CW: Mentions of child abuse
Glee ran for six seasons and for all six seasons, Glee made it fairly clear that the writers had no idea what to do with Artie. This was a show that prided itself on showing characters embracing their identities, but it could never completely do this with Artie because neither the writers nor his actor Kevin McHale know what that looks like. They cannot comprehend that there are people who do not just accept that they are disabled. They are proud of being disabled. Disability isn?t just a diagnosis, it?s an identity, and it makes you part of a community. But Artie doesn?t seem to really be a part of that community or even understand that it exists.
Artie never really stops wishing he could walk. His wheelchair is never a good thing. It?s always seen as something that stops him participating in the same activities as non-disabled teenagers, when it?s actually inaccessibility. But neither the writers nor McHale understand the difference. So they blame the disability, not the lack of accessibility.
Another glaring example of the lack of understanding is that Artie not only doesn?t combat ableism, he is often seen to be comfortable with it. This is obvious in episode 1×09 ?Wheels?.
When glee club coach Will Schuster decides that glee club students don?t understand what Artie goes through, he sources eleven wheelchairs and has the non-disabled students use them for a week. Artie?s reaction is? Well, he?s not allowed a reaction, but he seems pretty comfortable with it. At no point does he say ?disability simulations don?t work? or ?how?s about you listen to me instead of rolling around for a week, you jerks.?
Nine episodes later in 1×18 ?Dream On?, Artie?s girlfriend Tina discovers that his dream is to be a dancer. So she immediately signs him up for wheelchair dancing lessons.
Haha, I?m kidding. First they try to have Artie dance using crutches and fall over. They follow it up by having Tina, a fifteen year old girl, research cures. I?m not sure why, does she think his parents and doctors were hiding one from him?
This episode also contains one of the most controversial scenes of the show.
After his attempts at dancing fail, there is a dream sequence where Artie gets up out of his wheelchair and performs ?The Safety Dance? while dancing and leading a flash mob in the middle of an Ohio mall.
So, this may come as surprise to ableds, but disabled people don?t dream about being non-disabled. Wheelchair users don?t always dream of being free from their wheelchair. It?s their wheelchair that gives them freedom. Of course most of those wheelchair users also know that if they want to learn to dance wheelchair dancing exists.
I?m not sure whether the writers were sloppy and didn?t do their research or just couldn?t be bothered to showcase wheelchair dancing. But the show that said everyone could be a performer no matter who you are, straight up lied to wheelchair users and told them performing wasn?t for them.
After this Artie never mentions wanting to be a performer, not an actor, a musician or a singer. The only ambition he is allowed have is to be out of sight, as a director. The only time this adds anything to the show is when he directed the school plays, which are most notable for their racist casting.
?Dream On? ends with Artie giving up his dream of being a dancer. Instead, Tina dances with Mike, Tina dumps Artie for him a few episodes later.
I think the audience was supposed to sympathise with Artie, but I had very little sympathy for him. Artie treated most women, particularly Tina, like crap. However, he was was only ever called on it when the women were non-disabled white women. He was never called on it when it involved disabled women or women of colour. In fact on more than one occasion he gained sympathy or was rewarded for his behaviour towards them
One of the strangest things about Artie within New Direction is that he seemed to be designated ?lead minority male?, being given parity with people of colour.
Not only was a sassy friendship with Amber Riley?s Mercedes used to enforce this. He regularly used AAVE and was regularly prominent in songs by black artists. He has solos covering artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Ginuwine, and Outkast. He had duets with Mercedes in which they cover Bill Withers, Janet Jackson, and Etta James. He also took a leading role as the male members of New Directions perform songs by The Supremes, En Vogue, and TLC.
But this phenomenon is at its most ridiculous when New Directions perform ?You Can?t Stop The Beat? from Hairspray and Michael Jackson?s ?Black or White?. In ?You Can?t Stop The Beat?, Artie takes the part of Seaweed, who is black, with Kurt taking the role of Penny, so Chris Colfer ends up singing the line ?If they try to stop us, Artie, I?ll call the NAACP?. Even more bizarrely during Black and White Artie?s solo includes the line ?I?m not gonna spend my life being a colour?.
While being black and being disabled are both marginalised identities, they are not the same and are not interchangeable, and treating them as interchangeable erases the existence of black disabled people. Additionally while Artie being used as a stand in for a black man looks even worse because Kevin McHale isn?t disabled, it would still be wrong even if Artie had been played by a disabled man.
I?m sure that some people will point out that for three of Glee?s six seasons there were no black male students in New Directions, and that is true. But if having a black man is necessary for a song, then either hire a black man or don?t do the song.
Or alternatively give it to a black woman.
Most of his duets with Amber Riley could?ve been solos for her. Also a lot of this was done during seasons one, four, and five. Dijon Talton played Matt Rutherford in season one, while Jacob Artist played Jake Puckerman in seasons four and five. Both are black and more talented than Kevin McHale.
Additionally while most of these songs would?ve been better with a black man, on a few occasions a non-black man of color would?ve worked. Harry Shum was there for all six seasons, and surely no one is going to argue that Harry was overlooked because Kevin is more talented. If you are, I really can?t help you.
One of the noticeable things about having a non-disabled actor play Artie is the wheelchair that he uses, as is common for many wheelchair users played by non-wheelchair users, the wheelchair Artie uses is not one that an paraplegic would use. It?s fairly similar to one used in a hospital for patients. A wheelchair designed for an actual paraplegic usually doesn?t have handles, as it is completely controlled by the user. These chairs also have a lower back and bigger wheels. For wheelchair dancers, their wheelchairs have slanted wheels and no armrests. This gives them more manoeuvrability.
While it is very possible that the writers didn?t include wheelchair dancing because they wanted a ?poor crip? storyline, it?s also very likely that Kevin McHale wasn?t physically capable. When Artie performed on Glee he moved his wheelchair around or had someone else push him, he doesn?t dance the way a wheelchair user would.
If Kevin McHale wasn?t physically capable of playing Artie, why was he cast?
There are two explanations. When a casting director was asked by Janis Hirsch, a screenwriter and wheelchair user, why a non-disabled actor was cast, she was told that ?none of ?you people? auditioned?. According to showrunner Ryan Murphy, they auditioned both disabled and non-disabled actors, but Kevin McHale was just the best.
Kevin McHale is a decent actor and singer and had he played a non-disabled character would?ve been a great backing dancer. He would?ve been great casting for the likes of Kurt, Blaine, or Sam. But as Artie he wasn?t up to the job. He and everyone around him were too ignorant to know it.
Another consequence of an actor and writers who are not wheelchair users is that Artie is often seen being pushed by another glee club member. Artie being pushed around by his friends or worse for any teenage boy, his girlfriend, would be incredibly infantising for him as a teenage boy.
I spoke to Twitter user Robin M. Eames about how it felt.
They explained that they have avoided asking for help when they needed because it feels so infantising. They described it as feeling as though they were being pushed in a pram.
They also point out that we mostly see Artie being pushed on a smooth flat surface. Manual wheelchair users, if they need help, will need help going uphill or over rough ground. And while some manual wheelchair users may have to rely on the help of their friends, Artie?s family are seen to be affluent. It would not be beyond their means to have a power assist attached to his wheelchair, so there?s no reason that we should ever see him need help.
So why did we see this over and over again? How did no one think that it looked odd? Or was this another example of Kevin McHale not being physically able to push himself, or was it yet again something to make us pity Artie?
One scene that stood out as really misunderstanding disability is in episode 2×09 ?Never Been Kissed?. Puck approaches Artie and begins to push his wheelchair without asking. Robin describes this as something that this is a real trust thing, that they only trust their closest friends with.
I?ve heard other wheelchair users describe it as assault.
While Puck and Artie are friends in season two, but I can?t see Artie trusting Puck that much at that point. He barely has a reaction to Puck pushing his wheelchair.
One scene that was possibly worse is 2×06 ?Duets? when Artie loses his virginity. Without asking, Brittany picks Artie up and carries him to his bed. I think this is supposed to be romantic, but for an actual wheelchair user the reality is very different.
As Rebecca Major says in this article about wheelchair users and sex:?A big no-no is trying to take me out of my chair, unless I have indicated that I want to be, I?ve had guys try to carry me from the living room to my bed, which they think is pretty romantic and I think is pretty terrifying.?
There is a real coldness to the way the scene is written, acted and directed. There is no dialogue about their relationship, no flirtation, and no real previous relationship other than both being in Glee club. The only dialogue is about him not being over Tina, and Brittany offering to help, She also points out he?s on the football team so she was bound to sleep with him at some point. Artie even asks if he?s about to lose his virginity.
I?m not fan of Heather Morris? acting but she does actually save this scene from being completely cold. Unfortunately, it does still feel like a movie where a sex worker is hired by well meaning friends or relatives because they think it?s the only way a disabled person can have sex.
Again I?m asking why?
Why was it necessary for Artie to lose his virginity like this? He later dates Brittany, why couldn?t he lose his virginity during their relationship? Why did he have to have sex at all at that point? He?s barely sixteen, most of his friends, male and female, haven?t had sex. In all six seasons Artie is never shown to been in a sexual relationship with a woman. He?s shown in relationships, but the audience never knows if sex is a part of it, or he?s shown to have casual sex.
Additionally Artie?s relationships with women are awful. He thinks he?s entitled to a girlfriend because, well I don?t really know, he?s ?such a nice guy?. It come across as though he feels he?s owed a girlfriend because he?s disabled. Tina dumps him because he ignores her to play video games all summer. So to get her back he joins the football team because Mike?s a footballer.
Mike?s also a decent human being but it doesn?t occur to Artie to replicate that behaviour.
Brittany is consistently cheating on him, but they break up when he calls her stupid. Although the worse part of their relationship is the Christmas they are together. Brittany wishes for Artie to be able to walk, because nothing says ?I love you? like hating who you are. Sue secretly spends $85,000 on a robotic exo-skeleton, which works for about five seconds, but the abled gets her happy moment, who cares if it means she humiliated her disabled boyfriend.
In season four he has a one night stand with Betty Pilsbury, played by Ali Stroker, an actual wheelchair user. This storyline is terrible for many reasons starting with Artie lectures Betty about not hiding behind her disability. Firstly, a non-disabled actor pretending to be a disabled person, lectures a disabled woman, played by a disabled woman. Secondly, they just met, they do not know each other. Just because someone has the same disability as someone else or any disability does not give them the right to lecture anyone.
Because this show was written by people who think that mansplaining is a pick up technique, they later have sex. After sex they are shown laughing that they don?t know if it was good because they?re both paraplegics. Because why else show Artie having sex with a disabled woman if not to mock it. This was another example of writers not doing their research regarding paralysis. Also it again shows a lack of care in their portrayal of disabled people.
Later in season four and season five, he dates Kitty, who was a pretty horrible human being.
The first big moment in their relationship is when Kitty goes behind his back to announce to glee club that he has been accepted to film school in New York. She also goes behind his back to tell his mother about the acceptance, because god forbid disabled people have agency.
What follows is the weirdest storyline, even for Glee. Artie explains to his mom he?s afraid about going to New York because of it?s inaccessibility. Which is actually pretty reasonable, disabled people living there constantly complain about inaccessibility.
Nancy Abrams: Well, you?ve never been afraid of anything in your lifeArtie: Because my life has been pretty sheltered. Because you built that ramp I just rolled down so I could get in the living room. Because you converted the den into my bedroom so I didn?t have to go upstairs. Because you built that bathroom add-on?Nancy: Artie, you did those things. They were all your suggestions. I didn?t know how to handle your needs. So you adapted and you will adapt to New York.
The accident that caused Artie?s paralysis happened when he was eight. Even allowing for a lengthy recovery, are they telling us his mother did nothing, her child made their home accessible? That?s not at all comforting, that?s really bad parenting. Funnily enough when Artie goes to film school his first major problem is inaccessibility.
Artie?s most consistent relationship throughout the six seasons is with Tina.
Artie treats her like crap when they initially date in season one. Over season two and three they rarely interact although Artie is friends with Tina?s boyfriend Mike, and when he?s around her he treats her with respect. In seasons four and five after Tina and Mike have broken up Artie regularly participates in gaslighting Tina, he stands by and does nothing when Kitty calls her fat, he actually assaults at one point, then plays the victim when she fights back.
When her relationship with Mike is completely destroyed, and Tina?s confidence is at an all time low they get back together. Glee ends with Artie correcting Tina, rolling his eyes like she?s a child (although she?s still pushing his wheelchair).
But while Tina most consistently suffers at the hands of Artie?s misogyny and toxic masculinity, the person most harmed by a single instance is Ryder Lynn. In 4×20 ?Lights Out? Ryder reveals to glee club that when he was 11 he was sexually assaulted by his babysitter. Artie and Sam both remark that they don?t understand why he?s upset, that it sounds like every guy?s fantasy. And they face no consequences for telling an abuse victim he should?ve enjoyed his abuse.
I headlined this ?That?s Not How This Works?. And there?s nothing Glee got right about Artie. He was badly played, not because Kevin McHale is a bad actor, but because he was entirely wrong for the part. In my opinion it?s rare that a non-disabled actor can play a disabled character well. It may pass muster with a non-disabled audience, but disabled people should be able to watch people like them, not bad impersonations. If a non-disabled actor is ever to play a disabled character well it needs excellent writing. The writing for Artie barely ever reached tolerable. Most of the technical corrections I made here I found on google or by asking people on twitter. If I can do it why couldn?t they? Why couldn?t they even get the basics right?
Moreover, there seem to be no understanding of disability as an identity or a community, and paralysis as a life changing injury, but not always life worsening. There was no understanding that wheelchairs provide freedom, not restriction, that other people pushing a wheelchair is an act of trust and wouldn?t be done randomly, and that most teenagers and adults find it infantising. It was a lazy and uninspiring character who look like he was plonked in a wheelchair and everyone assumed he hated his wheelchair, because that?s what non-disabled people assume. Not only is disability it?s own identity, it is not interchangeable with other marginalised identity, and it?s not a shield to avoid criticisms of racism or misogyny.
If you want a disabled character in your tv show you have to understand all of this, Glee got everything wrong. While the responsibility lies with those in charge, everyone regularly on the show fell short.