Friday, January 6, 2012

Never Use Blackface If You Use a Wheelchair

Read the article
One of the premier magazines focusing on disability issues -- New Mobility -- made its choice of "Person of the Year" and set off an interesting debate.

The magazine chose a wheelchair user. But the person is fictional, a character on the television program Glee. 

New Mobility announces it with ...
This year’s Person of the Year is an extraordinary young man named Artie Abrams. Despite his disability, or perhaps motivated by it, 16-year-old Artie Abrams excels in so many areas. At McKinley High School in Ohio, he is an active member of the school glee club, a mainstay on the Academic Decathlon Team, and even suits up and plays for the state-champion football team, the McKinley Titans. He’s easy to spot on campus: He wears thick glasses and dresses like a retro nerd. He’s a pretty skillful guitarist, writes hip-hop poetry, falls in and out of love regularly, and is not afraid to speak up when he or anyone else is wronged. He has the confidence of the faculty and staff of McKinley and was recently asked to direct the glee club’s adaption of West Side Story. He aspires to be a theatrical director and is clearly on his way.
An admirable enough (imaginary) person, I suppose. And that fantastical persona is one of the two reasons so many anti-Artie comments flit about in the virtual ether. Artie's not real. There are plenty of real people with disabilities doing good work for the cause.

The second reason is that the actor playing the part isn't actually a wheelchair user. The actor is not disabled.

Allen Rucker's excellent article in New Mobility gives logical reasons for that, delving into how many people who ride wheelchairs are actors who would fit the role. Rucker even attempts to approach the fundamental objection: blackface

Think about that issue this way: No one will tolerate George Clooney being cast as Martin Luther King, Jr. in a film biography. Yes, I know. A few pale skin actors have passed that test in their portrayals of Othello, and then there was Tony Curtis playing Ira Hayes, but it is no great stretch to jump to the possible erroneous conclusion that it is far easier for the great Denzil Washington earn a film or theater part seen as "white" than it is for an actor of equal grace and talent to play a part seen as "black."

But back to wheelchairs and the people in them: it is interesting that the question (real crip versus ersatz crip)  doesn't come up in when the role of FDR is cast within a film or play. Considering the issue as a whole, however, I'm not quite willing to say that actor is actor whether the character uses hearing aids, prescription glasses, a cane, or a wheelchair. And there is a solid reason.

As there are psychological bricks making up the house of color, there are psychological elements making up a permanent wheelchair rider. Acknowledging that really makes my own point about not necessarily needing a crip to play FDR seem silly. Knowing how a wheelchair alters self-perception and public perception, it might be a greater disservice to use a non-wheelchair-riding actor to play FDR than it is to play a secondary character on a television show.

I don't watch Glee, and being the type of person to see every facet in an argument's diamond, I can see the point that New Mobility wants to make. Artie is a fictional person with a disability who is living more or less successfully in a universe where his disability is both incidental and accepted by his peers. 

Would I have chosen the character as my Person of the Year? No, but my reasoning would be no more solid or logical than New Mobility's reasoning for its choice -- unless, of course, NM simply made the choice to create a bit of controversy, which is nothing more than a snide speculation about people who appear to have good motives.

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