Sunday, 1 May 2011

Gleeless #badd2011

This post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011, being run by Goldfish over at Diary of a Goldfish. Check it out for many superb posts on the general topic of disability and disablism

I confessed in a previous post to being a hardened and unashamed Gleek - addicted to the TV show Glee. I love its mixture of music, corny humour, and a huge dollop of cheese on top. One thing that's concerned me, though, is the programme's portrayal of disability.

Three stereotypes of disability are often used to typify people with impairments in mainstream media:
  • The disabled person who wants to be "normal"
  • The disabled person as pitiful, innocent and good
  • The disabled person as evil
There are three obviously disabled characters in Glee. I'll consider them separately, as I believe that each represents a different one of these stereotypes.
Artie Abrams, played by the able-bodied Kevin Hale, uses a wheelchair following a car accident when he was 8. He dreams of some day walking again: at one point he tries (and fails) to stand using crutches, and his girlfriend at the time, Tina, researches spinal cord injury treatments for him. In the current season he tries out for the school football team. In a daydream, he dances upright again.

Artie typifies the "disabled person longing to be normal".

The other two obviously disabled characters in the show both appear to have Down's Syndrome.
The first is Jean Sylvester, sister of the evil cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester. She is played by Robin Trocki, and appears in the show only occasionally. Although Sue is the "baddie" in the programme, she does occasionally show acts of kindness, often flagged up none too subtly with a visit to Jean in her Assisted Living home immediately before or afterwards. Jean's unquestioning love for Sue seems to act as her conscience, to make her act in a way that is otherwise out of character for her.

Jean typifies the "disabled person as pitiful, innocent and good"
The last of the obviously disabled characters, also linked with Sue Sylvester, is Becky Jackson, played by Lauren Potter. Sue accepts Becky into the cheerleading squad, the strong implication being that this is because Sue's sister also has Down's Syndrome. However she rapidly becomes Sue's understudy and "mini-me", helping her in her devious plots, sitting in judgement in cheerleader auditions, and so on.

Becky typifies the "disabled person as evil"

Really, the only one we're missing is "disabled person as brave" and we'd have the complete set. Actually, thinking about it, in season 1 an episode called Laryngitis featured Sean, an American football player who'd become paralysed from the upper chest down in a game. And yes, he'd learned to deal with it, a person is not just one thing, the whole nine yards. So we have our complete set.

Probably the most controversy has been caused by Kevin McHale's portrayal of Artie: why is an able-bodied person playing the role of a wheelchair user? Studio bosses claim that they auditioned both able-bodied and disabled actors, but it was difficult to find anyone who could really act, really sing, and had the level of charisma required. But y'know...why were they auditioning able-bodied actors for the part of a disabled kid in the first place?

Glee still hasn't worked out how to show disability properly. Really good depictions of disability involve characters who just happen to be disabled, not characters whose every storyline centres around their disability. Let's hope they finally take some advice from the many disability organisations who are trying to show them the way.


  1. Great post! Glee is so problematic wrt disability, and there's a lack of addressing it in mainstream critique.

    One more stereotype that gets to me, as someone with OCD, is the portrayal of Emma as someone who just needs to be cured.

  2. Nice post, I'm not a Gleek (yet) but like your analysis. I'm here from BADD *waves*

  3. It is a complete set!

    I've written a couple of posts about Glee and Artie and really, it bothers me most that he still, after two seasons, doesn't seem to have a defined character at all. He's there for background scenery for the most part :(

  4. Oops, good point Magda Anne, I completely forgot about Emma!

    *waves to BADD people*

  5. @Ruth: not so much background as 'complete the set casting' - multi-racial is easy, LGBT expected nowadays, and then the network tell you you need the crip to complete the set. Of course the problem is that you can't just complete the set, you have to write for them, but that's easy, every crip just wants to be cured, no need to actually lower yourself to researching realistic story arcs....

  6. Ug, the Artie story line just irritates me, because the disabled person only wants a cure and thinks about it 100% of the time. Not to mention there was the one girl who pretended to have a speech problem to get sympathy from Artie and others.

  7. Interesting post. I really dislike the portrayal of Artie; I nearly exploded during the Safety Dance episode.

    I disagree about Becky being 'Evil' - she rarely does anything that would be classified as such: she obeys Sue, who is the closest thing to 'Evil' the show has got (though she's not entirely so either). But obeying someone ain't the same as having evil or even malevolent intent... Becky's mainly portrayed as being quite cute and wholly obedient - it's different.

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