Meredith Cook's graphic design, illustration, and writing blog- focusing on my senior thesis at Endicott College (writing and illustrating a book for teens that is my spin on Little Red Riding Hood)
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The past few years of American culture have been marked by a growing acceptance or advocacy for acceptance of several minority groups. Has this new comfort level been applied to television representation of disorders and disabilities? A 2008 survey revealed that twelve percent of Americans have an apparent disability (GLADD, 2011, p. 16). Has any progress been made in showing these disorders honestly or does the media still portray these differences purely in a negative or stereotyped manner?
Disabilities are traditionally shown on TV as a stigma, some horrible thing to be avoided and judged by the public. Disabled characters are often shown as good or bad, and given little development or dynamic (Signorielli, 1989, 327). These characters are also expected to have a lower quality of life and prone to additional problems like crime and depression (Diefenbach & West, 2007, 187). Scripted broadcast television for adults only features five disabled main characters, all of whom are white and four of which are male (GLADD, 2011, p. 16). Children’s TV can be among the most progressive form for illustrating this change and several tween/teen TV shows feature portrayals of various disorders. Two popular shows that feature disabled characters are Glee and Teen Wolf. Glee is famous for its inclusion of a diverse cast of characters-even stretching this to the point of disbelief sometimes-and takes care to focus on individual development. Teen Wolf, although based on supernatural premises, has a very realistic depiction of the “real world” elements of the show, including the disabilities, prejudices, and hardships the characters face. The most frequently seen disorders in the current season of each show will be examined to see if any progress has been made in having an honest portrayal of these serious issues.
Dyslexia has actually been a part of Glee since its pilot episode with the character Howard, but the disorder has returned to the stage with Ryder and Sam. Sam states his disability in his introduction episode and the viewer periodically sees Sam struggle with words, but this point is often forgotten. Sam, one of the most painfully realistic characters, may not have perfect grades, but the audience sees him in a positive light succeeding with the rest of his friends, singing and becoming an important member of their social group. However, in season four, Sam’s intelligence has been drastically-and offensively-lowered with no explanation in order to match Brittany’s, who seems to have an unidentified developmental or educational disability. He has been dumbed down well past the typical symptoms of dyslexia. If his newfound unintelligence is to be blamed somehow on his dyslexia-and it would be very difficult to argue in favor of this-then this is a major insult to the character and the disease. This intelligence shift is highly illogical, and the possibility that some viewers may actually remember that he has dyslexia, and blame his new ridiculousness on the disorder, is alarming.
A new character on season four, Ryder, is also identified as dyslexic. The viewer sees Ryder struggle with spelling and word formation, including a moment where he cannot read the words upon a page, before one of the Glee Club members and Mr. Schuester (the teacher in charge of Glee) aid him. The viewer sees Ryder to be tested and then diagnosed as dyslexic. Given his previous education and his level of difficulty, Ryder is placed in Special Education classes and receives help from tutors. This is a wonderful process for the teen viewer to see as it helps describe the process and realistic effects of the disorder. This is especially beneficial since the viewer actually continues to see Ryder have some difficulties with language and writing throughout the show instead of completely throwing his disorder aside, as writer/director Ryan Murphy often does. The Glee Club is very accepting of Ryder’s dyslexia and does not define him by his disability, but it is always there in the background, occasionally making itself evident and reminding the viewer that this a lifetime struggle and not a vanity disorder.
Bulimia is introduced to Glee in season four as the result of bullying. Kitty bullies Marley about her nonexistent weight problem (given some merit in Marley’s mind because she has an obese mother) until she is convinces her to become bulimic. Kitty even gives Marly laxatives and other drugs to aid in her purging. Marley engages in bulimia largely in secret because she is so ashamed of herself (Grange & Schmidt, 2005, 592). The viewer sees Marley struggle with bulimia as an aside feature for a few episodes and then it is mentioned only in passing in a couple more before it is never discussed again. Kitty does not face any repercussions for her actions and Marley is apparently cured. This is a highly unrealistic depiction of a serious disorder faced by five to ten million girls who struggle with eating disorders yearly (Body Image & Nutrition, n.d., para. 4). She faints during a performance due to her bulimia, an honest inclusion of one side effect, but Marley does not tell the Glee Club what is wrong with her.
Several viewers have been outraged by how Glee handled this discussion of eating disorders, claiming that this was a very dainty depiction of a very real hardship. The viewer rarely sees any of the gritty side-effects or actions of the disorder and the only real repercussion the viewer is made aware of is how expensive Marley’s therapy is. However, in typical Glee happy ending fashion, once Sue Sylvester gives Marley’s mother a wad of cash in Christmas spirit, this issues is officially solved and bulimia is not mentioned again. One fifteen year old girl who suffered from an eating disorder fired this complaint against the show:
By not showing an honest portrayal of a real disorder, viewers are not capable of forming an honest response. Viewers may not acquire the message about self-acceptance, teens who are already struggling with body image may not be discouraged from this extreme behavior, and other viewers can form negative misconceptions about the serious disease. Glee depicts bulimia as more of a vanity disorder, a trivial thing that is easy stopped at one’s whim with no lasting damage. This is a horrible representation to give teens.