Monday, August 22, 2011

Handicapable? A Look at Glee's Treatment of the Disabled

Let me state first: I love Glee. Watching my nine-year-old nephew watch the concert movie and sing every song along with the cast gives me faith in the values society may come to embrace by the time he’s my age. I appreciate the attitude and attention given to people in tons of different minorities.

But I take issue with the way they portray disability. Thus far there have been three characters with disabilities. Artie, a Glee Club member in a wheelchair, Becky, a Cheerio and Jean the sister of Sue Sylvester.  I have several things to say about each depiction.

1.  Artie. First of all, I love Artie. I loved watching him rock out in the concert, but the actor, Kevin Mchale is not an actual person in a wheelchair.

This is an issue you can think of in one of two ways:

Either you consider disability to be like race or another physical issue, which it’s almost like blackface in certain ways. Why not hire a singer with a disability? On the other hand, Darren Criss isn’t gay, and I don’t object to him playing a gay character.

However, I choose to view disability in the first category, a physical trait like Rachel’s nose. And the main reason they have an able-bodied actor in the part is, I believe, so they could do what they’ve done in two episodes, showing Artie getting out of his wheelchair—once to participate in a dance number.

This was done as part of a dream sequence. To a degree, I applaud the fact that it admits that the dream of someone in a chair might be to get up and dance. However, I don’t think Glee does enough to connect to people with disabilities to truly get this across. Instead it reminds teens with disabilities watching that this actor is NOT like them. He can get out of his chair.

Repeating this stunt in the concert/movie was pointless.

And why must the one with a disability also be the geek who looks like he’s dressed by his mother? I’m not saying this style isn’t okay, or even that there are people in chairs who might choose it. But WHY when you could cover much more ground showing Artie as a Puck-like or Sam-like character.  

2. Becky. Sue Sylvester’s sidekick of sorts. She’s on the Cheerio squad, but often given managerial jobs or—in the Christmas episode—comic positions that belittle her. Fine, she participates in a different way and that’s great, but when the young woman with dwarfism featured in the Glee movie was a totally participatory member of the squad it made me wonder why Becky isn’t.

Instead of being portrayed as THE GRINCH’S DOG in the Christmas episode—not funny Glee.

3. Jean. Now, I’ve heard the woman who played Sue’s sister, with Down Syndrome, wasn’t in good health, so I take no issue with her storyline after being cast. But why must Sue’s sister with Downs have been a person in a group home? Why not show a more active member of society to give young adults with Down Syndrome watching an idol? Instead of, like they did with Becky, not showing the higher bar.

All the Glee characters show some stereotype, some limitation and some ridiculous qualities. But all the minorities have been shown to rise above these things except, in a lot of ways, the disabled.

To which I say, step it up, Glee. The movie suggested  they are aware of this, judging by their multifaceted portrayals of the real Glee viewers with disabilities in the film. Hopefully the season will deliver more here and give people with disabilities the respect they’ve given teens who are gay, popular and of different ethnicities.