The much anticipated Very Special Disability Episode of Glee, “Wheels” aired last night. And already the rave reviews are flooding in. It’s “edgy,” it’s “a game changer,” it’s “controversial,” it’s “moving,” it’s “thought provoking.” Twitter is aflutter with praise.
Did everyone else watch the same episode I watched? Because what I got out of “Wheels” was tokenization and appropriation. I wrote three pages of notes while watching and they were filled with expressions of rage and horror, because this episode pretty much encapsulated, for me, everything that is wrong with the way Glee handles people living in marginalized bodies.
This show has been criticized from the start by activists decrying the use of crip drag, and the tokenization of minorities. The mainstream media caught on this week, releasing a flood of articles expressing shock and surprise about how disability activists were angry about Glee. This episode was evidently supposed to put it all to rest: See, they are actually sensitive to issues which people in marginalized bodies face and they aren’t just using people with disabilities as props!
Oh, except that they are. Glee’s method of handling minorities is to devote an episode to one minority storyline, and then to shove that minority into the background. We’ve had the Very Special Gay Episode, the Very Special Black Episode, and now the Very Special Disability Episode, which means that we can go back to focusing on the white, conventionally attractive leads. Who are, of course, the draw, because the most common argument used to justify exclusion of minority groups from film and television is that no one wants to watch them.
There were so many problems with the way this episode handled disability that it’s almost impossible to know where to start (truly, earlier drafts of this ballooned into thousands and thousands of words). It hit a number of major tropes for pretty much a hat trick of disability fail. We got “disability is inspiring,” “disability is a burden,” “appropriation of disability for a Very Special Learning Experience,” “faking disability,” and “see my sister has a disability so I’m not a bigot.”
Here’s the thing about tokenization, which is what this episode specialized in: 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.
Using a stunt double for wheelchair tricks and not admitting it is not including people with disabilities. Indeed, acting like you invented wheelchair choreography is not including people with disabilities. It’s very clear that an experienced wheelchair user was used as a stunt double for some of the more demanding tricks, and that the choreographer on the final number was not used to working with wheelchair users. Did you know that wheelchair dance is a competitive sport?
I want to touch briefly on some intersectionality fail that happened in this show; these are not specifically disability related, but it still made me cringe. Kurt’s throwaway line about “at least I won’t get a girl pregnant” which flew directly in the face of recent research showing that GLBT teens are more likely to experience teen pregnancy than heterosexual teens? Fail. Mr. Shu silencing Mercedes when she asked why she wasn’t being considered for a role? Fail. Continuing to depict women as lying, manipulative, evil harridans? Fail.
Did Glee get anything right this week?
Actually, yeah. I like that they at least tried to depict disabled sexuality, although they did it very crudely and awkwardly. One of my major criticisms of the show has been that they have not shown Artie demonstrating interest in anyone, or anyone being interested in Artie, and that changed this week. I also liked the depiction of Kurt’s dad, in some ways; I like that his father is willing to support him and to go to bat for him. But two small decent things do not overwhelm the monumental amount of fail that happened on Fox last night.
Glee: Same shit, different episode.