The Fox channel’s hit show, Glee, follows a high school show choir and features a diverse cast of students ranging from gay to wheelchair user. The musical-comedy veers into satire, and at any time someone might just burst into song. Glee often deals with social issues, only with a soundtrack. But the show is edgy and a blast to watch, as it regularly skews stereotypes in rather non-PC fashion.
One of the characters, Artie, is a wheelchair-using nerd played by nondisabled actor Kevin McHale, a choice that prompted an outcry from disabled viewers last November. The show’s writers responded, creating a new character played by real life quad Zack Weinstein. The character, Sean, is a football player, recently injured, now a quad. In his debut episode, he’s only shown in bed.
The show’s diva, Rachel, who has tonsillitis, characteristically over-reacts to temporarily losing her voice, prompting her sometimes beau, Finn, to take her to meet Sean. She is dutifully “inspired,” and they sing a lovely song.
It turns out that New Mobility’s own Jeff Shannon, Doug Lathrop and Josie Byzek are “Gleeks” — geeks who like Glee. The three of them watched the episode featuring Zack and then met on Lathrop’s Facebook page to critique, condemn and praise the show. Below is their edited discussion.
Doug Lathrop’s Facebook Status the night of the episode: OK, that disability storyline sucked. I’d almost forgotten that we gimps exist only so the wretched hopelessness of our lives can remind each of you able-bodied people to appreciate what you have and not see yourselves as victims. Gee, thank you so very bloody much for that.
Seriously, this show should not attempt Very Special Episodes. Ever.
Jeff: Doug, I’m curious. Wouldn’t it be equally valid to say that the Sean character is setting a powerfully positive example while still sorting through the anguish of his new disability? Those were exactly the emotions I went through as a new quad, and yet this kid has already looked beyond football to other life. He represents the opposite of Million Dollar Baby, and he’s not depicted as pitiful or pitied by others. Do you really think this was a negative storyline? I wonder if the actor would agree. He’s on Glee, so obviously he’s an outward, hopeful, and positive quad. What’s the problem?
Josie: While we see a guy with a disability at the beginning of his journey, I think most viewers saw a pitiful guy who once had a future. If he’s not meant to evoke pity, why wasn’t he up in his chair? Why was he in bed? Maybe he’ll be recurring, and we can see him grow. And I’m not sure Glee is hopeful and positive. I kind of wonder if it’s not satire packaged in such a way that most Americans just clap their hands and sing along with it.
Jeff: Because he will be recurring (or so I’ve heard), I’m guessing the depiction will improve, and hopefully we’ll see him progress. My point is that it wasn’t entirely negative and was accurate in terms of the emotions that accompany a new SCI. Also, we need to remind ourselves that we do evoke pity in ABs, whether we like it or not, and that’s a valid thing to address dramatically.
Josie: Jeff, you have a much better opinion of TV writers than I do. If they’re any good, they’ll give that pity the same treatment they give other stupid stereotypical attitudes on the show.
Jeff: I agree, Josie! The pity could have been addressed as bogus, but that’s my point: It’s not a bogus perspective to ABs, who mostly think of us stereotypically. Most TV writers are hacks creating a product for the masses. But the “rules” of character arcs are to introduce characters at their highest or lowest, depending on what arc they’re going to take. If the pity in Glee is misplaced, it’s because there are no disabled writers on the show, or nobody with “our” perspective. Still, if the character is recurring, I’ll bet we’ll see this new quad in a different light that’s more acceptable.
What I find fascinating is that this Glee quad represents the opposite of what people complained about in Million Dollar Baby — he wants to live and has many reasons to — and yet it still offends.
Doug: As far as the quad character’s “arc” is concerned, he doesn’t actually have one until/unless he shows up again. If he does recur, and starts appearing in a better light, great — but introducing him as one of the entertainment world’s hoariest disability clichés (the plucky cripple who teaches the main character about life) wasn’t the best way to start.
This isn’t my idea — I got it from one of the comments on Television Without Pity — but you know what would have made this subplot work better for me? Take the quad out of the story entirely, and give his role to Artie, an established character who Rachel already knows and is friends with. Let him be the one to tell her how much he loved dancing as a kid, how devastated and suicidal he felt after being injured, how he then discovered that he had other things going for him, etc.
This would give Artie (who the writers have done precious little with) a big moment that deepens his character, while serving the same purpose of prompting Rachel to get over herself. And since he’s a series regular, with an arc of his own, we know we’ll be seeing him again and his character doesn’t simply exist to inspire everyone around him. Yes, I know, the actor doesn’t have a disability, but I’m already on record as not giving a damn about that, and within the reality of the show, it doesn’t matter, anyway.
Josie: Originally I didn’t care all that much either that the actor playing Artie was AB. But that’s only because I didn’t think anything real would come from complaining about it. For over 20 years now we’ve complained, and the most we’ve gotten are a few disabled characters here and there, and usually in waves of whatever the crip flavor of the day is. But this time the issue that actually broke into the mainstream was the issue we picked. Hate to get kumbaya on you, but I think society has changed to where our voices, while still faint and distorted, are being heard.
And I don’t want this show to get all serious on disability. I want them to skew the hell out of us, like they skew the hell out of everyone else. I just want the skewing to be accurate.
Jeff: If I’m wrong about the quad returning in later episodes, then the “bed-ridden” intro will definitely seem like a big mistake. Coming at this from a critic’s perspective (and that’s been my career for 25 years), my overall point is that troublesome material like MDB and this week’s Glee can be open to different layers of interpretation, and the disability angle is just one of those layers — it just happens to be the layer we’re most sensitive about. And it would be very interesting to find out what the quad actor thought of his role and his dialogue. Did he take offense? Was dialogue changed, and did he have any input?
“Skew the hell out of us” — I love it! That sounds like excellent strategy!
As other Gleeks know, the week after this episode aired we saw Artie’s girlfriend hand him a ream of new SCI research that got his hopes, once dormant, stirred up. Possibly as a result of this new turmoil, he declares he can’t dance with his girlfriend on stage from a wheelchair, which leads to a fantasy scene showing him leaping up from his chair and energetically performing to Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance.” The episode ends with Artie sadly singing “Dream a Little Dream for Me” while his girlfriend dances on stage with a nondisabled classmate. Jeff, Doug and Josie reconvened to discuss this episode as well.
In a nutshell, Jeff thought the episode was “more problematic than last week!” but otherwise OK. Josie and Doug wondered how the hell the show got away with the idea that wheelchair users can’t dance when there are such great dance companies as Axis and GIMP. All three wondered when they would show Artie in the hospital from a pressure sore given how screwy he sits in his chair. And Doug got the last word:
Doug: On the other hand, I think we need to keep in mind that this character is a high-school kid, not a full adult. In my high-school years I had plenty of ‘I wish I was normal’ moments, too, and I was born with my disability; I imagine that feeling is even more intense when you’re born nondisabled and are injured at 8 years old, like Artie was. Throw in the fact that he has a girlfriend he wants to impress, and his insecurity rings true to me. Hell, the fact that he has a girlfriend is a huge step forward in portrayals of people with disabilities on TV.