I wrote this some weeks back, but held off on sending it into the ether, because I hoped things would get better.
I have been a fan of Glee since it aired in 2009, but have always been seriously disappointed in the way the show treats its characters with disabilities. Your storylines dealing with everything from LGBT issues to virginity to teen pregnancy have never forsaken honesty for comedy. They have never relied on stereotype—in fact they’ve gone far in the opposite direction. Kurt Hummel is not a cardboard cutout and never has been.
Yet from his first appearance on the show, Artie has been the nerd in the wheelchair. His relationship with Brittney helped to alleviate this, as well as his directing storyline this season, but I don’t understand why it existed in the first place. I understand that there are teens in wheelchairs who dress as though their mothers dressed them, but this is a stereotype the world of disability has fought against for quite some time. Why couldn’t the boy with a disability have been the bad boy, for instance?
There is also the issue of Artie’s obsession with being able to walk. When asked where he thinks he’ll be in 2030, he says “walking,” and his imagining of storming out of Mr. Schu’s class automatically involves walking. Why is the show so desperate to draw attention to something that draws attention to itself by definition?
But my major problems don’t lie with Artie. While I did resent the fact that Kevin MacHale isn’t disabled, when you had the chance to do some truly world-changing casting by casting an actor with a disability, I understand. I also have come to terms with the filmic justifications for Safety Dance, as well as Brittney’s wish that Artie can walk—as if he’s not enough without it—but the character of Becky Jackson is the one who most bothers me.
Yes, often students with disabilities are the managers of their school sports teams, and this is considered inclusion. But on a TV show you have the chance to provide a larger-than-life example of inclusion. If Becky were a full-fledged cheerleader, like the young woman with dwarfism featured in the Glee film, think of the power this would give young girls with Down Syndrome. She might not be the most physically-able cheerleader, but she could be something more than Sue Sylvester’s lackey, one who was unjustifiably demeaned by being shunted into the role of a dog on the Christmas episode two years ago. I understand the comedic homage to The Grinch, but I had never seen such an offense for the sake of comedy in the show before or since.
Her brief attempt to date Artie this year could have been done well, had his reason for not wanting to date her explicitly been her Down Syndrome. If there had been a hint that this conclusion was a misunderstanding on her part, the episode might have been far more effective. Lest you think I completely disagree with her portrayal on the show, her role in The Spanish Teacher was wonderful. Kudos for that one.
The two young women with disabilities featured in the Glee Concert Movie were such wonderful examples of achievement and honesty. I hope to see this attitude portrayed on the show in future. I know Glee can handle tough stories with love and grace—I just it wasn’t reserved for every character except the ones with disabilities.
All the best,
PS. I hope some positive disability-related storylines will come out of Quinn's accident. But if not, I may be storming out, Artie-style.