By now you might have heard that the popular TV series Glee recently aired an episode entitled “Wheels,” which was all about disability. It was a mixed bag. For the most part it was better than the sorts of cloying, sentimentalized depictions of disability on television–shows often advertised as “a very special Punky Brewster” (or whatever).
The main premise is that one of the regular characters, Artie (played by Kevin McHale), uses a wheelchair, and is going to have to find his own way to a glee club competition because the school district doesn’t have any accessible buses. The episode starts with Artie being framed by an individualized rhetoric of triumph over adversity–Artie is used to overcoming obstacles, Artie doesn’t mind–but it quickly undermines these messages. Artie does mind, and for most of the show the nondisabled glee club members are required to get around in wheelchairs. This of course is a learning experience for them, and it has the effect of visually challenging the normality of bodies not in wheelchairs for the show’s viewers. The show ends with a wheelchair dance number that’s nicely done, and is a lot of fun.
So there are good things about this show. But I had a number of problems with it, too. The most obvious problem is that it became the disability episode. Not only do we have Artie and his wheelchair, but we have two characters with Down syndrome. And while I am delighted to see actors with Down syndrome on any mainstream TV show, these two characters were used in problematic ways. The first, Becky Johnson, played by Lauren Potter, tries out for the cheerleading squad and is accepted. The good aspect of this is that she’s pushed really hard by the coach, who says that Becky wants to be treated like the other cheerleaders: she refuses to coddle her because of her diagnosis. The bad aspect is that she’s terrible, just terrible. She can’t do even the most basic things that the rest of the squad does.
And the worst aspect of the inclusion of the characters with Down syndrome is that they’re ultimately used, as the New York Times Arts Beat blog argues, “as a prop in the continuing humanization of [cheerleading coach] Sue Sylvester.” We find out that the coach let Becky onto the squad because her older sister (played by Robin Trocki) has Down syndrome, and we find this out when Sue visits her sister and reads her Little Red Riding Hood. Again, a mixed bag: many folks in the world have people we love with disabilities, and it’s nice to put that message out there. The scene with Sue and her sister was trying to be very loving and affectionate, and it sort of worked, but sort of verged into that cloying, a very special Glee kind of place. Is it sweet that Sue was reading her sister–her older, very clearly adult, sister–Little Red Riding Hood, or was it infantilizing of the sister for the sake of making Sue seem sweeter?
Ultimately the show can’t fully escape from the individualized triumph over adversity rhetoric that permeates a lot of mainstream treatment of disability. Near the end of the show, the character Kurt, as part of another plot line, tells his dad, “Being different made me stronger.” In some ways this is the message that the show leaves with its viewers, and it’s a message I have strongly mixed feelings about.