In the wake of last week’s dust-up over Glee, and a long conversation with me and others, Friend of the Blog S.E. Smith has written a post with an important reminder: there are a lot of people who hit their breaking point with that show much earlier than I did, and for whom pop culture is much, much less attentive to their needs:
Arturo and I both discussed the fact that it’s been heavily criticised since the start for the depiction of people with disabilities and people of colour, but this hasn’t gotten much traction. Glee has also done fairly terribly with domestic violence and sexual assault since close to the beginning, and while it may have been lauded for its depiction of queer youth, as Alyssa points out, even those depictions are sinking into a mire…As often happens, when an issue doesn’t directly affect you or a cause you’re close to, you tend to ignore it. Hence, most people ignoring criticisms from the disability community and people of colour when it came to the show’s depictions of our lived identities.
In the mixed-up world of television hierarchies, gay people are a lot better off than many other minorities. The fights against bullying and homophobia are no longer entirely lonely or isolated battles: participating in them can be a way of gaining social capital in a way that, for instance, the fight for accessibility or standing with poor single mothers of color tend not to be. Gay people are a long way from full equality here in the U.S. and elsewhere, but gay characters appear more frequently and with greater nuance than disabled ones, and Hollywood has more powerful gay men than, say, women of color. There’s nothing wrong with wanting, and pushing for, more and more representative storytelling about LGBT people, a fight I’m fully in support of.
But when, relative to other folks who may be your allies, or who may be members of your community (it’s not like being gay means you can’t be disabled, or that you’re necessarily white), you’re in a position of power, it’s important to be gracious and thoughtful about the needs of other people who feel underrepresented and misrepresented. There are a lot of people who say that Glee has been powerful and life-affirming for a lot of young gay people, and I’m absolutely sure that it’s true. Whatever my objections to the many other facets of the show, its treatment of young gay couples is rich, nuanced, and equalizing. But Kurt Hummel’s story comes packaged with other storylines that marginalize and make small the lives of other people who have less hope of changing their station and less family support than he does.
As progressives, we should want better. Not every cultural artifact has to be about every oppression. That’s impossible, and a lot of subjects would benefit from a tight, stand-alone focus that elevate them as issues rather than using them as a spice in an Overcoming Difficulties Potpourri. The Surrogate, an exceedingly warm, funny romantic comedy about sex and disability that will be huge Oscar bait later this year does precisely that. Girls may not capture all of New York, but it does well on reproductive rights and sexual health issues without—and your mileage may vary—regularly taking a hammer to people who face challenges that its main characters do not.
Things aren’t perfect, by any means. But we shouldn’t feel so desperate for any representation of people who aren’t straight, white, gender-conforming and able-bodied that we champion those that do gravely wrong by other people in the frame. If Hollywood products want credit for being progressive, and they want the awards and accolades and social approbation that comes along with being groundbreaking*, we should have the confidence to demand of them that at minimum they try to avoid doing harm.
*Which is, of course, different from critical acclaim, as it should be. If folks want to be treated as if they have a special category of impact, I see nothing wrong with holding them to a higher standard.