Rockin' and Rollin' on Fox's Glee
In the nineteenth century, the modern English word glee described a piece of music sung in unaccompanied parts. As a former Anglo-Saxonist, I am accustomed to seeing the Old English word gliw (from which we get modern English glee) used to represent the joy of being in community — both for the singing which took place in community, at a communal meal in a hall, and for the pleasurable sounds of being together. I regret that the emphasis on community is lost in contemporary usage, because community and its absence are key to understanding disability on Fox's Glee and, in particular, the characterization of Artie.
Glee traces the lives and career development of the "losers" who show up to become part of their high school's show choir. Though within the school, the club itself also occupies loser status — particularly when compared to the football and cheerleading teams — the students in the choir successfully journey through qualifying competitions to regionals. Strikingly, the students are individually unique, and yet all serve as poster children for well-known high school types. Indeed, each Gleek (a term that applies to both the fans and the club members themselves) is a representative of a somehow minoritized species of student.
I choose my language carefully, because the meaning of "minoritized" here includes a singing prematurely ejaculating quarterback; a pregnant cheerleader; an African-American student; a gay student; and an Asian-American goth with a faked speech impairment. Both the negative resonances and occasional joys of such individuality drive the story lines of the series. The first-season episode "Throwdown" attempts to deal with the "minority" emphasis of the Gleeks, but ultimately Fox cannot move away from tokenism. The characters' widespread appeal1 is rooted in their ability to recreate two common high school experiences: the sense of being existentially alone and the deep discomfort with different embodiments.
The themes of isolation and difference in Glee take on a sinister resonance when it comes to the portrayal of disability; indeed, they are at the heart of the show's failure on disability issues. Isolation is central to the realization of one of the disabled characters, Artie Abrams, by the non-disabled actor Kevin McHale. (Throughout this piece, I will identify disability status where necessary to make the point that Glee does have genuinely disabled actors portraying disabled characters, all of whom are industry professionals.) Artie's isolation is social and physical, but these experiences are made manifest in his "disabled" body. McHale, the one actor who is known outside the show for his dancing, is now playing a character who is paralyzed. On the show, "paralyzed" means a lack of movement that leads to social incapacity. This lack of movement means that, unlike the others, Artie cannot dance. And because he cannot dance, he cannot participate fully in the life of the club. His isolation is profound, and frequently marked.
Artie's separateness from the rest of the club is a direct consequence of the way in which the production team and Kevin McHale understand and interpret his body. Ignorance about disability, spinal cord injury and wheeled life are fundamental to McHale's realization of Artie's physicality. McHale is a skilled and graceful dancer; he tackles Artie as if he were a piece of choreography, creating a surface disabled physicality. He sits in a manual wheelchair with his legs twisted off to one side and his ankles bent. I have not seen a paraplegic sit with both such an ankle bend and that particular leg twist, but I do believe they are possible. That said, I find this choice of positioning ironic. The twisted legs may make Artie "look" disabled, but they deny him complete access to his sitz bones. For a non-disabled dancer, that absence is telling. The position is not a norm for his body, and thus his technique is compromised. As a dancer, Artie is ungrounded.
The ungroundedness of Artie's body resonates in his dancing, but this kind of instability is also metaphorical (does Artie accept his disability?) and practical (how does Artie move in his chair?). Experienced wheelchair users know the chair. We know how the stroke works, when to apply force, how to use our bodies, when to lean back and coast before once more applying our hands to the wheels. I use the word stroke, because this is how I see each contact with the rubber and metal. More often than not, my touch is light. I wait for the sweet spot — the second when the energy transfers perceptibly into my body; I ride it, and I stroke again.
By contrast, Artie pushes and shoves himself around. McHale traps himself in a hyperliteral interpretation of paralysis; not only can he not move his lower body, he is also unable to move with or in the technology that brings him into motion. His pushes always look like work (and perhaps, given that he is a non-wheelchair user, they are). He strikes the wheel quickly and repeatedly; he even applies some force. But McHale's Artie never rides the momentum. He never finds the sweet spot and, as a result, he never looks comfortable with or in his chair. That discomfort may well be part of the point of the show. Like the other Gleeks, Artie is uncomfortable with his difference, and his difference separates him from the rest of the school. But unlike the other Gleeks, actor Kevin McHale is literally uncomfortable in his wheelchair and, by extension, in Artie's body. Thus, the very devices that are supposed to create an effective performance of disability reveal themselves as mechanisms: a prop, and positions, that allow McHale to be seen as disabled.
This absence of integration feeds into Artie's isolation, particularly in episodes that feature him. The first of these, "Wheels," is a kind of disability jambalaya focusing on access, limits and merit. One storyline centers on whether Kurt (the gay student, played by Chris Colfer) can sing the high "F" necessary to get the female lead for the "Defying Gravity" song from Wicked.2 A second asks whether Becky, a character with Down Syndrome (played by disabled actor Lauren Potter) can participate fully on the cheerleading team. Kurt can sing the note, but takes himself out of the running. Becky is accepted, but appears to be unable to keep up with the other cheerleaders. Indeed, the implication is that she got her place only because the coach has a similarly disabled older sister (played by disabled actor Robin Trocki) who lives in a care facility. The message is that everyone should get a tryout, but that trying should not be equated with being granted accommodations to the resources necessary to succeed. Furthermore, the Kurt and Becky storylines suggest that accommodations are a matter of choice. In Artie's storyline, access is deeply entwined with the themes of isolation and movement. The discussion about his character's participation in sectionals revolves initially around access, transport, and the costs of both. So prohibitive, it seems, are the costs of ramps in the auditorium and an accessible bus (referred to as a "short bus") to transport Artie to the sectionals competition that Artie feels isolated and abandoned by even his choir community. The show then portrays him dancing, on his own, to Billy Idol's "Dancing By Myself." In other words, the inability to move in public sparks a kind of private movement. This is a new realm of development for the Artie character: whether or not Artie can dance has not thus far been an active question.
As choreography for a wheelchair user goes, the dance is, however, limited: Artie bobs and bends his body, waves an arm, shakes his head, and performs a wheelie on one rear wheel (the wheelie was executed by McHale's disabled stunt double, Aaron Fotheringham). Artie is neither able to use his chair as an expressive device by itself, nor is he able to use it as an integrated part of his body. When he attempts to turn his chair using a weight shift instead of the power of his arms, the separation between body and chair is so visible it is painful. Artie cannot move in the manner of a disabled dancer or with the sense of any personal integration of body and chair. It is as if Zach Woodlee, the show's choreographer, tried to reinvent the wheel without referring to any professional dance companies, or even YouTube clips of disabled people dancing in their chairs.
While dancing fails to close the gap between Artie's fleshly and metal bodies, it does temporarily bring him closer to the rest of the Gleeks. At practice, the students discover that Artie has been hurt by the communal decision that access is too costly. In response, director Will (Matthew Morrison) informs them that they have to learn more about Artie's situation, and thus, they have to spend three hours a day "living Artie's life" in a wheelchair. Granted, simulation exercises and "disability days" are problematic, but the sudden awareness does enable Artie to choreograph his own community. The closing sequence of the episode is a big wheelchair dance number that uses the newly installed auditorium ramps.
During production, as the cast attempted to carry out this "disability day" exercise, it turned out that using a chair was more difficult than anyone had anticipated. In an interview with the New York Post, Woodlee recalls that the whole thing was like a "roller derby": "All of the actors would fall backwards and hit their heads — particularly Lea Michele, who plays Rachel. You lose your balance really quick when you try to go up a ramp in a wheelchair. Amber Riley, who plays Mercedes, caught an edge going down a ramp and fell off completely." Woodlee continues: "You don't know what those chairs can do, and you don't know what those kids can do in the chairs. So a lot of it was just cross your fingers and pray." According to Woodlee, who seems unable to understand how human and chair can possibly be united into a single body, the actors could not control their dance performance. In expressing his and perhaps their frustration, Woodlee turns the chairs into animate and apparently hostile beings. It is an irony that anger enables him to see how the chairs might after all be embodied.
In "Wheels," the students have very little time to settle into their chairs, but the episode looks more to me like they never managed to settle into their new bodies. The actors push wildly, over-correct, brake sharply, wobble and seem generally uncomfortable. The lack of integration is highlighted by the choreography. Because they do not have control over their wheels, the Gleeks are unable to blend pushing, traveling and dancing. Much of the number is spent pushing themselves around into formations with little to no expression in their bodies (there's the occasional arm in the air or a head shake). Once in formation, they are stationary in their lower wheeled halves while their upper bodies move. The closest they come to making their wheels expressive is a powerful side-to-side rock. Their mastery of this one move emphasizes the paucity of the rest of the dance. Indeed, these brief seconds highlight the power of wheels as articulate parts of the body and not as extraneous props or devices.
After "Wheels," Artie's isolation as a wheelchair user takes a different shape in the Season 1 episode "Dream On" and the Season 2 holiday episode, "A Very Glee Christmas." In both of these episodes, Artie's inability to walk becomes a cipher for his ability to serve as an adequate dance partner or boyfriend. In "Dream On," Artie's girlfriend, Tina, asks him to do a special tap dance number with her. Artie wants to be an effective partner. There's an absurd attempt to create "tap wheels" and an equally awkward scene in which he attempts to walk using crutches, but falls flat on his face. Tina hands Artie her research about new cures for spinal cord injury, and the students go to the mall to buy tap shoes as "an investment in his future." But they are tricked once more by access — the pretzels he and Tina want are upstairs in the mall (and, apparently, they could not possibly take an elevator). While waiting for Tina to return with the pretzels, Artie begins to dream that his new treatments are working. He rises haltingly from his chair, finds his feet, his legs and begins to walk. Finally, the actor Kevin McHale is free; to the strains of "Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats, he can dance.
The "Safety Dance" is, however, deeply problematic. The lyrics of the song depend both on the connection of friendship and dancing — non-dancers don't belong in the friendship group — and on the question of whether it is "safe to dance." For Artie, those words resonate both in the context of social friendship and in the realm of the physical. Is it safe for him to dance? McHale is resplendent; his formerly petrified feet perform intricate footwork, and his "paralyzed" core holds only a dancer's stability and lyricism. Not only is it safe, in this number dancing becomes the core of a physical community: more and more passersby from the mall jump into the choreography. By choosing unison as the dominant dance mode, Woodlee both magnifies McHale's skill and suggests that physical bodies alone can create community. Indeed, by the conclusion, a veritable flash mob dance is taking place. Cut. Artie plops down into his chair. For just a few lingering seconds, he waits, alone — with an expression half dreamy and half martyr-like — until Tina returns with their pretzels.
Artie's return to his flesh body is an important part of the secondary plotline: whether or not there is or will be a cure for spinal cord injury, and whether or not a disabled Artie can be a suitable dance partner and relationship partner for Tina. Their relationship will wobble and ultimately fall on the issues of disability and cure. In "Wheels," Artie declares to Tina that he still "has full use of his penis," but this disclosure is really only a stage for the grand revelation that Tina has been faking her disabling stutter. After confiding this secret, Tina is ready to resume what Artie calls "normal" life, that is, to stop stuttering and be a part of the social group. But Artie is crushed: his chair pushes people away, and he "can't fake" a "normal" body. He will always be isolated. In response, Tina thrusts a cure at Artie, literally handing him her research on new stem cell therapies and spinal cord stimulators. If Artie can be cured, he will, in the long term, be able to be realize his dream to be a dancer. In the short term, Artie being able to stand, walk and dance means that he will be a better partner for Tina in dance and in life.
With his happiness and future at stake, Artie's spinal cord injury deepens his isolation by separating him from Tina. When he "accepts" that he will never be cured, Artie calls himself "half a partner," claiming that he "can't dance and never will." Tina does find another partner, and the "Dream On" episode ends with Tina dancing passionately and Artie relegated to singing "Dream A Little Dream Of Me," a ballad of loneliness. On Glee, failing to be an adequate dance partner is equivalent to failing to be an adequate boyfriend. Artie's impending loss of his relationship is signaled when another student leans over, in the middle of the song, to rub his shoulder and comfort him. At first, this gesture seems to be a response to the loneliness of the song. As Season 2 opens, however, it is quickly revealed that over the summer Tina also chose her new dance partner as her boyfriend. The failure of Artie's body, erasure of his dream, and loss of his girl underscore his isolation.
The Artie storyline does not stop here, however. "A Very Glee Christmas" brings back the themes of isolation, disability, walking and relationship. Artie's new girlfriend, Brittany, is a literal believer in Santa Claus; she asks that Artie might receive the gift of walking. Artie, having "accepted" his disability, sets up an elaborate plot in which he asks the new football coach to go to her girlfriend's house, pose as Santa, and explain that he cannot be cured. But this is a holiday episode: miracles happen. The episode closes with Artie on his feet, walking. Santa Claus has brought Artie a pair of Argo Medical Technologies' ReWalk crutches. No matter that these are still experimental and no matter that when they are released to the public, they will likely be beyond the amount that a teacher would spend on a student; it is more important that Artie's girlfriend give him the gift of legged mobility. Only if Artie is able to walk, it seems, will he be an acceptable romantic partner.
In the mainstream press and online Glee forums, "Wheels" was overwhelmingly seen as a massive success. On Twitter, the conversation about Glee had previously been dominated by tweets bemoaning the irony of having McHale in the chair. After "Dream On," however, people celebrated his freedom. But in the disability blogosphere and in disability studies/disability arts and culture circles, activists, artists and scholars were dismayed and outraged to such an extent that more mainstream outlets like the Huffington Post (here and here), National Public Radio, and the Los Angeles Times (negatively), felt they could finally cover the story. Interestingly, in these mainstream news stories there was virtually no discussion of disability and dance. The point that grabbed the media's attention was the question of why Kevin McHale had been cast.
McHale plays Artie because the disability discourse of Hollywood cannot see movement in the language of wheeled life, dominated by terms such as "bound" and "confined." Hollywood all too regularly conflates paralyzed with petrified, thereby denying the possibility, or even the permissibility of pleasurable, professional movement in a disabled body. Casting McHale continues the tradition of fear around disability in the public eye, reinforces the incorrect idea that disabled actors cannot work regularly and reliably, and furthers the prejudicial systems that make it nearly impossible for a disabled person both to train as an actor and/or dancer and to get work. Neither the television nor movie world seems to understand the relationship between a single moving disabled body and a larger corpus of disabled people, be they on stage, in the studio, on the street or, for example, at SDS 2010 in a dance flash mob at a busy Philadelphia intersection. Neither realm admits the possibility that a single moving disabled body is deeply rooted in the disability movement, that it is a symbol of our past and a sign of our future: One disabled body may dance by itself, but never alone.
The conventional language of family notwithstanding, the Gleeks live in fear of somehow adding to their loser status. Not even the community of show choir can protect them from being overwhelmed by the characteristics that isolate them from the rest of the student body (in all senses). This fear explains why sometimes Glee seems like one prejudice-filled outrage after another. In a Hollywood high school, difference automatically spells isolation. At other moments, however, the whole thing seems like a sad misreading of the disability rights agenda. Inclusion in mainstream schools? Right question, wrong realization. Cure? Ditto. Access? Ditto. Merit? Institutional residences and care facilities vs. community placement and integrated settings? Cognitive and aging-related disability drama? A quadriplegic who seems to live in bed? Clichéd Deaf and hearing impairment gags? Faked disability? Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto... and, yes, ditto. In the midst of all these issues, a central premise is lost. No matter what the difference, the disability rights, arts and culture movements teach us that disabled people do not have to live outside community.
When watching Glee, I am repeatedly caught by the emphasis on the failure of Artie's body and the meaning it has for his social and physical situation. In my everyday life, I work as a dancer for AXIS Dance Company, a contemporary and modern dance company that hires dancers with and without physical disabilities. I can tell you that people with spinal cord injury and other disabilities most assuredly can dance. I know how difficult it is to get dance training or, for that matter, training as an actor, but I also know that there are disabled people out there who can sing and dance. These issues, in conjunction with the questions raised by the show itself, make Fox's Glee an uphill slog, however you roll. And that's a pity. The show has brought more exposure to issues of disability rights and culture than any other television program in a long, long time.
- Albiniak, Paige. "Spinning Their Wheels: 'Glee' Cast Learns To Dance Like Artie." New York Post. November 7, 2009. Web. Accessed December 8, 2010.
- Bates, Karen Grigsby. "Reclaiming Roles: Actors Play Beyond Disabilities." National Public Radio. May 11, 2010. Web. Accessed December 8, 2010.
- Davis, Lennard J. "Let Actors With Disabilities Play Characters With Disabilities." Huffington Post. December 7, 2009. Web. Accessed December 8, 2010.
- Elber, Lynn. "'Glee' Wheelchair Episode Upsets Disabled." Huffington Post. November 10, 2009. Web. Accessed December 8, 2010.
- Kennedy, Gerrick D. "'Glee': Defying Gravity With Heart And Soul." Los Angeles Times. November 12, 2009. Web. Accessed December 8, 2010.
The politics of gender, sexuality and, for that matter, race are just as important here as those of disability, but they lie beyond the scope of this review.
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Glee gained nineteen Emmy nominations in 2010. For a while, the "Wheels" episode was Hulu's third most watched video.
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