Are you counting down the days until Glee returns for a second season (23!) or are you groaning at the mere mention of a show you hoped would be wiped from the national memory once American Idol came back on the air and satisfied the public urge to see young people engage in petty competition and sweaty vocal gymnastics?
Whichever camp you fall into, you may remember the amount of controversy surrounding Glee’s use and attempted subversion of various stereotypes, which was covered in some detail by our very pithy Transcontinental Disability Choir guest blog back in November. Contributor s.e. smith wrote about the episode “Wheels”, which is mainly about the wheelchair-using* character Artie, in the post “Glee-ful Appropriation” (I recommend reading the entire post):
It does nothing to advance the cause of people who live in marginalized bodies. Hiring an actress with Down Syndrome for a single throwaway guest role is not including actors with disabilities. Centering a disability plot around able bodied characters is not including people with disabilities. Continuing to use crip drag (and having the actor unabashedly say “this isn’t something I can fake”) is not including people with disabilities. Painting accessibility as a hardship, a burden, and “special treatment” is also not including people with disabilities.
The use of “crip drag” was a particular source of contention among the disabled community (and the many fine commenters on Bitch blogs), but change may be on the way in Glee’s second season. Actor Zack Weinstein went to Glee’s open auditions and was hired to guest star in one episode. Weinstein has a spinal cord injury and is in a wheelchair; he plays a character who has a spinal cord injury and is in a wheelchair. In an open letter posted on the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation blog, Weinstein discusses his thoughts on crip drag and his reactions to Glee and the “Wheels” episode:
Some say that “Glee” should have tried harder to find a wheelchair using actor to play the part. Some say that if Kevin McHale was best for the part, then it shouldn’t matter whether or not he’s able to walk in real life. That’s the side I fall on.
I know for a fact that the producers did audition actors who use wheelchairs. I’m friends with one of those actors. Toby has a great voice but he looks too old for the part even by Hollywood standards. As long as actors with disabilities are given the opportunity to audition and are as seriously considered as able-bodied actors, I have no problem. The best actor should get the role.
…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.
One can’t know the true motivations of a show’s casting decisions. The Glee producers could have had the critical reactions of the “Wheels” episode in mind when they hired Weinstein… or they could have not. There’s really no way to know if their intention in hiring Weinstein was to appease the disabled community that spoke out against the use of crip drag, to take a step in the right direction by including more disabled actors in their program because of the issues raised by the “Wheels” episode, or simply because they just thought Weinstein was best for the part.
What do you think? Does Weinstein’s story and perspective change your opinion of Glee’s treatment of disabled characters?
*Ed.’s note: This language was changed from wheelchair-bound to wheelchair-using, because, as s.e. notes in the comments section, wheelchair-bound is not an appropriate term.