Oh Glee…

07 Jan

“Glee” is without a doubt one of the most popular new series on television this fall, their four nominations for the Golden Globe award is testimony to their popularity (Cidoni). The show centers on the glee club at McKinley High School and is punctuated by musical numbers. The hour long weekly series is primarily a comedy but it does attempt to tackle tough issues such as sexuality and teen pregnancy in its own unique way. In the episode entitled “Wheels” the show attempts to deal with issues of diversity and disability. With an estimated twenty percent of America’s population living with some type of disability, a storyline dealing with the issues of disability is particularly relevant and overlooked in the entertainment industry (Horwitz). So like many I applaud the creators and producers of “Glee” for the inclusion of a disability story line; but my question then becomes did the show do more harm than good?

In the “Wheels” episode the principal informs Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison), the glee club director that the school cannot afford a handicap accessible bus for the glee club’s trip to sectionals. Mr. Schuester is outraged by the possibility that all the students would not be able to partake in the bonding experience of riding to sectionals together. However, the members of the glee club do not share the same sentiments as Mr. Schuester and care very little about Artie (Kevin McHale) not being able to join them on the bus ride. The students resist Mr. Schuester’s suggestion of a fundraiser to raise money to rent a handicap-accessible bus for sectionals, instead they suggest that Artie’s father should take him to sectionals since his father takes him everywhere else. The club as a whole disregards Artie’s feelings of wanting to be included with the team, taking for granted their able-bodied privilege that allows them to travel together as a team. In typical “Glee” fashion Artie’s emotion is displayed through song; the musical number “Dancin’ with Myself” is an attempt to show Artie’s feelings of loneliness from not only his teammates but also his invisibility to the opposite sex due to his disability. In effort to create empathy within the glee club, Mr. Schuester decides to make the glee club host a bake sale to raise money for the bus. In addition, he decides that for a week the glee club members would have to use wheelchairs for 3 hours a day and also perform a routine using a wheelchair.  This would allow the members to experience firsthand the difficulties that Artie experiences every day.  The noble thought behind this idea resists this being compared to black face, rather it is reminiscent of John Howard Griffin‘s work, Black Like Me. In the book Griffin, a white man disguises himself as a black man in order to see the realities of segregation in the 1960’s. Despite the noble intention of the act Mr. Schuester is making a spectacle out of wheelchair users. He is portraying the notion that all you need is three hours a day to know what it is really like to [be a] paraplegic. The students like Griffin have a choice and can easy revert back to what society deems as normal and would not have to face the issues that accompany disability or race. A couple of hours a day does not do justice to those who spend their entire life in a wheel chair. The students were able to lose this identity as a handicap person in an instant, Artie is not.

The intention of the episode was to celebrate diversity, but in reality it celebrated able-bodied privilege. It championed able-bodied privilege under the guise of diversity, while also promoting the ability to fake [a] disability. In three separate incidents the able-bodied characters used manipulated the appearance and performance of disability for their advantage. The first incident occurred when the character Noah “Puck” Puckerman (Mark Salling), laced cupcakes with marijuana in order to improve lagging bake sales. He received the marijuana at a substantial discount from a former teacher turn drug dealer after he tearfully recounts his fictional encounter with shark. He claimed the attack left him paralyzed as well as leaving him with terrible chronic pain. Believing Puck would use the marijuana for medicinal purposes, the supplier agrees to give him as much as he wants for “20 cents on the dollar”.  The students further take advantage of the wheelchairs through the characters of Finn Hudson (Corry Monteith) and Rachael Berry (Lea Michele). Earlier in the episodes Finn complains about not being able to find employment because no one is hiring. Rachael wheels Finn into a restaurant and demands that the manager hires him or faces a lawsuit for discriminating against a person with a disability. Of course, in order to maintain the job Finn must continue to use the wheelchair at work. The last display of faking a disability within “Wheels” comes through Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz). Artie develops a crush on Tina; during the development of this relationship the audience becomes aware of the circumstances that left Artie paraplegic. Artie believes he can relate to Tina because of her experience with a speech impediment.  During their first date she confides in him that she has been faking the speech impediment since she was in 6th grade. She was very shy and used the impediment to push people away. Since joining glee she no longer wants to use her impediment as a means to distance herself from those around her. Artie feels betrayed and angered by her confession, he tells her “I am sorry now that you get to be normal and I get to be stuck in this wheel chair for the rest of my life and that’s not something I can fake” , as he wheels away in anger. This poignant moment reeks of irony and hypocrisy. While Artie the character is wheel chair bound the actor portraying him Kevin McHale is not.

Those informed of the issues that plague the disability community would probably share the outrage that Artie‘s character exhibits based on Tina’s ability to fake her disability. That same outrage is more appropriately projected upon Kevin McHale the actor playing Artie. When Finn and Puck fake a disability it is portrayed as comic and a means to gain economic benefits. While the audience is made to feel outraged at Tina’s faking. What is the message that the writers are trying to convey? Faking a disability is deplorable unless you are doing it for monetary gain; which is the case with Puck, Finn and of course McHale.  Since the beginning of the season disability activist has complained about the use of “Crip Drag”, Crip Drag occurs when an able bodied actor portrays a character with disability.

Hollywood has made great strides in relations to the way sexuality and race is depicted in the mainstream, however the same cannot be said in relation to disability. Americans with a disability looking to see a reflection of themselves in the mainstream television are for the most part disappointed. In the United States 56 million or a fifth of the country is affected in some way by a disability but for the most part this is not reflected in the entertainment industry (Horwitz). It is estimated that 0.5%-1.5% of union actors have a disability (Horwitz). Often times the characters on television shows that do have a disability are played by able-bodied actors like McHale in “Glee”.  It is very troubling that show creators and the majority of audience as well as critics fail to see the double message that casting an able-bodied actor presents.  Ryan Murphy, the creator of “Glee” believed that the “Wheels” episode was a turning point for the show and reflected his desire to show all aspects of human life. In the LA times he stated “But writing this made me feel the responsibility of showing the truth of the pain that outcasts go through. It’s not all razzle-dazzle show business. It’s tough, and it’s painful, and it was for me growing up, and it is for most people. So I think this made me realize that amid the fun and the glamour, it’s really great now and again to show the underbelly of what people who are different feel. (Martin and Fernandez)”. Murphy’s effort to show how people who are different experience life would have been better accomplished by using an actor who was not able-bodied.

In order to improve the perception of the abilities of those with disabilities, they must be portrayed in a positive light by the media. This is done by hiring those with disabilities, to show that they are able to do everything that able-bodied actors can do.  It’s a tough reality for actors who have disabilities. The producers of “Glee” took the easy option, while they did show with some depth a character with a disability they did not did not hire an actor with the same disability. Proclaiming that faking a disability is horrible, while hiring an actor to do the same. If Murphy desires to create an atmosphere of inclusion on his television {show} he must commit to it whole heartedly. Otherwise he continues to perpetuate the problem.

Works Cited

Cidoni, Michael. “‘Glee’ cast joyful over Globe nods.” 17 December 2009. The Associated Press. 21 December 2009 <;.

Glee. By Ryan Murphy. Dir. Paris Barclay. 20th Century Fox Television. 11 November 2009.

Horwitz, Simi. “Are the disabled the last thought in the diversity business? Unions and industry insiders gear up for a major forum at UCLA.” Back Stage, National ed. 22 October 2009: 3.

Internet Movie Database. Glee. Decemeber 15 2009. 15 December 2009 <;.

Martin, Denise and Maria Elena Fernandez. “Exclusive: Ryan Murphy calls tonight’s episode of ‘Glee’ a ‘game changer’.” 11 November 2009. Los Angeles Times. 20 December 2009 <;.

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Posted by on January 7, 2010 in Poetry, Randomness


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