Blog four of four in a series on Glee.
To riff on the theme of last week’s blog calling Glee’s creators out for having Gay White Man Syndrome (which, I neglected to mention, also sometimes manifests as White Feminist Syndrome), the other major lecture I do on Glee when I teach Intro to Media Studies is on disability.
And how colossally they fail at representing it.
I’m imagining that the process of checkbox character creation went something like “Hey, let’s have a kid in a wheelchair! OMG yes, that’s awesome! We’re so freaking progressive.”
And yes, having a main character who isn’t bodily normative is a good step, just like the show’s casting beyond black and white, discussed last week is a step forward.But again, mere presence isn’t enough. Because what they do with the character now that they have him is a problem. What Artie really wants more than anything is to be “normal”—and there is no sense within the show that that word belongs in scare quotes.
That is, the character doesn’t operate with a model of “Hey, I’m different from you, and that’s ok ‘cause I’m good in my way and you’re good in yours.” Instead, he desperately wants to be a dancer—which, according to the show’s logic, can only mean dancing with legs.
So, somehow, for all the progressiveness of making Artie a main character and not the Problem of the Week, we’re right back with Poor Disabled Kid Who Can’t Achieve His Normative Dreams.
People sometimes have a hard time getting why this is a problem, so in my lecture I talk about Ari Ne’eman, the first openly autistic White House appointee in history. He was nominated in December 2009 to the National Council on Disability and confirmed in June 2010, a delay that may have had something to do with his criticism of the idea of curing autism.
In an interview with Wired, Ne’eman explains his position:
Wired.com: Though you criticize groups like Autism Speaks for focusing on a cure, if someone offered you a pill to wake up tomorrow without autism, would you take it?
Ne’eman: That’s an intensely silly question. How can I draw a line around one part of my brain and say that this is the autistic part, and the rest of me is something else? That way of looking at autism is predicated on the strange idea that there was or is a normal person somewhere inside me, hidden by autism, and struggling to get out. That’s not reality.
Here again it’s serendipitous simultaneity to the rescue, since I was (belatedly) watching the first season of Glee at the same time I was (belatedly) reading Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability and, I was like, “Oh my god, Robert McRuer would have a field day.”
McRuer calls our attention to the fact that (though admittedly it isn’t exactly the same) we would never ask:
“Wouldn’t you rather be white?” or
“Wouldn’t you rather be a man?” or
“Wouldn’t you rather be straight?”
But we would ask “‘In the end, wouldn’t you rather be hearing?’ and ‘In the end, wouldn’t you rather not be HIV positive?’” (McRuer, 2006, pp. 8-9). That is, though each of these things is a social hierarchy, only the first three do we identify as such. Accordingly, with race, sex/gender, or sexuality, we don’t think that just because something is normative it’s normal in an evaluative sense (except sometimes with being straight).
With disability, we don’t recognize that social privileging as social. That is, “able-bodiedness, even more than heterosexuality, still largely masquerades as a nonidentity, as the natural order of things” (McRuer, 2006, p. 1). McRuer wants to draw our attention to this and make us question the naturalness of assuming able-bodied is better and everyone’s goal.
In an example of what happens when we make strange the idea of normativity for all, the Wired article asks us to “imagine a world in which most public discussion of homosexuality was devoted to finding a cure for it, rather than on the need to address the social injustices that prevent gay people from living happier lives”
Ne’eman points out that “Dr. Ivar Lovaas, who passed away recently, said that his goal was to make autistic kids indistinguishable from their peers. That goal has more to do with increasing the comfort of non-autistic people than with what autistic people really need. Lovaas also experimented with trying to make what he called effeminate boys normal. It was a silly idea around homosexuality, and it’s a silly idea around autism.”
To counter ideas like this, there’s something that has been called the “neurodiversity movement.” Ne’eman, who belongs to this group, argues that “many of the bad things that autistic people struggle with are things that happen to us, rather than things that are bad about being autistic,”—that is, the hard part of being nonnormative is being in that subordinate position vis-à-vis the norm, not anything inherent to the bodily or mental state.
That is, there are plenty of other ways to make sense of these physiological differences between people. Lynne Roper—whose Disability in Media piece is what I actually assign to my students, McRuer being a bit hard core for a 100-level class—points out that “some religions will see epilepsy as possession by a god and therefore a gift, whereas in capitalist western societies where medicine is powerful, disability acts as evidence of the failure of medicine and is this treated negatively” (¶ 9).
The fact that we can’t see this, McRuer (2006, p. 37) argues, has a lot to do with the fact that “the vast majority of both nondisabled and disabled people have in effect consented to comprehending that binary [able-bodied/disabled] as natural.”
McRuer contends that what we need to do instead is see the able-bodied/disabled dyad “as nonnatural and hierarchical (or cultural and political) rather than self-evident and universal,” which he terms “cripping” on the model of “queering” or “ability trouble” on the model of Butler’s “gender trouble.”
Now, Glee has already caught some flak for how it does disability, notably for casting a bodily-normative actor to play Artie. And I imagine that their thought process after getting called out went something like, “Oh, that offends you? That’s cool, no problem. I’ll see your paraplegic and raise you quadriplegic. And the character will be all sympathetic and stuff and played by a Real Paralyzed Actor™.”
And maybe there is a flash of, “Woo hoo, Glee figured its shit out!” for a second.
But then that scene—in the episode entitled “Laryngitis”—goes on and it becomes clear that it’s not about the quadriplegic character at all. It’s about Rachel. The non-bodily-normative character is in the episode solely to lead Rachel (who, oddly given the episode’s title, is afflicted with tonsillitis rather than laryngitis) back to health. He shows her that possibly losing her singing voice if she has her tonsils out isn’t that bad after all because hell, she could be like him.
Are you kidding me?
Roper argues that representations of disability “are usually about the feelings of non-disabled people and their reactions to disability, rather than disability itself” (¶ 13). The way disability gets represented, she contends, is voyeuristic and lets the able-bodied feel better about themselves by comparison, and this is a textbook case.
That is, as McRuer (2006, pp. 8-9) points out, quite often the representation of non-normative embodiments “reveals more about the able-bodied culture doing the asking than about the bodies being interrogated.”
McRuer also notes that by using mobility disabilities, Hollywood can have bodily nonnormative characters that are both visibly different and still photogenic—particularly important when you cast bodily normative actors to play them, but clearly also in play here with this actor who is in fact not bodily normative but still looks pretty “normal.”
It seems like this may have been on the minds of the writers when they wrote one of the other storylines in the Laryngitis episode.
My imagination of their thought process again: “I got it. We’ll put in some characters with Down Synrdome. They will be a chance to show that Sue Sylvester has a heart, cuz you’d have to in order to be nice to people like that, right? And they look different and everything. And they’re very sympathetic characters—always unfailingly sweet. Problem solved, amirite?”
Having a character (and actor) who is cognitively nonnormative is a huge step forward. Having one with no depth whatsoever, even more so than the two-dimensionality of the other characters in the show, is not.
As one blogger put it:
“This episode especially irked me because of the sensitivity of the way Kurt’s storyline was handled. Kurt’s struggling with feeling abandoned by his father and he tries to mold himself into something he’s not and he and his dad have it out. Why do I get the feeling that Ryan Murphy, who is gay, put a lot of time, thought, and energy into that storyline? Because it shows. It was well done. It was a good scene. It spoke to experiences I’ve had of trying to pretend to be somebody else to please someone else and it resonated.”
Oh, wait, is that Gay White Man Syndrome rearing its ugly head again? You betcha.
Try again,Glee and try to peer around your enormous self-congratulation this time.