“Proud Mary”: Glee’s Very Special Sham Disability Pride Anthem

Curator's Note

It was the scariest number we had done. You don’t know what those chairs can do, and you don’t know what those kids can do in the chairs. So a lot of it was just cross your fingers and pray.” –Glee choreographer Zach Woodlee to The New York Post on the “Proud Mary” wheelchair dance number

As a professional choreographer, it’s Woodlee’s job to know what those chairs can do or get someone who does. He should have known about integrated dance, which crafts distinct movements and kinetics by using dancers with and without physical disabilities. Practiced over the past three decades by more than two dozen dance companies worldwide, this genre includes numbers choreographed by such movement innovators as Bill T. Jones, Joanna Haigood, Victoria Marks, Stephen Petronio and Margaret Jenkins, amongst others. An introduction to this history and clips of performances are easily accessible via general sites like Wikipedia, Google and YouTube, dance troupes’ professional sites or blogs devoted to the subject, such as Wheelchair Dancer. Woodlee had plenty of time to do the research. Once Glee included a wheelchair-using character, a dance sequence like this one was inevitable. Alternatively, Woodlee could have brought in a guest choreographer experienced in integrated dance for the number, using the resources of the global media conglomerate producing and distributing the series. Nor did the production company hire anyone experienced in mobility, access or discrimination issues to tutor the cast, director or writers for this or any other episode. “Wheels” is a classic example of how uninformed creators disable themselves by cutting themselves off from the communities of artists versed in the experiences of disability and its cultures.

To see the opportunity missed by the series creators, watch the two clips—of the AXIS dance company’s performance of “Light Shelter” and Glee’s “Proud Mary” sequence—embedded screen left. In the “Light Shelter” performance, there are dancers with and without assistive technology, suggesting an interest in the beauty produced when both types of movement interact. “Proud Mary” erases any acknowledgment of heterogeneity in favor of a temporary fantasy of equality based on homogeneity. Woodlee’s choreography features lots of wheeling in circles and up and down ramps. (They had to lower the ramps’ incline because the actors lacked the upper body strength of experienced wheelchair-users to get up them.) The dominant pattern is push—move or gesture—push. If the actors weren’t in wheelchairs, audiences would never accept running in circles while gesturing as good show dance choreography. In “Light Shelter”, the choreography treats the assistive technology as a part of the body, which allows for greater complexity. The dancers use the handles for lifts. The wheels aid jumps. There are dips, tilts and spins. One dancer twirls another in the air slowly, chair and all. The choreography is not afraid to use the floor either. The only move that Woodlee draws from the vocabulary of integrated dance is the wheel stomp. Had Glee cast the role of Artie Abrams with an experienced wheelchair-user, rather than Kevin McHale, they might have had a performer physically capable of pulling off some of the dance moves on display at AXIS. Woodlee regards the chair as separate from the body, rather than an extension of it, and suggests that celebrating equality involves the erasure of difference rather than the integration of it. The fact that millions worldwide weren’t given their first exposure to the beauty of an integrated dance sequence limits the series artistically and harms integrated dance companies. (When Glee covers a song, the original sells tens of thousands of copies.)

Perhaps you think that untrained teens providing a passable performance informed by a type of interpretive dance would break the audience’s suspension of disbelief. But Glee plays with the fantasy of amateur excellence every week with its songs. Audiences temporarily repress their knowledge that these kids are not high school amateurs and that these “live” performances are recorded and mastered in the studio. We expect professional performances within the loose constraints of the show’s conceit; indeed, the series has two gold records to its credit. So when they fail to take basic steps to provide a competent integrated dance performance, it suggests ulterior motives. This dance number functions exactly how Sue’s sister with Down’s Syndrome does in this episode: as a narrative prosthesis designed to showcase the goodness of the charity-giver, to prop them up in the face of withering criticism (from Will, from disability organizations and others). It benefits those with cultural power more than any other party. The musical number is a form of oppression masquerading as an affectionate tribute.

When Kevin McHale’s Artie says in this episode, “This isn’t something I can fake,” it has a doubled meaning. The experience of disability for the character isn’t something he can fake because disability is located in social barriers, not individual physical impairments. But McHale is faking the mobility impairment. Woodlee is faking dance choreography informed by disability culture, and badly. Clearly, the creators don’t believe the lines they wrote, because they reinforce those social barriers for actors with mobility impairments and erase disability culture while pretending to celebrate it. “Wheels” reveals that its creators think that there’s nothing very special for mainstream audiences to learn from the experience of those with disabilities in their Very Special Episode.


Thanks for this post - I had the same immediate reaction to the Proud Mary sequence.

I wonder, though, what you thought of the rest of the episode in which the able-bodied characters were put into wheelchairs? It seemed an even worse example of the erasure of different experiences in the name of equality - rather than learning from Artie how to use their chairs, the other characters learned how hard it is to (learn to) use a wheelchair and projected it back on Artie, reinforcing his difference.

I agree with you: such disability tourism is pretty disappointing. Sadly, it's an accurate reflection of the shortcuts to empathy endemic in our culture, like college students who "learn" about homelessness by sleeping in expensive sleeping bags on the college quad for a night. At least the college programs that Will based this learning experience on require students to experience disability for weeks, so that they get a sense of developing skills one learns. (For example, upper body strength for those using non-automated wheelchairs.) 

The problem is that such short experiences give a partial view of a life with an impairment marked by a disabling society that is misunderstood as a fuller understanding. There are a number of studies that show that life satisfaction for people with impairments is based on the duration of living with the impairment and not the nature of the impairment itself. Basically, people mistake the mourning phase (in which one dwells on the mobility lost) for what the life is like, forgetting how adaptable we are. That phase of growing acceptance can take up to two years for people who develop severe mobility impairments due to accident, like Arnie.  

This mistake has an enormous impact on our public health policy and decision-making. 86% of spinal cord injured high-level quadriplegics rated their quality of life as average or better than average, but only 17% of their ER doctors, nurses, and technicians thought they would have an average or better quality of life if they acquired quadriplegia (KA Gerhart et al., Annals of Emergency Medicine, 1994, vol. 23, 807-812). That biases treatment and rehabilitation program set-up, and it gets communicated to the general public as the expert's opinion when it comes to issues like euthanasia and abortion. (Those with impairments are often sidelined into the victim role in these cultural plays.) 

Why do doctors have this bias? Ironically, because of their lack of experience. The medical context tinges everything. Interacting with people as patients means that interactions occur only when those with impairments need medical professionals and dominantly in contexts in which they have not had time to adapt to their new life. Doctors simply are not integrated into lives actually lived with impairments.

But mostly it is because doctors are one of the groups of people most invested in defining human worth on the basis of individuality, personal agency and independence, rather than the values one finds in disability culture—interdependence, the embracing of difference, meaningful choice and mutuality. 

For me, “Proud Mary” clinches it. After this scene, they go back to marginalizing Artie in the dance portions of their performances. Their embrace of him is quickly forgotten. Genuine equality requires more than a leap of imagination and empathy. It requires real change and a long-term commitment that’s just not on display thus far. I’d gladly trade a bus and those unseen ramps for genuine integration of Artie’s character or a different representation of Deaf World. Those ramps don’t change the culture or viewer’s attitudes; the pleasures provided through narrative and song might.

I have no idea what lessons Ryan Murphy thinks he’s learned when he says that “Wheels is a game changer” for the series. For the sake of the future of the TV musical, I hope that lesson wasn’t spelt out in “Proud Mary”. 

Thanks so much for this thought-provoking post and the introduction to the AXIS Dance Company. I have seen this Glee Episode in the UK, although I haven't seen the later one where the other characters try getting by in wheelchairs. What this discussion prompts me to think about is some of the potential value of the recent BBC competition TV series called Dancing on Wheels, which pairs 'celebrities' with wheel chair users as dance partners. I have seen only a little of this series but the 'celebrity' is the able-bodied partner who, the show's commissioning editor Harry Landsdown asserts, already knows how to dance, and the novice partner is the wheelchair user. The intentions are to make visible the world of wheelchair dancing which is unknown in mainstream society and also to foreground the background and life of the wheelchair user. So, in this case, there is some opportunity to reflect on the lived experience of the mourning phase that you mention above. The winning couple gets the chance to compete in the Wheelchair Dance European  Championship. The idea of recruiting good able-bodied dancers has been criticised, but perhaps, as Landsdown implies, this strategy initially gets viewers to watch the dance format show which takes wheel chair dance competition seriously. What I wonder about, with respect to some of what you introduce above around mobility impairment is how difficult some of this territory might be for individuals with mobility impairment due to conditions like Multiple Sclerosis which cause severe fatigue and weakness in arm strength. This aspect can get worse with progression of the condition. Perhaps other areas of representation can attempt to account for those stories.  Thank you once again for prompting this discussion. 

I actually did look at Dancing on Wheels for this piece before deciding on AXIS. The visibility granted to wheelchair dance is an important part of that program's worth, although I wish that they'd step out of adaptations of ballroom dance more frequently. (An episode in which the contestants are paired with professional dancers who use wheelchairs, for example, would prove very interesting.)

Having not seen the program in its entirety, or in sequence, one of the things that I'd watch for is the civilian superstar archetype and the "overcoming" narrative, which tends to be more about able-viewers' anxieties and desires than anything else. I'm not willing to decisively say that's what they're doing without more focused viewing on my part, however.


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