So, let’s just get it over with. This episode of Glee has gotten a lot of attention because it featured Zack Weinstein in a guest role. ‘See,’ people said, ‘now the people with disabilities can stop whining, because Glee used a disabled actor to play a disabled character!’
Only, see, that’s one facet of the problem, the limited roles available to people with disabilities, and the insistence on only casting disabled actors in roles as disabled characters. That is a problem. It’s a big one. It needs to be addressed; we need to see more disabled actors in general, more availability of roles for people with disabilities, whether or not those roles are for disabled characters. The other part of the problem? Is the depiction of people with disabilities.
Here’s what Weinstein said, writing about the role:
The part that I was auditioning for was a character who had suffered a spinal cord injury. I read the script and it’s a great part. I wanted it bad…The important thing is that people like me are being written into popular shows like “Glee”. They didn’t base the character on me, I ended up being a good representation of the character they created. (source)
The role, for those who haven’t watched the episode, is that of a high school football player who receives a C4 injury (the same injury Weinstein has) and develops quadriplegia. We see him in two scenes. In both scenes, he is lying at home in a hospital bed in a football jersey, his wheelchair beside him. Picture of lost dreams and woe, complete with an ‘I miss my body’ line.
Because apparently what quads do is lie around in bed all day and be sad.
They don’t have jobs.
They never leave their houses.
They aren’t, say, successful actors who, when informed that maybe they can ‘direct’ after a C4 injury say ‘no, I want to act,’ and go on to land roles on major television shows.
I just…you know? It was a guest role. It was a single episode. Glee is patting itself on the back again and being preened by the media for boldly featuring a disabled actor, and the characterisation made me extremely grumpy. The character was your pretty classic Inspirational Cripple. Rachel has to tell him ‘thank you’ repeatedly to underscore how grateful she is about the lessons he taught her. And the entire thing left me with a seriously bitter taste in my mouth; a reminder of the way that people think about disability and people with disabilities. Of course a quad lies in bed all day. What else would be do, other than be a provider of teachable moments for nondisabled people? And why would Finn bother visiting him more than every few weeks? It’s not like he’s going anywhere! Haha!
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.
This was a storyline that I would normally be pointing to and saying: Hey, good job! Way to pull it out of the hat, Glee! But instead, this scene just reminded me of how much Murphy didn’t invest in trying to make a good disability storyline. The show has the potential, it’s not that it’s completely bad across the board, it just doesn’t fully utilise that potential. And, you know, I’m stoked that Weinstein was happy with his role and that he felt it was important and that it advanced the cause of people with disabilities and disability on television, but I, respectfully, do not feel the same way. I felt like the scene actually took us backwards. At least with Artie, the show has tried to explore things like sexuality for people with disabilities. Has tried to think outside the disability box a little.
They couldn’t even be bothered to integrate Weinstein into the final number. They opted to cut back and forth between ‘tragic trapped in bed forever‘ scene and ‘everyone singing and dancing on stage and being so happy!’ scene.
And I don’t even want to get into the incredibly problematic characterisation of Mercedes throughout the series and in this episode in particular. This episode featured another ‘tee hee, we’re so bad’ moment when Mercedes said ‘ok, you just said about eight offensive things’ to Puck while he was hitting on her, and followed with ‘I’m gonna have to ask you to stop. I’m getting embarrassed for you.’
No seriously. Go read ‘Ryan Murphy Lives in a Glass House.’
This is a man who is outspoken about what he sees as homophobia on Newsweek’s part, but he can’t even be arsed to take the criticisms of his own show seriously. He mocks those criticisms openly in the show. And expects to be patted on the back for being just so progressive.