Glee on Wheels

November 12, 2009
By | 16 Comments
Artie in his wheelchair

Artie in his wheelchair

Last night’s episode of Glee, “Wheels,” focused on Artie and put the entire club in wheelchairs for a performance. It also attracted a lot of attention and some controversy. A number of actors with disabilities expressed disappointment that Artie is played by an able-bodied actor, Kevin McHale, rather than by an actor who does use a chair. Darryl “Chill” Miller and Geri Jewell are working actors with disabilities, but they’re some of a very few on television, in film or theater.

I haven’t watched a lot of Glee thus far – it wore a little thin for me after a few episodes, I did find it somewhat stereotypical, and I was desperate to learn about the characters who weren’t part of the two white, heterosexual, maybe-baby love triangles. Tina, particularly, was underdeveloped initially, unless a quiet Asian woman was what they were going for. “Wheels” brought me back out of curiosity, and I’m torn.


  • Glee is charming, and darkly funny, and I want to like it (no matter how often it disappoints me).
  • The episode is rare in its focus on a person with disabilities, and having that out there, and McHale’s enthusiasm for the role, are all good things on some level.
  • The messages about physical accessibility were really well-done. Throughout, accessibility for the entire school, rather than just Artie, is emphasized in discussions of ramps, buses, and inclusion in school events and organizations.
  • The introduction of Becky, a girl with Down Syndrome, broadens the understanding of what disability is in Glee‘s world – it’s not just wheelchairs.


  • I am disappointed about the casting, and the lack of actors with disabilities representing themselves on TV. The longer actors with disabilities don’t play these parts, the harder it is for them to get experience and work and get other parts down the road.
  • I had some qualms about the dancing, related to the hype that surrounded it and lack of acknowledgment for a history of wheelchair dancing.
  • The tired practice of putting able-bodied people into chairs to “understand” a disabled experience rubbed me the wrong way.
  • The revelation of cheerleading coach Sue’s sister, though, provided too pat a reason for Becky’s inclusion – and reiterated the humanizing linkage of athletic characters and their siblings with disabilities that seems so prevalent on TV lately.

The roughly equal lists up there suggests that I don’t know whether I liked this episode or not. Have other folks seen it? Did you like it? Are you rooting for Artie/Tina? Am I overlooking an obvious reason to appreciate this episode, or Glee generally?


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16 Responses to “ Glee on Wheels ”

  1. Erin Copple Smith on November 12, 2009 at 10:27 AM

    I literally *just* finished watching this episode, and was hoping you’d posted something about it here.

    I think your take on the episode is absolutely right-on, and echoes a lot of Glee’s pluses and minuses. Truly, I am enjoying the series a lot, but much of my adoration is bound up in things like my own experiences with HS showchoir, musical theatre, and–as Jason Mittell notes here: –the fact that it’s just so different from everything else on TV. It’s got a lot of problems (reiterated nicely by Jason in that link, so I won’t repeat them), but it’s also trying to do something different, which is fun to watch.

    As with every episode of Glee, I both loved “Wheels” and felt discomfited by it. I appreciate the fact that, as you note, the ep dealt with issues of disability in some interesting and promising ways. But, as you note, the issue of Sue’s sister and the disabled play-acting were bothersome. (And your point about wheelchair dancing was fascinating–great post on Dis/Embody.)

    All this to say…I see Glee’s problems (not just in “Wheels,” but overall) very clearly, but by the end of each episode, I seem to forget about them as I get caught up in the…well…glee.

    Awesome insight and great forum for discussion–I hope others chime in!

  2. Josh David Jackson on November 12, 2009 at 11:34 AM

    A related note: Producers recently cast Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller for broadway ( Unlike Glee, though, the issue here was (ostensibly, at least) star power. The article states, “The show’s producer, David Richenthal, made it clear that he wanted a star to play Keller in order to ensure commercial success . . . ‘It’s simply naïve to think that in this day and age, you’ll be able to sell tickets to a play revival solely on the potential of the production to be a great show or on the potential for an unknown actress to give a breakthrough performance,’ he said. ‘I would consider it financially irresponsible to approach a major revival without making a serious effort to get a star.'” Of course, that brings up a whole new set of concerns.

  3. Liz Ellcessor on November 12, 2009 at 12:21 PM

    Yeah, Josh, I’d heard about Breslin, and it’s really the same argument – able-bodied actors just happen to be more famous, more charismatic, more talented.

    Of course, if a blind and/or deaf girl can’t even get the part of Helen Keller, how is she supposed to get famous enough for Broadway?

  4. kglass on November 12, 2009 at 1:00 PM

    I’d be fascinated to know some of the industry details surrounding this, did the audition call indicate there would be a character in a wheelchair? Did they open up auditions to non-able-bodied actors who didn’t get the part. Or did they recruit from Broadway musical casts who, due to the frequent incorporation of “traditional” styles of dancing, would be unlikely to include performers who are in a chair? Does anyone know.

    As to my impression of Glee and your pros and cons, I feel like your concerns echo pretty closely the ones I had regarding the episode centered on Kurt. I was glad the story was being told and being told sympathetically but the stereotypes were pretty wince worthy. However I think this parallels tension in Glee that makes it an effective show for me, underneath the dark, sometimes cringe-worthy, humor there is a sense of sincerity that keeps me interested without becoming maudlin. So you have Kurt taking off make-up with cold cream after a football game (wince-worthy stereotype) and follow it with one of the most realistic and touching coming out to the parents scene on network television.

    • Jonathan Gray on November 12, 2009 at 9:50 PM

      yeah, Kyra, I’ve been uncomfortable with how Glee has an episode per issue — it seems to make too much ride on each ep to get it right. But I thought some of the Kurt stuff last night was all the stronger for NOT being “his” episode/issue. When the episode seems to wave its hands around and say “oo, oo, look at me, I’m talking about disability,” it’s easy to criticize it, but when it’s not the “gay episode” and they can offer the exchange between Kurt and his dad, it can be more genuinely impressive

  5. Jonathan Gray on November 12, 2009 at 10:16 PM

    Like Liz, I’m quite conflicted.

    I dunno if you know this about me, gang, but I ran special needs integration services for kids and teens in Vancouver for a couple of years. So that involved a whole bunch of time with kids and teens with special needs and their parents, and training of volunteers. I winced at the “all get in a wheelchair” simplicity of things, since we never did that in training volunteers and workers. Instead, we encouraged volunteers to spend a day with a lippy and/or super-sexy (Canadian mens wheelchair basketball team) person in a chair who’d straighten them out. Putting someone in a chair for 3 hours is like the highschool cutesy exercise of asking people to carry eggs as a supposed primer for pregnancy. But for that reason, I was really impressed when Sue called Will on his shit. Like you, Liz, I had real issues with the pat-ness of the scene with Sue’s sister (though I love Jane Lynch, so it’s so very hard to find fault with her scenes, I’ll admit!), but I like how she has given the authority by it to straighten Will out with his naive idea of putting everyone in a chair.

    The casting issue’s an annoying one. I spent about 20 mins reading through endlessly frustrating commentary on one blog yesterday from people insisting that “it’s called acting, folks”, that “the best person gets the job,” and my favorite, “well why isn’t this complaint from a blogger in a wheelchair?”. None seemed to get that actors in wheelchairs can’t go to calls for 99.9999% of jobs, so roles in chairs are all they’re usually able to go for. Cynically, I’d note that Hollywood needs its roles with special needs, since without them, where would 60% of awards nominations come from (Sean Penn, I’m looking at you. Yeah, you’re good in other films, but I Am Sam is atrocious beyond belief).

    Part of my judgment is reserved for what they do later. If Becky, Sue’s sister, and Artie are central to future episodes, I may be more inclined to cut them some slack, but if the show dumps Becky and Sue’s sister, I’ll be very unimpressed.

    • Rebecca Bley on November 14, 2009 at 10:56 AM

      I remember reading an interview with the guy who played “Kevin” in Joan of Arcadia, and how he was initially concerned that his role wasn’t being played by an actor who uses a wheelchair. The writers said they needed the character to be able to walk for flashback purposes, which I did think they used well in the series. But I liked that the issue was at least addressed.

  6. Annie Petersen on November 12, 2009 at 11:04 PM

    I think your complaints are totally valid, Liz — as are everyone else’s that have come since. Not to play too defensive, but I did the ‘representation’ lecture in Film History today, and part of me really wants to laud Glee, despite all of its stereotypes, obviously purposely diversity-fishing casting, and sometimes hackneyed storylines, for actually putting someone in a wheelchair on screen as *a regular cast member.*

    As a white able-bodied woman, I’m speaking from a super privileged position. I absolutely believe that mere representation is not enough. But the very fact of Artie’s presence — and on a popular show! That kids and parents watch! On a network! And it’s not an after school special! — is heartening, and may open the door to more characters who address many of the issues and nuances highlighted above.

    • Jonathan Gray on November 13, 2009 at 9:35 AM

      Annie, first, thanks for coming to play with us. Welcome!
      Second, I know what you mean: Glee does have that weird thing going on that I think Lost did too of starting with a bunch of stereotypes that it then proceeds to try and disassemble. While Glee risks doing it way too obviously and in too self-satisfied a way, it’s still an interesting way of dealing with s.types, the idea being to destroy them from the inside rather than attack from outside. Or at least that’s the ideal; dunno how I feel about the success, though. Mary Beltran, you out there? Whatdya think?

      • Liz Ellcessor on November 13, 2009 at 10:07 AM

        Annie, Jonathan, I totally understand that conflict – the perfect is the enemy of the good, right? So Glee is notable in even including these rarely seen stereotypes, and I do think it sometimes uses exaggeration well.

        As it happens, I read a lot of Butler this week, and was thinking about how Artie is made to “speak differently” in this episode – while the character encompasses a lot of stereotypes, he is also pushing at their boundaries from inside. Most notably, Artie the nerd who uses a wheelchair is allowed a love life and sexual desire (“I still have the use of my penis”).

        Allowing PWD to be sexual is remarkable, particularly with an able-bodied love interest. I’m surprised I didn’t think to include this in my “likes.”

        • Rebecca Bley on November 14, 2009 at 10:53 AM

          Allowing PWD to be sexual is remarkable, particularly with an able-bodied love interest.

          True – except that we were left with the message that he was no longer interested when she “lost” her stutter – because only “normal” people can be together, and only PWD can be together? Hopefully it’s just dramatic license and it gets dissected later.

          • Liz Ellcessor on November 14, 2009 at 3:31 PM

            I’m actually hopeful that this gets treated as a classic “I-liked-you-you-lied-to-me” romance plot. He thought they had something in common, turns out it wasn’t true, now they work through the deception.

  7. Rebecca Bley on November 13, 2009 at 9:52 AM

    I think I have Erin’s problem – I can see all the problematic elements of the show, but I often get caught up in the fun of it.

    I really wish “Wheels” had addressed the many, MANY times people have grabbed Artie’s wheelchair without permission, or the “joke” of having him crash into something off screen when someone pushes him. This would have been a great opportunity for that.

    I was also pretty disappointed that the wheelchair was used as a schtick to get Finn hired at the end of the ep – because I have no confidence that will have the consequences it should.

    • Liz Ellcessor on November 13, 2009 at 10:10 AM

      Rebecca, I totally agree – I was actually just about to comment on your LJ post on this episode. The entire episode treated the chairs as props, not (as real wheelchair dancers might tell you) as a kind of extension of bodily awareness and selfhood.

      • Jonathan Gray on November 13, 2009 at 10:19 AM

        Which is where I come back to my point about my ultimate judgment being reserved for a few months from now — if Glee used this as a starting point for a wider discussion, and builds in some of Rebecca’s points, great. If this is the “issue of the week” and gets permanently dropped hereafter, I’ll be pissed. But I’m given some hope by the fact that this ep was also interesting for Kurt’s storyline, so if we get Artie bits like this later on, yay.

  8. […] entirely, and there was a fundamental lack of consistency in this sort of messaging (which, as this great discussion on Antenna captures, was pervasive in “Wheels”). This blurb, as Daniel Walters pointed out on […]