Audiences often applaud the diversity of the movie or television program when they see a character from a minority group – especially if it is more than a small supporting, token role and instead is a featured or starring role. While that is often worthy of praise for inclusion of minority characters in their film or program, what most people – the moviegoers and television viewers don’t see – is how that role is created, portrayed and represented. This is certainly true for the minority characters with a disAbility. While the debate of the fair and equal portrayal of racial minority characters in the entertainment industry continues for positive changes in the authentic racial voices, visions, and performances, right up to the top ladder with authentic representation in the executives’ making the decisions at the movie and television studios (see the NBC Universal – Comcast Merger controversy and the proposed new race minority owned television channels), allowing for real representation. It doesn’t even compare to how fair or rather unfair and unequal the portrayal and representation of the disAbled minority are given in today’s movies and television programing. And this selective diversity in Hollywood of which minorities to give authentic, fair and equal representation to and continue with the Standard Operating Procedures of exclusion of those with a disAbility is done openly and the best examples of this is when a character with a disAbility is easy to fake.
Hollywood has a history of films and television shows that have characters with a disAbility but the most recognized, used, and faked disAbility is those with a mobility disAbility – such as a paraplegic character. It is the easiest to fake. To any able bodied actor in any wheelchair and voila – you have an instant disAbility minority represented character that proves the movie studio or television network is inclusive and diverse. Oh, and don’t forget, with a named recognized actor and the proper publicity, you are 90% guaranteed to win critical praise and possible Oscar nomination and an award winner! Do not mess with the Hollywood success model for portraying a disAbled character. This is gold, baby!
Who cares what actual people with a disAbility thinks or feels about someone faking their struggles, their challenges and trials that they deal with every moment of every day?
Fend off a few small protests from paraplegics and disAbility advocate groups and the general audiences will forget all about it when the movie is released. This is the standard practices for dealing with portraying a mobility disAbility character. Most in the entertainment industry have been doing it this way for so long that many do not even see what is wrong with this discriminated practice. And because of Hollywood’s decades of spoon feeding these very limited paraplegic portrayals that most audience’s accept any able bodied actor sitting in a wheelchair, who has been following the instructions of an able bodied director, who is interpreting the words on the pages of a script that was scribed by an able bodied writer. Their standard operating procedures will usually have all these individual creative forces educate themselves on how to fake being a paraplegic. Thus usually includes reading a book by a paraplegic, spending time with a paraplegic and if it is an able bodied actor, he or she will roll around in a wheelchair at home or in public to get the feel of it. And in some cases, the producers will hire a paraplegic as a consultant to teach the able bodied actor, and sometimes to be on set to give advice. This is what qualifies the able bodied to know what it is like to be a member of this minority group. And of course this is enough to properly fake the portrayal and represent those with a mobility disAbility. This is how it is done behind the scenes of a Hollywood production. Effectively excluding paraplegics or others with a disAbility from the creative roles as writers, directors, and actors. All audiences see is a new movie or television program that is praiseworthy of being diverse with a paraplegic character.
Dare Not Cross the Line
Critics of this argument and the history of the Hollywood accepted practice of not using a paraplegic actor will immediately reply that this is what actors are trained to do – to fake – to pretend – to bring to life the make believe! And I would agree, but, there are certain lines that you do not cross in this job, this talent and business of make believe – and that line is pretty clear when you fake having a “specific identity factor” – such as a minority status – based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc. Of course there are some exceptions, and that is when the character is faking the minority status, i.e.; “Tootise”, “Mrs. Doubtfire”, “White Chicks”, “Tropic Thunder” and others, when the audience is in on it and this is usually for comedic effect.
What about those with a disAbility? Why is it okay to cross the line and fake having this “specific identity factor” of having a disAbility so accepted? As stated above this has been done for so long that nobody questions it, but also because most in the entertainment industry and some in society do not even recognize that those with a disAbility as a minority. But by all definitions, in word and spirit, those with a disAbility are a minority group. In fact, it is the largest and fastest growing minority in America. Along with being identified as a significant minority consumer group in 1997’s “Packaged Facts”, a report that was the first consumer study on the disAbled community – all proves that those with a disAbility are a minority. In addition, let me repeat that being a member of the disAbility minority group, just like many in a racial minority group will tell you, that the specific reason that classifies you in a minority group, affects most if not all aspects of their lives and therefore is a “significant identity factor”.
I am a man, I am a paraplegic. And as a paraplegic man, I am a member of the disAbled minority group. And whether I like it or not, my disAbility, my paraplegia, my use of a wheelchair for personal mobility, is who I am. It is not all of who I am, but it is significant enough that it is an identity factor that makes me who I am. So rightfully, I get offended when anybody fakes being a paraplegic – you have no idea what it is like to live with paralysis with all of the physical, mental and emotional demands and challenges, and the disadvantages socially, economically, and environmentally unless you live life with paralysis.
This offense includes the faking of being a paraplegic in movies and television. Not all circumstances, but in most fictional roles in movies and television, it is offensive to me as a para. I have identified these times when I can see the value and when it is necessary to fake the disAbility status in previous articles and blog posts. And the most offensive is the way all of those with a
disAbility are viewed and treated in and by Hollywood. As if being a paraplegic or a person with a disAbility is nothing more than a mere medical condition, that those people are not a whole person, or even recognized as a member of a significant minority group and therefore not deserving the same type of respect for our own voice, our own vision, our own authentic portrayal and authentic representation in movies and television. And I know as a paraplegic filmmaker, trying and sometimes pleading with Hollywood to give me a chance to prove that we as paras can make a difference and represent ourselves, but they do not want the tree to be shaken or the Standard Operating Procedures that deal with paraplegics or others with a disAbility to be tampered with at all. If there is going to be any changes, they will do it themselves, so they can be heralded as the ones that make for real inclusion – they do not want or need a paraplegic to do it or even help do it. This is the Hollywood I have been dealing with since becoming a paraplegic in 1995.
The Real Betrayal
Although most of Hollywood is fine with their unfair and unequal portrayals that are stereotypical in their characters and misrepresented by able bodied people. And they are fine with how they justify these images and limited portrayals in movies, television and the media. This the how Hollywood continues to care and treat people with a disAbility when it comes to inclusion, or rather exclusion in the entertainment field. After all my years, dedicating most of my life to my work as a para filmmaker, I have come to expect this in and from most in Hollywood. But the one place that I, and others of us who work or try and work in this industry, that would have our backs and full support to make a change, a purposeful and genuine change, in our portrayals, in representing ourselves and in defending our rights to a fair and equal opportunity in these creative roles that will eventually have an impact on the entire community of those with a disAbility – is the very community we are part of – the disAbled community.
The disAbled community and all of their sub-groups, such as those that I am part of as a paraplegic, the mobility disAbility community, I have had and expected would always would have my back (no pun intended) and will have the backs of all others – not just paraplegic filmmakers like myself, but other paraplegic screenwriters, directors, and actors! I never thought they would lower themselves to justify the way Hollywood portrays a paraplegic character and how the Hollywood media supports this justification. Or so I thought!
The Trouble with Never
Here we are in 2012 and the saying that you should “never say never”, well it is proven by this year’s “New Mobility” magazine’s “Person of the Year” edition making a television character, a person and naming that character as the most significant person of 2011! Using the same techniques that would make the Hollywood machine proud, by jokingly and sarcastically titling the article “Seriously? Person of the Year? Artie Abrams, by Allen Rucker.” Artie Abrams is the name of a paraplegic character, portrayed by able bodied actor, Kevin McHale, on the popular Fox network show, “Glee”.
Do they have any idea how far this sets us back in all of our efforts and work to make a change in how Hollywood portrays and represents us? Do they care how Hollywood will now be able to point to this justification article when they create and promote another paraplegic character in a movie and/or television program that is completely stereotypical and completely portrayed by able bodied Hollywood people? Hollywood will now not only just sweep it under the rug, and deal with a couple minor protests when a new movie or television program features a paraplegic – but they will say, “See even the paraplegic community thinks our justification is justified. They think our ways of portraying them is fine!”
I can easily pick apart this entire article. And I thought I would when I first started writing this entry. But instead I will pick out a couple that really stick out to me. Allen Rucker writes about one episode, the ninth episode in the first season titled, “Wheels.” He summarized it with the premise that the school is unable to afford to rent an accessible bus to transport the glee club to a competition. So the club director has the club members put on a bake sale to raise money for the bus rental. From here Mr. Rucker than takes time to point out one of the poignant scenes as Artie is all alone and performs a solo of the hit song by Billy Idol titled, “Dancing With Myself.” And then remarks, “…you’d be hard pressed not to react to this performance, especially if you were in a chair yourself.” Which I would agree with. It was a good song for a solo. Especially for a wheelchair user. I have been known to do the same – and not always when I am all alone. I will whenever the mood and the song strikes me.
Allen Rucker than concludes this feel good review with more praise for the episode on how it concludes “In a sympathetic nod to Artie, the episode closes with every Gleester in a chair doing a choreographed performance of John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary.” Twisting and turning up and down ramps, none of the performers ever leaves their chair during the number. Again, nothing like this has ever been seen on a primetime drama. There are groups of real wheelchair users who regularly perform dance routines, pop and classic, but never in front of 7.35 million American TV viewers, along with 3.5 million others in Canada and the UK.”
Missing Crucial Points
But in all this justification for how good Artie is for American television, Allen Rucker fails to point out some other significant points that deal with how people with a disAbility are portrayed especially in this episode. As I have pointed out in at least two previous blog entries, Glee is Everything to Everyone and Faking A Minority Is Okay In Hollywood and I will again here because it is very significant and I can only wonder why Allen Rucker, who is a person with a mobility disAbility, did not mention this when writing about this episode.
For years, through all my interaction, and all my rejections, all the times of being dismissed or ignored, I had come to the conclusion that Hollywood must just not understand how those of us with a disAbility feel when someone fakes being a person with a disAbility. But as I watched this episode the most significant scene was near the end of the episode when Artie and his Glee club classmate, Tina, whom he has a crush on, are on a date. They are both rolling in chairs (I will explain why Tina is in a chair later) through the hallways and having a fun time. They stop for a while and Tina kisses Artie. Then she has something to confess.
Tina: “I have to tell you something. I’ve been faking it.”
Artie asks, “Faking what?”
Tina confesses, “I don’t have a stutter. I pretended to have one in the 6th grade because I didn’t want to give a speech on the Missouri Compromise. I was really shy and it made people think I was real weird. So they left me alone. And it wasn’t until Glee club did I realize how much I was missing. And I don’t want to push people away any more. You understand what that’s like, don’t you?”
Artie bows his head and then raises it to respond: “No, I don’t. I would never try and push people away because just being in a chair does that for ya. I thought we had something really important in common.”
Artie rolls away.
Tina stands up and apologizes, “Wait, Artie, I’m sorry.”
Artie stops and turns around to face her: “I am too. I’m sorry you get to be normal and I get to be stuck in this chair the rest of my life and that’s not something I can fake.”
Artie then turns back around and rolls away.
He rolled away from the beautiful girl that he had a crush on because she was faking a disAbility. Artie was so offended that she faked having a disAbility, even though it was not the same disAbility, but just the mere fact that she was faking it was so deeply offensive to him that he rolled away from the best chance a complete geek in a wheelchair was ever going to get with a beautiful girl.
WOW! The writers, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan (who are also the co-creators of the show) – they “get it”! They get it that people with a disAbility are seriously offended when able bodied people fake having a disAbility. So, Hollywood does understand how we feel – they just either don’t care or are hypocrites.
Allen Rucker didn’t “get it” when reviewing this episode. Well, he does mention at the end of his article when reciting the storylines that involve the Artie character he mentions, “Artie falls for a girl named Tina because he thinks she has a disability, too — stuttering. When he finds out she is lying, he dumps her.” This is similar to nearly all of the able bodied reviewers write about this scene. Most say that Artie broke it off because Tina lied and/or because they no longer had something in common. But a paraplegic, and other with a disAbility would see between the lines and see the truth of this scene – he is offended by her faking her disAbility and his final line of dialogue proves this. And Allen Rucker should have seen this and pointed it out. But the significance of what happens in this scene is both revealing and hypocritical. I wonder if the writers, director, and/or especially if the actor were a paraplegic, there would be more emphasis on the faking part and the audience and the able bodied reviewers might have understood this scene and how we as paraplegics and people with a disAbility really feel? That would be a breakthrough and some real depth to the character. That would mean a lot to disabled community – people would get us and isn’t that what everyone wants – to be understood?
But wait, it does not stop there. Even more in this “Wheels” episode is insane and offensive. And not just to those with a disAbility but to all people. This requires some set up – some that was left out of Allen Rucker’s review of this episode. The Glee club director, Will, not only has the club members put on a bake sale to raise money for the accessible (well in the show they call it handicapable) bus, but he also makes all of the members to become wheelchair users. He gets them all wheelchairs for a week and each of them have to spend a certain amount of time in their chairs. And these are not the semi-affordable basic hospital chairs. These are expensive chairs that are similar to Artie’s chair. So at school and at the bake sale we see them in chairs rolling around. Will does this as a lesson to teach the students a little what it is like for Artie, and as we find out at the end of the episode, they are using the wheelchairs in the Glee competition in a choreographed routine. So they have had these chairs for a while. (As a side note and nothing to do with Allen Rucker’s analysis or rather simple review of this episode – but to repeat, the writers and trio of co-creators, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, and Paris Barclay the director of this episode – I wonder if any of them questioned or had someone research what the cost of renting wheelchairs – especially 11 or 12 of them for a week would cost? I would bet it would clearly cover the cost of a handicapable bus for a day or two!) Okay so that is the setup – the reason why Tina and the other glee members have wheelchairs and brings me to the other outrageous scene. Glee student character, Rachel Berry figures out a way to help fellow Glee classmate, Finn Hudson, who needs to find a job but has not been successful. So Rachel devises a plan by having him “fake” being disAbled and continue using the wheelchair. Rachel and Finn, who is in his wheelchair, go into a small restaurant and Rachel immediately grabs the attention of an employee;
Rachel: “Excuse me. Are you the manager?”
Rachel: “You need to hire my friend Finn. He’s clearly handicapable and refusing to hire him can be seen as discrimination. My dads are gay and unless you want the full force of the American Civil Liberties Union coming down on you, I’d work something out.”
Finn gets the job and as he tells other students that he got it but that he has to use the wheelchair while he is at work. He says that it is worth it!
ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
Can I get the “American Civil Liberties Union” to come down on Murphy, Falchuk, Brennan, and the Fox Network for “refusing to hire” a “handicapable” paraplegic actor for the role of Artie Abrams? Because to me that “can be seen as discrimination.”
What message is this sending?
Every person with a disAbility should be employed! If not every person with a disAbility only needs to threaten to sue if they are not hired. Employers better hire someone in a wheelchair or they will be sued for discrimination. Or that the employers better run and hide when someone with a disAbility comes in and might ask for a job. I can go more into what kinds of messages this sends, and I again wonder about the storyline here as it brings me back to the wheelchair rentals. Maybe they were not rented but rather purchased? Otherwise Finn will have to continue to pay for the weekly rental as long as he is working and that will take a big chunk out of his part-time paycheck!
BUT this is about Artie and being the Person of the Year.
Instead of focusing on what the Artie character who is portrayed by an able bodied actor and what kind of representation or rather misrepresentation this character is sending out, Allen Rucker spends more sugar coating on how many people and the specific demographics that the show and the character reaches. Justifying the casting processing, which was good to finally find out that they at least auditioned a paraplegic actor. Before this article, I read articles that had Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk never address or answer if they auditioned a paraplegic. All they ever went on about is that Kevin McHale was “right for the part”. Oh, and how, Chris Colfer had auditioned for the role of Artie, but when they saw his audition they felt the need to create a new character, a gay teen student. An authentic character – an openly gay actor playing an openly gay character. Now if they could have done the same for the openly paraplegic character. Allen Rucker discovers from “an interview with Robert Ulrich, one of the principal casting agents for Glee” that he tried to find actors in a wheelchairs but didn’t find any in the traditional avenues – the traditional talent agencies. But he took the extra step and contacted “the Media Access Office, a service funded by the state of California with the express mission of connecting people with disabilities with employment in film and TV. The MAO office submitted one such actor, Toby Forrest, a performer and musician”. Really, the MAO only could find one actor to send over to audition? Allen Rucker goes on to say that after the audition both Robert Ulrich and Toby Forrest felt he was too old for the part. “So they ended up casting an experienced musical comedy talent in McHale.” Yeah right. I looked him up on the imdb.com website and his acting experience was very limited before “Glee”.
Still, how does this article become the “New Mobility” cover story?
Just as in the “Wheels” episode, people with a disAbility are offended when able bodied people fake having or pretend to have a disAbility. I am and I know many others with a disAbility, especially a mobility disAbility are offended by an actor faking that they have a disAbility. And I am so surprised that Allen Rucker would write this article. As I mentioned earlier that he himself is a person with a mobility disAbility and what I did not mention is that he used to work in the entertainment industry. Although it was primarily before he became disabled. I have read his autobiography, “The Best Seat in the House” where he talks about how this kind of portrayal by able bodied actors are offensive. So he of all people should know what this article, a cover story on a major publication that serves the mobility disAbility community specifically, would be a major setback for those with a disAbility working or trying to work in the entertainment industry. There are already many obstacles for people with a disAbility to work or even dream of working in the industry and now Hollywood will use this article to perpetuate their continue use of able bodied people as actors, writers, and directors and dismiss those of us who have real passion, constantly developing skills and talents toward one day working and expressing them in film and/or television.
In a supplementary piece to this article, “New Mobility” editors quickly responds with a “Q & A” as to “Why” they selected Artie as the Person of the Year. And their answer is;
“We’re pleased that so many of our readers are commenting on our choice for Person of the Year. Our intention was to rattle cages and create controversy. Now we hope our readers will turn to discussing the issues that the choice brings up.
In 1988 Time magazine chose “The Endangered Earth” as their “Person of the Year” to bring attention to very real problems facing all citizens of the earth. In the same way, “Artie” can be seen as a catalyst for discussion for the disability community. The fact that we are so invisible in our media, in our entire public discourse, and that the most well-known wheelchair user is a fictional character … what does that tell us? How does the public — not to mention legislators and policy-makers — view us as individuals and as a community? If they draw conclusions based on fictional characters as portrayed by nondisabled actors, what does that say about our public image, our real-life choices?
The truth is, we are not honoring Kevin McHale, nor “Artie,” nor anyone else. We are questioning why people with disabilities are not accurately or sufficiently represented in our culture. We agree with our readers: “Artie’ does not represent us in any realistic way. But he does shine a spotlight on us. What will we do with the attention?”
It is a fairly good answer. Their “intention was to rattle cages and create controversy” and if the most recognized wheelchair user is a fictional character “How does the public — not to mention legislators and policy-makers — view us as individuals and as a community?” I ask them the same question that I am asking Allen Rucker, do you have any idea how much this article, with all of its attention, which you admit was your intention, will have in Hollywood and for those with a disAbility trying to work in Hollywood?
Hollywood Pays For Readers & Opinions
Most in Hollywood will not read the article. They will use the cover of this “New Mobility” issue as a tool to continue their standard operating procedures of hiring able bodied actors and others in the creative roles that people with a disAbility could easily do if given the opportunity. And as I supposed above that Hollywood would bring it down to its simplest terms and even distort the actual article and wave this issue as a flag to say “See? Even people with a disAbility like how we portray them!” They will not read it – and if they do they will see only the parts that sugar coat and praise all the good the Artie character does for people with a disAbility. I know this as I have tried for over a decade to bring up the issues and provide a simple solution to the problem of exclusion of people with a disAbility. I have created the business blueprints, in terms they require and creative works that breaks the standard stereotypes, but as soon as they hear the word “paraplegic” or a “person with a disAbility” they quickly turn off what I have to say or read anything I have written. I know this from hundreds of experiences of dealing with every angles within Hollywood from the indie scene to the studios. And I know Allen Rucker knows this too. And he should have explained this to the editors of “New Mobility” and convinced them that if anything, this article should only be published as an entertainment article somewhere in the middle of a Spring or Summer issue and not a featured article with the highest attention of a “Person of the Year” issue.
The New Allies
And this is why I have titled this blog article “Hollywood Hypocrites Have New Ally – Uncle Tom “Mobility”. Hollywood has long been hypocrites when they proclaim they are the champions of the underserved, the means to give voice to those who are ignored, misunderstood, and/or to bring light to issues of inequality in our society. As they have to some, like women and racial issues, but are hypocrites when it comes to those with a disAbility. In fact, instead of champion the ignored issues of those with a disAbility, they nearly ignore the disabled all together, and instead exclude the disabled in the limited times they do feature a person with a disAbility. And as the episode in Glee spoken in the “New Mobility” issue and in this blog article has proven, Hollywood does know how offensive it is to those with a disAbility to have anyone fake having a disAbility – and they bring up this issue using an able bodied actor faking a disAbility! That is the pure definition of a hypocrite. And as for an Uncle Tom? I guess every minority group has to have one or two, and now the Mobility disAbled minority officially have theirs.