New TV show Glee does crip-drag – very, very badly

Glee. It’s supposedly THE happening new US TV show, piloting now, and continuing next northern autumn. EW’s Popwatch calls it

… the most joyous, exhilarating, fresh new series I’ve seen in a long time.

TVSquad says

For me, I saw elements of the movie Election, plus Fame and Friday Night Lights, with a bit of The Wonder Years thrown in, only it’s not nostalgia. Glee is all the best parts of all the above, plus music and dancing and great characters and really witty material.

Glee is the story of a high-school glee club full of “losers” who undergo growth and transformation and shit after a gorgeous white-boy footballer and a gorgeous white-boy teacher report for saviour duty.

Glee features a feisty big black girl who wags her finger and says “I ain’t no backup singer”, a stage-struck self-centred manipulative white girl who wants to be the star of everything, a high-voiced campy white boy who loves designer clothing and gets bullied in the playground, a stuttering Asian lesbian – and a nerdy bespectacled boy who uses a wheelchair and plays the guitar.

The character who uses a wheelchair, Arty, is played by an able-bodied actor, Kevin McHale, so we’ve got that problem right there. Crip-drag isn’t a great place to start. But what bothered me the most about this first episode? He doesn’t push the damn chair himself. He can play the guitar, he’s written as having paraplegia not quadriplegia, there is no suggestion that his arms don’t work. (If he did have quadriplegia high enough to not push a chair, I would still hope that he would have a power chair, not be pushed around.)

But he’s just used as a prop. Arty gets shoved into a piano in a “hilarious” bit of choreography slapstick, he gets pushed into the teacher who catches him and makes a face, he gets pushed into the rehearsal room, he gets pushed here, he gets pushed there. He gets trapped in a port-a-loo by footballers just so he can be rescued by the footballer-turned-chorister who is having a Personal Growth Moment. In the big final number of the pilot, he sits with the band playing guitar while the walking choristers dance around together in the middle of the stage.


And yes, it’s Fox.

To casting people: Cast actors who can use wheelchairs in the role of people who use wheelchairs. The simplest way to do this is to case someone who actually uses a wheelchair in real life. Yes, they exist. Actors with disabilities. I realise it’s a novel concept for you. Here’s another novel concept: Cast people with disabilities in roles that weren’t written specifically about people with disabilities.

To writers: Don’t use people with disabilities only as hilarious comedy props. Don’t write them stories that are only about their disabilities. Don’t make them helpless pawns put there only to illustrate the personal growth of other characters.

Aside to set design/props departments: If a person who uses a wheelchair is also a guitar player, you might be better off getting a wheelchair without armrests.

To everyone else involved: Please call a halt to this sort of condescending, ill-informed shit wherever and whenever you see it.

A few clips. This first one is the only part of the entire show where I saw the actor lay hands on the wheels at all. (If you’re on a slow connection, skip the last one, which is longest.)

Categories: arts & entertainment, social justice

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20 replies

  1. That’s some of the worst scriptwriting I’ve ever seen.

  2. I thought the African-American girl said she wasn’t a backup singer? Seems that the script writers disagreed. The whole thing with the wheelchair is just screwed up. Don’t they realise that they’ll get a more credible performance from someone who *gasp* actually uses a wheelchair?

  3. Echoing Mindy’s thoughts, I like how the able-bodied white hetero girl and boy get to do the star number at the end. At least Disney (whose High School Musical this is clearly based on) went with a Latina for their female lead character.
    While far from perfect, I’ve found that Disney Channel casting tends to be intentionally diverse while still (most of the time) avoiding falling into the “writing to a stereotype” trap that Glee seems to have done with its pilot episode. Of course, (dis)ableism, subtle race issues, rampant gender issues, heterosexism, etc etc still apply.
    Since Glee’s a TV show, though, there’s the possibility that time will remedy some of the glaring issues. Hopefully as the show goes on the diversity will actually be utilized instead of shunted to the role of comedy backup.

  4. When I saw the trailers for this show, I was absolutely irate at the prop-element of the character “using” the wheelchair (and ranted about it in someone’s LJ), but told myself I should wait till the actual show – maybe the prop-element would go away?

  5. I have recently enjoyed the TV show Breaking Bad for it’s portrayal of a character with CP (played by an actor with what wiki calls “mild cerebral palsy”).
    The character is an inteligent, sensitve, goodlookin’, sometimes angy and rebelious teenager (15 or so). The show revolves around his father but the son’s story line is the stand out for me as rounded portrayals of people with disabilities in TV is so rare.
    Please note that the show can be i) very volent ii) racially problomatic iii) does not pass the Bechdel test. Sigh.

  6. I don’t think there’s a single character who isn’t a stereotype. I watched clips on mute, and yes, noticed who it was chosen for the “star” parts in the last. Hum.
    Any deviation from cis white het abled male norm = “character development” for cis white het abled character. No such thing as a character who simply is Asian, neuroatypical, queer, or anything else, on their own terms. It’s always an angle.

  7. Reviews of Glee worth reading:
    TV Review – Glee” at My Zen Arcade
    What’s the opposite of “Glee”? – Pursuit of Harpyness
    Both of these get past (or ignore) the PWD issue that I got stuck on, and examine the other politics and stereotypes at play, particularly the gender ones.

  8. “the PWD issue that I got stuck on”
    (OT) I wouldn’t say stuck on, illustrated or examined, yes (/OT)
    When can we have a glee club that doesn’t need to be saved by a white able-bodied jock? Who, shock horror, get by on their own talents despite being underfunded? I suppose when we can have real actors with real disabilities, and people of every size colour and shape who are good at what they do rather than fitting into a narrow character definition. Which for Hollywood, is like never. Because then we’d have to admit that they exist or something.

  9. When I heard the writer/director/producer interviewed on Fresh Air, he waxed poetic on his wheelchair-bound “archetype” character. He said that they picked the most talented performer for every role, including this one. I wondered, “Yes, but is he really a wheelchair using actor?” Terri never asked.
    I am not surprised to find out the answer.
    MomTFH’s last blog post..Wow, that’s offensive

  10. Archetype: = quintessence, model, embodiment, representative.
    So people who use wheelchairs are, at essence, passive and helpless. Nice to know.
    Here’s what the actor said in one interview at Sugarslam:

    On his biggest challenge: “The wheelchair, because I dance. It’s hard for me not to move my legs. I’ve always danced. [McHale belonged to the boy band NLT (Not Like Them).] So it’s weird for me not to be dancing. We were doing the pilot and we were doing the big finale scene, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ and they were like, ‘Kevin, can you please stop moving your legs to the beat?’ Everybody’s singing and dancing and I’m trying not to move and it’s the hardest thing. I have to tense my legs up.”

  11. THANKYOU! thankyou for this post and the links to reviews! oh my goodness i watched the whole thing and it was AWFUL. so many things wrong with it… my sister and i just sat there making snarky comments and being confused and exasperated, waiting for something? anything? to explain the shitfulness. it ticked every box, ablist, sexist, homophobic etc etc, and also was BADLY WRITTEN AND REALLY DID NOT MAKE ANY SENSE AT ALL WTF?!
    i’m guessin a whole buncha white dudebros are behind this awful shame and giant waste of money… let’s hope it goes the same way as “racheals getting married” and mysteriously disappears after the first showing despite the heavy advertisement.
    in closing i would go crazy without the feminist blogosphere, THANKYOU

  12. Hi lil sis! I have to agree with you on the writing. Word from fans is that oh, he’s just setting up the stereotypes to undermine them later in the series… I’m pretty dubious right now.

  13. Having just now watched the three first episodes of this show, with more disability fail I hate everyone.

  14. Anna: And across-the-board sexism fail, too. I kinda hoped the second ep was a second-ep slump, and had hopes for the third to start breaking down the stereotypes (or hinting that they might), but nuh-uh. Lauredhel-bob says FAIL.

  15. Plus, have I ranted about the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies disability fail yet? Lauredhel SMASH.

  16. Annnd… this week brings us the football coach on Glee saying “What have we got to lose? We gave up our pride when we lost to that school for the Deaf.”

  17. I’m a bit bemused because I watched the pilot, had draft post in the wings, watched in September and it was the Pilot again, there seems to have been an Ep 2 which I’ve missed… then I was out last night and missed it AGAIN.
    So the claim of the lead actor who in interview said that the black humour would become much more black and the show more intelligent as it goes on, isn’t coming to pass? (Quelle surprise!)

  18. Nothing much so far, Helen.
    Chastity Club Cheerleader is pregnant and lying to her footballer boyfriend that it happened in the hot tub when he ejaculated while they kissed; Hysterically-Pregnant Teacher’s Wife wants to take CCC’s baby. Kyle came out to his dad (actually a reasonable scene, apart from the “all you wanted for your 3rd birthday was sensible heels” crack), and taught the football team to dance to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. SuperGleeTeacher gave a lead part to Stuttering Asian Chick, and White Diva flounced out of Glee Club in a huff. Unfeminine Lesbian Cheerleading Coach made more cracks about having testicles, and about OCDTeacher’s mental illness. There was more.

  19. OK, I officially need a holiday, because I hadn’t missed it – it airs on Thursdays here, not Wednesdays. Saw it last night and we’re definitely one episode behind WA – funny. Anyway, the Unfeminine Coach shits me to tears. And the simulated sex in the “sexy” number? and the balloon scene in the Chastity club? Creeeeepy.
    There have been numerous ads for it now that it’s back on and it’s all about “You can succeed if you’re the Underdog”. Yes, as long as the good-looking Jock and Teacher come in and tell you what to do all the time.

  20. @ Lauredhel comment no.15 – I was really enjoying the book up until that point. That crap ruined a rather clever idea.

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