Friday, April 23, 2010

Giving credit where credit is due

A few weeks ago, the hit show "Glee" started airing the second half of its first season on FOX. It's one of the few shows on television that has taken a character with a disability and completely integrated him within the storyline. Artie, played by 21-year-old Kevin McHale, is a high school student who uses a wheelchair. In his school, and the glee club he's a part of, Artie's disability is never thought of as a big deal. The following is a clip from an episode in which the glee club director has each member use a wheelchair for 3 hours a day in order to put themselves in Artie's wheels and see what life is like for those with a disability.

This clip, and the message the show is portraying, is fantastic. None of the characters are being pushed around by others, Artie is shown as being "just another student," and there's never any excuses made if there's something he can't do. This is the first mainstream show I can remember where a person with a disability is seen as just a part life, just as many of us are in our workplace, school, etc.

However, many in the disabled community are upset that an actor with a disability was not chosen for the role of Artie (McHale is able-bodied). In an article published in USA Today, Gloria Castaneda of the Media Access Office says, "There are very talented performers with disabilities. ... We just don't know what producers are thinking." I know what the producers are thinking. He or she is trying to find the best actor for a specific role. The producer should not be forced to limit himself by solely searching for an actor that uses a wheelchair. Are there actors out there who use a chair? Sure! But that doesn't mean they could sing, dance, and fit this role as well as McHale does. Think about it this way. As much as I don't want to be passed over for a job merely because I use a chair, I also don't want to get a job merely because I use a chair. We can't have it both ways in the disabled community. We can't want special treatment (such as being chosen for a specific acting role), while at the same time push for full assimilation into mainstream society.

It seems that there are some in the disabled community who constantly point out the negative in any situation. We should be celebrating the message sent by "Glee," not criticizing the creators for choosing an able-bodied actor. If we constantly criticize the able-bodied community, even while they are making strides towards equality, what incentive is there for them to continue their efforts? They will start to believe that the disabled community will never be pleased. Because of that, we need to choose our battles wisely, and give credit where credit is due. In the end, baby steps are okay. And what "Glee" is doing is not just a baby step, but a fairly sizable leap towards acceptance of those with disabilities. So good work "Glee," keep it up!


Haddayr said...

I feel like you and I watched different shows. Glee absolutely enraged me.

The reason we need to give people with wheelchairs wheelchair roles is because we can't play people who AREN'T in wheelchairs. The number of roles written for wheelchair users are small enough without giving them away to able-bodied people. And I just don't believe that they couldn't find someone in a wheelchair who couldn't sing and act as well as that kid. We are EVERYWHERE.

I see this as exactly the same as white performers performing in blackface.

I also want to know what message you appreciate that Glee is sending. What message did you think was fantastic?

In "Wheels," I saw an episode which completely ignored the existence of the ADA, expected a young man in a wheelchair to give up the money they raised for a special wheelchair-equipped van (it's illegal to require them to do that, but whatevs) in order to put in ramps for others. Ramps that are required by law. Aw. What a noble cripple! I also saw an episode which made adults with Down Syndrome look like bedridden invalids, and portrayed them as worthy of crying over.

I guess to sum up: I am not sure I could disagree with you more about Glee. I feel like you and I watched completely different shows.

Chris said...

I appreciate your passion, but I have to disagree on a few of the points you made. I think that limiting the role to a person who actually uses a wheelchair is narrow minded because the able bodied community is being limited. I agree that there should be more people with disabilities on TV. We just don't have ownership on those roles. In no way do I see this as the same thing as White actors playing roles in Black-face. We also cannot assume that the show ignored the existence of the ADA. Federal legislation is assumed. Shows that take place in the US do not need to bring up the Constitution whenever they depict US citizens. Why would a show be required to mention the ADA just because it shows a character who uses a wheelchair. I cannot agree with you on this one.

Haddayr said...

I used to agree with you on this one: why shouldn't able-bodied actors play folks in wheelchairs?

But that was seeing things from able-bodied actor's POVs, not disabled actors. Disabled actors _can't_ play fully able roles. They are restricted in their roles. There are only a small number of disabled roles available, and to give them to able-bodied people is ridiculous. I'm not saying it should be illegal; I'm saying it should be as socially unacceptable as white actors playing in blackface. Following your logic, white people should be able to play black characters because otherwise we would be limiting white people.

Also, artistically, I don't think the kid is believable. He doesn't move like a habitual wheelie. Someone with more experience and appropriate musculature would have done a better job (and maybe had better dance moves, but I should probably blame the choreographers with that one).

Perhaps I wasn't clear about the ADA.

The situations they showed in the show were ILLEGAL. The way they made the students raise money for an accessible bus, and the way that the school was not accessible (it took a private donation to put in ramps), ignored the ADA. I'm not saying they should mention the ADA by name; I'm saying they shouldn't perpetuate the myth that putting in ramps is just a "nice" thing to do.

It's not "nice." It's the law. And for the show to pretend that the law didn't exist was just ridiculous and, in my opinion, damaging. So many people have a charity mentality about disability in their minds rather than a social model. This episode perpetuated that damaging charity model.

I do not think that able-bodied people should feel noble for putting in the ramps required by law any more than they should feel noble for stopping at red lights.

This show said the opposite, which is why it infuriated me so much.

Chris said...

Should we be upset with Glee in particular or the acting and network establishment in general? Jews play Arabs, Puerto Ricans play Mexicans, and even Straight people are cast in Gay or Lesbian roles. Acting is about finding the best talent for the role, not the person who most closely resembles the character.

Can we accurately say that people with disabilities are the only ones who are being treated unfairly? And are they even being treated as such? Obviously, there will always be ignorant people until they can all become educated. And that is impossible in this world.

I think we need to agree to disagree. It is too hard to know what people making decisions are thinking in each different situation.

Haddayr said...

I am quite happy to agree to disagree.

I think a good thing that can come from this discussion is that we are quite vividly showing anyone reading that disabled people are not a monolith of opinion; we disagree on all sorts of things, including disability issues, just like everybody else does.

P. Thomas said...

I know this posting is rather dated but it carried a point that I felt myself being a disabled person and the white actor in blackface analogy. While it is not illegal for a caucasian actor to play a black person on stage or screen, it is so socially repugnant that it is not done unless the story objective is to be ridiculous and comical to all and not racially denigrating. As was pointed out many roles are played by "look-alikes" because of the general populous' ignorance of cultural sensitivities and that includes producers, directors and casting directors. Does that make it socially right? No. Can production companies get away with it? Of course, it is a fact of working in the entertainment industry. The actors themselves make value judgments on whether to play a role or not based on these very issues. I am sure more than a few have compromised themselves for the sake at a shot of recognition and a paycheck. No one here mentions the the inequity still perpetrated on female actors in many productions. The fact is the "biz" is the biz and it will not change until enough ratings and ticket sales ride on doing the right thing. Society as a whole has to make the moral choice and move its moral will to accomplish that situation. Glee as a show should have more accurately portrayed the existence of the ADA and its legal requirements regarding the school providing access to programs but we know that would probably not have been as entertaining as the "look at the noble poor crip giving up his freedom for the benefit of many". This theme is demeaning and no one who is able bodied really cares that it is. While I agree with Haddayr and their passion, the real issue is more that the disabled are too fractious and refuse to have solidarity with each other to make a unified voice in regards to social ignorance and condescending prejudice and the greater context of social prejudice overall. I am not an advocate of the political correctness mania or treating everyone like an egg that will crack at the first sign of insult but the social context that Glee exists in is really the issue and not the farcical show itself. It is just a rather over the top vehicle for musical entertainment rather than anything valued or meaningful. It is not Shakespeare and shouldn't be taken seriously on any level.