I love Glee. I love Joss Whedon. And oh yes, I love Neil Patrick Harris as long as he is singing or typing out a late night journal entry after a hard day at the hospital or trying to take over the world … And who hasn’t rocked out to Aerosmith’s Dream on at least once, perhaps during a road trip?
While some have criticized the show for its snarky take on queer identity (from gay predator stereotypes, to bitchy lesbians, to negative references to transgender identity), I would argue that the queer content on Glee is often about insider speak and satire. Unlike offensive material that claims satire status, Glee is actually written and portrayed by members of the queer community who are exaggerating long told insider jokes and outsider fears in order to both amuse and provoke. And while they often come very close to the line in this vein, particularly for a mixed audience, they have been largely successful at raising the bar of entertainment while giving people things to talk about and consider in ways they might never have otherwise.
Last night’s show promised to be a queer extravaganza with resident bad girl Sue fighting for her program budget while NPH belted out classic rock under the wise and wry direction of none other than Whedon himself. I was giddy with the idea of it since the previews last week! And Whedon delivered from minute one, when he brought us that mix of tender and treacherous love in the relationships between Glee members and between NPH and his microphone. The comic timing in some of those scenes was only matched by the musical timing of the two male leads.
So imagine how sad I was that they coupled this genius with ableist diatribes about how impossible dreams are if you are not able bodied.
There has been a lot of controversy from disability rights advocates over Glee’s decision to cast an able-bodied actor to play wheelchair bound Artie. In some ways, I think last night’s episode of Glee was a pathetic attempt to respond to those criticisms by having Artie get up out of his chair and do an entire dance sequence that would have been impossible for someone who actually had the character’s spinal injuries. Regardless of whether it was a response or not however, the message was clear: being able-bodied is great and being differently-abled sucks.
In an episode in which everyone featured is trying to fulfill their dreams, Artie is the only one who does not succeed. Rachel finds her mother. Rachel’s mother finally gets the chance to be with the child she has mourned losing her whole life. Rachel’s boyfriend, who was a suspected villain, realizes he loves her fulfilling his unspoken dream of finding love as well as Rachel’s desperate desire to be loved by someone other than her dads. Mr. Schuster gets his dream role in Les Mis. The Glee Club gets a huge budget increase and the subsequent chance for all of them to fulfill their musical aspirations. NPH’s character gets to go back to his love of music and shed his bitterness at not making it the first time around. But what does Artie get? Artie gets a dream sequence where he gets out of his wheelchair to dance while actually sitting alone in the mall waiting for his girlfriend to bring back pretzels from the second floor; apparently this is the only mall in N. America that does not have elevators.
Thus while everyone else is reaching for their dreams Artie’s gets thrown in the trash, literally and figuratively. At the beginning of the episode NPH takes the piece of paper that Artie has written his biggest dream on, crumbles it, and throws it out in front of everyone. While Tina, Artie’s girlfriend, initially tries to help him make his dreams come true by helping choreograph a tap sequence for them to do together, a particularly humiliating moment in Artie’s own internalized ableism leads her to adopt the ableist mantra of the show. By the episode’s end, Tina is handing Artie internet research on how to regain mobility and dancing with someone else while Artie sings Dream a Little Dream. As if this isn’t pathetic enough, Quinn, the blonde, blue-eyed, ex-cheer leader who lost her popularity and got shuffled to the background for getting pregnant, rubs Artie’s back with a consoling “poor, sad, sad, boy in wheelchair” look on her face mid-way through the song.
(I wish they had video showcasing all of Auti Angels moves with her music, but most are bad recordings)
Tina’s counterpoint, the guidance counselor, does not offer an alternative way for Artie to meet his dreams either. While she could have pulled out a myriad of videos like the ones dotting the rest of this post, of successful dancers who do all of the styles Artie likes, she simply offers us her doe-eyed pity for the boy in the wheelchair. Worse, she tells him “you will never walk again” not as a wake up call to his own ableism but in commiseration with his supposed great loss. Thus the only “triumphant moment” left for Artie is to accept his “own limitations” and give up his dreams. In dialogue that clearly appeals to the way able-bodied people view differently-abled people’s lives, Artie smiles into the camera and says it is ok that he doesn’t get to dance because he can do other stuff “really well” …
Linking racial narratives and ableist ones, Artie’s story ends with him singing a solo while his girlfriend dances with the only other Asian in the cast (a boy who has been referred to as “other Asian guy” in a tongue-in-cheek reference to how racial casting happens in Hollywood). Every single song Artie sings this episode serves to reinforce the idea that he is broken and pathetic.
The layers of wrong here could fill an entire book. Instead I am going to simply say, that one of the most moving ballets I have ever seen was done by a mixed ability dance troupe. Their performance was visually stunning not because wheelchair dancers contradicted the ableist expectations of the audience but because they, and their fellow dancers, moved with such grace and emotion that it left the audience silently moved and wanting more. As a girl who spent far too much time in a pink tutu, I wish I could dance half as well.
While Glee cannot imagine a world in which able-bodied people are happy (remember last week’s Laryngitis episode which included the paralyzed football player in his dark, lonely, bedroom?), those of us with disabilities and people who have moved beyond ableism recognize that our lives are not just tragic morality tales for weeping women in the background. In fact, whole competitions have sprung up around the world for differently-abled dancers:
While it is true that there are things that we cannot do based on our bodies’ abilities, this is true for everyone. What separates our experiences is the disabling expectations of able-bodied people that tells differently-abled people “your dreams will never come true” and “your highest aspirations are to be like us but you can’t.” Neither of these are true and perhaps if McHale had cast a differently-abled actor as Artie he would not have approved such a horrible fail in the midst of such an exciting episode. It’s sad to think that none of the genius represented on the writing staff or by the guest stars and directors for this episode led anyone to question the message(s) being sent about difference and success.