Tag Archives: actors with disabilities

Glee: “That’s why we call it dismissing legitimate concerns instead of acting”

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.

From Fancast: TV Controversies, Protesting the Protests:

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”.

Not according to the interview they had with PopEater:

‘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.

From the comments on Facebook:

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.

Where Are All the People With Disabilities?

Crossposted at this ain’t livin’.

I would like you to imagine that you are a film producer, or perhaps a television producer. You are making something, and you have decided that since an estimated 20% of the population consists of people with disabilities, that maybe there should be some people with disabilities in your finished piece. So, you decide to include them. And you do your due diligence; you consult disability activists, you educate yourself about how they should be portrayed, you make sure that their characters are fully integrated into the story, that they aren’t tokens.

This already makes you a standout in the world of film and television production, because, as a general rule, the portrayal of people with disabilities in film and television is atrocious. Some independent films might be better, but mainstream media, for the most part, tokenizes people with disabilities when it deigns to include them, and often manages to be extremely offensive about it.

Now, I would like you to imagine that you are a casting director preparing casting calls for this wonderful new work in which people with disabilities will be portrayed. You’re doing writeups of the characters for release to send out to agencies, or maybe you’re even preparing an open casting call.

Are you going to actively request that actors with disabilities try out for the roles? Or is that not important to you?

Judging from the current portrayal of disability on television, I’m going to bet that our fictional casting director is not going to actively pursue actors with disabilities to play disabled characters. Instead, they’re going to go for the crip face. I was going to draw an analogy here, and ask: If you were a casting director casting a Black character, would you solicit Black actors? Or would that not be important to you? Except that I see blackface continues to be alive and well, so, apparently, the answer again is no, it’s not important that Asian actors play Asian characters, that Black actors play Black characters, that male actors play male characters, that disabled actors play characters with disabilities.

This is annoying.

It’s annoying, for one thing, because I would like to see more people with disabilities on my screen, and because I would like to see them specifically played by actors with disabilities. But no, it’s too hard to find disabled actors. Or, they’re too hard to work with. When an actual actor with a disability is allowed onto a television set playing a disabled character, it’s played like someone’s being done a huge favour, and aren’t we inclusive and progressive, casting a disabled actor to play this part!

I can think of only a handful of disabled characters I like. One is Bonnie on Jericho, played by Shoshannah Stern. Bonnie is Deaf, as is Shoshannah. One of the things that’s interesting about her character is that when Shoshannah tried out for the role, Bonnie was not written as Deaf. Apparently her reading was liked so much that they changed the character. And they did a pretty good job; Bonnie is a fully realized character, her Deafness is not a token, and in fact it proves to be an asset at times.

Bonnie shows how it’s possible to integrate a disabled character into a piece without making a big production out of it, without making it feel forced and fake, without being disrespectful. Her Deafness isn’t framed as a terrible tragedy or a magical special gift from God, it’s just a fact. It’s great to see other characters signing with her, instead of forcing her to read lips all the time, although it’s kind of unfortunate that the DP apparently thought it would be a good idea to not show the hands half the time during signing scenes. It’s great to see Bonnie saying “I’m Deaf, not stupid,” reminding people that she can read lips and that, therefore, it’s not a good idea to talk trash about her because you think she can’t understand you. (Aside from the fact in general that you shouldn’t be talking trash about people even when you know they aren’t around to understand.)

Deafness is part of what makes Bonnie Bonnie, and considering that the character wasn’t supposed to be Deaf at the start, I think that’s a pretty great accomplishment.

But…one disabled character does not a revolution make. Why is it so difficult to add characters with disabilities into the world of film and television, and once they’re there, why is it still acceptable to use temporarily able bodied actors in crip face to play them, rather than, you know, seeking out disabled actors?

There are a lot of superbly talented actors with disabilities out there who do great work when they are allowed to do it. Some of them actually work more in roles for able-bodied characters, because that’s all that’s out there. Some of them might actually enjoy being able to portray disabled characters, were they given a chance.

I want to see people like me when I look at the television. It’s why I watch, to escape into a magical world that I think I might be able to inhabit. And it’s easier for me, as a viewer, to place myself in that world when I see people like me. I think a lot of people feel like this. There’s a distance involved when you can’t connect with any of the characters, experientally.

And when the only people who are like me are introduced as tokens, figures for mockery or abuse, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me not want to watch, because if I want to be tokenized, all I have to do is walk out the door.