Everybody Loves "Glee" (Except the Disability Community and People With Asperger's)

So much teaching going on, and no learning.
Publish date:
September 29, 2011
ableism, television, glee, fox, chickens

So, "Glee" is back. My Twitter timeline seems to be about evenly split between cries of rejoicing and people moaning about their love/hate relationship with the show. I have a confession to make, though, which is really not much of a confession of all to anyone who knows me: I have a hate relationship with "Glee." I never thought I would be in the position of hatewatching a show, but "Glee" took me there.

What, you ask, could there possibly be to hate about "Glee"? Oh, my homechickens, come a little closer. Yes, that’s it.

Settle yourself down on a comfy couch, and let me tell you all about it.

"Glee" was promoted as being all about the triumph of the underdog, overcoming the adversity of being stuck in the wrong high school social circle, and fun times. I visualised many happy nights with my popcorn bowl1, my friends.

But then, we got bait and switched. "Glee" decided that it couldn’t just be a fun high school musical show, it needed to Say Things. About The Human Condition. And Society. And Life As We Know It. "Glee" needed to send messages to the youth, in the guise of a scrappy underdog narrative where the cool kids were the gay kids, the kids of colour, the disabled kids. So everybody could feel Empowered!

Only, apparently the show didn’t think it was necessary to talk to the minority communities it was depicting when it came to handling characters like Artie, and Mercedes, and Tina. The producers and writers were so very confident that they could get it right, that they didn’t need to do any research2, and they certainly didn’t need to respond to critics.

And "Glee" has been criticised. Most particularly by the disability community, which started raising eyebrows in the pilot, when not only did the show reveal the decision to cast a nondisabled actor in a disabled role, but it decided to make that role as hatefully offensive as possible. And it’s kept right on going with that in its stereotyped and dehumanising depiction of Artie, as well as the occasional appearances of other disabled characters on the show.

The thing about "Glee" is that it’s one of the most high-profile shows on television to feature disabled characters at all. Which means that a lot of people seem to expect us, the disability community, to be going gaga over it, and they’re extremely upset that we’re not.

Because, you see, the other half of representation is GOOD representation, and this is what "Glee" fails at, spectacularly and miserably. Despite being provided with feedback on how it could improve, despite being asked to participate in standards and practices panels on the use of disabled characters, despite begs and pleas from actual people with disabilities saying that, gosh golly doughnuts, we would really love to see a show featuring people like us who aren’t ... horrible stereotypes used for humour/‘inspiration.’

Who could forget the "inspiring" episode featuring a disabled ex-football player who was there to inform Rachel that her life wasn’t so bad, because at least she wasn’t disabled? I certainly couldn’t. Who could forget the endless digs at the Deaf Choir3? I certainly couldn’t. Who can forget the show’s endless cracks about mental illness, from "bipolar rantings" to Emma’s cutesy case of TV OCD? I certainly cannot. And I have barely scratched the surface, here.4

It’s finally gotten to the point where the show appears to be actively thumbing its nose at us, and that was really brought home last week, when we were introduced to a new character, Sugar Motta, who let all the viewers at home know exactly what "Glee" thinks about disability with her line as she entered the practice room:

"I have self-diagnosed Asperger’s, so I can pretty much say whatever I want."

Fun fact: Self-diagnosis is an extremely controversial topic in the autism and Asperger’s communities. Vicious pro and against arguments rage5, and "Glee" has clearly fallen on the "against" side of the discussion, revealing its contempt for the very idea with this character as she strolls into the room, filled with confidence and surety. "This is what happens, kids," the show says, "when you let people self-diagnose."

And, of course, the other half of Sugar's statement, which sums up pretty much every cultural stereotype about Asperger’s and autism spectrum disorders, and particularly about self-diagnosed people. There’s a common belief that people with Asperger’s, and people on the autism spectrum, "just have an excuse to be rude," and routinely use the "unfair advantage" of the diagnosis to "get away with things."6 The things that viewers must have taken away from that episode make my blood run cold.

"Glee," despite claiming to send positive messages about inclusion and community, regularly pulls these kinds of stunts. It routinely reinforces decades of harmful mythologies that the disability community has been fighting back on, and it wants to receive a pat on the back for it. In fact, it gets more than that; the show routinely wins awards, including "diversity awards" for its depictions of disability, while actual disabled people scream and writhe in rage and horror.

So yeah. "Glee," here’s to another season of hatewatching.


1Which, as long as we are on the subject, I hope we are all in agreement that the best popcorn comes from the stovetop, where the experience is always filled with a little frisson of excitement because you fear, when you crack open the popper, that you might get bopped in the face with a flying kernel. It happened to my uncle once. He’s never been the same. 2This is, er, very common for Hollywood, where actors talk about things like not really needing to talk to any autistic people about a role because they "read a lot of articles."3Because, you know, Deaf people can’t sing. Which is why they get things like commissions and arts grants for their performances.4I have been warned about Word Limits.5Please let’s don’t hash out this argument in the comments, because I would like to be able to sleep this week.6Yes that was a lot of scarequotes. Scarequotes mean contempt.