Glee is commercial television's all-singing, all-dancing latest attempt to tap into the “alternative kid” market. By this I mean that most of the main characters are geeks not cheerleaders.
The McKinley High Glee clubbers are referred to as “misfits”. The cast includes teenagers who are gay and from different ethnic backgrounds. It also includes wheechair user Artie (Kevin McHale) and a cheerleader with Down syndrome called Becky (Lauren Potter).
Many people might think Glee should be getting kudos for featuring people with a disability in such a popular television program. But there are many criticisms of Glee’s portrayal of people with a disability.
In real life
Artie is the only main character with a disability. But actor Kevin McHale does not have a disability in real life. It seems the creators of Glee were too lazy to cast a singer-actor in a wheelchair. Or perhaps they did not trust a person with a disability with a lead role.
Glee's executive producer Brad Falchuk says he understands the concern and frustration of disability advocates. But he argues that McHale had
the singing and acting ability, talent and charisma required for the role.
I am also critical of Becky’s role in the show. The actress Lauren Potter does a great job. But her role feels like it has been restricted. It seems restricted to what the show's creators believed a young woman with Down syndrome was capable of.
McHale has a much bigger role. He has to sing, dance, and play guitar from his wheelchair. He also has to follow all the elaborate story lines of a high school drama. It is a much more demanding role.
Glee’s content is even more damning than its casting. A Deaf choir is featured in Hairography (episode 11, season one). In the episode, the Deaf choir does not make it through their performance. Half way into their song the McKinley High Glee Club steps in. They instantly learn sign language and sing tunefully over the top of them. There is not one other performance in the entire Glee series to date during which the characters feel it is appropriate to interrupt another choir in the middle of a song.
One has to wonder what the writers were thinking. Perhaps they just could not stomach the idea of subjecting their audience to a complete performance by a Deaf choir. There is a strong implication that Deaf music is not up to scratch. The Deaf glee club's choirmaster is also portrayed as ridiculous. His deafness is the butt of an ongoing joke. The overarching theme of the episode is insulting to differently-able performers.
Wheels (episode 9, season one) was another controversial episode. The Glee Club's choirmaster is Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison). Will attempts to teach the glee club members about disability. He gives every member a wheelchair and orders them to spend the next week navigating their lives on rollers for an hour a day. At the end of the episode the club performs the song Proud Mary in their chairs.
I don’t think the producers of Glee bothered to contract somebody who actually specialises in wheelchair choreography. In the scene, the children blunder around the stage with little grace. The episode also features one of the characters using his chair to fake a disability in order to invoke anti-discrimination laws and land a job. Classy.
The same episode also has perhaps the most (unintentionally) hilarious and damning moment of the series so far. Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) reveals to Artie that her stutter is an act. Furious at her deception, he attacks her for putting on her speech impediment and comparing it to his own “real” disability. His parting shot has become infamous in critical circles. He says “this isn't something I can fake”. I think it was incredibly insensitive to cast an able-bodied actor in a disabled role. But then to give them a line about the impossibility of faking disability is astoundingly insensitive.
The episode Dream On (episode 19, season one) is possibly even worse. The episode focuses on each character's most cherished, unachievable dream. For Artie, this dream is to dance. There is the suggestion that dancing can only be done with normally functioning legs. There is also the implication that the fondest wish of people with a disability is to be able-bodied.
Glee certainly has its perks. There is great singing and dancing. Emma (Jayma Mays) also wears fantastic shoes. But it makes a big deal about its characters with a disability. There comes a point when you want to see some real results after all that self-congratulation about the portrayal of people with a disability. Unfortunately, Glee is not delivering.
I think it is all the back-slapping that makes me angry about Glee. More angry than the myriad of other television shows which badly represent our lives. The creators seem to suggest that just including a few kids with disabilities makes their show progressive and inclusive.
Glee puts characters with a disability on the world’s television screens. But the portrayal is so sanitised that the actual realities of disability and disability culture are glossed over or completely erased. That is not radical. It also does not usefully increase visibility or awareness. It is just a new form of pop-culture oppression.