Prof. Waterstone publishes op-ed on TV show's irresponsible link between disability and gun violence

This op-ed originally appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of the Daily Journal under the headline "Glee misses the mark in gun episode."

Last week’s episode of the popular TV show “Glee” dealt with the issue of gun violence. At the high school where the show is set, two random gun shots are fired. Terrified, everyone shelters in place until the SWAT team gives the all clear. Police search for the culprit. Later, it is revealed that the shots were inadvertently fired by Becky, a character with Down’s syndrome. Scared and frustrated that her high school experience was ending, and facing what she believed to be an uncertain future, she decided to bring a gun to school.

“Glee” has received praise and awards for how it contributes to society’s understanding of people with disabilities. One of the main characters on “Glee,” Artie, uses a wheelchair (although the actor who plays Artie does not). The show has gracefully managed the line between highlighting how thoughtless socially constructed barriers can make Arnie’s life difficult, but for the most part, he is just one of the gang going through what all the characters go through: falling in love, deciding what he wants to be, and always singing and dancing. Similarly, having Becky, a character (and actor) with Down’s syndrome, allows an exploration of the sometimes stigmatizing ways in which people perceive her, while also allowing her to be a high school student trying to find her way in life. The show does not revolve around these disabilities, but neither does it ignore them.

For many viewers, “Glee” has helped shape perceptions of what it would be like to have a world where people with disabilities are in the mainstream. Culture has power – for too long, the only depictions of people with disabilities in TV, movies, and books were as villains (think Captain Hook or Captain Ahab) or as helpless and childish (think Tiny Tim). “Glee” does much better than that. For other viewers, especially the younger generation, “Glee” is just a reflection of what their world already looks like, where civil rights laws have required the inclusion of students with disabilities into mainstream life to the greatest extent possible. Among other laws, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act remedied the traditional exclusion of students with disabilities from schools, and the Americans with Disabilities Act has helped improve accessibility of public spaces. When I am teaching my law students about these laws, many of them have grown up with people who use wheelchairs or developmental disabilities in their schools and lives. But for those that have not, often times the characters on “Glee” serve as their proxies for people with these disabilities.

I usually enjoy watching “Glee.” But the show’s creators badly missed the mark by making the choice to depict Becky as being the source of potential gun violence. This was objectionable for two reasons. First, the source of Becky’s frustration was that she was leaving high school and did not have any advanced education as an option. This ignores college options for people with developmental disabilities, an odd omission for a show that has so carefully focused on depicting a realistic, not stereotypical, life for someone with Down’s syndrome.

But second, and more seriously, by having Becky be the character responsible for the gun scare, the show created a link between mental and developmental disabilities and gun violence. Even if this was not intentional, it was certainly insensitive to the many ways that the public and members of the media tend to casually believe that mental illness contributes to and is responsible for recent tragedies. After both the Colorado and Newtown tragedies, news accounts emerged both making the potentially erroneous assertions that the shooters had some form of mental or developmental disabilities, and, despite the lack of any evidence, implying a connection between this media-driven diagnoses and the violence. Wayne Lapierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, added fuel to the fire with his alarmist public remarks that there are “monsters” living among us, and seemingly advocating a national registry for people with mental illness.

Mental and developmental disability is a stigmatized and misunderstood category. But the reality is that people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities are no more violent than people without mental illnesses and developmental disabilities. No one who is dangerous should have access to a gun, mental disability or not. But to draw a direct line from mental or developmental disability to gun violence, as “Glee” did, is misleading, wrong, and contributes to prejudice against people with mental illness. Unfortunately, this leads to heightened sensitivity and fear of seeking treatment, and helps reinforce the chronic underemployment and social marginalization of people with mental disabilities.

I am a realist: I realize that the creators of “Glee” are in the business of getting ratings and producing what they believe is an appealing show, not necessarily making the world a better place. But what makes this particularly frustrating is that over the course of the show, they seemed to have wanted to do more. They have addressed difficult topics (including disability) in a constructive and entertaining way – no small feat. It was likely in that spirit that they approached school violence, but in playing too easily into harmful stereotypes, they can and should be criticized.