Symposium

"This isn't something I can fake": Reactions to Glee's representations of disability

David Kociemba

Emerson College, Boston, Massachusetts, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Crip drag; Fan community; Integrated dance

Kociemba, David. 2010. "This isn't something I can fake": Reactions to Glee's representations of disability. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 5. doi:10.3983/twc.2010.0225.

1. Introduction: Critical reactions to Glee's representation of disability

[1.1] I want to begin by confessing that I am angered by how Glee's (2009–) creators use Artie Abrams (played by Kevin McHale) (note 1). I was first introduced to the series during a student presentation in my "Images of Disability" course at Emerson College. The student showed "Proud Mary," the all-wheelchair number that ends the Glee episode "Wheels." Zach Woodlee's choreography shows no knowledge of integrated dance, which crafts distinct movements and kinetics by using dancers with and without physical disabilities. This genre, practiced over the past three decades by more than two dozen dance companies worldwide, includes numbers choreographed by such movement innovators as Bill T. Jones, Joanna Haigood, Victoria Marks, Stephen Petronio, and Margaret Jenkins. My anger compelled me to write and publish a response. One need only compare the choreography of "Proud Mary" (http://repka.tv/video/84198, 40:55 to 43:18) and AXIS Dance Company's 2009 "Light Shelter" (http://www.axisdance.org/video_lightshelter.html) to see Glee's ignorance of integrated dance and recoil at its self-congratulatory tone (see also Kociemba 2010a). (After this number, their choreography returns to marginalizing Artie.) In "Dream On," Artie gives up his dream of being a dancer and cedes dancing with Tina in the final number. Here, they ignore the possibilities offered by wheelchair ballroom dance, a sport since 1998 that has international competitions featuring 22 countries (note 2). Their deliberate erasure of mainstream and fine arts forms of integrated dance irks me. And it's what prompted me to see whether critics and fans of Glee saw what was missing.

[1.2] I'm not alone in this reaction. A number of commentators experienced in the representation of disability share it. Anna from Feminists with Disabilities for a Way Forward is just one writer among many who decries the series' use of crip drag: Artie is played by Kevin McHale, who does not have a mobility impairment (Anna 2009). Crip drag performances are rather like blackface and yellowface performances. They are inherently inauthentic, enact the biases and fantasies of majority culture, and perpetuate employment discrimination in the entertainment industry (note 3). A multiunion committee for performers with disabilities used "Wheels," the first episode centered on Artie, to publicize hiring discrimination against actors with impairments, noting that the industry has actually gone backward since the 1980s (Associated Press 2009). Wheelchair Dancer (2009) found the wheelchair dance choreography that ends "Wheels" insultingly ignorant and the dancers poorly trained. Phil (2009) at Rocky Time Warp laments the opportunity lost to portray genuine deaf culture when the deaf choir performs John Lennon's "Imagine" in "Hairography" and worries that most audiences will think it's about how the singer/signers wish they could hear. S. E. Smith (2009) at Bitch Magazine finds the series to be a serial disability stereotyping offender. Smith (2010) later writes in the Guardian, "Artie is a painfully troped character and the show utilises almost every imaginable disability stereotype, with a heavy emphasis on 'inspirational' storylines."

[1.3] If I might sum up the perspective offered by these and other authors: Artie is a crip drag performance of a stereotype written by people who erase the arts, cultures, and histories of people with impairments (note 4). Glee does not increase the visibility of the disability rights cause or effectively convey the experiences of disability-based oppression. If viewers find this character empowering, that says more about their desperation to find an authentic character amid a sea of disability stereotypes than it does about the merits of the character.

2. Glee's old directions: Its disability stereotypes

[2.1] Before turning to the question of whether the Gleekdom's comments in three mainstream fan communities show the influence of these criticisms, I'd like to provide a brief clarification of the stereotypes in the series referenced by Smith (2009).

[2.2] Disability studies scholar Leonard Kriegel (1987) examines literature to find prominent representational patterns of disability. One such pattern, the Charity Cripple, aptly describes the use of many characters with impairments in Glee. This figure draws out the charitable impulses of middle-class audiences. Charles Dickens's Tiny Tim defines this type. The granting of alms, pity, or sympathy assures us that we will escape Tiny Tim's fate and serves as an opportunity to demonstrate our virtue. Notably, "Wheels" consists of a literal charity drive to get an accessible bus for William McKinley High School, which Will and Puck use to demonstrate their virtue. Sue Sylvester's charity toward Becky, a student with Down syndrome, reinforces that message. "Wheels" serves a similar function for the series' creators, who showcase their good intentions as a way of rebutting criticism of their hiring decisions. The pity solicited by Charity Cripples from ableist audiences makes Haverbrook's choir a threat in "Sectionals." Glee uses the "there but for the grace of God go I" aspect of Charity Cripples in "Laryngitis," as Rachel learns that she's more than her voice by meeting Sean, a quadriplegic former football player (note 5). Finally, when Artie angrily rejects Tina after her confession of faking a stutter in "Wheels," many Artie/Tina shippers on the sites I studied reacted with dismay. That would be because the Charity Cripple "soothes middle-class society because he refuses to accept his wound as the source of his rage. Indeed, he refuses to acknowledge rage. His purpose is never to make 'normals' either uncomfortable or guilty" (Kriegel 1987, 36–37). Unfortunately, that would be the only time in the first season Artie would express that kind of power.

[2.3] Martin F. Norden's taxonomy is specifically based on American film and television practices. Two other of his rubrics, the Saintly Sage and the Civilian Superstar, fit Jean Sylvester (Sue Sylvester's sister, played by Robin Trocki) and Artie, respectively. Saintly Sages are wise, asexual older persons who serve as a voice of reason and conscience in a chaotic world, with the hermit in Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935) being its fullest expression (Norden 1994, 131–32). Jean advises Sue how to recover from the loss of her "Bad Reputation." Saintly Sages often "see" people better because they are blind. Jean's placement in a residential facility means that she's not a part of McKinley High, which gives her a unique insight into it. On the other hand, Civilian Superstars like Artie are resourceful and adaptive figures who tend to show up in inspirational movies about overcoming individual deficits, not social bias. The history of collective action is erased, and its criticism of discrimination and access is lacking or temporary (Norden 1994, 28–29, 51). Writer and disability rights activist Irving Zola (1991) provides an additional critique of the implied message of such films: "If a Franklin Delano Roosevelt or a Wilma Randolph could OVERCOME their handicap, so could and should all the disabled. And if we fail, it's our problem, our personality, our weakness. And all of this further masks what chronic illness is all about." The Civilian Superstar often returns to his or her former glory or surpasses it, with an iconic example being the triumphant walk across the stage that ends the FDR biopic Sunrise at Campobello (Vincent J. Donehue, 1960). Civilian Superstars accomplish this task by overcoming the real block to successful integration: their own self-pity. Glee gives every sign that Artie is going to reenact this trope. "Dream On" features his desire to walk again and explores how self-pity impedes his relationship with Tina. The two of them establish the possibility of a cure (note 6). The triumphant and brilliantly executed flash mob "Safety Dance" fantasy sequence stokes demand for more of former boy band performer Kevin McHale's nonwheelchair dancing. The series' past and future are saturated with familiar disability archetypes.

3. Enter the Gleeks: When shipping is not enough

[3.1] But what of the Gleekdom? Did the wisdom of the crowd succeed in making connections to disability arts, cultures, and theories where Glee's creators failed? Did fans in online forums link to other sites outside the fandom that critiqued its representation of disability, such as Wheelchair Dancer and Bitch Magazine? To try to answer these questions, I went to two corporate fan forums (at Television Without Pity and Fox) and one seemingly independent one that came up second in a Google search for "Glee fan forum" (Gleefan.com, http://www.gleefan.com/, which lists no corporate ownership). I made these selections fully knowing that any study of fandom tends to study social or visible fans that are easy to locate—especially with a survey as informal as mine. I selected these sites for their different natures within the mainstream and the possibility that the responses there might hint at the reception of mainstream audiences.

[3.2] The official Glee forums available on Fox's Glee Web site (http://glee.community.fox.com/) don't really deserve the term community. Just a few members have posted moire than once. Many posters have bad etiquette: they ignore the comments of others, use lots of exclamation points, and even write in all caps. The ethos at the forum seems to silence any criticism of the show. Many posts dealing with the episode's treatment of Down syndrome, stuttering, and the Americans With Disabilities Act are rebutted with comments along the lines of, "It's just TV; don't complain—change the channel!" Yet there was an entire thread devoted to ableism in casting controversy that coincided with the airing of "Wheels" ("Arty—The wheelchair person," January 6, 2010, http://glee.community.fox.com/go/thread/view/100198/22625382/Arty_-_the_wheelchair_person). What's also remarkable is how negative the few posts on "Proud Mary" were ("WHAT A DISGRACE!!," http://glee.community.fox.com/go/thread/view/100198/22624674/WHAT_A_DISGRACE!!?pg=1, November 11, 2009). Anneea described the choreography as being so simple a chimpanzee could have done it. Doctortruth likened the number to blackface and pointed out that the reveal of Sue's sister is inconsistent with Sue's previous slam on how Will should look for recruits from special education classes. Just two posters specifically praised "Proud Mary" despite the preairing press focus on the number. Many posters rated "Dream On" highly. Yet two posters on another thread decried the idea that Artie couldn't have a career in dance, linking to integrated performances by dance companies like the Dancing Wheels, CanDoCo, and AXIS ("Episode 19 and dancers in wheelchairs," http://glee.community.fox.com/go/thread/view/100198/24898949/Episode_19_and_Dancers_in_Wheelchairs, May 27, 2009). This community lends itself to drive-by criticism: only one critical poster had put up more than a single message.

[3.3] The thousands of posters at Gleefan.com, however, have developed something more approaching a community, with posting etiquette, individualized avatars isolating small character moments, and members with hundreds of posts. That social cohesion came at a cost. Virtually none of the posts demonstrated any knowledge of the debate about the representation of disability on Glee. The one exception was a thread on the politics of casting ("Disabled actors upset about Wheels and Artie," November 13, 2009, http://www.gleeforum.com/Disabled-Actors-Upset-About-Wheels-and-Artie-t2472.html). This community epitomizes the virtual community as an inward-directed phenomenon.

[3.4] Television Without Pity's recaps and boards are considered so important in the blogosphere that its purchase by NBC-Universal was covered by the Guardian and Slate Magazine (Donaghy 2007; Stevens 2007). TWoP's boards had the least discussion of the union critique of the casting of Kevin McHale. There was no mention of it in the recap or the thread discussing "Wheels" despite the opportunity offered by Artie's line, "This isn't something I can fake." The politics of the casting decision is buried on page 32 of a subforum of TV Potluck ("Magical cripples and their life lessons: Disability on TV," July 2, 2008, http://forums.televisionwithoutpity.com/index.php?showtopic=3131010&st=465). Both of the other Glee forums were more open to political debate around this issue than TWoP.

[3.5] Demian's recap of "Wheels" describes the choreography as "Busby Berkeley–esque" but observes that it "left me feeling a little meh, overall. Maybe I shouldn't have watched Tina [Turner]'s version before writing this paragraph" ("Proud Mary keep on burnin'," n.d. [2009], http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/glee/wheels_1.php?page=18). In his recap of "Dream On," he snarkily talks back to a touching Artie-Tina moment after the "Safety Dance" number: "'I'm gonna dance one day, you know,' Real Artie replies, still smiling at his little fantasy. Yeah, don't bet on it, kid" ("Tigers? At Night? With Voices Soft as Thunder?", n.d. [2010], http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/glee/dream_on_1.php?page=1). Of all the writers on TWoP, Demian should be the one aware of the many sites decrying Glee's representation of disability. On the other hand, a photo gallery entitled "Glee: The show's worst musical moments" includes "Proud Mary," which TWoP labels "insulting" as a result of its "laborious" choreography and lack of subtlety in its message (http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/show/glee/glee_the_shows_worst_musical_m.php).

[3.6] In TWoP's "Wheels" thread, just 12 posts of 519 total even mention "Proud Mary." The thread devoted to Artie on TWoP broadens the discussion in their forums in a few ways ("Artie Abrams: Rock and roll," August 30, 2009, http://forums.televisionwithoutpity.com/index.php?showtopic=3188546). Posters there debate whether the series hides Artie in the early episodes' choreography by having his character play guitar when the actor doesn't play the instrument. One posted a link to a YouTube video of an integrated ballroom dance performance ("'Dream On' 2010.05.18," May 19, 2010, http://forums.televisionwithoutpity.com/index.php?showtopic=3195607&st=285&#entry12927983). Two posters praise Woodlee's inclusion of Artie for two moments in Kristin Chenoweth's "Last Name" number in "Rhodes Not Taken." Later, a poster questions why the creators used a quadriplegic instead of Artie in "Laryngitis." That short discussion is silenced when a moderator posts a "friendly" warning against discussing the representation of disability in the character thread.

[3.7] The only person on the site to link to the blogs critiquing Glee's erasure of integrated dance is AnnieF, on pages 3238 and 3239 of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer thread ("Someplace that's else: The meet market," May 25, 2010, http://forums.televisionwithoutpity.com/index.php?showtopic=2891151&st=48555). She goes on to observe, "What I don't like about Artie's wish to be able-bodied is that it makes dance a solely able-bodied experience. He can't walk, therefore he can't dance. Grrr. That's annoying, because it's a big damn lie." (The Buffy connection is Joss Whedon's direction of the episode. That's what caused me to blog about it at Watcher Junior; Kociemba 2010b.) It's a shame her observations were so hidden; the Glee recappers and the readers of the series forum needed to see what she wrote.

[3.8] What's most notable, however, is the lack of comments on "Proud Mary" across all three communities. Most of the "Wheels" comments deal with the diva-off "Defying Gravity" number, Kurt's relationship with his father, whether Rachel's aggravation in this episode is justified, how lovable Sue is after the Down syndrome plotline, and various plot-hole and shipping debates. The absence of comment on "Proud Mary" is itself a damning indictment, given that it is the show-ending number in an episode that Glee creator Ryan Murphy labeled "a game changer" (Fernandez and Martin 2009). I attribute that response to the inauthentic choreography. Posters would have commented at their first exposure to the beauty of a sophisticated integrated dance sequence. Uninformed creators limit their work's potential by cutting themselves off from the communities of artists versed in the experiences of disability and its cultures.

4. Conclusion: Trapped on the screen

[4.1] Few of the fans I observed knew what they were missing. Each community was its own sort of inward-directed echo chamber. The official network community lacked the cohesion to engage the material posted by its most critical members. With no regularly active members, no sustained dialogue was possible despite the readers' exposure to the most criticism of the series. Gleefan.com members were too engrossed in their shipping and music appreciation debates to care what others were saying. TWoP's moderators stifled debate, its recapper's trademark snark didn't make up for a lack of research, and the site's architecture scattered the few informed fans. None of the three sites discussed disability stereotypes. These three fan communities were limited to discussing the plausibility of the plot, the singing, and the pleasure provided by the show's relationships. Viewers were trapped on the TV screen.

[4.2] When Kevin McHale's Artie says in "Wheels," "This isn't something I can fake," it has a double meaning. The experience of disability for the character isn't something he can fake because disability is located in social barriers, not individual physical impairments. But McHale is faking the mobility impairment. Woodlee is faking dance choreography informed by disability culture, and badly. And the creators fake progressive politics while reinforcing barriers for actors with mobility impairments and erasing authentic disability culture while pretending to celebrate it. "Wheels" and "Dream On" reveal that its creators think that there's nothing very special for mainstream audiences to learn from the experience of those with disabilities in their Very Special Episodes. As a result, their fans didn't learn much, and most couldn't find someone else to teach them.

5. Acknowledgments

[5.1] I thank In Media Res (http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/) editor Avi Santo for lending me a publishing opportunity and for providing his expertise; Stephanie da Costa for her presentation in the "Images of Disability" course, which sparked my interest in this topic; my mother, Alice Kociemba, for her support; and Kristen Romanelli, my fiancée, for everything.

6. Notes

1. This is in the tradition of situating the author in fandom studies and feminism scholarship (Cochran 2009). It's particularly important in disability studies. As the medical and rehabilitation fields have silenced those with physical and mental impairments by speaking for them, I also need to reveal that I spent 5 years with chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, an immune system disorder. Although no two impairments feature the same disabling cultural, physical, and economic environments, I do think that that there are enough commonalities across the spectrum of impairments to enable informed dialogue and solidarity.

2. There's even a BBC3 reality program on selecting their nation's team: Dancing on Wheels (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00pnsnq).

3. There are exceptions, such as black vaudeville performer Bert Williams, and complications, such as vaudeville's similar impersonations of German and Irish immigrants. For a catalog of recent crip drag performances and possible aversions, see TV Tropes' entry on crip drag (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=fskcfmp1mgmg6puklujp050t).

4. It's not just integrated dance that tends to get erased. Glee wants audiences to share in the outrage of the theft of their song list without reflecting on the fact that their sources—rock and roll, power ballads, and the musical's show tunes—are themselves the product of complex processes of cultural appropriation, cross-pollination, and exploitation. The fact that New Directions counters with "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is not without irony, given that the song itself was inspired by the Beatles' "Hey Jude."

5. This is their third casting of an actor with an impairment in a marginal role that in part serves to provide cover for their use of crip drag. To the creators' credit, Robin Trocki (as Jean Sylvester) and Lauren Potter (as Becky Jackson) have ongoing roles, albeit minor ones.

6. Norden (1994, 58–59) found that of the 430 feature films with disability themes in the 1912–30 period alone, 35 percent featured a miracle cure. The miracle cure remains a prominent feature of the medical melodrama, the medical mystery, miracle cure news stories, and Lost (2004–10).

7. Works cited

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Cochran, Tanya. 2009. Toward a rhetoric of scholar-fandom. PhD diss., Georgia State Univ.

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Kociemba, David. 2010a. "Proud Mary": Glee's very special sham disability pride anthem. In Media Res, April 9. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2010/04/09/proud-mary-glee-s-very-special-sham-disability-pride-anthem (accessed July 14, 2010).

Kociemba, David. 2010b. Glee's "Dream On" vs. reality. Watcher Junior, May 19. http://blog.watcherjunior.tv/2010/05/glees-dream-on-vs-reality.html (accessed July 15, 2010).

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