise non-conforming who grew up much the same way.

    I guess I’m confused by the fact that you say you’re not upset by the fact that he’s characterized as effeminate (which I agree is not upsetting, though it would be nice to have some diversity on TV in terms of how gay men present themselves), but you are upset by the fact that he’s “characterized like the girls in the show.” I actually don’t really know what you mean by that, or why it would be a bad thing for him to be “closer,” in a sense, to the girls on the show than the boys on the show.

    I also am sort of confused by this:

    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?

    because the context of the reveal was Santana explaining that she was very much NOT in a real relationship with Puck – in other words, her relationships with Puck and Brittany are the same (just sex). I also don’t see how the two characters are putting on same-sex interest as an act to garner attention when they’ve been keeping the relationship a secret – I actually kind of liked that, because it was like, oh two girls are hooking up with each other just because they like hooking up with each other and it brings them pleasure, not to show off for boys.

    All the stuff about disability was spot-on, & I’m really enjoying this series! Sorry that I go on at length about two points I am confused over/disagreeing with while my commentary for all the plentiful spot-on stuff is entirely limited to “yes! what you said!”

  13. Isabel, the problem for me is not that Kurt is effeminate or even that he hangs out with girls. The problem is that the way his character is framed, the show seems to imply that being gay means that you secretly want to be a woman. Now, other people might read this differently, but in a lot of conversations I’ve had with other people about his character, other people seem to be picking up on this as well. Hanging out with girls and being more femmey does not necessarily mean that one identifies as/wants to be a woman, but there is an implication there. I hope that clarifies things a little. And I’m glad to hear that you find Kurt accessible, even if I don’t!

    As for Santana and Brittany’s relationship: Yes, my point exactly. It’s not a real relationship because it’s “just sex.” So far, that’s the only model of a same sex relationship we’ve seen on the show. I think it was actually Lauredhel who pointed out, after we watched that episode, that is was a bit troubling to see the only same sex relationship being portrayed as “just sex,” because, again, it carries implications. Those implications might not have been intended by the creators of the show, but they are there nonetheless.

    AWV, really good point about Sue’s sister; institutionalization was depicted as totally normal and expected in that episode. (Although Sue’s sister may have been in her room for reasons related to her disability, I’m not sure the show ever clarified there.) And that troubled me as well, especially in a Special Inspiring Episode all about how people with disabilities can be part of society.

    This goes perfectly with the portrayal of the deaf choir–people with disabilities can only succeed because someone else is trying to help them, or feeling sorry/emotionally moved.

    This is a really good point about how disability is handled overall on Glee. And you raise a good point there talking about how putting Becky on the squad is really rather patronizing. I framed that sentence awkwardly, in retrospect. It’s not “neat” at all for disabled characters to be patronized! (I think I had a thought there and lost it in all the edits.)

  14. This post has been included in a linkspam at access-fandom. Thank you for reccing us! 🙂

  15. It really disappointed me that Glee took a disability, like stuttering, and disposed of it for convenience, from what I saw, to give Tina more of a role in the show. Glee didn’t want someone who has a stutter/disfluency to be a ‘speaking’ character.

    I was so excited when I heard the buzz before “Wheels” happened that a stutterer/PWS was going to be featured on the show. What excited me the most was that it was a female stutterer. Only 1 in 4 stutterers are female, and I had only seen another female stutter on MTV’s True Life: I Stutter.

    When I read the piece about Jenna Ushkowitz researching stuttering, my feelings were that of “Good try but no cigar”. While the writers of Glee messed up how Tina’s stutter is approached, the actress who played her didn’t seem as a culprit.
    Until I saw this:

    Newsflash Jenna: People who stutter actually communicate with other human beings!