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Glee’s representation of disabled women

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glee, series review, disabled women, Not so gleeful. Erin Tatum reviews the treatment of disability in the TV series Glee.

The third in a weekly series of cross-posts from Bitch Flicks.

It’s no secret that Glee is offensive to pretty much anyone who isn’t an able white male. While Glee has justifiably received a lot of flak for its treatment of certain communities – notable examples include Brittany breaking up with Santana only to be shoved into a nonsensical heterosexual relationship with Sam and relegating Tina and Mike to the background as self-aware Asian stereotypes – viewers have been relatively mum with respect to Glee’s treatment of disability.

Artie is Glee’s resident disabled character, whose rampant sexism is often played for laughs as he rehearses the trope of masculine entitlement no matter how ridiculous the conditions (in this case, the assumption that his disability should normally negate his sexuality, making his womanizing ways all the more ludicrous). Given that Artie’s disability is so wrapped up in issues of male privilege, I was curious to see if or how Glee would handle women with disabilities. Unsurprisingly, the two brief instances of women with physical disabilities were both heavily sexually coded and presented in ways that policed and shamed female sexuality.

Quinn seems to be creator Ryan Murphy’s favorite punching bag. I don’t understand how someone can get pregnant, give their baby up for adoption, get accepted to Yale, get into a car accident, and be disabled and then miraculously healed again in the span of four years, but Glee does have a knack for redefining the narratively impossible. After said car accident, Quinn makes an implausibly short recovery to return to school weeks later perfectly unscathed except for the presence of her wheelchair.

Flanked by her new BFF Artie – which tells you that this is going to be a very special minority duo bonding episode! – Quinn tells a distraught Rachel that this is the happiest day of her life. I groaned then and there because I knew Quinn wouldn’t remain disabled and this was just going to be her 575th chance to get some perspective (what I like to call Drive-by Oppression as a tool for lazy character development) and realize the benefits of able privilege. The problem is that Quinn’s introductory episode with a disability – rather than highlighting all the strength of the disabled community, is really just a reaffirmation of everything able-bodied people find unsavory about disability and a justification for Quinn’s ableist prejudices.

Quinn and Artie lip-synch to a particularly offensive duet of “I’m Still Standing,” which is meant to be an inspirational metaphor for staying strong and being glad you’re still alive and yada yada. Again, this might actually mean something if the entire episode weren’t devoted to Quinn proving to everyone how not disabled she is because it doesn’t fit her character trajectory. As we all know, just like in real life, those who start out able-bodied never become disabled because that doesn’t logically make sense with how they’re supposed to be!

The episode shows some obligatory wheelchair-based bonding between Quinn and Artie, such as Artie teaching Quinn how to wheel herself up a ramp. Can I say that I found the whole Artie as disability Yoda plotline doubly offensive because neither of the actors is disabled in real life? Stop pretending that sitting down in a wheelchair is all it takes to accurately portray disability. Anyway, Quinn gets offended the second Artie insinuates that she might have to plan for life with a disability long-term.

As someone who has had a disability from birth, I can’t imagine the turmoil that formerly able-bodied people must go through after suffering an accident. That said, it’s another matter entirely to endorse Quinn’s pessimism as a means of reasserting ableist privilege over Artie because it sends a message that deep down, all people believe that the disabled lifestyle is limiting, tragic, and not all that viable when it comes to achieving overall life goals. Her interaction with Artie pretty much ends here, signaling the start of her ascent back into an able-bodied lifestyle.

Of course, Quinn couldn’t pass through her tenure with a disability without some good old-fashioned disabled sexuality shaming! Yes, Ryan Murphy has her take the stereotypical route of assuming that she’ll never be loved again because of her disgusting wheelchair. Nevertheless, sparks fly between her and dreadlocked, overzealous Christian Joe, a.k.a. Teen Jesus. Many of their fellow glee clubbers exchange knowing side-eyes and suppressed giggles when the duo shares a sensuous duet of “Saving All My Love for You.” The reaction to their performance stands in glaring contrast to those from Quinn’s past romantic duets in its distinctively patronizing tone, already signaling Quinn as an object of infantilism. Disabled sexuality can only ever hope to parody “legitimate” adult sexuality as a spectacle of able titillation.

The girls excitedly gossip about Joe’s obvious crush in the bathroom, where Quinn makes the best of her newly lowered height by stoically reapplying her lipstick in the reflection of the hand dryer. Quinn brushes off their teasing by announcing that she’s said goodbye to that part of her life because clearly no one would ever want her when she’s in a chair, as evidenced by Joe’s discomfort during a steamy moment in physical therapy (yes, really).

The worst part is that her speedy recovery validates this mentality. It’s moments like this that make me sad for young viewers with disabilities who may actually perceive these characters as role models. For those who have lived with a disability and have no possibility of recovery, all scenes like this do is perpetuate the myth of disability as a sexless Siberia of perpetual isolation. Further, Quinn’s attitude is marketed as noble.

But there’s a bright spot, kids! It turns out Joe was only recoiling in horror from Quinn’s crippled body because he apparently has a nasty habit of getting boners around her. This catalyzes a spiritual crisis within him because he is against premarital sex. Quinn finds out via feeling his erection against her leg, causing her to smirk in self-satisfaction because she’s still got it. Joe then saves face by babbling some drivel about how beautiful she is and how she makes him question his faith. The audience is supposed to find his innocence and chastity in spite of boners endearing, making it perhaps the most pervy analog to I Kiss Your Hand ever.

I know this show is going for the love after tragedy angle, but I can’t help but think it’s a little too convenient that they paired the abstinent Christian with the recently disabled girl. By coupling up the two characters that appear to be the most logically sexually repressed, the narrative supposedly gives them a happy ending while weaseling out of the obligation to show them actually having any physical intimacy that we could expect with any of the other couples.

Perhaps in an inadvertent confirmation of this erasure, Quinn and Joe are not shown to be physically affectionate with each other during any point in their pseudo-relationship. Quinn regains the ability to walk after a measly five episodes, declaring herself a viable vixen once more as she returns to make out with Puck for no reason while never mentioning that Joe or her relationship with him existed.

On the opposite end of the sexual expression spectrum, Betty is Emma’s disabled niece who appears for about three quarters of an episode for the sole purpose of having a one night stand with Artie while checking his ego. Artie barely greets her before she shuts him down with a swift “oh hell no.” Artie immediately whines that she is only rejecting him because he’s in a chair, which I must say is the first time I’ve heard internalized ableism as a reason for friendzoning someone.

Of course, Glee would never have the chops to explore the social complexity of internalized ableism, especially in a romantic context, so you know right off the bat that we’re going to be treated to an abridged version of the nice guy chasing the uppity bitch. Accordingly, Betty is 100% sass. She explains that she doesn’t date “losers in chairs” because she’s blonde, captain of the cheerleading squad, and has big boobs.

I guess after Quinn, the writers were desperate to show how inclusive they could be, so they decided to make Betty represent every reverse disability stereotype dialed up to 11 in a single sentence. The problem is that reverse stereotypes usually only mock the given community more because they act as a wink wink nudge nudge to the audience that the original stereotypes are true since the reverse is hilariously unfathomable.

Everything in this scene, from the way Betty coyly dismisses Artie to Artie’s dumbfounded expression after every new burn is played for laughs. The exchange is horribly uncomfortable to watch because it has the snide, childish undertone of “LOL, look at the disabled people who think they can have standards!” It’s also incredibly troubling and disappointing that Betty’s self-confidence as a disabled woman translates into her perceiving disabled men as unfit objects of desire, sending the message that even people with disabilities themselves view other people with disabilities as incapable of being romantic partners, which only validates the traditional able conception of our community. Why is it that transcending your minority into the social privilege of majority always involves perpetuating harmful stereotypes and internalized hate against your own community?

Artie confronts Betty later, claiming she is a terrible, mean girl who hates her chair. Betty scolds him for playing the disability card and argues that she did not reject him out of any self-loathing, but simply because he’s an idiot. Artie spends most of his time being a misogynistic douchebag, and it’s a shame that only a woman with a disability could come close to legitimately calling him out on it. Since the powers that be would rather light themselves on fire than let their precious white boys face any criticism, we are left with the formulaic nice guy taming the shrew resolution. A silly montage plays as they dance together how able-bodied people think disabled people should dance, which means swiveling their chairs in a lot of fancy complex choreography.

Just to hammer home the fact that disabled people are kidding themselves by trying to have a sex life, the post-coitus aftermath shows Artie and Betty sharing a chuckle over the fact that neither of them felt anything, so they can’t possibly determine if the sex was good or not.

So to sum up, women with disabilities are constantly compelled to address the elephant in the room that is their presumably absent sexuality. You are allowed two modes: sad, stoic, and sexless; or cruel, bitchy, and promiscuous. Both are media stereotypes that women have faced before, but it becomes especially problematic when disability is thrown into the mix. No matter how sexually active a given character is, trying to achieve and maintain healthy sexuality is seen as a futile pursuit because disabled people and especially disabled women can never hope to have the “real thing.” Unfortunately, Glee happily perpetuates the myth that the sexuality of ladies with disabilities is either tragic or hilarious for cheap pity or laughs where appropriate.

In an awesome case of life giving the middle finger to art, the (actually disabled!) actress who plays Betty, Ali Stroker, is currently involved in a relationship with fellow former Glee Project contestant Dani Shay. Their relationship is beyond adorable and Dani even wrote a song for her, the music video for which lets us get up close and personal with some pretty sensual moments between the two. It is possible for women with disabilities to be involved in loving, serious relationships, and ironically, the personal life of the very actress Glee attempted to pigeonhole exemplifies just how wrong the media is about disabled sexuality.

Like all women, we are perfectly capable of wielding our own sexual agency, and the media needs to start reflecting that.

Erin Tatum, is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, where she majored in film and minored in LGBT studies. She is incredibly interested in social justice, media representation, intersectional feminism, and queer theory. British television and Netflix consume way too much of her time. She is particularly fascinated by the portrayal of sexuality and ability in television.

  1. Thanks so much for posting this, one of the most well written and interesting critiques of Glee I’ve read.

    I will also be forever grateful to you for introducing me to the term ‘Drive By Oppression’ as a trope.

  2. Yes, this is an excellent piece: I watched the first couple of series, but then couldn’t carry on for all the reasons above.

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