Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is Glee really diversity friendly?

Glee is the new show everyone seems most excited about, and for good reason.  It's well-written, irreverent, and frequently hilarious.  Not to mention the songs!  But there's another reason that people are excited about Glee, and that's because it's showing characters not typically included on the small or big screen: a diversity of races, religions, and even a kid in a wheelchair.  And, although the show also regularly plays on stereotypes for humor, its creator, Ryan Murphy, has been outspoken that diversity and a positive message is part of the show's principles.  Murphy has been one of the biggest critics of Newsweek following the Setoodeh aricle, writing in an open letter that Glee is a show about "inclusiveness."

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?


  1. This isn't to say that I find it unrealistic that Artie dreams of being a dancer, or has dreams of having different physical capabilities. Roger Ebert (who had his lower jaw removed during cancer surgery) has spoken movingly that "in my dreams, I'm always talking."

  2. I suppose I forgive Glee for its occasional preachiness and the way it contrives interactions with differently abled people mainly because it is one of the few shows even attempting such engagement. If we were in a world where many shows dealt with these issues on a day-to-day basis, then I think we'd have more of a basis for criticising a show that did it poorly every so often. But the fact is that Glee is one of the few shows attempting such engagement, maybe even one of a 'first wave' one might hope. As another example, I'd love to see 'the poor' better represented in TV series. Some shows have begun to do this (The Wire?) in un-condescending ways, but again not in any concerted or flawless way TV-wide. I suppose I'm saying one should criticise, but also be forgiving of, forerunners.

  3. I think that's a great point. I also tend to be more forgiving of "forerunners," such as when Dirty Sexy Money featured a transgendered character. However, what's interesting to me in this setting is that people involved with Glee have gone so out of their way to stress that this is a show that takes diversity seriously, is inclusive, is uplifting to all, etc., so that makes me think, if you want to use this as a selling point, do your homework!

  4. Yes, I agree, doing homework is good. But then I see movies like Invictus by a director (Clint Eastwood) I otherwise respect who makes a film about a culture and a history (South Africa's, that is, my own) I evidently know far much more about than he does. I think to myself, "Do your research!" Then I think again and I get the sense I'm being naive and I realise I have to forgive people for portraying things in a simplistic way, especially if it's being made for audiences who don't know as much about this stuff and don't care about it as much as I or someone else might. I then think, "Ok, baby steps. But gosh darn it [or maybe some stronger expletive] I wish they'd push people a little bit more sometimes." Maybe it'll happen in the long-run.

    Thanks for the enjoyable and diverse blog by the way, we need more people on the case of femonomics.


Commenting is now open, but we'd love it if you chose one username so other commenters can get to know you. To do this, select "Name/URL" in the "Comment as" drop down. Put the name you'd like others to see; the URL is optional.

Any profanity, bigotry, or synonyms for "[ ] sucks!" will be deleted. We welcome criticism as long as you're making a point!