Sugar, Self-Diagnosis, Appropriation, And Ableism: So Here’s What You Missed On Glee (pt. 1)

Glee is a show whose buzz is owed almost entirely to manufactured controversies. Unfortunately, this latest one is invoking autism, and as an autistic person and fan, I’m weighing in. Again. I’m not f-locking. I will delete nasty comments, derailments, and personal attacks, all of which I’ve already dealt with today. For those who were lucky enough not to know: autism politics are vitriolic. Nasty stuff. Wonder if the writers know what they’ve stepped in.

So! Glee!

There’s this character, Sugar, who describes herself as having “self-diagnosed Asperger’s, so I can basically say whatever I want.” Of course, she does a really, really bad job of crip-face, and her last line is a furious “NOT ASPERGER’S!” There are a couple different takes on why she says it. I think she’s saying she doesn’t have Asperger’s. Others are saying that she’s saying that the particular rant she just gave had nothing to do with AS. Either way, actual autistic people can’t pick and chose, and she’s very, very obviously not autistic.

I think she’s brilliant. She makes me see red, she feels like a punch to the gut, but she’s brilliant.

Now, before I get into it, this is Glee, so let me just clarify a couple of things:

Anyone who thinks that Sugar’s actions won’t be addressed hasn’t been paying attention to how the show works for the past two years. Anyone who thinks that her plot has anything to do with actual autism, or the issue of self-identification in the autistic community, is putting assumptions into play that the show has never expressed an interest in. And anyone who thinks she is written as actually autistic, as some parents have been suggesting, has some serious ableism of their own to unpack.

Finally, since this conversation is also drawing in a lot of people with very little knowledge about the show: anyone who thinks that Glee trades in stereotypes and makes jokes at the expense of minorities and that’s all is really missing out on some incredibly nuanced stories, and probably won’t be able to follow a word of this. I’m not interested in defending the politics of Glee
here. If you think that Kurt’s a flaming queen and Artie is a prop and that’s that, then I really don’t have time to engage with you right now or defend something you’ve already decided is indefensible.

But! For those curious as to how someone who is autistic, into Glee, and really into analyzing disability politics on Glee is thinking about Sugar, read on!

There are three basic questions about Sugar. Why couldn’t she just be (another) bitchy character? Why is she faking a disability? And why is that disability Asperger’s?

The first (why they couldn’t just make her the rich, bitchy, and annoying girl) is the easiest.

Because this season Glee has nine, count ‘em, NINE kids whose characters and plotlines involve passing in some manner. Three of these have to do with disabilities they can’t hide. (Also, cool, it’s 3 for race, 3 for disability, 3 for sexuality.) And then we’ve got Quinn’s dirty laundry, and Emma’s everything, and it’s all kind of the same. All these characters are struggling with parts of themselves which they have, or haven’t, learned to accept after season two–and for most of them, they’re discovering that acceptance isn’t enough. There are still other people in the world, and there are still consequences.

So the utter and complete and raw awfulness of Sugar doesn’t come from her being a bitchy and entitled rich girl who can’t sing and isn’t used to getting her way. It comes from her strutting into a safe space these kids have created and pretending–and not even pretending very well–to be something she’s not, something she can turn on and off at will, for fun and profit, at no cost to herself and every cost to them.

She’s not going to get away with it. She already didn’t get into glee club.

This season of Glee is already extremely and obviously political. They’ve been building up to it for two seasons, setting characters like Mercedes and Mike and Tina up, normalizing Artie and sneaking in Brittany and turning Becky into a full and autonomous character, and everything they’ve ever done with Kurt and Blaine and Santana. Sue Sylvester was compelled to run for congress because of cuts to her sister’s medicaid. I still am not over that. She might never mention it again, but since when has that ever been something that a comedy cared about? And I’m at an advantage here because I know spoilers, but, trust me. It’s not going to stop any time soon.

But it’s not just political in the sense of “Sue Sylvester is running for congress, everyone hide.” It’s is Brittany going to graduate, it’s Santana doing whatever Sue wants because Sue implied that she’s not as closeted as she’d like, it’s Kurt and Blaine auditioning for the same role and not kissing in public, it’s Mike telling Sue Sylvester she’s being offensive, it’s the kids not even pretending to respect Will anymore and so, so much more.

It’s about living with the consequences of being who you are, and letting audiences see that. It’s also, quietly and sometimes so loudly, about changing the rules.

Sugar is a girl who has a very poor grasp on all of this, and no regard for consequences because she’s never had to live any. She’s the natural foil.

As to why she is written as faking…

I have four short little stories for you all.

Part 2 …

Julia Bascom blogs at Just Stimming.

Sugar, Self-Diagnosis, Appropriation, And Ableism: So Here’s What You Missed On Glee appears here by permission.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 11/9/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | No Comments | Read More

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