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The after school special goes primetime: Glee and disability

Glee is back on the airwaves this week with a double whammy of episodes, after an all-too-short hiatus. The musical hit, and its spin off merchandise, appears to be taking the world by storm, judging from the demand for Glee-themed albums and singles, as well as the show’s summer tour (as if the US wasn’t enough, they’re invading the UK next year). Ryan Murphy has created quite a goldmine for himself and Fox, which might explain why the network took the risk of airing an episode right after the Superbowl, a sacred event in US television programming.

As the show has progressed, it has devolved from a high school music romp with the usual sprinkling of tropes, thin plotlines, and painfully bad writing to something else entirely. Now Glee is an after school special airing in a primetime slot, ‘feel good television’ converted to ‘educational television,’ and critics are subjecting it to closer scrutiny while viewers appear divided on ‘I’m just here for the music’ versus ‘the messages this show is sending to viewers leave something to be desired.’

The show’s creators and producers have fallen into the common trap of believing they can depict human experiences without the need for research or investigation. While shows featuring medical and forensic storylines hire consultants to make sure they’re doing it right, television rarely does this with human lives, and this is painfully evident with Glee, where all the minority characters, with the exception of Kurt, are two-dimensional stereotypes reflecting what the producers think they are like, rather than what they are actually like.

Glee has been criticised up and down for its handling of fat, race, and disability, and many of the shortcomings of the show derive from the single problem that the creators don’t want to bother doing the research to make sure they are depicting things accurately, and they choose to ignore criticisms from people in a position to identify the problems with the show’s handling of a number of topics.

To take just one example, consider the show’s short-lived stuttering storyline, which went into a swan dive during the first season and was quietly shuffled under the carpet, never to be spoken of again. Stuttering appears to be a hot topic, thanks to the popularity of The King’s Speech, which appears to be in position to receive a number of awards and accolades this spring. Both Glee and The King’s Speech chose to reinforce common stereotypes about stuttering because their creative teams didn’t know any better.

Ample research shows that stuttering has neurological origins, and that if children receive treatment in childhood and do not recover, they are likely to continue to experience this speech impairment as adults. Yet, stuttering is often believed to be the results of psychology, not neurology, and this is echoed in the way pop culture addresses it; as something people can overcome if they try hard enough, something they will eventually ‘grow out of,’ as Kevin McHale claimed about the stuttering on Glee, and something that can also be used in inspiring storylines where viewers at home can feel uplifted by a stutterer’s winning battle.

On Glee, a show which claims to be sensitively handling social issues and projecting positive, educational, and informational messages, a pretty basic storyline was handled poorly enough to outrage numerous people who stutter. Despite the fact that Jenna Ushkowitz, the actress playing stuttering character Tina, claimed to have researched stuttering with care, many people pointed out that her stutter was obviously fake even before it was revealed as such on the show. People with disabilities in general expressed surprise that the Glee creators chose to depict Artie’s (Kevin McHale) response to the faking revelation as over the top, showing a profound lack of understanding about living with disability and the outrage many people experience in the face of fraudulent disability.

All of these matters could have been easily, efficiently, and well handled if the show had bothered consulting people, rather than assuming it knew what it was doing. Numerous disabled performers, consultants, and talent agents are available to talk about issues like this and make sure they are done well, but Glee didn’t seem to think it might be important to talk with any of them.

As Glee projects itself as ‘television with a conscience,’ it can expect to be held to a higher standard by the people it depicts and claims to speak for. So far, the show seems to be unable to take the heat, resorting to snide meta-commentary from the characters about people being ‘too PC’ and ‘too sensitive.’ People wondering why the show seems to attract particular ire from some populations, in comparison with other productions doing an equally bad job on these issues, might want to consider the stated authorial intent behind Glee, which plays a role in how people perceive it.

2 thoughts on “The after school special goes primetime: Glee and disability

  1. Help for Children and Adults Who Stutter: For 35 years the National Stuttering Association (NSA), which is the largest self-help non-profit organization for people who stutter in the country, has connected kids and adults who stutter to other kids and adults who stutter through local chapter meetings, workshops, on-line support groups and annual conferences in which over 600 people who stutter attend each year! They also offer tons of great brochures, pamphlets and other reference tools for both people who stutter and professionals. To learn more, pls contact them at: http://www.westutter.org, info@westutter.org or 1-800-937-8888

  2. Having spent time in a wheelchair having many and I mean many friends that use them paras, quads people with MS Parkinson’s etc. and knowing many of them as wonderful performers I’ve shared the stage with (yes some of them are excellent singers and exceptional actors) I feel it’s a shame that the producers went this direction. As stated the show is about the underdogs of the world and trust me you don’t get more shunned by society than when you’re disabled. To address a couple of points, when they want a new “Annie” they make a big show of auditioning thousands of girls with or without experience to find the next “big” thing when it’s disability driven it’s about “we couldn’t find anyone” and I know that’s a lie plain and simple they just didn’t care if they found a disabled actor it wasn’t important to them. They’re not evil they just don’t understand and they don’t want to understand it’s that simple. I am not saying they must hire a disabled actor all the time but I am saying they need to make a more concerted effort if the role calls for it. The subtext is “none of you are good enough” so we’ll have the able bodied actor show everyone what it’s like to “live” with a disability. The truth is there is only one way he could really know go break his spine and I don’t think the most enthusiastic method actor would do that. Technically they can have a body double for all of the walking stunts and paste the actors face on him in the past this was impossible to do now it is accessible and affordable if you plan for it. My bottom line is in this case I feel it does a lot of harm to the largest minority population in the world and says watch the show so you can see how we “think” your life should be portrayed not how it really is. Again it’s a shame because a disabled actor would bring so much more to the show in its production writing and impact to the audience.

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