I gotta be honest, I have always found the TV show Glee difficult to swallow. I like the music, there’s no way you can fault it for that. But where I went to high school, the extremely talented kids in the musical theatre crowd (and my gosh, were they talented) were they cool kids, and often they had little time for the rest of us, particularly those of us who couldn’t step-ball-change like everyone else.
And here we have the biggest problem I have with Artie, New Directions’ lovable and gleeky token disabled guy… at least until Quinn gets a spinal cord injury in a later season and then you have two members of Glee Club in wheelchairs (I mean, what are the odds). There’s been an uproar for years about the producers of the show cast abled bodied actor Kevin McHale as the then only disabled character, but my criticism goes deeper than that: the character just isn’t written well.
Let’s start with the superficial since, no doubt soon I will be blamed as being such. There are simply no two ways about it, Artie’s wheelchair is a piece of crap. It’s clunky, there’s no camber, the wheelchair’s high back is totally unneeded to go with Artie’s fictional diagnosis of being a paraplegic, the wheels on the chair are huge, and all of this limit’s the character’s ability to move more so than a fictional diagnosis.
Then just about without fail, the choreography involving Artie and is wheelchair is dull, very dull. Back in junior high I was a cheerleader for the school’s basketball team, and our squad (which consisted of about twenty thirteen year old girls) came up with more interesting stuff to do with a performer in a wheelchair than the show’s choreographer has managed to in six seasons and a budget of millions. Very often Artie seems to be stuck on to the outskirts of a dance number as a token check in a diversity to do list rather than actually being innovative.
Artie is an example of TV producers putting disability into their show very, very sloppily. And why? Why was Glee the show where suddenly the big guys said “hey, let’s put a disabled character in here and see what happens?” Producer’s were making their job far far harder than it had to be when they decided on Artie as one of the initial forays of having regular on TV with a disability.
I hate to bring up the obvious, but glee clubs are, among other things, scored on uniformity and precision. Having a guy in a wheelchair is not going to help you there. In fact this was routinely brought up when I sought out joining activities such as the glee club is high school. Just like there will never be a New York City Rockette in a wheelchair, it’s hard to imagine a kid in a wheelchair being an asset in a glee club.
I used to worry that the character of Artie was going to set disability on TV back, making characters with disabilities uninteresting and poorly imagined. Now that Glee is over I can see that there was no change. Artie was just a blip on the screen and we still have very few visible disabilities on TV. Perhaps he was harmless. We keep trying.
Because it’s a brave new world out there. Every Day.