SPOILERS. If you have not seen the Glee episode “Shooting Star” and do not want details, please do not read further.
On Thursday, April 11, Glee aired an episode called “Shooting Star.” The Down syndrome community appears to be in an uproar about it because Becky (the character with Down syndrome) played a controversial part in the episode.
Here’s what happens. The episode starts with one of the characters (Brittany) claiming she found a comet hurtling toward Earth and everyone will soon die. Since this is Glee, everyone believes her without confirming this with, say, any news outlet anywhere, and they begin to contemplate the end of the world.
Ok, that right there is all you need to know about Glee. Though they do touch on controversial subjects, the show is ultimately a goofy romp focusing on the emotional bonds of high schoolers (and now college freshmen). I mean, come on: the premise of this entire episode is they believe the world is ending and act accordingly based on the scientific “discovery” of one of their classmates (who names the “comet” after her cat – enough said).
Moving on. We’re treated to some musical numbers in which the students express their feelings of friendship and love to each other through song. Then we learn that the comet isn’t a comet after all, but a bug stuck to a Pringles can Brittany has mistaken for a telescope. (Again, why are we taking this show so seriously?) Becky has a conversation with Brittany (the two have been friends throughout the series) expressing that now that the world isn’t really ending she is scared about the future because all of her friends are moving on to college and she “can’t.” Brittany tells her everything will be ok and they pinky promise that if Becky prepares for her future, it will seem less scary. Sound advice, that. The scene is great – Brittany treats Becky as an equal and does not patronize her. (Why aren’t we focusing on this fabulous moment between friends?)
Fade in on most of the glee club sitting in the rehearsal room. A shot is fired, then another. Everyone is afraid. The two teachers in the room tell everyone to hide behind the various furniture and to text and tweet what is happening so people on the outside can get help. They shut off the lights and shut the door while a metronome ticks quietly in an otherwise silent room.
The acting in this segment is beyond phenomenal – better than any episode of Glee. Their fear feels real, and as a woman married to a teacher, I can tell you that this is pretty much my biggest fear for my husband. There is a particularly heart wrenching scene in which we see Brittany alone in a bathroom stall, whimpering and trying to balance on the toilet so her feet aren’t seen.
Eventually we learn that it wasn’t a school shooting at all and that no one was hurt. It turns out that Becky, in an attempt to prepare for the future, brings a gun to Coach Sylvester and tells her about her fears. She agrees to give the gun to Sue but accidentally pulls the trigger, firing it, then drops it, causing it to fire again. (Why are we not focusing on that? Talk about an erroneous representation – guns don’t do that.) Sue covers for Becky, gets fired, and life goes on. They do a group number then fade to black.
Just like every other episode in the history of Glee.
I think the Down syndrome community is way too hard on the writers of Glee when we hold them to a standard for Becky’s character that apparently doesn’t exist for other characters. There are many minorities and myriad social issues represented on Glee, so this isn’t a case of needing to protect the one minority on the show. In fact, there are so many that Glee often feels more like a contrived after-school special rather than a show that is serious about tough issues.
People find it horrible that Becky was portrayed as a school shooter. She wasn’t. It is crystal clear that she never intended to hurt anyone. She was portrayed as a scared student who thought a gun might make her feel safe. I shudder to think how many students in our country do that very thing every day. If we want to insist that our kids are “more alike than different,” why is it so hard to believe that in today’s world, she might think a gun is a good choice? The media is full of representations of guns as protection.
And instead of focusing on how Becky did absolutely the right thing and modeled the best possible action in this situation (talking to a trusted adult about her fears and turning the gun over), we are pissed off that she brought the gun at all, regardless of how this probably happens every single day with students of all abilities across the country – and with students who likely never tell an adult they’ve done so.
People find it horrible that Becky did not have any consequences because Sue covered for her. In response to that, here’s just a sampling of things people on Glee have done and have suffered no consequences whatsoever:
- the “jocks” throw slushies at students walking the hallways (not only are there no apparent consequences, the people who are “slushied” see this as a badge of honor, a sign they are truly a glee member)
- a student gets “slushied” with a slushie full of rock salt and requires surgery to correct the damage to his eyes; the perpetrator walks free
- a student attempts to commit suicide; we only see the student one more time after that, totally fine and happy – no portrayal of his healing process
- a student intentionally destroys another character’s car out of jealousy
- a student prostitutes himself for tuition money
- an underage student becomes a stripper to support his family
- a character abuses another character (his wife); charges are not filed against him
- a character abandons the Army
The point I’m trying to make here is that I feel we hold Becky’s writers to an impossible standard by expecting her to never make a mistake or do something foolish. And in the comments I’m reading about this episode, that really seems to be the gist of it – I get the overwhelming feeling that we wouldn’t find it acceptable for Becky to make any mistake because it might perpetuate one of the many stereotypes about Down syndrome.
In some ways, Glee is the ultimate exercise in inclusion: all the characters make incredibly stupid, unrealistic choices. All the characters walk away without consequences. Every episode ends with a song. Heck, even the character who is in a major car accident due to texting and driving eventually learns to walk again. Where’s the outrage over that plot line? The plot line that teaches the world that if only people in wheelchairs worked hard enough, they could walk?
Do we take this show seriously because it attempts to cover serious topics? Should we take this show so seriously? This is a show where we confirm a character is a prostitute through a musical number. This is a show in which a pet cat is serenaded.
Obviously, I’m a huge fan of this show and I know that makes my opinion here biased, but I hope you can believe that if the show had done something I thought was harmful to the Down syndrome community I would be all over it. I love this show because I’m musical at heart and any show that brings this kind of talent to prime time and doesn’t involve voting is ok in my book. I also love how, on the whole, there is a character with Down syndrome who breaks stereotypes. (And lest we forget – there have been two other characters with Down syndrome, both written with respect and care.) The show is just goofy, a chance to sit back with wide eyes, shake your head, and wonder what on earth the writers are going to do to top the most recent ridiculous scenario.
Did this episode take some missteps? Sure. It would have been great for Becky to say she’s “choosing” not to go to college rather than she “can’t” go to college – especially since the actress who plays Becky goes to college herself. But even still, this show doesn’t have every character but Becky going to college. Several characters didn’t go, and one who did go struggled and dropped out. And while college is a possibility for some people with developmental disabilities, it isn’t nearly as accessible as it is for typical teens. (At least in 2013 it isn’t – and Becky lives in 2013.) Instead of quibbling over who goes to college and who doesn’t and why, I’d love to see our national conversation (for all students) switch to “college is not the only way to measure success.” Frankly, I’m impressed that the writers are having Becky graduate with her peers – the law says Becky can stay in school until she’s 21, and many teens with developmental disabilities do so. Showing Becky move on with her peers, albeit with clumsy writing, is breaking a stereotype. Showing she has complex emotions – not just happy all the time – is breaking a stereotype.
Was it a bit of a stretch for Becky to be the one who brought the gun? Yes, but not because she has Down syndrome. Up until this episode she was portrayed as sassy and spunky and very much in control of her life so this seems a bit out of character. But then again, isn’t it sometimes true that those of us who are seemingly so confident are sometimes the ones who are truly struggling? The show has touched on this in other characters as well. One of the over-arching themes is characters do really stupid stuff driven by insecurity.
I guess all of that is to say that while I understand the concerns expressed by parents in the Down syndrome community, I think we are reading way too far into it. Lauren Potter herself endorses the episode and has stated she is fine with that happened – since she is an adult with Down syndrome, I value her opinion very much. It’s her life and her character. Portraying her as a victim of the writers isn’t fair to her. We also can’t expect Becky to break every single stereotype or be the perfect ideal of what a teen with Down syndrome “should” be – no one person can do that. Our loved ones with Ds are too unique to do that.
In order to enjoy Glee, I think you really need to just go with the flow. Don’t expect too much of it. If something rings true to you, that’s great. If not, bear in mind the show is written to push the boundaries of absurd. Enjoy the music, enjoy the absurdity. After all, this is a show that just featured Extreme’s “More Than Words” sung as a love ballad to a cat.