Thursday, November 12, 2009

GLEE's “Wheels” episode

I might get in trouble for writing this, but I really liked last night's "Glee." It was the wheelchair episode of the Fox network's hit TV series--you know, the one in which the whole group, in trying to learn greater empathy for their wheelchair-using member Artie, spends time in wheelchairs.
It brought up issues such as why it's unfair to have the wheelchair kid travel in his dad's car instead of the club's bus (the school won't pay for an accessible bus). And the lack of ramps around the school.

It even ended with the kid's annoyance that the others are only pretending, that although the fact that they're spending time in wheelchairs seemed nice at first--he goes so far as to start a romance with the girl who stutters, sensing a kindred spirit--the others can always get out of their wheelchairs … a choice he doesn't have. I, too, have always had doubts about these kinds of exercises in empathy.

I acknowledge that, at times, he was a tad pitiful in his isolation and exclusion, but it rang true for me. And he was strong in that he taught the others how to dance in a wheelchair. He was teaching them instead of being helped or pitied, and not in a sappy or inspirational way.

The only problem, in case you haven't heard, is that the actor playing Artie (Kevin McHale, apparently from a band called NLT) does not actually have a disability. He does it well, I think. The way he sits. The way he moves. Could have fooled me. But sadly, no, the actor is able-bodied. And, so far anyway, there hasn't been a scene of him dreaming of walking or anything like that, thank God. He's always in the wheelchair. Which is to say there's no reason for his being played by an able-bodied actor, no excuse for not hiring an actor who can't walk.

Why on Earth not choose an actor/singer/dancer who really does use a wheelchair?

Not that he should have been excluded because he's not disabled. Let me be clear:

I have nothing against nondisabled actors portraying characters with disabilities IF actors with disabilities are also given the chance to portray characters that don't necessarily call for disabilities. If you're casting a doctor or lawyer or cop or whatever, why not use or at least consider an actor in a wheelchair (or who's blind, deaf, etc.)? That would be fair.

Unfortunately, the entertainment industry is not fair. From what I've heard, although the producers of "Glee" claim it's hard to find someone with sufficient talent for their unusual program, they DIDN'T EVEN CONSIDER PERFORMERS WITH DISABILITIES. They can't say the talent wasn't there, because they didn't audition any.

"It was very hard to find people who could really sing, really act, and have that charisma you need on TV," Brad Falchuk told USA Today (linked below). Falchuk is an executive producer of "Glee." Another thing he found hard, the poor dear: "It's hard to say no to someone that talented," he said, of McHale.

Hey buddy, you think YOUR life is tough?

(A familiar tactic: the guilty acting like the victim.)

Would having an actual crip in the role have enhanced last night's storyline? Impossible to say. I thought the story was well done anyway. But the casting is definitely, patently unjust to performers with disabilities. There are so few roles for them, yet so much talent.

Possibly the best current example of an actor with a significant disability in a role that doesn't require it can be seen in the original "CSI," the CBS phenomenon. My old friend Dave Hall, a.k.a. Dr. Robbins, struggled for many years as an actor who uses crutches. He worked, but not enough. Did a lot of radio and cartoon voices. Until "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" came along nearly a decade ago.

The latest addition to the short list of TV programs featuring actors with real, highly visible disabilities is "Brothers," also on Fox. The comic actor Daryl "Chill" Mitchell is a strong character in an unfortunately mediocre sitcom, it seems to me. Okay, I haven't watched many episodes. And the little bit I've seen bothers my disability consciousness. Look at the background sets, for example. The bar he co-owns with his brother has three steps at the front entrance. How does the dude get in every day? Is there a back entrance? (If this or other access issues were dealt with in an old episode I missed, I hope someone will let me know.)

Here's the point: "Glee" errs in having a nondisabled performer portray a wheelchair-user. That's for sure. It's the disability equivalent of black- or yellow-face. Nevertheless, it's gone further than any other program I can think of in bringing disability issues to the fore. No, its treatment of accessibility and acceptance and such may not be perfect. It isn't everything activists want. But let's put its shortcomings in context, shall we? To some, its gay character, Kurt--is the actor, Chris Colfer, actually gay? I have no idea; doesn't matter, since so many (secretly) gay performers do get work playing straight roles--is fairly stereotypical, too. He likes musicals and talks a lot about his fashion sense. He doesn't really advance gay issues much, does he? Kurt also figured prominently in the wheelchair episode, but to me to less eye-opening effect.

Then there are the bimbo blonde cheerleaders, the smart nerdy Asian kids, the heavyset African-American woman who sings a mean gospel, the dumb jocks, etc. Stereotypes, all! But in a way the show turns those stereotypes upside down. It makes fun of making fun of people. And it celebrates the differences.

If "Glee" is going to put together a group of minority misfits, isn't it great that it's including disability--at least conceptually, if not in actuality--as part of the mix?

Sometimes it takes a member of the majority culture, an insider, to bridge the gap (open the door?) to integrating a misunderstood minority group into the mainstream. I know this firsthand. Many bigots find it easier to accept me as an equal when they see me being accepted by people like themselves, that is, in the context of my nondisabled family. It's as if, if SHE can accept him, then maybe I can too . Mr. Spock had to have Capt. Kirk to make him acceptable--likable, even sexy--to a mainstream audience. It shouldn't be, but it is so.

Do the ends justify the means? That is, do the benefits of the "Glee" episode outweigh the sins of disability blackface? I'm not an actor, but from where I sit, whether justified or not, the result--bringing into TV watchers' living rooms the concept of the importance of providing a sufficient quantity of ramps and accessible, integrated buses--looks like a good thing, a measure of progress toward integration.

And after all, isn't integration what it's all about?

For more on this subject, see:
To view the actual episode (or others), go to or


  1. ben:

    re: "Why on Earth not choose an actor/singer/dancer who really does use a wheelchair?"

    as someone who had a career in the acting biz (hollywood movies, midwestern commercials), I can tell you it's a tricky business, and who they do or don't hire is something NOT to get up in arms about. honestly, they might not have had any options as far as a wheelchair-bound actor (and, yes, I've performed with such), or it may be something more behind-the-scenes that we can not understand, such as a legal issue.

    Speaking as someone who's been passed over and replaced by other actors, it's just the nature of the business, and not worth exerting energy over. I respect your desire to see such, and your questioning the system, but I've been there, and best to just focus on your own stuff.

  2. Ben:

    I must kindly disagree with Etiquette Bitch. I think that the status quo in Hollywood is something to "get up in arms about". If we constantly accept that all women are a size 2 (or 0), all men are good looking and have hair or are bald because they choose to shave it and relationships are usually about sex (or solved with sex) - we are in a lot of trouble.

    Though I do not hold an actors equity card, my husband is "in the biz" and there are many talented disabled actors and musicians who are passed over, not utilized, or give up.

    I agree that Glee is doing a great job of showing numerous people/stereotypes. I do not begrudge Kevin McHale a role in Glee - he is quite talented and has obviously done his research as I believed him to actually be wheelchair dependent until I googled him. However,if the producers of Glee had looked I am sure they could have found a wheelchair bound actor with an amazing voice to play the part of Artie.
    It is a complex issue and I applaud Glee for tackling handicap accessibility and stereotypes. I am thankful that these issues - as well as the others that Glee is focused on - are being openly discussed. Parents and teachers have an opportunity for frank discussions as kids eat up every episode. Adults are talking amongst themselves and change will not come until we 1)discuss the issue 2)recognize a need and 3) ask for it.

    If we only focused on our own stuff the world would be a horrible place: civil rights would not have happened, woman would not be voting, Hitler would have reigned and children would be working in factories instead of schools.

    Let's just hope that other shows follow Glee's lead and keep us talking.