Push(back) at the Intersections: Glee and Me

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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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.

Meanwhile, disability rights activists were furious. Especially wheelchair users who dance.

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?

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28 Comments Have Been Posted

I love this blog

The "Dream On" episode's depiction of Artie made me really uncomfortable and the only reason I haven't said anything about it to anyone is because I have never been in a wheelchair and I try not make grand statements about experiences I've never had. I have Attention Deficit Disorder and I don't necessarily consider myself disabled (although I think my college's DSS does), but that episode gave me the same uncomfortable/ annoyed feeling that TV/movie characterizations of people with ADD do.


I'm always glad when I read this blog because it lets me know that "it's not just me" when it comes to many of the bothersome things I encounter. I'm constantly told that I over-think everything, but I think my accusers are really under-thinking.

And you didn't even get to

And you didn't even get to the episode where Rachel suddenly understands what it's like being trapped in a bed, paralyzed! Because non-disabled people can understand, they can really really understand!
Huzzah for pressuring people not to give supposedly progressive shows a free pass on lazy, problematic writing and characters. <i>Glee</i> has had several portrayals of physically and mentally challenged characters throughout its first season, and it has come up on the wrong side every time. And feminist pop culture addicts need to get more vocal with the creators about what's wrong over at their show.

Oh, that episode. Oh, how,

Oh, that episode. Oh, how, how much I hated it. I especially hated the tokenisation involved in the decision to use a disabled actor in a role that was basically 'being disabled is the WORST THING EVER!!!!!' If you're dying to read more of my thoughts on that episode, my writeup <a href="http://meloukhia.net/2010/05/glee_laryngitis.html">is in the this ain't livin' archives</a>. Hate. That. Episode.

I've read it, hon. And it

I've read it, hon. And it was right on target!

right on

Good for you for calling this stuff out. Death threats?? Violence and rape?? Just for telling it like it is? People are ridiculous. It's a TV show, and if people are going to get all defensive about where a *TV show* gets it right and wrong... people need to get their priorities straight. We can all improve, but nothing gets better if we don't talk about it and accept where we go wrong.

I do think!

(The title of this comment is in response to the question posed at the end of the article)

Actually, what I wanted to say was that, prior to reading this article, I did not know of wheelchair-using dancers, and I wanted to thank you for cluing me in. My previous assumption that wheelchair users would not be dancers was quite ableist of me, and I'm glad to see that reality is different from that assumption.

I think you're right in addressing the defensive stance people take when some aspect of pop culture they like is critiqued. (I've never watched Glee and know nothing about it other than that from what I saw of the ads for it on TV, it didn't appeal to me.) I don't understand the seeming mentality that to dislike or even question some aspect(s) of, say, a TV show, is to strongly dislike the show as a whole, and to extend that distaste to the fans. But maybe it has to do with that fact that (in my experience) many people watch TV in order to NOT think, and to insist on thought may be, for some people, stressful and counterproductive to the escapism that TV watching promises them.

And, uh, random question, but what -ism would you give to discrimination against people who wear glasses? I ask because I wear corrective lenses and see anti-glasses stuff a lot. Would that count as ableism, since it is based in an individual's ability to see?

Deaf Performance Art

In case anyone who has watched the show comes along, there are also Deaf show choirs who perform in Sign, and don't need nice Hearing folks to come along and start singing with them. Gallaudet University, a Deaf university in the US, has a Dance Company: http://dance.gallaudet.edu/ It's almost like PWD make art! They do performance art! And it doesn't look much at all like what they put on <em>Glee</em>! But oh, it's so <em>touching</em>.

Am I being called a dick

Am I being called a dick here? If that's the intent, please be direct? I'm sorry if my ableist myopia (oxymoron?) offended you. I'm, you know, trying to be up front about my own ignorance. Will you threaten me with violence next, in keeping with teh interwebz flamewars format?

I don't think so...

Hi Owl,

I can't speak for Anna, but I read the frustration in her comment as being with <i>Glee</i>, not with you (Anna, please step in if I'm wrong here). When it comes to critiques of a show like <i>Glee</i>, emotions run understandably high (for reasons s.e. pointed out in ou's post).

We're doing the best we can to make sure no one calls anyone a "dick" or threatens one another with pop-culture-induced violence in this space. I believe it can be done!

<b>Kelsey Wallace, web editor</b>

<i>Ask me about our <a href="http://bitchmedia.org/comments-policy">Comments Policy</a>!</i>

Nope! I think Anna was

Nope! I think Anna was pointing out that many nondisabled viewers of the show come away with a lot of misconceptions about disability--that wheelchair users can't dance, or Deaf folks can't sing, so she was preempting the inevitable discussion of the Deaf choir that will probably come up in comments. Believe me, when Anna wants to call people dicks (or any other body part), she doesn't pussyfoot around. :)

Okay, I'm glad. I'm also

Okay, I'm glad.
I'm also rather immaturely happy you used "pussyfoot" in that sentence.

Yes, yes, yes!

<i>Suffice it to say that disabled viewers who are angry about Glee (and not all people with disabilities are, some love the show) [...]</i>

How about both? While I love the musical numbers, I am regularly made angry by the way the show attempts to "deal" with disability issues, queer issues and even just gender dynamics. (I believe it that there are problems with depictions of race, but I'm sure I am less equipped to recognize them as a white woman.) You've written an excellent and accurate takedown here. If and when the show deals with a disability I have, I'd sadly expect it to be much the same as what they've done with Artie and his paralysis (or, in fact, Kurt and his queerness:) the affected character occasionally has stereotypical problems related to hir difference and never has storylines unrelated to it again. If <i>Glee</i> wants to be progressive, it has a lot of work to do.

Well, therein lies at least

Well, therein lies at least part of the problem. I don't think Glee's creators are looking for it to be progressive, but a lot of pop culture people read it that way, anyway. I'm no longer surprised to see reactionary messages come out of the show every week; I'm not sure why anyone else is.

Actually, the show's

Actually, the show's creators regularly tout their progressivism and think they are doing a terrific thing for oppressed folks with this show--here's a quote from Ryan Murphy on a set visit: 'observe our creative process and see how we construct a TV show dedicated exclusively to the idea of inclusiveness and acceptance for all...' (<a href="http://popwatch.ew.com/2010/05/13/ryan-murphy-second-open-letter/">sourc...). So, yeah, they are positioning it as progressive, and pop culture folks are taking that at face value, as are progressive organisations, which keep giving the damn show awards for its so-called progressivism!

And yes, TheBadassMuppet, you are totes allowed to love the musical numbers and hate everything else (not that you need my permission!). I actually know a number of people who feel that way about the show.

mutter mutter mutter

One of the bits that actually made me see red when watching <em>Glee</em> (before I gave up on it and made everyone I know happier) was "Tina is faking her stutter!"

I talked to people with stutters. Tina's stutter was "fake t.v. stutter", but I have no idea if the actual creators of the show realised that. (The actress who plays Tina, Jenna Ushkowitz, gave an interview where she expressed surprise that Tina's stutter was faked, so she obviously didn't even <em>know the plot</em>.) But really? Really? She's been faking the stutter so effectively that <em>no one noticed</em>, despite her saying outright that it started because she didn't want to do a speech in school? Do these people not even <em>research</em> before giving their characters "flaws"?

(Oh, but Anna, it's supposed to be like that! It's just a show!) (Yes, a show that can't do wheelchair dancing, Deaf performing arts, or even <em>stuttering</em> properly. Please, let me give it a cookie, which they can use to pay someone to introduce them to Google & search-strings.)

The Glee post!

I've been waiting for the Glee post. I have actually never even seen a clip of this show, but it sounds awful to me. Reading you tear it up, however, is supremely entertaining.

Yeah, when I threatened to

Yeah, when I threatened to stop shredding <em>Glee</em> every week, I actually got so many pleas to keep it up (from people who don't even watch the show!) with the next season that I finally relented. I'm a sucker for floral deliveries, what can I say.


Great post, it pleased me to see a followup to all the problematic issues of Glee past the initial shenanigans of "Wheels." I remember I was furious about how stuttering was portrayed in "Wheels" as something that is used to people's convenience and makes your life easier (it doesn't). I looked on the net for people who stutter's input about the episode but I found barely any commentary on this horrible representation of PWS lives (except for a few links and coversations on FWD). The only praises I saw for Glee's portrayal of stuttering by PWS was followed up by "we saw stuttering on TV!! I can't believe it!". That says a lot about how much stuttering is ignored by media all together and how some PWS have started to think that any representation is good representation.

I don't have much to add in terms of analysis...

But I'm right there with you, as you know, particularly with the whole pop-culture-critique-equals-nasty-threats-from-superfanz-thing. Ugh.

i completely agree with this

i completely agree with this article, i have seen glee once and that was enough for me! im 23 and have been in a wheelchair for 7 years, i find the show really insulting. i and others in wheelchairs are exactly the same as everyone else, we are just sitting down, also the bitterness about being disabled? i feel none, i am glad it happened, as it has taught me so much in life.

thank you for bringing up this issue!

Mandatory Dissent

Honestly, it's hard to argue with "nothing about us, without us!". And I would love to see a show where dis/ability is just a natural part of life (which it is, to my view, in Glee, except for two episodes, one of which I loved (wheels) and the other of which just confused me). But there are two problematic assertions here, which prevent me from leaving it at that and going back to enjoying Glee and seeking out more explicitly dis/ability positive, dis/ability as natural, media.

1. <i>"I can't help but wonder how people would respond if I said that about a show that featured misogynist plotlines every episode."</i> It would be interesting if Glee did indeed feature ableist plotlines <i>every episode</i>, or if virtually every ableist interpretation of a moment on the show did NOT have another, more positive interpretation as well.

But I've been told, in previous discussion about Glee, that dissecting how I interpret various instances of "ableism" in Glee is a derailment. So can I at least say that

2. The automatic assumption here that <i>"People want to be allowed to like the show, and resent being told that it has content some people think is problematic.</i>" simply isn't always true, and is in fact insulting to many viewers and those who disagree with ou's critique and identify as dis/abled, feminist, etc. ?

I love Glee, and I don't feel a need to attach a "but" to that statement, because Glee is a show about my high school years, about me as a teenager. Glee is a show which reflects the messed-up things that go on there with refreshing honesty and the occasional challenge. I grew up playing second-or-third-fiddle to a Rachel. I was also, in a lot of senses, a desperately insecure Rachel myself. I wish I was Kurt. I was in many ways Artie and Tina. So when I see these characters kicking ass, it lifts me up. I walk away from every episode of Glee feeling immensely better and capable of taking on the world. Watching the show is sheer joy to me.

Notice how I keep saying "for me". Because this is how I interpret the show as a dis/abled person. I know there are many other interpretations out there--obviously, given the article. I would love to see them have the intellectual honesty, however, of positioning themselves as one out of many interpretations, and not THE interpretation, as has happened here. So for the record? S.E. Smith does NOT speak for me, or for any of the many dis/abled people I know in real life who watch Glee.

Julie, I don't think that

Julie, I don't think that this piece in any way suggests that there is only one way to interpret <em>Glee</em>. In fact, you will note that I am very careful <em>not</em> to use absolutes when talking about the response to this show in the disability community--I talk about how <em>some</em> people don't like the show, and others love it. Nor do I claim, anywhere in this piece, to speak for the disability community as a whole--in fact, if you've read earlier posts in this series, you will note that I have specifically said that individual representatives of an oppressed group do not, and cannot, represent the views of that group as a whole.

No one, least of all me, is saying that there is something "wrong" with liking the show, or that my interpretation is the only way to read the show and every other way is incorrect. If I felt that way, I wouldn't be writing at Bitch, a site that encourages dialogue and discussion, not lecturing about "my way or the highway."

Thanks for the response

Thank you very much for your response. :)

I'll be the first to admit that I have reading comprehension issues--a cognitive dis/ability really can complicate communication! And I abandoned this site for a week after I left my comment after I had a huge panic attack anticipating your response--I've been shredded in the past, and I was so scared it would happen again. It didn't, so thank you. I can return to enjoying your series. In the spirit of mutual conversation, can I show you how I interpret one thing, for example? The wheelchair dancing bit.

I've always assumed that it's because Artie is presumably in high school, still coming to grips with his dis/ability, and has multiple other interests, and therefore has only a peripheral, at best, interest in dancing <i>in his wheelchair</i>--he still wants, or wanted, to walk and dance on/with his feet, which is typical of people who are not yet at terms with their dis/ability, right? So he's not a dis/ability positive person or portrayal--yet!--but the interpretation is a much more nuanced and character-based, plot-attentive, based-on-actual-directorial/creator-input than "the creators don't think people in wheelchairs can dance". And I'm not convinced that, following my chain of reasoning, Artie's portrayal is ableist. Troped? Maybe? After all, there are a LOT of examples of dis/abled people (always in wheelchairs, if dis/ability gets shown at all!) who aren't at peace with their impairment. So I can see that argument, although the idea of "tropes" isn't necessarily bothersome or actively negative and destructive to me. But is that the same as perpetuating the sort of --ism that gets people killed? And does being troped mean that something cannot still be nuanced and interesting and even empowering?

And then you "hate" Glee. And in response to your response....well, blanket statements about Glee having "ableist plotlines in every episode", for example, really don't strike me as "being careful not to use absolutes". Also? Stating that the only possible interpretation of the show which takes dis/abled people seriously is one which acknowledges your allegations of rampant abelism ("The show has some of the most horrifically troped depictions of people with disabilities I have ever seen." "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") as you have done here, especially <i>in a context which you refer to as "shredding"</i> and about a show which you profess to <i>hate</i>...it really does come off as someone denouncing a show from the pulpit of dis/ability advocacy. It's hardly consistent with what you wrote above about your interpretation not being the only one, etc.

So I'm confused.


<em>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</em>

What I find fascinating is the concept many folks seem to have regarding "safe" and "unsafe" content, when honestly, there is NO SUCH THING. Nevertheless, this erroneous concept is what has folks minimizing the ableism in Glee ("safe") while ignoring some of the progressive ways of depicting disabled characters in content that isn't specifically designed to appeal to the demographic so enraptured by Glee.

Personally, I don't trade in "If you watch this you're pure evil!" and I have never gotten that vibe from you. That said, we both seem to be of the mindset that folks ought give serious consideration to the costs associated with consuming imperfect content and accept the consequences of doing so (like people thinking they are ableist, racist or otherwise problematic). I find it more tolerable if folks are open to a dialog regarding problematic content, rather than silencing all discussions because it harshes their mellow.

I loved this post!

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"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Vonnegut.

Question Everything

Thank you very much for this post. Perhaps because I came of age during the time of Sassy Magazine, I can enjoy pop culture and critique it at the same time. This means that although I do enjoy Glee for its fun musical numbers and for its cute & cuddly actors, I can still take it to task for its ableism. I cringe everytime someone pushes Artie away during a dance number, as though he is just a prop instead of a human being.
My father was in a wheelchair and I remember how people would talk over his head and address me when they should have been addressing him (i.e. "Does he take cream in his coffee?") so yeah, I don't find lines like "You have 5 and 1/2 kids- you know the cripple" very funny. There is a huge difference between being ironic and just being mean and Glee just doesn't have the smarts to be ironic.

After reading your post, I have to question and take Glee to task for the following:

1. Why don't we ever see Becky, the cheerleader with Downs Syndrome, in any of the Cheerios dance routines? I watched that "Beautiful" performance three times in a row and couldn't spot her. Also, why couldn't she have done a GOOD audition???

2. Deaf people can't dance? Huh???

3. I can't remember the name of the episode, but the one where Rachel loses her voice and learns a "Very Important Life Lesson" from Finn's friend - because apparently people with disabilities just lie around all day waiting for able bodied people to come by so they can teach them special lessons.

4. Why is Sue's sister always in pajamas???

Thanks again for this post. Isn't the first rule of feminism to Question Everything?

Tbh, I lo\/e Glee...

but it also has a lot of problematic elements that I am glad to see being addressed. They treat marginalised people more as shiny toys to play with for an episode or use to further a plotline than, you know, people, and that's not okay.

Tbh, I lo\/e Glee...

but it also has a lot of problematic elements that I am glad to see being addressed. They treat marginalised people more as shiny toys to play with for an episode or use to further a plotline than, you know, people, and that's not okay.

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