Sunday, February 5, 2012

Disability, Relationships, and "Glee"

Last night, I watched this week's episode of Glee.  I watch it regularly.  This is somewhat about the music.  I enjoyed being in choir as a high school and college student, and I miss singing, and the occasionally perform something that isn't a pop piece of crap.

I watch it more for the subversion.  Two teenage gay couples who are in sexually and emotionally healthy relationships.  For that matter, two teenage gay couples whose characters are more than their sexuality.  Then there was the remark one of these characters once made about his atheism and the irrationality of believing in a deity.  I suppose the religious right was already pissed off at them, so why not hang a lampshade on it?

Yesterdays plot dealt with the relationship problems of two disabled characters.  The first concerns Emma, the high school guidance counselor, who has OCD.  She's had an ongoing romance with Will, the non-disabled choir director, who was thinking of proposing ... however, when he talked about his plans with her emotionally abusive parents, they talked him into questioning their relationship.

Emma and Will then had what I think is a pretty realistic conversation about the difficulties both partners face when one of them is mentally ill.  Will was concerned about Emma's ability to handle the messiness of having a house and children: "You need to control things in order to deal with your life, and you can't control people!"  Emma responded by saying that she's taking her meds and that things are getting better: "But can I promise that I'll get better?  I can't."  She told Will that if he didn't want to live with that, he owed it to both of them to be honest with himself and with her.

Of course, Will did wind up proposing, using a highly unrealistic song and water ballet to do so.  This is Glee, after all.

But I appreciate that the show depicted thconversation the two of them had.   Will sat there and essentially told Emma what she could and could not handle, and gave her no chance to say, for instance, "I hold down a job.  I manage my condition.  I've dealt with 'messiness' all my life, so maybe I've gained some damn coping skills."  Will essentially hectored her over something that she can't control  The subtext was that she wouldn't be able to change and that he wasn't sure he wanted

Since I've had pretty much the exact same conversation with my partner, it was sort of validating to see it happen on TV.  Ableist bullshit happens in intimate relationships.  I can't speak for how it plays out for those with visible disabilities, but for those of us with invisible disabilities we often have to deal with the same crap at home that we do in the larger world.  As the neuroptypical in the household, our partners often think they can define our realities for us: our condition Isn't Real (tm); or we're using it to Make Excuses; we're Not Doing Enough to Treat It (tm); we just need to Try Harder (tm); do you really think you can handle life in The Real World (tm).

The other relationship depicted in this week's episode of Glee, and the one I think is truly subversive, concerned two disabled characters -- Becky, who has Down's Syndrome, and Artie, whose in a wheelchair.  Becky asks Artie out to dinner, and they wind up having a lot of fun; but then Becky makes it clear that she wants a sexual relationship, and Artie has to tell her he's not interested in her that way.

OK, that's not surprising.  What is surprising, if not shocking, is that a mentally retarded character was depicted as having sexuality.  Adults with developmental delays are infantilized in our culture.  When we think about them -- which isn't often, because they make us uncomfortable -- we think of them as perennial children.  They are not children.  They are grown-ups.  They are people with needs and desires.  They are people with sexuality.

Congratulations to Glee for daring to depict the realities of the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled.

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