The 2011 Person of the Year is an unorthodox choice for the editorial brain trust at NEW MOBILITY. Unlike in years past, this year’s honoree is not a person of great achievement and stature in the world of disability and disability rights. He has not led the charge to enact new laws or break down historic barriers. In fact, he’s not even out of high school. A traffic accident in his mom’s car when he was 8 years old left him paralyzed from the waist down, but that has not stopped this product of Anytown, USA, from dreaming and working and living the fullest possible life of an American teenager.
This year’s Person of the Year is an extraordinary young man named Artie Abrams.
Despite his disability, or perhaps motivated by it, 16-year-old Artie Abrams excels in so many areas. At McKinley High School in Ohio, he is an active member of the school glee club, a mainstay on the Academic Decathlon Team, and even suits up and plays for the state-champion football team, the McKinley Titans. He’s easy to spot on campus: He wears thick glasses and dresses like a retro nerd. He’s a pretty skillful guitarist, writes hip-hop poetry, falls in and out of love regularly, and is not afraid to speak up when he or anyone else is wronged. He has the confidence of the faculty and staff of McKinley and was recently asked to direct the glee club’s adaption of West Side Story. He aspires to be a theatrical director and is clearly on his way.
Everything, of course, is not rosy in Artie’s adolescent life. He is sensitive about his disability and often lets that distort his view of himself and others. Friends will tell you that he has a prickly, unpredictable personality. He is sweet one minute and defensive, even nasty, the next. He’s known for sexist comments like this one once directed at a full-bosomed friend, who recalls: “Artie asked if he could make an omelet with the enormous ostrich eggs I was smuggling in my bra.” Sometimes his emerging self-confidence turns to arrogance and he pushes others away with a cynical aside. Artie is fighting two battles — being an adolescent, period, and being an adolescent with a disability. You can imagine the drama.
There is only one big problem with Artie — he is not real. He’s a fictional character on the ground-breaking Fox TV show, Glee.
Artie is part of a fictional universe where diversity of all kinds is a given. In the glee club itself, there are pinup girls and girls with weight problems. There are blacks, whites, Asians and one Hispanic girl. There is a flamboyantly gay kid named Kurt who is harassed by bullies but beloved enough to be named the junior class prom queen. Outside the glee club, diversity also reigns. A member of the cheerleading team, the Cheerios, has Down syndrome. The football coach is a big, tough, take-no-prisoners woman. It’s a rainbow world at McKinley High and Artie is just one more screwed-up teenager trying to figure out who he is.
Artie Abrams is also the most popular and recognized character who uses a wheelchair in the history of American television. Now in its third season, Glee went from cult appeal to certifiable hit when its second season premiere drew nearly 18 million viewers worldwide. That same episode was the Fox Network’s highest-rated, scripted fall premiere among the youngest, most desirable of all demographic groups — viewers 18-49, viewers 18-34, and teenage viewers. With those kinds of primetime demos, Fox can charge more from advertisers who are desperate to get these age groups to buy their products. On Tuesdays at 8 p.m., no other show on television comes close to bringing kids and young adults to the party.
But the reach of the show surpasses just TV viewing. Glee is a music machine. Having recently hit the milestone of performing 300 musical numbers on air, the spinoff albums of these songs had sold 11 million units worldwide. Thirty-six million copies of Glee tunes have been digitally downloaded to iPods, iPhones, and all other MP3 devices. And who, overwhelmingly, downloads pop songs? It ain’t Aunt Sarah. It’s young people, starting well before they get to high school and join their own glee club.
As a way of connecting the Glee audience to their American Idol aspirations to sing and dance on TV, Glee executive producers Ryan Murphy and Dante Di Loreto created a spinoff show called The Glee Project. Aspiring amateur entrants from all over the country vie to be the one, or ones, who get to appear on the real Glee. It’s essentially a talent show that might provide Glee with another star. Meanwhile, the current stars, in their off time, perform in a concert series called Glee Live! In Concert! that played multiple dates in 2010 and 2011 from Las Vegas to Dublin. Again, who goes to pop concerts? Kids.
You get the picture: Glee is a pop-teen phenomenon, not to mention a big hit with their mothers and big sisters. And wheelchair-using, guitar-strumming, baritone-crooning Artie Abrams is right in the middle of it. To illustrate how much Artie is woven into the show, the ninth episode of season one, “Wheels,” revolves around Artie and his disability. The school can’t afford to rent an accessible bus to haul the glee club to sectional competition, meaning Artie will have to travel in a car with his mom. This doesn’t sit well with Will, the club director, so the group stages a bake sale to raise money while Artie licks his wounds. At one point, all alone on stage, he performs a solo of the Billy Idol hit, “Dancing With Myself.” Even if you think a lot of the music on Glee is thin soup, you’d be hard pressed not to react to this performance, especially if you were in a chair yourself.
In a sympathetic nod to Artie, the episode closes with every Gleester in a chair doing a choreographed performance of John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary.” Twisting and turning up and down ramps, none of the performers ever leaves their chair during the number. Again, nothing like this has ever been seen on a primetime drama. There are groups of real wheelchair users who regularly perform dance routines, pop and classic, but never in front of 7.35 million American TV viewers, along with 3.5 million others in Canada and the UK.
But Glee is just a TV show, right? Artie is not a real-life paragon of disability like Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox, or Stephen Hawking. He’s a passing fancy, a primetime distraction, easily forgotten in the wake of the next teenage fad. Which isn’t to say that fictional characters can’t have a profound influence. Willy Loman is just a made-up salesman. Tom Joad of The Grapes of Wrathis fictional too, but everyone who reads about the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s has Tom Joad in their head the whole time.