But is it really? Does the show really include disadvantaged groups, or does it just use them as props? Many people have been critical of (black character) Mercedes's relegation to the background, until recent episodes, so much so that the writers did a self-referential jibe at it by having her say the line "You can't just drag me out to wail on the big notes" (or something similar). But Glee's representation problems go beyond this. The bloggers at Feminists with Disabilities have pointed out that it's hard to take the show's inclusiveness of disabled characters seriously when it more often features characters faking disabilities than actually having them. Moreover, the character of Artie, who uses a wheelchair, is played by an able-bodied actor who seems to lack wheelchair skills, and as a result was wheeled around in the early episodes, which didn't make much sense to anyone who actually used a wheelchair. TLo, who has been forgiven of the show's Artie missteps, finally had enough last week, when the show trotted out a paralyzed football player to teach Rachel a heartwarming lesson about what's important in life.
Later, the show makes us even more uncomfortable as yet again, a disabled person is used to teach an Important Lesson to the so-called "able-bodied" person. At least with Artie's story it was actually about a main character, but with the deaf kids, the developmentally disabled characters, and now the paralyzed kid, it's veering into cheap plot device territory, and worse, Afterschool Special territory. We're not complaining about the frequency with which differently abled characters are depicted; we're just a little uncomfortable with how often they're used to teach a lesson, especially when you've got a quadriplegic teaching a lesson to a girl with tonsillitis. Really, Glee? You don't think that might be just a mite heavy-handed?This week, we had Artie revealing his secret dream to be a dancer, despite his paralyzed lower body, and a number of awkward and maudlin scenes of him expressing this desire, trying to achieve it despite his disability, and ultimately day-dreaming it into reality (this could be achieved because, as mentioned, the actor who plays Artie is not disabled). Honestly, the whole thing felt a little cheap to me, and it also didn't seem to make much sense. For example, how long has Artie been disabled (more frequent Glee watchers, please let me know if this was explained earlier)? If it's been for a long time, as is implied, you would think he would have previously tried walking with crutches if this was possible, or understand from his doctor and physical therapy work that this was not possible. Disabled people live with their disabilities day-in, day-out. I imagine they know them pretty well, and understand completely in what ways it limits their activities. I'm not trying to hate, it's just that the character doesn't feel very well thought out, nor does he seem to have been created in collaboration with actual wheelchair users.
Overall, though, my verdict is mixed. I think Glee is a great show, and is getting out there a lot of things we don't usually see on TV, including cast diversity, honest and biting humor, and a few positive messages to boot. But, at the same time, if it's going to take the bold step of representing people with disabilities, you would think its creators would put in the extra effort to do so carefully. What do you think?