I have been occasionally watching "Glee" and trying to decide whether it's worth my viewing time. However the most recent episode and its after-school-special sugaryness has exposed a lot of controversy.
There are 2 main issues here, one with the show for casting a non-disabled actor to play a student in a wheelchair, and one with the episode itself, which featured terribly contrived dialogue to try to make the other glee-clubbers understand Artie's plight of being in a wheelchair.
Let's start with the immersion exercise episode where the self-centered glee clubbers were relegated to spend a few hours each day in a wheelchair. The students' teacher rolls out wheelchairs that he supposedly bought at a tag sale from a local nursing home. Of course these were all sleek, more stylish chairs than that bear no resemblance to the standard industrial type chairs seen in hospitals and nursing homes. A nitpick, admittedly, but that's how I am. The whole episode was painful to watch as the glee geeks were more mistreated than usual now that they were wheelchair users. Cool kids are now... uncool! Feeling left out over a week leads to... increased empathy 4-evar! We even had time to learn that ex-quarterback kid couldn't manage to find a job... until he was in a wheelchair and had pity and fear of litigation from an employer! It just didn't feel like an empowering week. And this may also be part of a commentary on how poorly defined this show is... is it made for children and tweens or is it made for adults? The fake pregnancy pentagon storyline is surely not made for the young crowd, but you'd expect older viewers to rant about the terrible plotlines in general. Confusing.
However, the meat of this discussion should be about the casting of the role of Artie, and some of the controversy was addressed in the USA Today. Why wasn't a legitimate actor-singer-wheelchair user cast to play Artie, glee club geek in a wheelchair? Here's a second, perhaps more telling question- how many such actor-singer-wheelchair users auditioned? From the way that actor Kevin McHale describes his audition, I find it questionable that the role was ever advertised to indicate that the actor would be in a wheelchair. It sounds like this was a plot twist to increase diversity that got thought of after the casting and got shoved onto an already created character. I have the impression that the role was created around the actor, so perhaps the casting calls were not worded in a way to invite wheelchair users to audition.
sidenote- if you watch the McHale interview, how does a kid who plays an adolescent have no idea what time schools are in session? "From 8 to 12 or whenever"?
I don't think that the character of Artie is a great ambassador of teenage wheelchair users anyway. As a member of the glee club, he is often hanging out on the sidelines with the band instead of participating in the show. If he is worked into the routine, it often involves another character pushing him around. The writers went out of their way to end this episode with a big musical number that had everyone swooshing around in wheelchairs, but did they consult a wheelchair dancer for choreography tips? I have my doubts. And if my earlier suppositions about the wheelchair being thrust onto a character after the actor had already been selected, why not put Mark Salling, who plays buff ne'er do well football star Puck into a wheelchair, to be a buff ne'er do well wrestling star? Artie could have continued to be the geeky guy who plays the guitar, he also could have been the much-mocked kicker on the football team. Wouldn't that have made for some better, more original storylines than putting the dorky kid in the wheelchair?
Should an able-bodied actor ever play a character that has a disability? That is the main question. In one sense, all acting is fakery. Hollywood does not always hire sports stars, drug addicts, or serial killers to play themselves. But certainly a capable actor who has the same abilities as his character would have a better understanding of how to play the role well. The real issues in this question are-1. are disabled actors being considered? and 2. are non-disabled actors giving an unfair portrayal to disabled characters? The Iris Center, out of Vanderbilt University, has a catalogue of movies about disability or featuring disabled characters. Some of these movies feature great performances, but are they demeaning? One mother in the UK is starting a group
criticizing portrayals of characters with mental or neurological impairments (nothing about physical impairments, oddly) who are played by actors who do not have a disability. One thing that I worry about though is if there becomes a taboo on non-disabled actors playing disabled characters, will disabled actors ever be allowed to just be actors, and not be identified first by a disability?