Glee: Dream On

Allow me to begin by saying: What in fresh hell is this shit?

I keep thinking that Glee can’t possibly get any worse in terms of how it handles disability, and then it manages to dredge hitherto unknown depths. I knew this episode would be bad because of the way it was being marketed, but I had no idea it would be this bad.

And let’s, in the interests of curiosity, contrast some responses.

Here’s a wheelchair user talking about ‘Dream On’:

Message after message of what Artie, the kid in a wheelchair, can’t do. No wonder kids with disabilities are still excluded from opportunities. It’s not because of their wheelchairs or because they can’t walk far enough- it’s because of how we think about disability. How teachers, educators and peers think about it. How they themselves are taught to think about it.

And here’s a (presumably) nondisabled person writing about ‘Dream On’:

It’s great that the writers are letting Artie deal with his disability slowly and realistically, rather than ending on some corny line about how he’ll dance in his own way.

A commenter on the same post (responding to a commenter pointing out that this episode was awful in terms of disability):

Wait, so you ignored the care and consideration the rest of his story was handled with in favor of picking at the fact that the actor is not himself disabled and determined it was offensive? I mean, I get that as a valid complaint, but this is by far the least offensive thing they’ve done for the character and it actually approached his problems in a way that was real and wasn’t nicely wrapped up in a bow of inspiration by episode’s end, but it’s getting more offensive somehow because they let Artie have a dream sequence about getting to dance? Because those with similar disabilities never have such dreams or something?

Missing the point on aisle six!

For those who haven’t seen the episode yet, ‘Dream On’ featured Neil Patrick Harris (the bright spot in this episode, he was amazing) threatening the glee club with funding cuts, Rachel searching for her birth mother, and Artie…well. At the start of the episode, the characters are asked to write down their dreams. Artie writes down ‘dancer’ and proceeds to spend the rest of the episode bemoaning the fact that since he can’t walk, he will never dance.

Then, he has a dream sequence where he is magically able to walk again and engages in a dance number. This cements his misery, and he gives up a dance with Tina, telling her that Mike should take his place because, well, he can’t dance so he’s not worthy. This is also an episode where Artie says he’s going to give up on his dream of being a performer and direct.

Which is pretty fucking ironic seeing as how last week’s episode featured a disabled actor playing a disabled character, and one of the things that actor has said in interviews is that when he was first injured, lots of people said ‘oh well, you can always direct,’ and he said ‘no, I want to be a performer,’ so he made that happen. The message of this week’s episode directly contradicted the reality, which is that people with disabilities can and do become performers.

Oh, and also?

Wheelchair users can dance. Wheelchair users can dance. Wheelchair users can dance. Wheelchair users can dance. Wheelchair users can dance. Wheelchair users can dance. Wheelchair users can dance. They don’t dance ‘in their own way.’ They dance. They are accomplished artists and athletes. Saying that wheelchair users dance ‘in their own way’ is like saying that Olympic skaters skate ‘in their own way.’ It’s offensive, it’s ignorant, and it’s a giant fuck you to hardworking, talented people.

You know what would have been awesome, since Glee seems to be trying to take itself seriously now? If Artie had been sent to dance camp. Of course, the show couldn’t do that, because Kevin McHale can’t dance in a wheelchair. Maybe if Glee had cast an actual wheelchair using dancer, they would have had a storyline showing that, uhm, yeah, wheelchair users dance. Instead, they had to have the classic disability trope involving a dream sequence of walking again. Yeah, Glee, you backed yourself into a bit of a corner there, didn’t you?

Of course, considering all the interviews with the show acting like it invented wheelchair dance for ‘Wheels,’ it doesn’t surprise me that the show is sticking to the ‘wheelchair users can’t dance’ myth. And perpetuating it. To the point that people think that people criticising the show are complaining about the casting of a nondisabled actor (oh, we are, that’s definitely part of it), as opposed to critiquing the very problematic depictions of disability. Wheelchair users watching the show who haven’t been exposed to wheelchair dance? What are they taking away from this?

And what is the viewership taking away from this show about how people with disabilities feel about their disabilities? ‘Oh but the show is supposed to be sarcastic,’ people say, except that, I don’t know if you have noticed? Glee is taking a much more serious turn lately. The show seems to think that ‘responding to criticism’ involves trying to be serious, and it’s failing miserably because it’s fake, forced, out of place, and weird. That scene with Rachel’s mother? I was impressed that the show spoke to the experiences of birth mothers and tried to do so in an honest, serious way, but it just felt so ridiculous because the tone the show has set is that it’s meant to be jokey and campy. Randomly inserting serious scenes just feels really, really weird.

What viewers are learning is that people with disabilities constantly yearn for what they don’t have. Think longingly about all the things they can’t do. Spend their time feeling sorry for themselves.

Let me tell you something: There are a lot of things I can’t do because of my disabilities. For the most part, those are things I’m not interested in, and I don’t spend much time feeling sad that I can’t do them. Yes, sometimes my disabilities pose a barrier to me, usually because society has created barriers for people like me. Sometimes I get frustrated. But, you know what? I have a life to live. I don’t have time to sit around the living room bemoaning the fact that I will never become an astronaut. Neither do a lot of people with disabilities. Glee is framing disability as a can’t and a not. As opposed to an aspect of identity. And that’s not how I think about disability (I know that some people with disabilities feel differently, and I’m speaking to my own experience here), and it’s not how I want to present disability to people, especially newly disabled people who are struggling.

Personally, I think that Glee should stop trying to take itself so seriously, in addition, of course, to stopping with the self-congratulatory gladhanding about how progressive and sensitive and meaningful it is. I think that this mix of Serious Learning Moments and over the top theatre and biting sarcasm is just not working and it’s honestly making my perception of the show worse than it already was. It’s ok, Glee. You don’t have to be serious. Have fun with yourself. Be silly. Be sarcastic. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Please.

And I think that, perhaps, mainstream sites trying to cover the ‘Glee controversy’ should consider getting actual people with disabilities to write for them, so that they don’t look astoundingly ignorant. And so that their readers have a chance to read material that isn’t missing the point.