I have to say, like many many others out there I have become obsessed with Glee, and since even my mother has watched it that means that probably about 95% of the population has at least heard of it if not seen it (sorry mom, I know you're reading, but let's face it, it's true).
It's actually spawned a couple of really good conversations about the things that the show does right, and the many many things that it does wrong. I kept meaning to summarize some of those conversations and my take on the broader issues around it here, but I'm glad that I waited, because as it is often apt to, something else came to my attention.
I walked into work today and found this article hanging off of one of the staff's door. It is yet another article singing the praises of Glee for bringing issues of access and dis/Ability to the forefront of North American prime time. I read it and just cringed inside. This is what we are championing as a good model of inclusion for the future Early Childhood Educators of Toronto?
I will be the first to give the show some credit where credit is due, it does as the article suggests actually cast characters with disabilities as main recurring characters, and creates plotlines around them. However, I will openly question if the inclusion of Artie as a choir member was an attempt to continue to dramatize the underdog and outcast role that the group begun from. Something along the lines of "Oh, what could make a show choir even more pathetic? Oh, I know! Let's add in a character in a wheelchair! Then later when we really need it, we can have the group drawing inspiration and spinoff plot lines from him too and no one will ever guess it was just a giant joke to begin with." I question the inclusion of the Deaf glee club from the same kind of thinking "What kind of groups could be out there that would be even worse off than this school's Glee Club? Oh! What about Deaf kids? We all know they can't sing, and oh hey criminals!, those sound like good odds."
There are two other aspects of the show that I do like. I like that Kurt had the freedom in his role to be not only as effeminately gay as he wanted, but then also to be the hero of the football team for winning the first game for them. The fact that he didn't have to change who he was and was given the freedom at this seemingly incredibly homophobic and small minded high school is showing that sexuality isn't nearly the issue that it used to be. If you have the skills go for it. The second aspect was something that was actually pointed out to me that I hadn't stopped to consider, but it was how Artie reacted to Tina divulging that her stutter was actually faked. Artie seemed very very genuine in his response that he thought that he and Tina had something really important in common, and understood what it was like to be different, but that if she was just faking then they didn't have any common ground to stand on. The bottom line was that without understanding the frustration of not having a choice in how people treat you or see you, it doesn't really matter. I can totally get Artie's frustration of "Well how come you get to walk away and be normal now, when I'm still stuck here the way I've always been."
I think the thing that really gets to me about all of this though is the idea of representation. How these things are being portrayed.
One group GLAAD (Gays & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) does a media report every year on how Queer people are represented in the media. This season's report shows that about 3% of all characters on TV are queer. This is a huge contrast to the roughly 10% of the population that identifies as queer. I'm sure that there are several other groups out there that monitor how people with dis/Abilities are portrayed, various cultural and ethnic groups etc. This is just the one that I know off hand. I'm sure that all of these groups would share a similar finding though, that people from all of these groups are under and poorly represented in the mainstream media.
This is where the problem comes in I think. People get so excited to see themselves represented on TV that they are willing to overlook all manners of sin just because they see themselves in that moment as visible. I would be lying if I said I wasn't guilty of it. The fact that Glee had a song performed in ASL by a Deaf glee club was the entire reason I even started watching the show, and figuring out what it was about.
In dealing with the Deaf school there are two things that really bother me, one I noticed right away, the other took more time and reflection. The first is how they treated the character who was the teacher of the school for the Deaf. Why not pick a strong Deaf role model for these kids to look up to? Why not have the teacher be culturally Deaf and a fluent signer? Instead they chose to make him appear to be a complete idiot who was supposedly deaf in one ear, who screamed at everyone and insisted on telling everyone repeatedly that he was deaf and why. Now, I am deaf in one ear, and if I appear as one eighth the fool that he does, someone please just shoot me now. No one goes around like that. If the point was to add comedic value, why do we always have to use disability as the playground? What is the point of trying to push the message that we are all the same, if the message that comes out is only that we good to be laughed at?
The second thing is how they chose to deal with the glee club itself. I do believe as the article suggests that the fact that both glee clubs coming together to sing imagine was this great picture of unity between the two schools, and how in an idealistic world Deaf and hearing people can all exist together harmoniously. That being said, I'm sure that on another level it was a very surface level, though appearing deeply thought out solution to a pretty obvious problem. While watching Deaf kids do their thing is beautiful to those of us who sign and value ASL, for the rest of the world out there who doesn't sign, it is a pretty boring-ass way to spend 4 minutes of their lives. The writers were even kind, they chose to have a kid who was both oral and signed to voice the song so that the viewers didn't have to depend on open captions to know what was going on. Still this was not enough auditory input for their viewers so instead of really giving the Deaf kids their moment to shine, they chose to go for the big show. When it's all about viewer numbers and advertising who can blame them right? Also, I have to say that during the finale their choice to make the Deaf choir an entirely audio-track singing horribly off-key and out of tune downright upset me. Why go through all that work to set a good thing up, and then totally write it off when it comes up again? How hard would it have been to film both scenes at the same time? Why have a Deaf choir if you aren't going to see it through?
For me what scares me is that we see ourselves portrayed in these horribly unrealistic and negative ways and we cheer. We cheer that at least we are being seen and being mentioned at all. We don't stop to think critically about the messages people are taking away with them about what our own difference looks like. We don't demand better representation, because we are at least seeing ourselves, and that is better than nothing at all. It's better than being ignored and forgotten. I just wonder how if we don't push to see ourselves represented in positive realistic ways how we are allowing ourselves to get further ahead at all.