The Largest Minority Round Table Discussion: Glee and Disability in Pop Culture
Last week s.e. smith and several other members of the disability community, including Alice Sheppard (a dancer with AXIS wheelchair dance company), TK Small (a lawyer and disability rights activist), Christine Bruno (who works with the advocacy group Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts), and Maysoon Zayidd (an actor and comedienne with Cerebral Palsy).
came together on the WBAI show The Largest Minority to discuss Glee and depictions of disability in popular culture. This particular episode of the radio show was inspired by s.e.’s post, A Very Glee Christmas.
You can download directly from their site: This is a direct download link to save-as. Alternately, you can play it on the WBAI site by going to their archives and scrolling down to Shared Timeslot Wednesday 10pm to 11pm on Wednesday, December 22, 2010 10:00 pm. Alternately, you can read the transcript.
The actual show itself doesn’t start until 3:52 in to the program slot.
It’s taken me a while to get the transcript of this done, for which I apologize. I did mean to get this up far faster than I did. I also should note that I had some difficulties always identifying who was speaking, and there are points in the program where the show’s audio cuts out terribly and I’m unsure what they’re saying.
Starts at around 3:52 on the download
Announcer: Good evening, Babylon. Welcome to the Largest Minority, WBAI’s program focusing on the news and views of people living with disabilities. Our aim is to increase communication within our community, and to facilitate understanding with society above labels and beyond classifications. Largest Minority airs right after [?] computer show at 9pm on the Second and Fourth Wednesdays of each month, alternating with the Joy of Resistance, Multicultural Feminist Radio. And we like to think of it since this is the season as WBAI’s Island of Misfit Toys. And today, stranded with me on the island is Attorney TK Small in studio and we have, rockin’ the board tonight, our friend Sydney Smith.
For tonight’s show we are going to have a round table discussion with Lawrence Carter Long and a number of different activists and actors and media personailities, talking about the popular television show Glee. Which… and it’s somewhat controversial and also in some ways typical misrepresentation of the disability experience and people with disbailities as well as other minoiryt demographics.
TK Small (TK): I should throw in… this is TK Small by the way. I should throw in that the inspiriation, or the idea behind this segment about Glee related to a very powerful blog that I read that talked about the Christmas Episode where there was reference to Tiny Tim, curing disability and all that, and that’s how the segment around Glee came about.
Announcer: And, we just want to… the discussion, as you’ll hear, will unfold, but there are a number of different ways, I mean personally, I like to think of it as one of the reasons people with disabilities don’t get invited to your fun type of parties is because we may have some sort of a reputation of being a bit of a downer and taking the joy out of things and so we want to dedicate tonight’s show before Christmas to doing exactly that with everybody’s favourite t.v. show, Glee. In fact, TK and I were going to try and ruin everybody’s Christmas by doing an a capella version of, I don’t know if it was going to be Holly Jolly Christmas or Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree but we decided to show you all a little bit of mercy. But before we go into that, we wanted… I wanted to point out another friend of ours, who’s actually part of one of the successful clips of our previous show’s discussion of the life of Laura Hershey on her Facebook Page she made a comment about the use of term “lame duck” to discuss the outgoing 111th congree and wndering whether that was somehow denigrating–
TK: Congress or people with disabilities? [laugh]
Announcer: Right, exactly, that’s just the thing, but I wanted to point out for those of you who maybe want to think a little bit differently about the concept of “lame duck” or “disabled waterfowl” in general – differently abled waterfowl in general – that the news is full of the fact that this is a unprecedented successful and effective congress and among other things we should..I think it is most appropriate that one of the most popular songs is “Donning our Gay Apparel” because your Gay Apparel may include a combat helmet, and you can go into battle for the United States army, navy, marines, as well as the coast guard.
TK: I wonder if I would have to tell them that I’m disabled.
Announcer: Yes. I don’t think you do, I think you could just sneak right in.
TK: They don’t have the same rules of people with disabilities?
TK: I can hide my wheelchair while I go into the TIme’s Square recruiting station.
Announcer: We don’t generally– We do not ask, and we rarely tell on this show when someone has a disability. That’s one of the calls we get —
TK: That is an illegal question when you go for a job interview. Your employer is not supposed to ask any questions.
Announcer: Hmm. That’s interesting.
TK: Although as an attorney I used to get that all the time when I was applying for jobs. You’d think that the legal firm would know not to ask that question but apparently not.
Announcer: [laugh] Well, in any event, we wanted to make a point of that… that sometimes the disabled waterfowl can be quite effective and just to note the historic passage of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In any event, it is now 9:08, about to be 9:09, and now its time for the news headlines.
[I have not transcribed the news headlines.]
Announcer: And we’re back listening to the Largest Minority on WBAI. And, on tonight’s show, as promised before, we’re going to have a round table discussion about the popular television show Glee, which features, among other people, a character portrayed by an able-bodied actor who is in a wheelchair. In the most recent show which re-aired again last night, he has a Christmas wish granted by gaining one of these new apparatuses which enables him to stand up and walk, and it’s portrayed as kind of a Christmas miracle and it’s extraordinarily patronizing and a lot of people with disabilities found it extremely irritating, including people on our panel.
TK: And if anybody walks up to me on the street and says I should get an exoskeleton and make me walk, I’ll kill them.
Announcer: Well, you’ll have to get a killer exoskeleton first and you know what? Someday they’re going to make it. [TK laughs] And so without further ado, our own Lawrence Carter Long is leading this discussion, and here it is.
[Music – theme song. I’m afraid my hearing problems have come back and I can’t hear it clear enough to transcribe it which is unfortunate because I think it sounds awesome, but I don’t want to get the words all wrong.]
Lawrence Carter Long (LCL): And you’re listening to the largest minority on 99.5 WBAI and on the internet at WBAI.org. I’m Lawrence Carter Long and we’re here talking today about everbody’s show that they love to hate within the disability community, Glee. With TK Small.
TK: Lawrence, it’s good to have you back.
LCL: It’s good to be back. You know, nobody thought when the pilot episode of Glee premiered back in May of 2009 that the series would become the phenomena it is now. Glee features on-screen performace based numbers which are selected by Ryan Murphy, who gained previous success with the show Nip/Tuck, and aims to maintain balance on the show between show tunes and charted hits. The music with Glee has been a commerical success with over 13 million digital singles sales and 5 million album sales. The series merchandise also includes DVD and BlueRay releases, a Young Adult book series, an iPad appilication, and a Kareoke game for the Wii. During it’s first season Glee received generally favourable reactions from the critics with Metacritics weighted average based on the average rating of 18 critical reviews at 77%. The season was nominated for 19 Emmy awards, 4 Golden Globe awards, 6 Satellite awards and 57 other awards that we won’t get into, with wins in the 2010 Golden Globe award for best t.v. show, musical or comedy, and Emmy awards for Lynch, guest start Neil Patrick Harris, and Murphy’s direction fo the pilot episode. The second season has been nominated for 5 golden globes, including best tv series in comedy as well as a number of nominations for cast members.
But the feel good show is not without its critics, particularly from the disability community. While media reports in such high profile outlets as People Magazine and US Magazine and trade publications like Hollywood Reporter and Variety have centered on the casting of Kevin McHale as paraplegic wheelchair-using Artie, deeper criticisms regarding plot, tone and representation have received minimal coverage in comparison.
With us today on the Largest Minority we have s.e. smith, who is a feminist and a disability rights activists based in Northern California, who rights for the This Ain’t Livin’ blog, and FWD in the Jewish Daily.
s.e. smith (SE): I am, and I should quickly correct you. I do not write for the Jewish Daily FWD, I write for a feminist website also called FWD.
LCL: Feminist website FWD! Thank you for correcting me.
SE: It’s a very common confusion.
LCL: And also with us is Alice Sheppard who is a Dancer with AXIS Dance company based in Northern California. She’s also a disability advocate. Welcome Alice.
Alice Shepard (AS): Hey Lawrence, it’s good to be here.
LCL: We also have Christine Bruno who’s a Disability Advocate, a actor and director, and works for the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. Welcome Christine.
Christine Bruno (CB): Hello.
LCL: And fresh from the Keith Olbermann show, the co-creator of Arabs Gone Wild [OPENS WITH SOUND], going on tour again, January 20th, starting in NYC to 8 different cities, Maysoon Zayidd. Hello Maysoon.
Maysoon Zayid (MZ): Hello, Lawrence and TK.
LCL: So. Glee! Let’s talk a little bit about the casting side. Everbody wants to talk about the casting first. What’s the problem with casting a non-disabled guy to play a wheelchair user. Come on, it’s acting! Isn’t that what acting’s about?
CB: How long do we have?
SE: Well, I think you have a situation where you have someone who does not have the lived experience of having a spinal cord injury playing it and it’s very obvious to anyone who has such an injurty or knows people who do that he’s playing it very badly.
LCL: So we’ve got some wheelchair users, and we’ve got some disability advocates. What do you mean by “playing it badly”? How do you play disability badly? I mean, all you gotta do is sit in a chair, right?
AS: If it were only that easy. There’s an understanding of embodiment that’s just not physical in McHale’s portrayal of Artie, and for me, what I see is a huge gap between the body and the chair. He doesn’t even understand how to push that thing. There’s a kind of sweet roll that those of us who use manual wheelchairs can find and use and McHale is always shown shoving and pushing. There’s no rhythm, there’s no feel, there’s no understanding of the chair as part of his body.
LCL: Alice, you know of which you speak because you use a chair and you’re a dancer.
AS: I do.
LCL: You tour professionally, you’re a working dancer. In terms of their choreography none of it really shows the kind of work that you’ve done.
AS: That’s right. The choreography shows Artie just sort of waving his arms, bending a body, behding a head. There’s no integration. And the sad thing about it is that McHale is a beautiful dancer, he’s a really gorgeous mover and, you know, he just can’t make it work in the chair.
LCL: Maysoon, you wanted to add something?
MZ: I just I feel like there’s a couple of different problems with the casting of Artie. One is that, as an actor in the disabled community trying to do my own script, which I wrote, I can’t even get directors to screen test me in my own role as a character with cerebral palsy. As I go from producer to producer, director to director, they do not want to give disabled actors a chance to play disabled parts. Not to mention non-disabled roles. So my first problem with Artie is that I simply do not believe that Ryan Murphy exhausted all options in finding a singer who could sing and dance miraculously and gorgeously, that he couldn’t heal. And I think they intentionally chose an able-bodied actor so they could get him out of the chair to sing and dance whenever they wanted. There’s a problem in Hollywood, there’s a problem in television, that is disabled actors are not given a chance to play neutral roles, and we’re also not given a chance to play our own roles, and we think that only someone mimicing it can win an Oscar. I have Cerebral Palsy. I think Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal in My Left Foot was absolutely disgusting. So what we see and what the other people see are not the same thing. And when Kevin McHale commented “why can he play gay”, it’s not the same thing. Anyone can play gay, but I can’t play Oprah because I’m white. And he should not be–
LCL: So there’s a certain physicality that comes from playing a disabled character that more often than not people get wrong. Now, Christine, why don’t you talk about this. The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. What the Alliance does is help casting directrs, teleivison shows, movie production companies, cast disabled actors. And you work as a sort of go-between between the industry and the working professionals. What is it that you see within the Alliance that shows this problem or illustrates this problem.
CB: Well, basically, I was just gonna say exactly what Maysoon said, we have to start there. There are disabled actors who can play that role, first of all, first and foremost. Alice is absolutely right. The portrayal is faulty at best. I’m trying to be diplomatic. We are on radio.
LCL: You don’t have to be diplomatic with us.
CB: So, Alice is right, but before we even go to the portrayal of a non-disabled actor playing that role let’s go where Maysoon just did and there are actors who can play those roles. In my role as a disability advocate we see this every day all day. We get calls for actors, disabled actors, specifically to play disabled roles. We next to never get calls for disabled actors to play non-disabled characters. Sometimes it happens if a disabled actor goes in a “wows” a producer just in general and they say “We have a part we think you would be great for” and it doesn’t matter that they have a disability but that’s very few and far between.
LCL: Let’s talk about… play devil’s advocate for a bit because some criticisms I’ve seen around Glee have been met with basically the statement “They have a character named Becky who has Down Syndrome, who’s part of the cheer-leading squad. So what about Becky?” And in addition to Becky, in May 2010, Zack Weinstein guest-starred on Laryngitis where he basically was there helping Rachel, who had lost her voice. He was there to serve as the inspiration for Rachel and to help her accept her lot in life. So they have hired disabled actors. What’s wrong with that?
SE: And totally … And totally troped stereotypical roles that pretty much evoke every hateful stereotype about people with disabilities imaginable. I mean, the episode with Zach Weinstein we see him lying in a hopsital bed wearing his football jersey longing for everything he’s lost. He’s just there literally as a prop in an inspirational narrative to make non-disabled viewers feel better about how they think about disability.
CB: And I also think, you know, just to jump ahead for a second. First of all let me address really quickly about the point you’ve made about they’ve hired disabled– They have hired some disabled actors. I mean, at the rirsk of again not being diplomatic it’s true that there’s really two disabilities that can’t be portrayed by other than the people who live those disbailities. One is a little person, and the other is usually a person with Down Syndrome, and there are very distinct physical reasons for that. I mean, can they absolutely not be portrayed, I don’t know. Maybe they could in Avatar Land.
LCL: But again you’re taking jobs away from disabled actors.
CB: That’s right. That’s right. But the other thing is the issue that I wanted to address. I’m sorry, your name is s.e. on the phone, is that right?
CB: I think that Glee, unfortunately, casting aside, has missed so many opportunities to, for lack of a better word “right the wrong” of casting a non-disabled actor as a disabled character. They could have done so many things with story-lines that they have chosen, knowingly now, not to do. Because they have been put on notice from the disability community, from the Disabled Arts community, from the unions, that while the casting is said and done and there’s nothing we can do about that we’d like to see the ortrayl and the representation of disabled people and the lived experience of disability be more accurate and authentic.
AS: Can I just speak for a second to the audition for the Cheerios that the character Becky gets? This strikes me as possibly being emblematic. There’s a way in which Becky… we don’t actually find out if Becky can or cannot do what the Cheerios require. She’s given the part, or at leat a place on the team because it looks like Lynch takes care of her or feels sympathy for her or uses the fact that she cannot appear to do that, or is made to seem that she can’t do that, so it’s a sort of pity gag in the audition on the show, and it makes me wonder, what did that mean in the actual audition and casting process?
LCL: And I’ve seen people with Down Syndrome who are on cheerleading squads. Anyone can do a search on YouTube and you can find that sort of thing. One of the things that I think that some peole have brought up in criticizing the disability community is “Well, she refuses to coddle her”, right? She sort of has her there and she kind of, you know, doesn’t treat her differently, but the down side of that is she’s not doing the basic things that most of the squad is doing. It creates this dilemma on how to portray disability in a way that emphasies both honesty and accuracy over sentimentality and false messages, and I think that’s what you’re getting with the Becky character.
MZ: Can I also just interject before I leave, because I have to run, unfortunately, even though that’s difficult for me to physically do. I also feel like growing up in the states watching movies as a child was really traumatic for me, because I was always watching characters who were either healed or pathetic, and Glee is continuing that saga of either the character has to be pathetic with the one goal in life, finding anyone so charitable as to love them, because no one can love someone who’s disabled unless they also heal them. Or, watching people who couldn’t walk on screen suddenly in heels strolling down the red carpet. Glee is definitely trying to bill itself as a show for the youth and it’s yet another place where people look and go “Oh, I guess I can’t become an actor. I guess I can’t do anything. Maybe if I was just Downs they’d give me a chance.”
LCL: So the sense here–
MZ: I’m a comedian by the way, sorry.
LCL: So when we talk about the Artie character, on Dream On. Let’s talk a bit about specific episodes. We’ve got the major plot line in Dream On, where Artie begins doing research on new treatment and he starts to get hopeful that one day yes, he’ll be able to be able to be quote unquote “a real dancer”, that he’ll get out of the chair and dnace around. This suggests a theme of empowerment, that people with obstacles should not be deterred from their ambitions, yadda yadda, but the guidance counsellor tells Artie that his hopes of walking again are unrealistic and he should plan on talking to her on a regular basis and it sort of focuses. So the message that it seems to me that this sends to disabled viewers is not that there are real disabled dancers, using chairs aside, but because of one’s disabilities, your dreams are impossible.
TK: And Lawrence, it might be helpful for our listeners to explain that Alice, sitting righ tnext to you, is practically having a conipution fit as you describe this.
LCL: I thought that was part of her condition [laughter]
SE: I’m not in the studio but if I was you would see me having a small conipution fit myself. I thought the message of that episode was people who use chairs A) never get out of chairs, part time wheelchair users are never acknowledged as existing ever, and b) can never hope to do anything. That’s, like, a huge slap in the face to the disabled dance community to be told that wheelchair users can’t dance in that episode. I mean…
AS: Truly, absolutely. And the thing that really really catches me is one move, the one thing that really could… Aaron Fotheringham is the disabled stunt artist and he pulls that awesome one rear-wheel wheely. I mean, the irony of hiring a disabled stunt artist to actually execute the role of a non-disabled actor. It bites. It just… bites.
LCL: So adding insult to injury.
AS: It did.
LCL: By hiring somebody who can actually pull the move off play the stunt double when it came time to film the episode.
SE: And if you saw any of the press for Wheels, the producers were acting like they had invented this super cool new thing called “Wheelchair Dancing”.
CB: Yes they were.
CB: I mean, they didn’t even look. Not only did they not have a wheelchair dance consultant on the set. Those articles came out, I remember there was one in the Daily News that was sort of framed in this “ha ha, isn’t this sort of funny that we all thought this was going to be easy and simple and then when we tried to wheel up on the ramps in the set we fell over and hit our heads.” [Here’s an example in the NY Post]
LCL: You’re talking about the other cast members in the show.
CB: Yes, the other cast members in the show. In an effort to, and I’m using little quote marks with my fingers in the studio, in an effort to “identify” with Artie’s “plight” as it were, they thought they would stick themselves in wheelchairs and try to dance. But, you know, I want to bring up something that I have heard in my role as disability advocate in the Alliance, the pushback, from the producers, and the creative team on Glee is that, “Okay. So now here we are, we’ve created this diverse group of Gleeclub members, one of whom includes is a character with a disability. You complain complain complain that you don’t see any characters with disabilities on t.v. here now, we’ve given you one, and you’re still complaining.” And let me point out that they’ve won a diversity waward for Glee. So–
LCL: Who gave them that diversity award? Come on, let’s call ’em out. They gave them award.
CB: I’m not going there.
LCL: They get the criticism.
SE: I’m hitting the internet, I gotta tell ya. The other thing, speaking of the so-called diversity of the show, (while looking this up very quickly) if you look at the other cast members you have [?] Mercedes– [this gets really disjointed in the recording. se mentions the fat activist community] what is going on with Lauren Zizes, you have stutters who are furious about the decision to fake Tina’s stutter, and the gay community is not that stoked on Kurt’s storyline either.
LCL: So this is not restricted to the disability community in general.
CB: Except I have heard good things about the portrayal of the gay narrative. I’ve heard good things about it, only because that’s the one that’s the most well-rounded at the moment.
SE: It’s the most well-played and I think it’s because Ryan Murphy and Chris Colfer have that experience. The award came from the Multi-Cultural Motion Picture Association. I also note it’s been recognized by a Television with a Conscious award, which– some of us disagree on, and that would be from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
LCL: So, I think, it points out one of the problems that we get into in doing criticism or having honest criticism of a show like Glee is when people push back, they’ll say, “Hey, wait a minute!” and try and ignore these criticisms that are more in depth about these questionable areas of depiciton and try and reduce the conversation to “you’re just mad they didn’t used disabled actors” instead of really engaging in what advocates are saying and what the people doing those critiques are saying.
SE: Well, it gets back to “any representation is good representation!” complaint, and I think most members of minority groups say “No, the tropes and stereotypical representation is harmful.” And most of the messages that Glee sends about disabilities are actively damaging to the disability community, whether there are disabled or non-disabled actors.
CB: Yes, and that’s sort of the point I was making. Yes, from our point of view, and from the disabled actor point of view, and the disabled person’s point of view, they made a mistake by casting Kevin McHale. From our point of view, but they cold be taking active steps to use these as teaching moments, and really portraying the lived experience as it exists, even with Kevin McHale in the role, if they hired consultants, if they had scripts that were… the accurate portrayal of what we live with everyday. I could live with that a little more than this continuing of the myths and assumptions and perceptions of people with disabilities, and how we live.
LCL: And let’s talk about the common threads within those misconceptions. One of the common misconceptions that get played out over and over and over again on Glee is that Artie seems to be focused on walking agian. He’s only going to be happy if he walks again, and they has been shown now on a third episode, even so far as having a dream sequence where he does get out of the wheelchair and is dancing around with himself [YouTube link to live performance by McHale]. I mean, those things we see over and over again, and again on the Christmas episode which sparked this converastion. He gets the ability to use this machine that costs million of dollars and is not going to be available to anybody, this exoskelton which affords him the ability to wlak again, which he does. [?]
[?] The whole Christopher Reeve thing.
AS: [These whole section is completely incomprehensible to me. What I caught out of it was about Tina and Artie breaking up, something to do with Mike Chang, and then his girlfriend giving him the ability to walk] a kind of emasculation in the protrayal of disability there.
SE: [Something else incomprehensible] The implication is that everybody’s mocking Brittney for being stupid for believing in Santa Claus and her perceived stupidity is a kind of a running joke in the series which definitely makes me uncomfortable in the “dumb blonde stereotype”, that only Brittney would be stupid enough to think that Santa could give him the ability to walk again.
LCL: And it’s played again as comedy. So, as the show that positions itself, and the producers have certainly done this time and time again when the critisims have been brought out, as a quote unquote “progressive show” with a message, and we’ve talked about how that’s not really the case with any of the characters, and I like to get into that a little bit. Why is it perceived as a progressive show? If it’s a show that depicts minorities through a majority lens – I mean, we’ve got non-disabled actors and writers handling a disabled characters, we’ve got white folks writing for Black and Asian folks. Maybe the exception to this rule is Kurt, Ryan Murphy’s alter-ego, why do you think that most people, despite these criticisms, have continued to laud it or applaud it as a progressive show?
SE: Because it’s the majority that gets to decide whether or not it’s progressive. If you compare reviews of Wheels, which got a lot of press, you see a lot of non-disabled people praising the show for sensitive, honest depiction of disability that shows you what it’s like, and you saw a huge swath of the disability community going “Um… no”.
SE: So, I feel like the dominant majority is– those are the people writing the pressers and giving out the awards and getting to decide what is progressive or not, and it’s notable that a show written and performed through a majority lens, so it’s nice and safe and comfortable for progressives, is [unclear].
LCL: So i’s a safe kind of portrayal, it’s a cookie-cutter form of progressive, it’s something that allows the viewers and the writers and producers feel better about themselves.
CB: That’s right.
TK: As a disbaility rights activists that does not come from the right side of this issue, that’s what I find so insidious about this type of program, because where the vast majority of able-bodied people get their understanding of disability is through this stupid show.
CB That’s right.
LCL: If it’s reinforcing or reiterating the kind of non-sense people already believe, we’re not going to get beyond that.
TK: Which further leads to “it’s better to be dead than to be disabled“, and forces people to make horrific terrible decisions, like going to somebody like Kevorkian for physician-assisted suicide, because the idea of being disabled is just too scary.
AS: And we’re right back at Million Dollar Baby.
CB: That’s what saddens me and perpelexes me so much about this particular show. I thnk TK is right. It’s really insidious because of its position right now in the American vocabulary and how popular it is. It has so much opportunity to do so much good for so many under-represented groups. And you know what? Audiences are smart. They’ll swallow what you give them if its believable. I blame the producers for taking cheap shots and being lazy. Lazy lazy lazy.
LCL: I think most producers probably are lazy. You don’t see a lot of new things coming out of network t.v.; that’s my own critique. Maybe sometimes on cable. There’s Breaking Bad.
SE: Or Friday Night Lights, yes.
LCL: In terms of their portrayal of disability. I would wonder, why do you think that those push backs on, you know, the disability centered critiques have been done on Glee. s.e., I know when we were communicating about the show and doing this program, you said that you received rape threats, death threats, and all sorts of things for critiquing the show and actually writing about it on the blog, people calling you r#tard and all sorts of things. What do you think, and what do others here think, is so scary about people with disabilities challenging the depictions of us in pop culture and mass media?
SE: We’re making the narrative messy. I have had a piece on Glee go up at the Guardian over the summer, and that’s where probably the majority of the rape threats came from; they’re very friendly over there in the comments I must say. What I found is that people have a very simplistic, sacchrine view of disability that Glee reinforces for them, and things get really complicated when you start talking about things like, say, wheelchair users who dance and actually don’t spend every waking moment wishing they could walk again. It deconstructs the narrative to find out that we’re individuals who experience our disability differently. Some of us may hate them, some of us may love them, and people don’t like having their views of minorities complicated that way.
LCL: That;s more nuanced, that takes a lot more work as an audience. You can’t just sit by and passively watch the show, you might actually have to think about it.
SE: You have to engage with it.
LCL: I just wanted to, before we go a little bit further, I just need to say you’re listening to a very special edition of the Largest Minority radio show, on WBAI. I did say that with a wink and a nod just so everybody knows.
AS: Thank you, Lawrence, I’ve always wanted to be special.
CB: I am special.
SE: Where’s Tiny Tim, that’s what I want to know.
LCL: That’s actually not very far, let’s talk about the Christmas episode. It’s actually not very far from Tiny Tim, is it?
SE: No it is not.
AS: Not being fully aware of all of the American traditions, can somebody just remind me of that movie, is it Miracle on 34th Street–
CB: Which, Tiny Tim?
AS: No, the t.v. movie that plays every year around the holiday season about miracles and the Christmas season.
CB: You mean all of them?
AS: Yes, all of them, oh, It’s a Wonderful Life, that one!
SE: There’s a lot of telvision about that.
AS: And so the thing that really gets me about the Very Special Christmas Episode is this is directly in that tradition. It’s a direct continuation of Christian narrative about sin, illness, miracles, disabilities, healing and cure. It’s that holiday time, we’re right there. I can’t believe they went there, and they did.
LCL: So, right with your eggnog and your fruit cake, you get a cure narrative.
AS: You don’t get a cure narrative, you get… it’s very interesting to me that they don’t heal him, they don’t cure him, they just make him walk. It’s flying a very careful edge, I want to be careful and say it’s not a cure narrative, it’s miraculous.
CB: It’s a miracle.
LCL: So we get the Christmas miracle.
AS: But we don’t get the cure.
SE: And note that the preson who is rewarded in this narrative is the believer, which is a very old Judeo-Christian concept. Everbody mocks the person who believes and in the end she is redeemed for her faith.
LCL: So let me ask you this. We’ve gone around and I want to make sure that everyone, if they have burning questions or burning comments about the show, but I would ask, first, as a contrast, what are some of the things that you’ve either seen, or would like to see, regarding depictions of disablity that we haven’t quite seen yet. What are the options, what are the alternatives, to the kind of things that we’re seeing on Glee that we’re pushing back against and we’d like to see alternatives to?
CB: Lawrence, I just want to say one thing about, it speaks to that, but I’m not giving an example. In July, I participated in a day-long conference with the unions, with AFTRA and SAG, called Lights Camera Access.
LCL: Tell people what AFTRA is.
CB: Oh, it’s the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. I participated in a day long conference with AFRTA and SAG.
LCL: And this was in Hollywood.
CB: This was in Hollywood at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
LCL: The folks who do the Oscars.
CB: Yes, the Emmys, I think. And Glee, the producers of Glee, Ryan Murphy et al, were invited to the table as one of the panels was “best practices”, so we had representatives there from Breaking Bad, and —
LCL: Breaking Bad showed up, Brothers showed up.
CB: I mean, it was amazing, and basically they were talking about their experience in making television with disabled characters and disabled story lines–
LCL: And you even had people from Family Guy.
CB: Yeah, Family Guy showed up.
LCL: So if the cartoon cahracters can join–
CB: Yeah, we did.
SE: And Seth McFarlane is not known for progressiveness.
LCL: Right, but he was willing to have the conversation which says something about him in relation to the producers of Glee.
CB: Right, yes, and it was a very conscious decision on the organizer’s part to ask Ryan Murphy and the other producers of Glee to come to the table. And they chose not to. I don’t know if there was any response or if they just ignored the request but that to me is very telling. That to me tells me that there is something they’re not doing that they know they should be doing that other people are doing successfully. There is no denying that Breaking Bad is incredibly successful and the way that they’ve handled the storyline with RJ Mitte is amazing because it’s understated and it just is part of the fabric of the show.
LCL: Right, so rather that have a converastion with people who know something about the topic, and can have a focused discussin about the issue and take it a step further it seems they might be more inclined sticking with people who don’t know anything about these issues and enforcing the narrative–
CB: That’s right. And we’re tired of preaching to the converted. I mean, we’re all sitting here, all of us here are sitting in the room talking about these things that we talk to each other about all day every day. It would have been nice to have someone like Ryan Murphy sharing practices that those people, like the Breaking Bad people, sharing their best practices with those who could learn something. But, it didn’t happen.
TK: We need to know where he goes to get coffee and just dog him with scripts and ideas and real gimps doing real things.
LCL: Hey, we can sing, we can dance.
SE: I would note too that Glee has actively thumbed its nose at critics. The embedded meta commentary that you see in various episodes, and especially from Mercedes, tends to be kind of the voice of that, but I mean they’ve basically out and out insulted the disability community with some of the lines in the episodes that are basically, I think there’s one eisode where Mercedes basically says “Oh, tee hee, I’m not suposed to do that, am I, because it’s not PC.”
LCL: Oh, right, she was talking about her, and something, she was talking about Artie and she used Handi-Capable or something like that.
CB? AS?: Ha.
SE: So Glee is obviously hearing us, they just don’t care.
LCL: They’ll do the meta-narrative inside the show, critiquing us, but without us actually being at the table. That whole handicapable is bizarre to me because it sounds like a kitchen utensil. It slices, it dices, it makes fries, but it doesn’t really describe us, the real humans tied in to the issues we’re talking about. So, what would you like to see? What is something that you’ve seen? it is the Christmas season, what would you like to see, on a high note, or what have you seen, and what would you like to see more of? Is there enough out there?
SE: More depictions of disability where it’s not the central focus of the character. I mean, I think you have.. oddly enough, and if everbody here watches Private Practice because I think Doctor Fife is a great example of a character who happens to be disabled.
CB: Yes he is.
LCL: There was another character who was back on ER who did a similar thing, back when ER was on.
LCL: The woman who was post-polio.
CB: Oh yeah, Dawn. That was short-lived. There’s another one and it just went out of my head.
SE: Bonnie on Jerico, played by Shoshannah Stern, is another great character, she actually– she auditioned for a non-disabled role and they liked her so much that they brought her on and made the character deaf, which I thought was so awesome.
LCL: CSI with Robert Davis Boel’s character, who is always there. I know shows like Weeds had Linda Bovine as the social worker, and Shosanna in the first season. Basically it’s not described or gone into details about her disability at all, just showing them.
AS: Or even the Private Practice guy.
CB: Yeah, she just said– Oh, she can’t hear. Alice doesn’t have headphones so she didn’t hear what you just said.
LCL: We said Family Guy earlier, what about South Park? Can you do edgy and do disability?
TK: Edgy is good.
LCL: Edgy is good, we can do edgy.
SE: Edgy is good, especially when it’s coming from disabled people who are owning their own experiences.
LCL: I think we saw that even in Family Guy when we had the character with Down Syndrome who was portrayed by a young woman who actually has Down Syndrome. There have bene these steps taken throughout the industry but we haven’t seen shows with the profile or notoriety of Glee taking something on board.
SE: I think something else I would lik to see, Glee’s handling of mental illness is absolutely deplorable. For the most part pop culture depictions of mental illness makes me actually want to throw things at the television.
SE: It is so very rarely done at all well, and pretty much every stereotype you can possibly imagine about people with mental ilness being dangerous and scary and sexually promiscuousness and every thing just get thrrown at us,and very rarely do I see out, proud, capable mentally ill characters.
CB: I will say one thing abot the United States of Tara, which is on Showtime, oh I don’t know if anybody has seen this show, but it is about a woman who has DID and they are very proactive. They are proactive in their marketing of really protraying mental illness in an authentic way. They have on their website a lot of information about DID and where people can go to find infomraiton and they have a consultant on the show as a regular employee, all of the time, so I think if you’re going to talk about mental illness you really have to do right, and I think the’re a show doing their due diligence.
SE: I think Six Feet Under, when it was airing, had some really rocky patches wit mental illness, but at other times the depictions were very honest and real, especially, I’m re-watching it right now. In the third season there’s a storyline with Vanessa having depression that I think was done really really well.
LCL: We’ve gotta wrap it up now. Are there any final thoughts you want people going away with, either thinking feeling or doing regarding Glee and Disability on t.v.?
CB: Don’t watch.
LCL: SE, why don’t we start with you first.
SE: Oh gosh. You know, honestly, the outcome I would like from Glee… I would like to talk to Ryan Murphy personally about what he’s doing, and I’d really like him to come to the table with members of the disability community to have serious conversation with representatives of the disabled actors, disabled dancers, to talk about how damaging Glee is and how to fix it. I mean, the show is still airing. It got a renewal for another season. There is time to turn this bus of sadness around.
LCL: That’s your Christmas wish, we’ll sit down with SE and Ryan Murphy. We’ll have TK moderate. Alice?
AS: I want them in the audience for one AXIS show, and then I want their minds completey opened. Short of that, we have to keep watching as a community, we have to keep talking and writing and calling and sharing and pressing because that’s the way change happens.
LCL: So, it’s a popular show, don’t give up on it.
AS: Keep up the fight.
CB: I’d like to see them really meet with some disabled actors and really entertain the thought of casting disabled actors and just listening to the lived experience of what it’s like to be an actor with disability, with other people in the room so at least if they’re not going to cast disabled actors, whatever, they’re doing what they do right.
LCL: So we can do something with a disabled characters so they’re not just stuck in a box the entire episode.
CB: That’s right, change the narrative, please.
LCL: Alright. This is Lawrence Carter Long, TK Small.
TK: I’m really impressed with the conversation we’ve had here. What I’ve taken away from this is there’s important work being done. It may not be possible to fix Glee, but I do believe through advocacy and script writing, and the ideas of performers with disabilities taking on ownership of the craft and the art, and the presentation itself, that positive things will come out of it.
LCL: Thank you, and I think that’s what we’re all hoping to achieve here.
By Anna 31 December, 2010. disability activism, how to be accessible, identity, invisibility, justice, media and pop culture, mental health, movies, normality, othering, politics, race, representations, social attitudes, television