Crip Drag No More?

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.

Zack Weinstein

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?

For more on feminism and ableism, check out the Transcontinental Disability Choir guest blog and/or Feminist With Disabilities For A Way Forward.

*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.

by Sara Reihani
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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Ok, first of all,

Ok, first of all, "wheelchair bound" is, uhm, not a good term to use. <a href=" why "Wheelchair user" would be much more appropriate</a>.

Weinstein's story doesn't change the way in which Glee has handled disabled characters up to this point, but we may be seeing some shifts in the second half of the season when the show returns from hiatus. If we do, it's not because they are "appeasing" (seriously?!) disability rights activists, but because the producers are actually responding to the criticism which was leveled at the show from the minute the pilot aired. Which would be a good thing.

Weinstein's dismissiveness of the criticisms (especially his implication that the show was only criticized after "Wheels" when in fact the criticism was well established at that point and "Wheels" was in part a response to the backlash over Artie) was quite enraging. Of course, he's an actor, and he wants to get jobs--it's not as though he is going to critique Glee and its producers in a public forum.

I can't know if the way in which I view the show will change until I actually see it; I do see this story being written up as some sort of evidence that Glee is magically better now, which just goes to show you how adeptly the show's producers are using the publicity machine.

Don't get me wrong, I am glad to see Glee casting a wheelchair user for this role. But that doesn't erase the problematic history of the show and that doesn't change the fact that Artie's characterization has, thus far, been extremely problematic. Something which might change my opinion of the handling of his character? Giving Artie greater autonomy. Seeing Artie in a relationship. Seeing Artie push back against people who grab his chair and push him around without consent. Seeing Artie used as something other than a fucking prop.

What do you think? Does

<em>What do you think? Does Weinstein's story and perspective change your opinion of Glee's treatment of disabled characters?</em>


Mostly because Weinstein's story doesn't address the bulk of critiques of the show.

Your article implies that the only criticism people had of Artie's storyline was that Kevin McHale is not a wheelchair user. This ignores the substantive critiques many people have made of the show's treatment of people with disabilities, such as the "stuttering is so easy to fake for years" storyline, Artie being treated as a prop who rarely ever actually pushes his own wheelchair, the use of the "very special disability episode" trope, and the show getting kudos for having a character with a disability despite rarely ever giving the character any <em>lines</em>. And every time I think about the "ha ha ha" joke of "deaf person who doesn't know he's deaf! Ha ha!" I want to scream.

I'm really tired that any substantial critique of the pop-culture treatment of people with disabilities always being boiled down to "what, do you want us to only cast PWD to play characters with disabilities?" No, we want pop culture to stop treating characters with disabilities like the butt of jokes, like props to be rolled out on a whim, like very special episodes, or like Oscar bait.

I'm very happy that Glee has cast an actual disabled actor to play an actual disabled person in one actual guest spot in one actual episode. I won't be watching the episode because I have no more patience for the show and the amount of abuse I get for talking about it, or any other critique of pop culture's representation of disability.


If the Glee production team wants to "appease" disability activists who have critiqued the show (remember, the "Wheels" episode has not been the only thing that's gotten our attention!) they're going to have to do much more than just cast Weinstein in a guest role in ONE episode. One episode cannot make up for all of the massive disability-related fail of the first season.

I agree that Glee has more

I agree that Glee has more issues than the fact that the character playing Artie is in crip-drag. But, for all its fail, I feel compelled to give Glee props for at least having a character with disabilities. As a PWD, I am always happy to see characters with disabilities being played in the media, even if they are played by folks in crip drag.

I also disagree with people who see Artie as not independent enough. Artie is, in my mind, about as independent as you would expect a high schooler to be. He also had an important movement of self-definition when he told Tina off for faking her stutter. Artie is a character I want to see more of.

Glee has its problems, that is certain. But I think it has opened discussions about many issues in the lives of teens and I think that is a good thing overall. Maybe I am being overly optimistic, but I think Glee has a great deal of potential and I look forward to seeing how the issues raised in the first part will be addressed in the second.

Artie didn't tell Tina off

Artie didn't tell Tina off for lying about the stutter. He told her off for ruining his fantasy of a perfect little broken doll girlfriend. He was more upset by her not being some how "defective" than by her lying.

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