Under the influence of our 14 year old, dance-crazed neighbor I’ve watched Glee from the beginning. (Under her influence I’ve also watched every episode of So You Think You Can Dance for the past three years.)
On first watch of Glee I was impressed with how exaggerated and over the top the show was. It also had irony and a bite—a send-up rather than a satire. The characters are hyper-stereotypes. representing some of the more visible high school cliques, in particular, jocks, cheerleaders, and the glee club members (who are at the bottom of the high school pecking order.) The plot is almost always unbelievable yet based on our painful perceptions of high school, which is part of the fun.
For awhile I was confused about the role of the wheelchair-using glee club member, Artie. Even though the role is played by a non-disabled actor it’s still good to see disability represented in an integrated setting. Generally, his disability goes unmentioned. He almost always has a role, even if diminished, in the dance numbers. There have been a couple of episodes that have dealt with both the school’s and the club’s need for access and his inclusion in the performances. One episode had all of the members of the club using wheelchairs for a number.
Unfortunately, it’s become clear to me that disability is the show’s sacred cow. In addition to the wheelchair user who appears in almost all episodes there are two more disabled characters, Sue Sylvester’s intellectually disabled sister and a cheerleader who is also has an intellectual disability. Thankfully they are played by people with Down’s Syndrome and not non-disabled actors. These intellectually disabled characters have been used to show that Sue Sylvester, the Machiavellian coach of the cheerleaders and the villain of the show, has a soft spot—a heart if you will. Analyzing the role of the disabled characters from an insider/outsider perspective it becomes clear that there has been no insider perspective even though the show has done a moderately successful job exploring issues of race and sexual orientation.
The environment for the show is high school from the point of view of social outsiders, i.e. geeks, nerds. (The fans of the show are proud to be known as Gleeks.) It’s that basic authenticity that makes the show interesting and gives it emotional resonance for those of us who felt excluded and diminished by our high school experiences. Unfortunately when the plot tries to deal with the exclusion of disabled people it goes astray. It’s the imagined, rather than actual, needs and dilemmas of disabled students. Perhaps, the writers and producers, who must have been social outsiders in high school, think that just because they know exclusion they know the issues of disabled students. Everyone portrayed from an ironic viewpoint, except for disabled people. They and their struggles are all played most earnestly.
Then the May 11 show had a disabled actor playing a disabled character. It was another, supposedly warm and fuzzy moment to help the show’s prima donna gain some humility. The scenes were particularly cloying and lacked any edge or insight. And finally the May 18 show was particularly egregious. It went way over the line for me. They recreated what to me is one of the worst ever disability movie scenes—Tom Cruise painfully trying to walk and then falling in Born on the 4th of July. The basic premise was Artie dreaming of being able to dance. In what turned out to be a fantasy sequence Artie stood up, walked away from his wheelchair (the supposed dream of all of us wheelchair users), and then fell face first.
So, I continue to hold my nose at the disability scenes and enjoy the rest for what it is. I must say, seeing the club perform M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” in the school library was particularly fun.
A version of this piece was first published in the Disability and Humanities listserv,