Friday, May 21, 2010

Dream On: What A Nightmare on Glee

After the whole quad thing from last week, I sort of hoped that Glee would be done with its disability shenanigans. But no. Oh no. This week, we had to go back to the disability, dancing and the cure narrative. And that meant Artie, walking, and out of the chair dancing.

Apparently, no one at FOX read and took seriously anything on the Internet by disabled people (well, it's just the Internet and they're just disabled people -- two of the many roundup and commentary posts here and here. WheelieCatholic on this particular episode: here [she's got good commentary all over her blog], Meloukhia here, and Bad Cripple: here). Apparently, the discussion on NPR about the cultural reaction that has surrounded Glee fell on ears that didn't know what to do with what they heard (who listens to NPR, after all?). Glee is not a world-shattering important issue -- I will be talking about some of the awful political things that have happened this week -- but culture is as important as politics; there's a symbiotic relationship between our beliefs, fears, and projections and what those who "represent" us do in the legislature.

I know. It's supposed to be parody. It's supposed to be funny. But the thing about humour that I find funny is not that it is confirms all the stereotypes -- what's funny about that? -- but that it subverts, undercuts, twists, plays with our stereotypes and our fears. It's a fine line that, say, Chris Rock has an almost perfect handle on and that the Glee peeps wouldn't recognize if it screamed, "Here I am!"

This week on Glee, the theme was dreams; the kind of thing that, "if it came true, all your hurt would go away." Can you see the disability setup coming? I'm surprised they didn't try to straighten Kurt.... When Tina seeks a tap dance partner, Artie gets "tap wheels;" he soon finds, however, that his attempts at dancing are pathetic. (Side note: They are. But that is not because he uses a wheelchair; it's because he hasn't figured out how to dance in it.) He is dissatisfied. And here it begins. Artie wants to be able to partner with Tina more fully. And to the Glee folk, that means he needs his full masculine height, his legs, and his standing-up-out-of-the-chair body. (Side note: Because, of course, using a wheelchair is emasculating, paralyzing even. It certainly renders you unable to dance. And btw? Despite Private Practice, you are never going to get your girl.)

First, the crutches: Artie moves forward and falls smack on his face. Let me be clear: some people with spinal cord injury can and do walk. Even when the injury level is high. But let me be clear: these people are vastly outnumbered by the people with SCI who do not walk. In the middle, are people who can take steps or who can stand but use a wheelchair because being able to execute the mechanics of walking does not make a legged/walking daily existence feasible. And then, there are the wheelchair users who do not have spinal cord injury.

Why is that explanation of who uses a wheelchair here? Because wheelchair users are wildly diverse. And because wheelchair use does not mean "cannot walk" and because not participating in a walking life does not, I repeat, DOES NOT mean that wheelchair users spend their lives desiring a return to walking.

Artie goes through this whole dream sequence in which he rises to his feet and dances. When the number is over, the dream closes, and Artie is shown passively waiting in his chair for Tina to bring him the tap shoes that are an "investment in his future." He then chases down all the most recent research on spinal cord injury including stem cell therapy; he finds the news that some scientists have been able to regenerate the spinal cord in certain rats. But all of this is too soon; Artie is doomed to live a life in a wheelchair. His injury is too complete. He is a "no hoper." He gives up on his dream to become a dancer and instead sings the closing number while Tina dances with someone else.


First, then, the difficult stuff.

Don't wheelchair users feel bad/useless/angry/sad about using a wheelchair?

I don't know how it is for others. I can only speak to my own experience and report what I have heard others say. Transitioning to using a wheelchair is difficult. And, yes, I feel anger, sadness, grief, mourning. And, yes, I am aware of a different life, painfully aware of how my life has changed. Sometimes, those things are more acute than others. And sometimes, yes, I am frustrated.

I also feel happy about my life. I actively enjoy using my wheelchair. I celebrate my chair, the freedom it gives; I love my disabled life. I feel active pleasure in my disabled body -- there are some great early posts on this here (me), here (Kay@thegimpparade). These experiences mirror those of people I know.

So, yes, I am aware that my life is now different and that my body is now different. The questions are what do I make of that difference? How is that difference understood?

Don't wheelchair users and other disabled people desire to be cured?

Though I am physically able to perform the movements necessary for walking (particularly true since my hip surgery), I use a wheelchair for most of my mobility. Do I wish that I could still walk everywhere and that my remaining (neuro) issues could be cured? Again, I can speak only for myself. But here's what I think. I think that this is the wrong question.

Yes, you read that aright. I think that asking this question produces useless answers that don't help anyone.

If I say "no," the response of a disbeliever is that I only say this "because I am not totally paralysed and I can still walk and I don't know what it's like." I hear this often and have seen this accusation cast at other Internet peeps. When other people whose level of impairment is different say, "no," then, I see the charges change. Suddenly, it is that they are being "pollyanna-ish, being in denial, being scared to admit the truth, being cowed/brainwashed by the disability rights movement."

Here's the story of a real disabled person, a wheelchair user, who is considering surgery that might give him the chance to walk again. This is a gripping and powerful discussion of the issues and some of one person's feelings: two important parts are here and here.

So, I am going to start with a different perspective -- one that leads to better questions.

Disability and Culture.

Disability is a part of human variation.

Some people come to wheelchair use through accident or illness. Others are born into bodies whose mobility is best facilitated through wheelchair use. We come to understand our place in the world through social and cultural context. These contexts help us give meaning to ourselves; they help us understand our place in the world. They help us create meaning in our lives and tell our stories in a way that makes sense to ourselves and to others.

We can grieve; we can mourn; we can wish things were the way there were 8 years ago; we can wish we had been born like the majority of the others around us. And a disabled person may do any, all, or none of those things. All those feelings are normal -- with or without disability. But my experience and the experience of those around me, disabled and non, is that people with disabilities live meaningful lives. We live those lives with (nor around or despite) our impairments. And that we are too busy living, loving -- goddammit, living -- to spend the majority of our lives wishing that we were different or that we could set that clock back.

We have value; we are whole, complete people; we and those who live around us understand that.

Dancing is a celebration of our bodies and ourselves. And if you ever attend the Society For Disability Studies annual conference, you would see disabled people perform what might be to you the radical act of dancing, but what is for us a natural joy.

In my BADD post, I wrote:
Movement is the movement.
When you are out on the street -- move. When you are gathered with friends and family, move. In a store, a restaurant, on the bus ... in your car. Does anyone remember this flash mob dance video (London, Liverpool Station -- as an advertisement for T-Mobile)? There was a flash mob dance this week in the Bay Area. Gather your friends or perhaps go alone. Go to a public place and dance. Go to a local dance class and move."
If this were the widespread cultural understanding of disabled lives, the people on Glee would not be able to write this crap. Because no one would watch it.

So, show people that movement is the movement. Corbett O'Toole is organizing the first disabled dance flash mob. Here's a link to the facebook page.

Kevin McHale is a gorgeous and talented dancer; it's a shame that he can't figure out how to dance in a wheelchair. Perhaps FOX should have hired a real disabled dancer for that.


  1. This post has been included in a link roundup at access-fandom on dreamwidth.

  2. OMG. Thank you for this articulate and spot-on commentary. I NEVER want my daughter to think she has to dream about walking without assistance to be able to dance. That moving without her chair or her braces and walker are better than dancing with them. She is a BEAUTIFUL dancer both in her wheelchair and in her walker.

  3. thanks @sasha-feather for the tag and for letting me know.

    @HennHouse. exactly. ;-DDD


  4. Do you think that your acceptance of your disabled body and life is because you had an able-bodied life beforehand and the things you used to do are now just done from a wheelchair instead?

    I find this interesting because I've been disabled since birth and the older I get the more I resent it and the greater my desire NOT to be disabled.

  5. The crutches. I have met almost a dozen SCI that can walk. The difference between them, and Artie, is that they have been going through an exercise based rehab program: Project Walk, SCI-FIT, Beginning Steps, Pressing on, Victory Walk, etc. Artie has not, for whatever reason. It appears that the common conception of "it can't be that hard" was in play here, which is too bad.

    Actually, WD, he's waiting in his chair for her to bring him a pretzel; this scene starts with him are holding the box of tap shoes. However, it IS a modern mall, which means that there would be an elevator to the upper level for both of them to go for pretzels. Also, Tina presents him with some research, rather than him doing it himself. Although, if his dream is to dance, he should already be familiar with the research.

    The guidance counselor (?) was a bit of a killjoy, though. Here is a thought: why hasn't the counselor talked with Artie about wheelchair dance? Or, why hasn't Artie done some research about wheelchair dance himself? That is where, in my opinion, the episode fails.

    I just watched the episode on hulu. It's the first episode that I've seen, and I actually liked their versions of the music selections. I guess I'm just not quite the activist/advocate that a lot of people are. I can understand, somewhat, where they're coming from, I just can't seem to get as fired up. I think I'm looking more at the depiction, rather than an individual actor.

  6. I don't resent my chair; I resent how some people react and treat me because I use it, and that isn't an individual problem but a societal issue that will only be resolved when people are educated and change their thinking. As you said, disability is human variation and until we learn to value that equally with other forms, discrimination, stupidity and social marginalisation will continue.

  7. WHen the episode started, I was kind of excited. I thought we were actually going to SEE some wheelchair dancing from Artie, or he was going to see a show, or something that would enable his dream. I kept waiting and waiting and... nada. Nope, Artie can't have his dream because he's not able-bodied. I keep expecting more from what could have been a fun and eye-opening show, rather than the preachy and bizarrely exclusionary show that it's becoming.

  8. Anonymous9:25 AM

    I dearly hope to see some _true_ wheelchair dancing on the program. I love that idea and think it would be an eye-opening experience for the not-wheelchair-savvy of us.

  9. Wow, this is a really good post. I recently danced with a friend who happens to be quadriplegic at a wedding, and it was a blast. She enjoyed it and so did I...movement and dance can come in different forms...and all of it is good. Anyway, thanks for sharing your perspective! I haven't seen these Glee episodes, but hearing your thoughts does open my eyes. Thanks :)

  10. I recorded this episode and just got to watching it tonight. I shot right over here because I was a couple of posts behind but I just KNEW you'd be on it ;-)
    I nearly flipped my lid throughout the whole episode. I dance. More than that: I am a dancer. For crying out loud, I am a dance TEACHER...and to able bodied people, too for crying out loud.
    I am desperately hoping that this is some story-line to be resolved somehow later in the season. I am so disappointed at how invalidating this is (and not just personally).

  11. I am still pondering that episode and what my feelings are about it. I dream of walking, but in my dreams I am just walking, I am not singing or skipping or feeling all thrilled. I would love to walk again. I Christopher-Reeveish believe I will. But if I never do, big deal. The hardest part is all the fighting to make buildings and sidewalks accessible--wearing me out. But the whole dance situation on Glee is best addressed by dancers like you. I wish you would gather a group and attack the TV execs with an idea for that Glee group to be beaten by a group of real w/c dancers. The press would be great for us and the show. Write to Lady Gaga. I think it would make for big ratings. MY power chair is my best friend. We are one.

  12. THANK YOU!!!

    I've used the wheelchair off and on for ten years because of arthritis. Discovering wheelchair dance was the most liberating, exciting thing in the world. Prior to my arthritis i was dance crazy and thought (like Artie) that wheelchair = no more dance. I danced my own way with my crutches, my chair, but never thought anyone else would.

    I'm so glad I came across this. I'm trying to come up with a way to unite Gleeks who are aware of wheelchair dance so that we can somehow convince the writers that Artie's dream can come true - there's no reason he CAN'T be a dancer!

    How do we get through to the writers and make them aware of this? I'm sure we aren't the only ones who were furious with that episode.

    BTW - I've never resented my chair. I LOVED it, and my crutches. They weren't limiting for me, they were freeing. Finally I could go long distances on my own, I could move freely without pain. And yes, I could dance. I will always consider myself a dancer, no matter what my physical capabilities are.

    I've just created the following facebook group : PLEASE join if you agree with me!

  13. Anonymous9:16 AM

    "Because wheelchair users are wildly diverse. And because wheelchair use does not mean "cannot walk" and because not participating in a walking life does not, I repeat, DOES NOT mean that wheelchair users spend their lives desiring a return to walking."

    THIS. x10000. Love the entire post. (Going back to lurking now.)


  14. Anonymous11:31 AM

    My father was fully disabled from birth, and died young from complications. I admit my desire for a cure, because there are those of us that wouldn't have lost out on having someone like my father in their life (he was 35, I was 6). BUT, I understand exactly what you mean. It's the original reason why people like my father sat on the panel that coined the, now debunked, term "Handi-capped" and fought for human rights. FTR he was an avid hang glider and sky-dived in the in his 20's, without ever needing to walk.

  15. For more on this issue, take a look at:

    I cited you, in fact.

  16. You can see real wheelchair dancing at American DanceWheels Foundation website:

    They teach wheelchair dance at a school whose students all have disabilities. If you are in the Philadelphia area you should dance with them.