Every television show has its point to make. Some make theirs better than others.
FOX's Glee has done a particularly good job of not only having engaging characters, story lines and music numbers, but having a message about what life is like for many gay kids and what it could be like. I have very much enjoyed the exchanges between Kurt, a flamboyantly gay kid, and his blue-collar father. The conversations between them have been refreshingly healthy and honest. Kurt's father can be ignorant and Kurt can be a little too self-righteous but they clearly both respect and love each other deeply.
NPR recently noted that Glee, along with Will & Grace, has had a significant impact on American attitudes towards homosexuality and gay rights issues. American families see an example of a sympathetic and genuine gay character and realize their stereotypes and demonizations might be flawed.
So I applaud Glee for its work in opening minds in this area and I hardly want them to stop. But I do think it's time for them to focus a little more on a different character and his unique struggles in high school.
This is Artie Abrams, a guitar player and background member of the Glee cast. He is played by former boy band member, Kevin McHale. Unlike other bloggers, I'm not going to opine the fact that McHale himself is able-bodied. Yes, they did miss a chance to give a disabled actor a good role — and it's not like visibly disabled actors can play able-bodied characters! — but an actor's fundamental job is to portray characteristics, not possess them himself. I wouldn't expect only gay actors to play gay characters or teenagers to play high-school-aged characters.
The focus should be on the writing and it is here that the otherwise remarkably adept Glee creators have fallen down. Artie is rarely a showcased in an episode, but when he is it is on episodes like "Dream On," in which he dreams of dancing. The entire episode is predicated on Artie feeling sad that he can't walk and ends with an insinuation that he will lose his girl to a boy with more physical prowess (which he eventually does). Instead of taking the opportunity to create a nuanced narrative — as they do with Kurt — showing how his difference is at once very difficult but also a key and inherently lovable part of his identity, Glee goes with a hopeless "cure" narrative.
They even include a a dream sequence in which Artie is able-bodied instead of using the opportunity to highlight a very cool sport called wheelchair dancing. Here's a taste:
I believe it is possible for shows like Glee to normalize disability. Friday Night Lights, for example, did a MUCH better job of portraying the complexities of life with a wheelchair. For one, they showed the character OUT of his wheelchair, showing how it is simply a tool he uses and not part of his personality. Unless I'm mistaken, Artie has never been seen out of his wheelchair except in that dream sequence.
But, you might say, why are you picking on Glee? There are tons of other shows on TV.
True. The trouble is that Artie is one of only five scripted main characters with disabilities on network television. At least Glee is evolved enough to even represent people* with visible disabilities, who account for 12 percent of our nation's population, but less than one percent of television characters.
That statistic, by the way, is originally from a study conducted by GLAAD, a gay rights group.
See, Glee writers? Even GLAAD knows we gotta stick together; treat everyone as good enough just as they are.
As the disability rights campaign I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People with Disabilities) says:
"In the same way that a more accurate representation of the American Scene has led to changes in attitudes toward LGBT people, the inclusion of people with disabilities in popular entertainment has the potential to make a difference."
* Glee also has two minor characters with Down syndrome and I don't think they've done a very good job representing their complexities either, but I decided not to get into it here.