I’m Jennifer and I’m a Gleek. There, I’ve said it. I am a fan of quirky Glee. A show where everything is better when the New Directions show choir belts out a Journey standard. Pure escapism.
However, I take issue with the paradox of Glee’s realistic and human portrayal of characters like Kurt Hummel, an openly-gay young man in a decidedly closed-minded high school while creating one-dimensional stereotypes of others – like Artie Abrams, a paraplegic played by able-bodied actor, Kevin McHale. Artie’s not a stud in a chair; he’s a nerd; a frail little guy wearing big glasses with a huge collection of sweater vests and argyle.
From the view from my own wheelchair, I see writers who have some sensitivity and understanding of matters facing LGBTQ youth but none about people with disabilities in spite of the number of characters with disabilities and several episodes that attempt to portray the world of disability.
In “Wheels” the cast faces the realities of Artie’s life as a wheeler through the quest for a wheel-chair accessible bus. The Proud Mary finale performed by New Directions in wheelchairs creeped me out. Glee had replaced cute Labrador puppies with choreographed wheelchairs to create their warm fuzzy moment.
In this episode we meet full-time meanie Sue Sylvester’s sister, Jean and cheerleader-to-be, Becky, both played by actresses with Down’s syndrome. Alas, Jean and Becky are mere props, foils to temper the evil Sue and give her a human side. While I’m happy for the diversity, I find it a lazy way to create depth to Sue’s character.
When spoiled diva Rachel worries about the potential loss of her singing voice in “Laryngitis,” there can of course only be one thing worse: quadriplegia. Kudos to Glee for casting real-life wheeler, Zack Weinstein in the role. Points lost for weenie characterization as his character spends his on-screen time flat on his back and undressed. WTH?? Every wheeler I know – and I know many --- with injuries comparable to this character, manage to get up, dress, work and/or go to school and fully participate in life. But, Rachel does end the show “enlightened” and counting her blessings. Yippee.
Like poor paralyzed Artie in “Dream On,” I too dream of dancing again one day. The germaphobe school social worker, portrayed as an intellectual light-weight and Pollyanna throughout the series, confronts Artie’s optimism with “proof” that at best treatments are 10 years away then suggests they meet weekly to help him through this pathologic period of optimism. Really?
Maybe it struck a nerve with me because so many wheelers have been clinically treated for the disease of “hope.” Instead, Artie could have learned that hope is worthwhile but best tempered by living deeply today. In the end, his girlfriend dances with another partner while Artie sings. Ridiculous. Perhaps Artie could have met some of the incredible wheel chair dancers who compete internationally and danced after all.
With the new season I reminded myself that this is a sassy, irreverent show and maybe I’m too literal and sensitive. While Glee continues to explore some issues with dignity and sensitivity, the characters with disabilities continue to be flat and one-dimensional. Will Becky, our young cheerleader with Down’s ever interact with her classmates? Date? Have dreams of her own?
“A Very Glee Christmas” started with a duet between Kurt and Blaine, another openly gay youth. It was deftly flirty, innocent in that I-think-I could-be-falling-for-you way. Then sweet but dim-witted Brittany who believes in Santa, has a single Christmas wish: that Artie walk again. This was a missed opportunity for Artie to explain how rich and full his life is and walking, although missed, is not the end-all-be-all of his existence.
I can tell this is written by able-bodied folks with no true understanding of spinal cord injury. According to a well-respected survey (What? Glee writers don’t have Google?) walking falls midway down the priority list of most people with spinal cord injury. Priorities one and two are, well, “Number 1” and “Number 2” – remember that NO voluntary control thing? Yeah, that’s EVERYTHING below the injury.
Most disheartening was the “Tiny Tim” moment when the cast finds the Re-Walk device which uses gyroscopes and muscle stimulators to promote ambulation under the tree… Yes Artie, there truly is a ReWalk device. How the “anonymous donor” is able to obtain an Israeli investigational device which, when finally released is expected to cost about $100K is truly a Christmas miracle. That Artie is able to strap it on and walk within minutes cheapens the hard work real patients face. At the most optimistic, it would take months of painful, intense, grueling daily therapy to get to that moment we see in the episode.
So, what’s the harm? The way that Glee uses people with disabilities for quick tugs on the heartstrings belittles their real life struggles to turn us into sugar-coated holiday tales that warm the cockles of the able-bodied heart. We’re not mascots, objects of pity or television’s cautionary tales. Get someone else to deliver your “God bless us everyone.”
Most damaging, these stories where miracles happen in a heartbeat, where people suddenly stand up and walk or wake from long comas to go caroling on the weekend or find a cutting edge treatment developed just in time to save their life along with Christmas, negate the real world struggles faced by people with illness or injury.
These sentimental tales where everything works out just as the snow falls and the credits run become the primer for how people with no experience with trauma think it should go in real life. When they learn that in actuality Artie would face a lifetime of intensive therapy and that the Re-Walk might help him walk in certain well-defined situations but not others nor did it restore all his missing functionality, they tune out.
Glee misses the real miracles of disability. Those who learn to live average lives in trying circumstances. Those who find grace and courage everyday to face a world that is inadvertently hostile to their existence. That anything can happen at any moment to any one and we are generally more powerless to impact it than we know; yet we live, love and dream on. That’s a message worth spreading. At Christmas and beyond.
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