I really should have seen it coming.
There was a trail of breadcrumbs a mile long, spanning back over the last 3 years, red flags of warning raised repeatedly, the taste in my mouth becoming increasingly bitter as I stumbled along, my enthusiasm waning as rapidly as the flags' frantic waving in the wind...
It all started out innocently enough. I began watching Glee a season late, catching up on what was missed during summer re-runs. I stood and applauded the inclusion of characters living with very real issues, subject matter as timely as any morning paper, a tongue-firmly-in-cheek attitude that made it relevant and relatable to everyone, everywhere, breeding tolerance where previously lived only derision and exclusion. Homosexual...wheelchair-bound...multi-racial...homeless...obsessive-compulsive...teenage and pregnant...bullemic...overweight...dyslexic...developmentally-delayed...autistic...and the list goes on. Good stuff! It seriously covered everything you could imagine, including everyone in their broad and continuing (yet sublimely subtle) statement on the ills of social exclusion.
I jumped up and down, waving my arms and shouting my support in particular over the show's inclusion of a character with Down syndrome. A teenaged girl named Becky, who could very easily be my child in a few years. Becky, on the surface, is a character for whom the producers and director should be appaluded. A member of the cheerleading team, she made an occasional appearance while working closely with the coach to hatch her devious plots against a rival school group. But as I continued to watch the show and began to watch Becky more closely, more critically, I felt the rise of discouragement, disappointment in her one-dimensionality, a stereotype not quite quashed in a way that made me terribly comfortable with the direction in which she was heading, the direction in which the changing of minds of the masses towards people with intellectual disabilities, the direction of true inclusion, was heading.
It seemed to be heading nowhere.
Not like I think the director owes the Down syndrome community anything, but with the overall message of being included and accepted being carried by all of the other characters, why couldn't it be carried just as simply, as beautifully, as gracefully, by Becky? Could it be anything to do with the fact that the others are acting out their issues or disabilities, where Becky, played beautifully by actress Lauren Potter, actually owns her disability?
Becky is scripted as comic relief, as a girl who is never seen in class, who is never seen on the actual cheerleading squad, who is never seen as a real, contributing member of the school's social structure, just as her coach's pet, almost shielded from the woes of actual school social life. Occasionally we get a glimpse into her feelings, as voiced-over by the amazing Dame Helen Mirren (most poignantly in a tear-inducing line stating, "It *sucks* to be me"), but without any kind of consistent anchor for Becky to hold on to outside of her coach's office, comic relief is still comic relief. The girl with Down syndrome is still a satellite of her own, floating through the ether, peripherally involved in the plot lines, with uncomfortably silly, underwhelming lines of dialogue and cute-guy-bottom-smacking and hand-on-the-butt-of-her-prom-date-dancing.
And, as almost an apology-gone-wrong, the story took a new turn last week.
**Hey, I know! Let's make Becky have some real issues! Let's have her bring a gun to school, just like any other troubled teenaged kid would do! (Incidentally, she was troubled on the show because she was worried about not knowing what would happen to her after graduation, saying that she couldn't go to college - whaaaaa? Lauren Potter herself is in college! Who writes this stuff??) Let's really show how well-rounded her personality is, let's show the world that people with Down syndrome aren't always happy! Let's feel sorry for her!**
Hold it right there, folks...
Let's just feed into the thought that perhaps people with intellectual disabilities are mentally unstable while we're at it, okay?
Let's all just feel sorry for her. Like we should do. Poor girl with Down syndrome, included in school because she has to be, "friends" who humor her, a coach who uses her. You know, it's funny, I'm not sure if I'm more annoyed that they had her bring the gun to school, or if I'm more annoyed that she spoke of not being able to go to college. There are other issues with this episode, with this new turn of events, but as I'd stated above, my issues go back further than this, and this was just the fire lit under my butt to bring it up. Do I keep watching? Yeah, I still like the show overall, and I still want to be able to keep an eye on what's going on with their portrayal of Becky. Makes for good blog fodder if nothing else. And, just by way of a disclaimer, I am not being hypocritical here - I am not about to bite the hand that feeds inclusion and empowerment and the growing anti-bullying movement, but I'd just love to see it done a little differently.
There's an excellent article here about the episode, about its impact on the people of Newtown, CT, still reeling from the unspeakable acts of horror that rained down on them, gun violence in school still too fresh in their minds, and its impact on the the special needs community.
Thanks a lot, Glee, for making some things harder than ever for our kids. How're you gonna fix this?