I promised some people I would talk about Brittany and Artie and disability and etc. on here at some point. Might as well start now.
Hmm. I’ve written about Artie and disability here and here, and about Brittany and sex here. Glee has written and played out disability-themed storylines unlike anything that’s ever been on television before. It’s not something that a lot of viewers consciously pick-up on, because it’s unexpected and stereotypes are easier, but I love it and as a disabled person it rings true to me. Stories about people like me aren’t very common on TV, and not something people really know to look for and pay attention to, so I think that the significance of these characters is lost on a lot of fans. Part of having a space for myself in fandom is talking about these things and sharing my excitement and the way certain storylines resonate with me, so I’m going to do that now, even if it is a bit unusual.
The only other thing I can think of is that just as people can “pass” for different races or sexualities, people with disabilities can also “pass” as nondisabled. Normalization, passing, and assimilation are huge issues, personally, philosophically, ethically, and just logistically in the lives of disabled people—arguably the biggest issues, actually. Often, passing as nondisabled is not actually a disabled person’s primary goal—or even a goal at all. It’s incredibly complicated. This is a good basic explanation, but if you want a complete course in disability rights or theory, you should probably message me or do some googling, if you can.
I’m going to focus on season two, since season one Artie is basically about saying I’m fine, Tina, Mr. Schuester, everyone, and being ignored. Season two says fuck that noise.
Basically, Artie’s story arc in season two was about him aggressively normalizing himself. Yes, there was disability acceptance and pride, and him being a total and utter dork, but I think that basically Artie is a very socially insecure person. He’s a geek. When he and Brittany break up, it’s not triggered by disability, the way it was with Tina—it’s because he can’t accept that a cheerleader is into someone with glasses. Artie is very, very adamant, even there, that the chair doesn’t matter. He’s normalizing himself. He’s on the football team. He’s fully integrated into the choreography, and he does entire routines wherein he provides Mike with a voice, and Mike provides him with legs. He makes comments frequently that reference his chair in a way to sort of….head-off any conversation or awkwardness. He very aggressively doesn’t want it to matter.
Artie can’t pass, but he can normalize himself.
When I think about their storylines over the past two seasons, it’s as though they are moving in opposite directions. In the first mini-scene we ever get with Artie, we literally only see his chair. Now? It’s there, it’s normal, whatever. What fascinates me about discussions surrounding Brittany/Artie in Rumors (where they break up) and afterwards is that they’ve stopped mentioning the chair. Seriously. People who talk about Tina and Artie still reference it constantly. But it’s as though all of his lines about being fine with Brittany, or about how when he says he’s a loser he’s not referencing his legs, finally sunk in. He says, in Rumors “This shouldn’t be happening. Not because I’m in a wheelchair, but because I’m addicted to angrybirds and my mom still cuts my hair,” and it’s as though fandom finally went okay, fine, and, without calling any attention to it, took him at his word.
Which, you know, is how inclusion, and I guess maybe more accurately normalization, works. Without fanfare. Which means that it doesn’t necessarily get noticed by advocates….because there’s nothing to notice.
So Artie has normalized himself. Brittany though?
Brittany passed, at first. She was ditzy, a punchline, vague…but normal. She passed. It’s only that, the more viewers have gotten to know her, the more obviously disabled she is.
People on the show can joke about Artie’s legs—he encourages it. You cannot joke about Brittany. The characters will look and sound like an unequivocal douche every time.
It’s upset a lot of fans, actually. Made a lot of people very uncomfortable. Brittany can’t pass. Artie has assimilated beautifully—Brittany, however, is pretty much the opposite of indistinguishability. She’s an amazingly rendered, nuanced, complicated character, but she can’t pass, and this has become more and more obvious as the show has gone on. She believes in Santa. She knows how babies are made—but she didn’t make the connection between that and no more stork. She didn’t know her alphabet until this year. She gets confused spelling her name. Santana helps her read lyrics sheets. She needs help with basic functional skills. Etc etc etc.
No one wants to call her intellectually disabled (though, of course, plenty of people are content to call her stupid and wonder about how she will survive outside of high school and suggest that she shouldn’t be having sex because that’s only for people of a certain IQ) because it’s such an insult.
Of course, making a disability an insult isn’t exactly charming behavior either.
The point, I think, can best be summed up Artie and Brittany’s Born This Way t-shirts.
Artie’s says Four Eyes. Brittany’s says I’m With Stoopid and has an arrow pointing at her head.
Artie can normalize. Brittany can’t pass.
They’re two disabled characters in a relationship, and they navigate it with honesty, mutual respect—Artie treats Brittany with something like awe, and she celebrates a performance saying “that’s my man and his legs don’t work!” and there is, I think, a certain…intimacy to their behavior that comes from sharing a very particular set of experiences with another person, from knowing that, for once, this one thing isn’t going to be an issue, can even be something to celebrate. But there is a fascinating tension, because Artie is physically disabled and can assimilate, and Brittany has an invisible disability and can’t. And that tension means that they wind up on very, very different pages eventually, and things fall apart.