I would be remiss in talking about pushback against intersectional critiques of pop culture without discussing my long and tormented relationship with the Fox hit Glee. To put it bluntly, I hate Glee.
Yet, a lot of feminists, including some of the staff here at Bitch, love Glee. The show is regularly celebrated on feminist sites, people post videos of their favorite moments, and everyone likes to talk about how great it is.
The reason I don’t like Glee is pretty simple: The show has some of the most horrifically troped depictions of people with disabilities I have ever seen. The show’s also been criticized for having a lot of problems when it comes to race and gay teens, but I want to focus on the disability aspect today, because the critiques of this show from the disability community have been universally ignored by the feminist community when it’s not busy dismissing them.
The problem with Glee isn’t that they have Artie, a wheelchair user, being played by a nondisabled actor. I mean, sure, that is definitely annoying, but that is not the problem. The problem is that Artie’s characterization is simply atrocious. The show’s appropriating a lived experience it hasn’t had, and it is doing it very badly. I know Glee can do better than this, because I have been watching the Kurt storyline evolve and I have been liking where it is going. Of course, Glee seems to have forgotten about the ‘T’ in ‘LGBQT’ since it’s quite comfortable hurling transphobic slurs.
Let’s take, just as one example, the episode ‘Dream On,’ which centers around Artie’s bitterness about his disability. The episode revolves around Artie dreaming of dancing, being unable to, and ultimately giving up a solo with Tina because he thinks he’s not good enough for her. I saw a lot of feminists lauding this as a sensitive, inspiring episode.
Did you know that wheelchair users dance? Well, they do. Glee apparently doesn’t, since it acted like it invented wheelchair dance with ‘Wheels,’ a widely lauded episode that, again, left some disabled viewers with a sour taste in their mouths. It’s interesting that the show hired a wheelchair athlete as a stuntman to do a lot of Artie’s scenes in that episode, because Kevin McHale doesn’t know how to use a wheelchair, let alone do tricks with it. This would seem to suggest some level of awareness on the part of the creators, but not enough of a level of awareness to have Artie’s dream sequence featuring him tearing up the dance floor in a wheelchair.
The things this show has done with disability are so awful that I can’t even begin to catalog them right now. Suffice it to say that disabled viewers who are angry about Glee (and not all people with disabilities are, some love the show) have good reason to be, and have articulated some very clear criticisms of the show.
Numerous feminist sites write about Glee. Some even attempt to discuss the show’s depiction of disability. However, instead of getting people with disabilities to write about the show, they have their nondisabled bloggers take a shot, and the results are pretty predictable.
There’s a saying: ‘nothing about us without us.’ Learn it, live it, love it, because it is a cornerstone of the disability rights movement and it applies to other marginalized groups as well. Don’t talk for us. Let us speak for ourselves, or speak with us.
I have gotten death threats for writing about Glee. I have been threatened with rape and violence, and been told to shut up (usually with a misogynist epithet a bit stronger than ‘bitch’ attached). Some of this pushback has come from feminists.
The pushback when it comes to Glee demonstrates some fascinating and complicated intersections. People want to be allowed to like the show, and resent being told that it has content some people think is problematic. Some people believe that people criticizing the show think that the people who like it are bad people, for reasons that remain opaque to me. But, more commonly, what I see is that people say ‘well, the show has problematic content, but I still like it,’ and they effectively write off and ignore the critiques. I can’t help but wonder how people would respond if I said that about a show that featured misogynist plotlines every episode.
The ableism on Glee is treated as a side issue, when it’s addressed at all. And this illustrates the limited interest that a lot of feminist spaces have in engaging with disability issues. A lot of people aren’t interested in discussing the structural issues that impact people with disabilities, and they definitely don’t want us dragging our disability rights activism into their pop culture.
A connection isn’t made when it comes to seeing how ableism in pop culture translates into ableism in real life, even though people are able to make that connection when it comes to misogynist content in pop culture. Until this connection is recognized, critiques about pop culture that focus on disability issues are going to be ignored by the feminist community, even when those critiques are written by feminists.
It’s worth questioning why pop culture that can be incredibly problematic when it comes to issues like class, disability, and race often gets a free pass in feminist communities, don’t you think?