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Pop Culture Rant: On “Glee” and Disabilities

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I have a confession to make, which probably comes as no surprise to people who follow this blog: I watch the television show “Glee.” It’s this weird paradox in which every week, every time I finish the show, I completely regret feeling uncomfortable for an hour of my life, but I can’t stop. I keep watching it every week! And I always end my viewing session feeling vicariously awkward on behalf of the poor souls who have to break into “Journey” songs every two minutes, and then I quickly erase my browser activity so nobody knows what I just did. But this isn’t about trying to absolve my guilt over watching a cheesy television show. This has to do with the representation of a minor character in the show who has Down Syndrome.

For those who are unfamiliar, this is Becky, played by the immensely talented Lauren Potter:

Now, you have to understand, this is a case in which I’m honestly questioning whether I’m being too sensitive. I would never accuse myself of being too sensitive over the “R” word or over the abundance of judgmental language we use to describe people with developmental disabilities. But here’s the thing, dear readers: I spent the better part of my college life being trained to notice patterns in popular culture that marginalize other people: races, sexes, or sexual orientation. And when I look at Becky and her role as the sidekick to “Glee’s” resident evil, Jane Lynch’s cheerleading coach Sue Sylvestor, all I can think of is this:

The buffoonish partner to the archetypical villain. The one who’s there for comic relief, who says the funny lines, who makes you feel that unlike the villain, they’re not some evil mastermind; they’re just a little lost. And comical, of course, always.

Now, I’m a rabid fan of Jane Lynch, and her recent commencement speech at my alma mater brought me to tears of nostalgia. Seriously, I love this woman. I am also aware of Jane Lynch and Lauren Potter’s incredible voice in the disability awareness campaign. And I know that taking offense to “Glee” is a trivial crime, so be aware of all of this as I continue.

I just do not like the way the character Becky is portrayed. Plain and simple. I think she’s cartoonish, two-dimensional, and there for an easy laugh. In a recent episode I watched as her character sat in a hotel room with a few of the primary characters, as they felt disappointment over not being somewhere better, as she demanded beer and condoms, and the implication was, “laugh at this person for demanding condoms so she can presumably sleep with one of the main characters, who will, of course, reject her.” And I’m sorry, but that just isn’t funny. I’m sorry, but using a disabled person’s sexuality for a cheap laugh will never be okay with me. I’m sorry, but the intent was wrong: it wasn’t to point out the disabled person’s real, human feelings; it was to make an awkward, uncomfortable situation even more laughably uncomfortable.

If you want to talk about the capacity to which an intellectually disabled person feels fully-functional adult emotions, that’s one thing. If you want to talk about the moral implications of giving alcohol or condoms to an intellectually disabled person, that warrants an even longer conversation. But to make light of it and then move on is inexcusable.

And I know it’s not this show’s intent to write off a disabled person for comedic relief; in fact, I think that in their bizarre way, “Glee” is trying to draw a “this person is just like me” parallel. But it’s going about it all wrong, and I think at the end of the day, all they’re doing is solidifying the perception that society already has about teens or adults with disabilities. And I’m not sure if this is too much of a tangent, but full disclosure: I don’t think they’re doing gay people any good, either, when they lump gay storylines into the same storyline as a student sleeping with a teacher.

It used to be my goal to make movies and television shows (this was a long time ago) for one simple reason: to create characters that are different from the ones we see every day. At the time, for me, this was especially true of women: I yearned to see female characters onscreen that didn’t portray the archetypical romantic or weak stereotype.

But now? Now that I’m focused on disabilities? Let’s put it this way: I was concerned for women, but I’m pissed off on behalf of disabled people. If our disabled people aren’t buffoons, or if they aren’t a way of proving the main character’s “humanity,” or if they aren’t Oscar-bait, then they do not exist.

But guess what? They exist. They are our Austistic brothers, our aunts with Down Syndrome, or, in my case, our beautiful and capable brain-damaged sisters. And unlike “Glee,” high school wasn’t a laughable time for my sister. My parents had to move out of state just to find a special education program that wouldn’t amount to making my sister wait tables in the cafeteria for her able-bodied and able-minded peers. Before my sister switched schools, she was kept in a room with the behaviorally challenged kids (which she wasn’t) where they hit her (which made her wonder what she had done wrong).

This is the story that remains untold. This is high school for millions of disabled children around the world. And to minimize that by telling the story of one high school where the disabled girl is the laughable cartoon sidekick to the most evil woman in the school? That’s not okay. There simply aren’t enough stories out there to counterbalance this one. There simply isn’t a reason to believe that the stereotype portrayed in “Glee” isn’t true.

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One response »

  1. HI Meg
    I agree with every thing you are saying here, except perhaps the part about feeling guilty for watching Glee. I love the show and it does so much to make the differences some of society’s marginalized people have seem so much smaller (as they should be). However I too have often questioned my feelings about the character Becky and her casting as “Mini Sue”. Sue is deliciously wicked and delightful to watch. No question. But I often feel uncomfortable watching her interactions with Becky because what I see is manipulation and exploitation. Not always but sometimes. Maybe the writers don’t think so but I that’s what I feel. Does that make me too sensitive? Maybe. Do I want Sue to go away. No Way. Do I believe Becky could use some more moderating influences. You Bet. I know the back story about Sue’s institutionalized sister who had Down Syndrome and in that story Sue was extremely protective of Becky and fair as a result. However, I work in schools in special education and I know for a fact that kids with disabilities aren’t always treated fairly, often by non disabled peers and at times even by teachers and other staff. I did not see the episode you are talking about, but did recently attend a workshop all about sexuality and teens/young adults with disabilities. What the media should be doing is exposing people to the fact that just because a person is intellectually and/or physically challenged, does not mean they are also emotionally or hormonally challenged.

    Rather than make Becky the butt of the uncomfortable condom gag, maybe Glee writers could write up a genuine romance for Becky, making her even more like, and less different, than all the rest of us with all the accompanying joys and heartbreaks. Human sexuality is a part of every person, EVERY person, no matter how many people think that some of us should not be allowed to exercise it. Stereotypes allow people to remain safely in their “..don’t know any, don’t need to know any, I’m happy in my prejudice” mentalities.
    Keep beating down the barriers Meg. You’re doing good work.

    Reply

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