Tag Archives: glee

Representation: Actors With Disabilities Playing Characters With Disabilities

Here in the United States, the 2010/2011 television schedule is kicking off, and my mind naturally turns to representation for people with disabilities. I decided to compile a list of actors with disabilities playing characters with disabilities. This list is not necessarily complete; there are probably characters and shows I am forgetting about and unaware of, and it is entirely possible that actors with undisclosed disabilities are appearing in disabled roles.

One thing I note about this list is that these actors all share disabilities with their characters; we have, for example, Shoshannah Stern, a Deaf actress, playing a Deaf character.

And, although this list is in the US, fans of shows airing outside the US who want to add more representations, please do so!

Michael Patrick Thornton, who has a spinal cord injury, will be returning as Dr. Gabriel Fife on Shonda Rhimes’ show Private Practice. I’ve written about Dr. Fife here before, and I am looking forward to seeing more of him. Evidently he will be returning later in the season because he was working on a play when the first half was being shot.

Luke Zimmerman, an actor with Down Syndrome, will presumably be reappearing as Tom Bowman on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, an ABC Family drama. I haven’t caught very many episodes of this show so I can’t speak to how well the character is depicted, but I do not that Bowman is a sexual character and he appears to be a fairly complex character, rather than a one dimensional stereotype.

The Fox drama Lie To Me has hired Deaf actress Shoshannah Stern (whom I adore after her work on Jericho) for an unspecified number of episodes where she will be appearing as a graduate student assisting Dr. Lightman (Tim Roth) with research. Evidently, her presentation on the show revolves around concerns that because she is Deaf, she will have difficulty doing the work, but Dr. Lightman decides to hire her anyway. I think this storyline could either go really well, or really badly. I guess we’ll find out!

I think it’s safe to assume that both Lauren Potter and Robin Trocki will be reappearing on Glee. Lauren Potter as Becky Jackson has been spotted in some promotionals and an appearance has definitely been confirmed for the season opener. Robin Trocki, playing Jean Sylvester, will presumably show up at some point as well, undoubtedly in another ‘touching’ scene designed to humanise Sue Sylvester.

Long-running CBS hit CSI will be bringing back Robert David Hall as pathologist Al Robbins. One of the things I like about Robbins, although it has been a number of years since I watched CSI, is that he plays a character who happens to disabled, rather than a character who is all about his disability. His disability rarely comes up and while he walks with canes on the show, a big production isn’t made about his disability or  how he acquired it.

These representations span the map in terms of how well they depict disability. I think they pretty neatly illustrate that any representation is not necessarily a good representation. However, when you contrast them with roles where nondisabled actors are playing disabled characters, the picture changes; these depictions are fairly positive, while nondisabled actors in disabled roles are not so positive and in some cases heavily criticised for setting depictions of disability back. Clearly the cripface is a problem in these roles, but is that the only thing? Obviously, the writing of these characters is also a major issue, as is the research (or lack thereof) that goes into those roles, and it’s not always clear how much influence actors have on the writing of their characters; is it that shows using disabled actors put in a little more effort?

When we talk about pop culture at FWD, we tend to get a slew of trolling comments claiming that we don’t want to see disability on television at all or that we never want to see nondisabled actors in disabled roles. On the contrary, I want to see more disability on television, I just want it to be good depictions. Since the bulk of the good depictions are played by disabled actors, it begs the question: Can nondisabled actors appear in good depictions of disability, or are there inherent barriers that just make it impossible? Are there some depictions of disability played by nondisabled people that stand out in your mind as good depictions?

Recommended Reading for 14 April, 2010

Warning: Offsite links are not safe spaces. Articles and comments in the links may contain ableist, sexist, and other -ist language and ideas of varying intensity. Opinions expressed in the articles may not reflect the opinions held by the compiler of the post and links are provided as topics of interest and exploration only. I attempt to provide extra warnings for material like extreme violence/rape; however, your triggers/issues may vary, so please read with care.

A smiling Vietnamese woman pictured in a seated position in a doorway with her prosthetic leg standing up next to her. Her right arm is amputated at the hand and her left arm is amputated at the elbow. Behind her, two older adults are seated.
Huol Srey Von (21) is a multiple amputee who has lived with her grandparents since her family house collapsed last year. The Cambodia Trust provides her with prosthetic limbs to improve her mobility and to enable her to participate in community life. Photo: Simon Larbelestier (via Cambodia Trust on Flickr)

Adam Hetrick at Playbill: Next to Normal Creators Kitt and Yorkey React to Pulitzer Win

“We wanted to do something that would shake things up a bit. I saw a television report about ECT, about shock therapy, and I said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that still goes on.’ So I called up Tom and said, ‘What about a musical about a woman who suffers from depression and has to go through shock therapy?’ And Tom agreed, I don’t know why. But thank God he did!”

I haven’t seen this musical, and I’d be curious to get reports from readers who have. I want to be excited about representations of disability winning Pulitzers, but this quote does not exactly inspire confidence.

Steve Esack at The Morning Call: Ready, Willing, and Disabled

Cameron has reached the maximum schooling age for special education students, forcing them to leave the safety net that is the Bethlehem Area School District. His minimum-wage job will shift to another student. His family will have to navigate myriad social programs to help him find new employment that will allow him to keep the dignity he feels when he cashes his paychecks.

T. R. Xands at Adventures of the TV Addict, the Wannabe Writer, and the Should-Be Famous: I’m sure that attitude will get you everywhere

You think it’s pointless to talk to POC because you fuck up every time? Why were you expecting it to be easy? Why don’t you sit back and learn a spell before you become the great Crimson Advocate Avenger. Sometimes I don’t think I’ll ever get a hang of this disability & gender thing, and at night I often wonder to myself if I’ve accidentally said anything ableist today or if I could have stopped someone from doing likewise. Sometimes I think I’ve internalized homophobia or racism without even realizing it before. But the LAST thing I do is throw my hands up and get mad at the group I’m trying to learn from for not “teaching” me properly. They get enough shit, they don’t need my ignorant self roaming around looking for cookies and pamphlets; about as much as I need our plentiful campus feminist heroes sending me fliers to diversify their group.

Michelle Diament at Disability Scoop: Down Syndrome Takes Center Stage On Fox’s ‘Glee’

Disability Scoop: What do you think of the fact that Glee is including a character with Down syndrome?

Lauren Potter: I think it was a brilliant idea. It tells Americans that it’s really good to have a daughter or son who has Down syndrome.

C. L. Minou guest blogging at Feministe: We Are the Dead (content warning, discussions of sexual assault and murder)

Even though a trans woman, like many other women who have been assaulted, might long for an all-female environment to aid her recovery, there is no guarantee that she’ll be accepted there. And often no guarantee that anyone else will have her. Even in large cities, finding a trans-positive or even trans-accepting victim center is likely to be impossible. There is nowhere to turn for many trans victims of rape or assault, which is why the sexual assault numbers for trans women–high though they may be–are almost certainly drastically underreported.

Lisa at Happy Bodies: Portraying MS

In addition to being rather inaccurate to most people’s lived experiences of MS, I find the “expiration” language to be offensive. Things that are “expired” are dead, trash, not fit for consumption, over and finished with. Just because people with MS may have limited use of some parts of their bodies, or experience pain or other sensory phenomena in their extremities does not mean that their bodies have “expired”.

I’d like to end this roundup with a special shoutout to a Jezebel commenter, somedisaster, who wrote this really lovely paragraph in a comments thread in which ableist language was challenged:

The only reason words like “lame” and “retarded” function as insults is because people consider there something to be inherently bad about BEING “lame” or “retarded.” If they were really divorced from ableism, they wouldn’t work as insults, because they would be neutral words. You can’t claim a word is divorced from its offensive context when its offensive context is the sole reason it is used as an insult.

How about you? Have you been reading (or writing) anything of interest lately?

Glee: Poster Children for DisabilityFail

You saw last week’s Glee promotional poster, posted here by s. e. smith. In that poster, Sue the cheerleading coach sprays spray paint across the Glee club – hitting most of the singers in the chest or abdomen, but spraying Artie, who uses a wheelchair, across the eyes.

Here’s the latest:

glee poster with singers jumping for joy against a red background. Artie, instead of jumping, is falling out of his wheelchair.

Look at those singers! They’re so happy! They’re jumping for joy! They’re smiling! Life is good! Well, except for Puck, who chooses to stand with his arms crossed, looking cool. That’s his version of happy. And, oh, except for Artie. Who can’t jump, because, LOL, he’s totally confined to a wheelchair, y’see. So he’s falling out of his chair. Looking terrified. What fun!

Worst of all? Fox loved this branding so much – they made three versions.

Continue reading Glee: Poster Children for DisabilityFail

Pop Quiz: What’s Wrong With This Promotional Still For Glee?

The hiatus for Glee is almost over, and buzz is starting to build again. What better a way to build excitement than to release some promotional stills, right?

A promotional photo of the cast of Glee, photographed against a white cinderblock wall. Moving from left to right, the image has a sign reading 'Join Glee Club' attached to the wall, and then the characters Quinn, Puck, Mercedes, Tina, Finn, Rachel, Kurt, and Artie. Sue Sylvester is holding a can of red spray paint which she has just used to x out the sign and draw across the members of the Glee club. The line is at chest level on everyone but Artie, who is seated. The line goes across his eyes. Off to the side, Will, Terri, and Emma are standing with horrified expressions.

Found via kaninchenzero’s Tumblr.

ETA: Shortly after this post went live, I learned via access_fandom that Glee is being recognised with a ‘Television with a Conscience‘ award for its depiction of disability.

Glee: The Halfway Point: Wrap Up

This is part four and final of a multipart post on Glee. Previous posts included the introduction to the series, “Women and Race on Glee,” and “Disability and Sexuality on Glee.”

What we’re told about Glee, over and over, is that the show is critiquing these tropes by depicting them. That the show is confronting viewers with uncomfortable issues and raising important questions. The show even won a diversity award. Sue Sylvester, with her over-the-top prejudice, is touted as a character who is supposed to be read as bigoted and horrific; that’s what makes her funny! Because no one really thinks that way, right?

Critical response to Glee, especially after “Wheels,” the very special disability episode, tended towards the “inspiring” and “touching” line of thought. This despite the fact that many people of disabilities specifically spoke out to say that they were not impressed, were in fact deeply troubled, and had been since the show started airing. Critics say that the show is filled with lessons and very special experiences for viewers, but is it?

Is it really making social commentary when it seems to be tending more toward the reinforcement of commonly held stereotypes? The thing about a lot of the behaviours on Glee is that people still engage in them, and a lot of the beliefs depicted as “satire” are beliefs that people still hold. Glee isn’t that much different than anything else on television; rather than integrating characters from marginalized communities, the show is careful to keep them at arm’s length. They can’t be love interests, they can’t have plots interwoven with the show which arch over the entire season, they must have their very own special isolated and discrete episodes. They must be heavily stereotyped, defined by their otherness, and kept firmly in the background so that the nice white people can do their thing.

When you see the whole cast on screen, it’s like there’s an invisible line between the white able people, and Everyone Else. Is that really groundbreaking? Sure, the cast is more diverse than the casts of many shows. But having a diverse cast does not necessarily mean that a show is contributing to the breakdown of the kyriarchy.

What kind of messages are viewers really taking away from this show?

And where will Glee go from here? “Sectionals” neatly wrapped things up, allowing Will to defeat Sue, get the girl, and reclaim the glee club for his own. We’re presumably going to be seeing the characters preparing for regionals over the next half of the season, and we’ll see the Will-Terri-Emma triangle play out. Quinn will have her baby. See a theme here? The forward-looking all involves the white characters.

It seems highly likely that the troped depictions will continue, that the show will continue to rely on hipster -ism for humour, and that the show will continue to hide behind “satire” when in fact it’s not satire at all, or even particularly funny. Is it funny to depict an Indian-American with American flag stationary and paraphernalia, when in fact, after 11 September 2001, many Indian-Americans felt obligated to slather everything they owned with flags to prove their patriotism so that they would not be harassed by people who thought that anyone with brown skin was a terrorist? Is it funny to depict a wheelchair user being jammed into a toilet when, in fact, people with disabilities in school are routinely tormented and abused? Is it funny to depict a Jewish girl as a shrew when, in fact, the idea that Jewish women are shrewish is a commonly held stereotype?

Can Glee redeem itself? Has this whole season been a long and complicated setup? If it has, it’s actually extremely well done and very subtle. But it seems more likely that the writers actually just completely missed the implications of what they were doing.

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.

Glee: The Halfway Point: Women and Race on Glee

This is post two of four in a multipart series on Glee. The previous post was the introduction.

Glee‘s core message about women seems to be that they are all manipulative, evil, lying sneaks. The show includes not one but two deceptive pregnancy plots, interspersed with numerous depictions of women as nags, from Quinn pressuring Finn to get a job to pay for the baby to Terri trying to force Will into buying a house they cannot afford. The women of Glee are so troped that they almost seem like caricatures of themselves.

Among the teens in the show, we have Rachel, who takes care to mention her “two gay dads” and her Jewishness as often as possible, and who wants to be the star of everything. She gets her way most of the time, and when she doesn’t, she manipulates and maneuvers until she does. Rachel, of course, is in love with Finn; an ongoing theme in the show is that all of the men are awesome, with multiple male characters having multiple female characters pursuing them, despite the fact that they really aren’t very great catches.

We also have Quinn, one of the central characters of the piece. A young white Christian and member of the Cheerios cheerleading squad, Quinn is pregnant. For the first half of the season, we watch her lie and tell Finn he’s the father, because she’s decided that he would be a better parent, while indulging in a flirtation with Puck, the real father, who is depicted as boorish and irresponsible. The show even brings up a common sex and pregnancy myth about ejaculating in hot tubs, meant to be a dig at Finn for being too stupid to realize that Quinn is conning him. In the midseason finale, the truth is revealed, courtesy of Rachel, who tells Finn because she’s hoping to win his affections by unmasking his pregnant girlfriend.

Quinn had the potential to be a sympathetic character. We saw her standing up for herself and insisting that she be let back on the cheerleading squad after being booted for her pregnancy. We saw her being kicked out of her home by her conservative parents. We saw her struggling with the pregnancy and the decisions she had to make. But, in the end, Quinn feels like all the other female characters. She’s shown as manipulative, one dimensional, man-hungry, and catty, even if she has a softer side which comes out now and then.

Two of the teens are women of colour; Tina, who is Asian, and Mercedes, who is Black. Tina, whom we will discuss in detail a bit further on, is rarely seen, let alone allowed to speak. Mercedes is the caricature of the fat, sassy Black woman. Although she’s a very talented singer, we rarely get to see it. Both Tina and Mercedes turn solos over to Rachel on multiple occasions, underscoring the idea that women of colour should step aside for their white sisters. Both got a few Special Moments, but they haven’t been given nearly as much attention as the white women on the show. They are, in many ways, props, a theme which comes up with people in marginalized bodies on Glee over and over again.

The other people of colour we see on the show are Mike Chang, who is literally called the “Other Asian,” Ken Tanaka, Principal Figgins, and Matt Rutherford. These characters are kept primarily in the background, almost like set dressing; it’s interesting to note that we probably know more about the minor white characters, such as Brittany and Santana, than we do about the minor characters of colour. In all of the depictions of people of colour we see on Glee, there isn’t much that is new and original, that takes stereotypes on their head and turns them upside down, that really says much of anything at all. They are kept firmly in the background and to the side, with the show’s focus remaining fixed on the white characters.

Our Stories” is an excellent post by thedeadparrot which discusses the role of race on Glee from the perspective of a woman of colour; I would highly recommend reading it.

The adult women on Glee whom we see most often are Terri, Will’s wife; Emma, the school counselor; Sue Sylvester, Will’s archenemy; and Terri’s sister, Kendra. Kendra is seen primarily in the form of Terri’s accomplice, helping Terri fake a pregnancy, giving her tips on how to keep her man, and struggling with her obstreperous children.

Terri, Will’s wife, is introduced to us as manipulative, controlling, and schemey. We see scenes, for example, in which she buys a car to keep Will “occupied” so he won’t stray, nags at Will to get an extra job because she doesn’t want to pick up more hours at work, and gets a job at the school in order to keep an eye on Will.

Until shortly before the midseason finale, I thought the most egregious thing about Terri was that she was depicted as a stereotypical controlling harridan, and that she was faking a pregnancy. (I totally called “false pregnancy” from the pilot, incidentally.) But then, in “Mattress,” we saw a very disturbing scene in which Will finally learned that Terri was faking, and we had an abusive and frightening scene in the kitchen. I read it as domestic violence (trigger warning, link goes to a post discussing, graphically, the domestic violence scene in “Mattress”), as did a lot of social justice folks, and it explained a lot about her character.

Terri was the way she was because she was in an abusive relationship; I recognized a lot of her actions from previous episodes as outgrowths of coping mechanisms once I realized what was going on. If I had more faith in the Glee writers, I’d be going “her characterization is amazing and deep and complex,” but I don’t think that . I don’t think they meant for that scene to be read as abusive, and in fact I suspect that they want us to think of Terri as abusive. I believe that they want us to read her and her sister as conniving women who will stop at nothing to control Will. The nuance and ambiguity feel accidental to me.

Terri’s also fairly clearly mentally ill, although she has the TV sort of mental illness which is vague and unclear. Most heartbreaking moment in “Sectionals”? When Terri said she was getting counseling and trying to do some important work, and Will just shut her down and said “I hope that works out for you” while he walked out the door to capture the woman of his dreams. Ouch.

Emma’s another character with TV disability; she appears to have some sort of mental illness which involves “bizarre” habits. We as viewers are, I believe, supposed to think this is funny and possibly endearing. Anna noted that as the relationship between Will and Emma has deepened, her disordered behaviour has lessened, almost as though she’s being “cured” by the greatness of Will. And Emma troubles me, a lot, as a feminist. She has an unrequited love for Will which she subverts into a decision to marry Ken, but it’s clear that the marriage would be doomed if it happened, and she’s depicted as a vacillating, uncertain woman who only really blooms around the object of her affections.

In the midseason finale, we had Ken leaving her at the altar, and for a moment, Emma almost had her shining moment of glory. Will arrived after walking out on his wife, and basically said “ok, I’m ready, let’s do this,” and she struck out on her own and said “nope.” Choirs sang (not really). But then, scenes later, we have her and Will making out in the hallway. So…I guess that was shortlived resistance.

The depiction of mental illness on Glee with both Terri and Emma really upset me, and I know it troubled some other people as well. It played on a lot of stereotypes about mental illness and people with mental illness, and it also seemed to carry a subtle implication that most women are “crazy.”

Sue Sylvester, of course, is one of the most polarizing characters on Glee. She’s the one everyone keeps coming back to, the model bigot who is so outrageous that she’s obviously meant to be a satire and commentary on society. I mean, right? How could anyone really think that way? Well, newsflash, Glee writers, people do, and there are people who like her character because they agree with what she has to say, and what she does. There are also people who find her character comfortable because she allows them to engage in a little hipster -ism, laughing at bigotry and prejudice instead of being horrified by it.

Even the Glee writers seemed to feel like they were going too far, because they inserted the execrable “humanizing” plot with Sue and her institutionalized sister in “Wheels,” which was the Very Special Inspiration for Able People Episode. Amazingly, a lot of people lapped that entire episode up, including the scene with Sue, saying that it totally changed their perspective on her “tough, but fair” character.

Only, as I pointed out, being a bigot and having a disabled sister doesn’t excuse anything. It just means that you are a bigot with a disabled sister. I didn’t find that scene humanizing as much as I found it frustrating; we are now supposed to think better of Sue because she’s had it hard as the family member of someone with disabilities? Where have we heard that logic before?

Coming up next: “Disability and Sexuality on Glee.

Glee: The Halfway Point: The Introduction

This post contains spoilers through the Glee midseason finale, “Sectionals.” It also got really long, so I am breaking it up into multiple parts so that it will not be an impenetrable Wall of Text. This is part one of four!

Now that the midseason finale is officially over, we think it’s an appropriate time to write about where Glee is going, what it’s going to do when it gets there, and what we all think about it, since the show has attracted a great deal of attention in the disability community. Please note that the views/feelings discussed here do not necessarily reflect those of all FWD contributors, just mine (as always with posts which are not authored by “Staff”), and that comments will be tightly moderated. This is a place to talk about the problematic aspects of Glee, and we want to keep it a safe space for FWDers. There are lots of places on the Internet for Glee squee. This ain’t one of ’em.

One of the most common criticisms leveled against people who critique television is “relax, it’s just a television show.” This is frustrating and curious when it comes to Glee because many people are praising the show for “breaking boundaries” and “drawing attention to social issues.” Fans apparently want to have it both ways; they want to be able to defend the show on the grounds that it’s “just a television show” while patting themselves on the back for watching such a progressive, insightful, inspiring television series.

Critiquing television (and any media) is important. Thinking about the things that we engage with and the ways in which we internalize the values they depict is critical. We absorb messages from all the media we interact with, and we have an obligation to think about these messages. When it comes to Glee, some of the messages being depicted are extremely problematic. For all the song and dance, Glee is actually a very dark show, and it takes readers into some very dark places, even if they don’t necessarily recognize it.

Glee is a television show with a very particular type of humour, which involves referencing prejudices, stereotypes, and marginalizing tropes for humor. I refers to it as “hipster -ism,” inspired by Carmen Van Kerckhove’s discussion of hipster racism at Racialicious (more on hipster racism, hipster sexism, and hipster ableism). The idea behind it is that it’s supposed to be hip and funny because of course “no one really thinks that way.” Only, they do, that’s the thing, and that’s where hipster -ism falls short; it relies on an assumption which simply isn’t true, which is that racism, sexism, ableism, and other -isms don’t really exist any more.

What’s interesting about this kind of humour is that it tends to be leveraged in spaces which people think of as safe; with fellow white people, fellow hipsters, fellow able people, and so forth. This raises the question of whether or not it’s really all that funny. If jokes can only be told in a certain context because “some people might think they are offensive,” would that not seem to suggest that they are, in fact, offensive? Indeed, such humour seems to act in a very insular way; people are allowed to continue being racist, sexist, ableist, etc because they can hide behind the shield of “humour.”

If viewers don’t recognize that what they are seeing is troped and problematic, can they really be said to be viewing a critique or takedown of prejudice? Or is it more likely that they are nodding along with these tropes and having their values reinforced? The deleted comments on Glee posts over at this ain’t livin’, my personal website, would seem to suggest that the latter is the case.

“Get a sense of humour.” “Just settle down.” “Can’t you tell it’s supposed to be a joke?” These lines have been thrown over and over again at people who criticize Glee. Apparently, we just don’t get it, perhaps because we are all humourless feminists. It’s worth exploring why it is that shows like Glee are such a big hit, and why people are so resistant to examining their problematic aspects.

Numerous marginalized groups appear in Glee: women, people of colour, people with disabilities, and gays and lesbians. I’m going to examine the handling of each group over this series of posts and then speculate on where Glee might be taking us. There’s a lot of material for discussion here, so hopefully each post will be a jumping off point for a larger conversation.

Coming up next: “Women and Race on Glee.”

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.

A Few Relevant Posts on “Glee”

ETA: I’ll be adding links from the comments to the bottom of this page, so check back for more when you get a chance!

I know people are searching for our responses to the Very Special Disability Episode of Glee. I’ve got something going up Monday, but I wanted to highlight a few very good responses from other people to the episode, specifically people who are actually knowledgeable about the disabilities presented on the show. So, obviously no one actually associated with the show itself, because they seem pretty clueless.

From Wheelchair Dancer, who is an actual dancer in a wheelchair, Glee

And then there’s the sad fact of the “dancing;” the choreography sucks. The one potentially interesting move that McHale supposedly “does” is a cut — he wheelies on one rear wheel. The rest is notable only for the way that it shows that able-bodied, non-wheelchair-using folk really do think of chairs as bicycles you move with your arms. There’s absolutely no body-chair integration at all. They think of sitting in a chair as being only about not being able to move their legs (and in Artie’s case as being about having his hips and legs twisted to one side). That mistaken understanding leads to some very weird looking people in chairs. On chairs would be a better phrase for it. The fake paralysis of their legs somehow wends its way up their bodies so that they are really only able to push with their elbows (no wonder they have sore arms!).

It’s so interesting watching them try to dance. Push. Make a dance gesture. Push. And they are only able to muster up those little beginner pushes. You know the ones I mean? The frantic shoves at the wheel? They push, the wheel doesn’t respond; they don’t know how to ride a stroke and feel the momentum. This means that they basically either push the chairs around in formations (because they can’t dance and push) or keep the chair still and hurl their upper bodies and arms around. Hilarious. Explains the weak choreography, too. Understand how a disabled dancer moves with the chair, Mr. Woodlee, and you will be able to create something a little better than bad dance.

And Kaz (who you may recall wrote a fabulous guest post on asexuality), who has that stutter that Tina’s been faking to get out of basically everything, wrote Because incurable speech disorders just up and vanish all the time, don’t you know:

THIS IS THE PROBLEM. They “figured it would go away”. Because nearly every single fucking time a stutterer appears on TV (or in movies, or in books, or or or…), it just. Magically. Vanishes. They learn to accept themselves! Overcome their fear of XYZ! Face their deepseated trauma! BYO offensive stereotype! And poof, the stutter is gone!

I think the only good thing I can say about the development in Glee is that at least they spared me that. At least she was just *faking* it, at least it didn’t just do the impossible and spontaneously vanish.

Kaz also left a comment on my post about the idea you could get out of things with a stutter:

Sure, other schools may be different, but I really doubt that many of them will just say “okay, you don’t have to do this” to a stuttering student (particularly if they start stuttering just before the presentation, and I’d think that teachers would know developmental stuttering almost always develops between the ages of two and five or so, but – oh, right, I’m bringing *facts* into this. Mea culpa.

And, a few reaction posts from us, off this blog:

In case you missed it, here’s melouhkia’s review over at Bitch, Glee-ful Appropriation:

There were so many problems with the way this episode handled disability that it’s almost impossible to know where to start (truly, earlier drafts of this ballooned into thousands and thousands of words). It hit a number of major tropes for pretty much a hat trick of disability fail. We got “disability is inspiring,” “disability is a burden,” “appropriation of disability for a Very Special Learning Experience,” “faking disability,” and “see my sister has a disability so I’m not a bigot.”

Here’s the thing about tokenization, which is what this episode specialized in: It does nothing to advance the cause of people who live in marginalized bodies. Hiring an actress with Down’s Syndrome for a single throwaway guest role is not including actors with disabilities. Centering a disability plot around able bodied characters is not including people with disabilities. Continuing to use crip drag (and having the actor unabashedly say “this isn’t something I can fake”) is not including people with disabilities. Painting accessibility as a hardship, a burden, and “special treatment” is also not including people with disabilities.

And, this was my review, just a couple of hours after I saw it, Why Can’t I Make You Understand / You’re Having Delusions of Grandeur:

Three people faked having disabilities in this episode. (Well, I guess four if you count Kevin McHale, but let’s put that argument aside for a moment.)

Tina’s been faking her stutter all along, in order to get out of having to give a speech in the sixth grade.

People with stutters are routinely mocked and yelled at, told to get over it, and basically the subject of ridicule. And yes – people do think stutters are faking it for attention. But Glee, that “diversity” show, has presented stuttering as something that will get you left alone, and something easy to fake. For years.

This is the show that’s supposed to make people with disabilities feel empowered.

I have no doubt there are lots of reviews of this episode by people with disabilities. Please leave links in the comments! I haven’t had time to go looking for them, so I really want to read them.

ETA: From Matthew Smith: Wheelie Catholic wrote Glee Wheelchair Episode Not Gleeful

All I can say is that Glee is in a fine mess now. The real problem with this show, as with the rest of Hollywood, is that it keeps insisting on portraying an able bodied version of characters with disabilities. Writing an episode on sensitivity toward a character who doesn’t really have a disability to convince those of us who really have disabilities that the show is enlightened just isn’t going to work. Nor did the subplot of a girl with a stutter confessing she really doesn’t have a stutter help. It’s all very confusing and gave me a headache.

Here’s what I suggest. Since the show decided a sing-off was fair between two characters, why not bring in a wheelchair user to sing and dance against Artie?

ETA 2: Sarah points to her post: This Week’s Glee: Good, Bad, and Horrific:

Cheerleading coach villain Sue was “humanized” this week. And how was she humanized? Because we found out she has a sister with Down Syndrome. That’s right. Suddenly we’re supposed to see that she’s actually a good person because she’s nice to her disabled sister. (And she gave an opportunity to a girl with the same disability as her sister, and she donated money for wheelchair ramps which the school was legally obligated to provide in any case.) I find this absolutely disgusting, as it seems to indicate that characters with disabilities exist only to prove “background story” and “humanity” to the “normal characters.” They are, at best, plot devices, rather than true characters. I can’t believe some people are seeing this as a good way to include people with disabilities. And please, don’t expect disability rights advocates to pat this show on the head for hiring a few actors with disabilities in minor roles. Just because the show considered Down Syndrome harder to fake for the general public than paraplegia doesn’t mean it’s doing anything to expand opportunities for actors with disabilities. These two minor roles (which probably won’t even recur again, I would guess) don’t make up for the aforementioned crip drag, let alone for the ways in which people with disabilities are being used in this episode.

Via The Goldfish, Terri’s post My Hopes for Glee

First, disability simulation exercises usually lead to more pity than understanding (you can tell by the things people say when they are over–more about relief and feeling bad for people, rather than about empathy and feeling more like people with disabilities.) Secondly, having seen professional wheelchair dancers, the performance was kind of one-dimensional…

My daughter saw the show before the rest of us and her concern about wheelchair issues took a definite back seat to her anxiety about what was going to happen between the cheerleading coach and the young teen with Down syndrome.

[Terri also talks about her conversation with her son, who is an actor, about the crip-drag elements.]

Access Fandom is also doing a link-roundup, because Access Fandom is made of awesome. If you’re looking for fandom-related discussions about disability, I really recommend following Access Fandom. [This is totally influenced by the fact that Sasha Feather, Kaz, and Were Duck are amongst my very favourite people.]