20 September, 2009

Glee: possibly an elaborate satire of tokenism, but probably not

I saw my second person with green hair in the UK (the first was yesterday). It makes me really happy but I get shy and stare at nothing, although I guess that's what I do most of the time.

I'm continuing to watch Glee, despite my reservations. I was pleasantly surprised by the third episode because the Sassy Minority Characters were actually treated like human beings. The heavy black girl complained about not having had a relationship, and the stereotypically gay boy comforted her. Then, through some dumb catalysts, the HBG somehow thought that the SGB was interested in her romantically, then thought that he was in love with the main female character on the show, then broke his car window and sang a song about it in a fantasy sequence. When she apologized, he explained that he is in fact gay. She responded positively, encouraging him to be more open about it to other students, to which he replied, "I'm not that confident."

This was really nice. I always disliked both characters before because they didn't seem real; they were just in the show for fake diversity and comic relief, as far as I could tell. But in this episode, Mercedes was by turns cynical, realistic, kind, and naive. She seemed like a regular dorky kid, not a Sass Machine, and I found her rather sweet. Despite being assumed to be gay by pretty much everyone, Kurt had trouble saying the words; he looked uncomfortable and almost started to cry. After he rejected Mercedes's suggestion that he publicly come out, Kurt sashayed away, begging the question of whether his "fabulous" persona is a natural expression of his homosexuality, or a front he puts up to distract from what he's really going through.

Some viewers have suggested that Glee is actually going to be this elaborate deconstruction of tokenism, where the minority characters are tropey comic relief in the first few episodes, and then the stereotypes are pulled out from under us. Well, that would be cool, I guess. It seems like giving them too much credit, but I guess we'll see how the next episode goes.

The other two minority characters are Artie, who uses a wheelchair, and Tina, an Asian girl who stutters (and is maybe a lesbian?). Artie and Tina never say ANYTHING. Artie's finest hour involved the main male character, Finn, proving how awesome he is by saving Artie from being bullied. Go Artie! In the first episode he was singing "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat", but the main female character, Rachel, said he shouldn't be singing that because he was already sitting down. By the end of the episode Finn had become the lead male singer in the glee club, and Artie sat on the side playing guitar. I mean, it was more than Tina gets to do, but still. Also, they accidentally cast a really good singer as Artie, and a really average singer as Finn, making this even more awkward than it already was. Being able to walk is apparently a more important qualification for "lead singer" than actually being talented.

This blog points out that Artie almost never pushes his own wheelchair, and is just pushed around by other characters, often for comedic effect as he crashes into other people and walls. I liked the physical comedy at first, because it challenges the idea that including a wheelchair user makes a performance less visually interesting. The wheelchair makes all those scenes more fun to watch, not less. But as the linked blog points out, it gets to a point where Artie is treated like a prop. When Jane Lynch calls Artie half a person, and a bully says it's okay to endanger him because he's already disabled, we're supposed to see that those lines are offensive and the characters saying them are villainous. But it seems like that's what the writers of the show actually think about Artie, given that he has few lines and not much personality.

I've been writing this post for more than an hour, I guess because this show has so much potential to be unique and is doing such a good job squashing it, but I wanted to add that it was really douchey to cast an ambulatory actor as Artie. There are not a lot of parts for disabled actors, especially in musicals. The guy who plays Artie used to be in a boy band and is apparently a really great dancer; he has expressed in interviews how he keeps accidentally moving his legs during musical numbers, and has to tense them up. You know what would be a great way to avoid this kind of problem? Wait, can you guess what I'm going to say? No, you probably can't, because when I criticized Artie's casting on IMDB, I got the following responses:

"Why couldn't they have found a real person with OCD to play Emma? Or a real professional cheer coach to play Sue?" (Carries on in this vein for a while, apparently missing the point that this isn't taking away jobs from OCD people and cheerleading coaches who want to act.) "...And honestly it might have been difficult to find a professional actor who was disabled and had a good singing voice. Not impossible of course, but harder to find than someone else." (Because disabled singer/actors are occupied with all the parts for disabled people in musicals!)

"Honestly, it doesn't makes more sense to have a non-disabled person to play a person in a wheelchair especially since this is a tv show that utilizes 'dream sequences,' if that makes sense. Artie is not completely restricted to a wheelchair now." (Mercedes isn't being played by a thin actor in a fat suit so she can be thin in her dream sequences.) "Also, disabled people often have other health issues that could potentially slow down production of the show." (Yeah. And people with serious health issues would totally audition for a TV show, and wouldn't be weeded out by the fact that they probably wouldn't be good belters.)

This is my favorite:

"The purpose of choosing a cast for a TV series is not to accomplish anyone's idea of social justice. And I'm not too sure a young wheelchair-bound actor would be all that happy to think that the only reason he was considered at all only because he was in a wheelchair."

Because (as has already been hinted at above) wheelchairs users just don't have the talent, health, or energy to be on this show, so if the casting director only considered actors in wheelchairs, then he would by definition be considering people who don't really deserve to be cast, which is actually insulting to disabled people because offering disabled people a job is treating them as objects of pity because they don't really deserve to have a job and treating them equally would mean not giving them a job, something they would probably be really grateful for, and which would give disabled kids the message that disabled people shouldn't be cast in TV shows, because it's ableist.

(Did I mention how much I love Carnivale for by and large casting actors with the conditions their characters were supposed to have? Because I really, really do.)

No comments:

Post a Comment