I really, really like the show Glee. I like it because it stops pretending that people who live in small cities in western and mid-western states are somehow more wholesome than their metropolitan counterparts. I like it because it exposes the high school ruling class for the terrified, soon-to-be-townie losers they usually are. I like it because it admits high schoolers have sex and drink and smoke weed and still manage to function. I like it because it obliterates the myth that marrying your high school sweet heart is a good idea. I like it because it is the sunshiniest, saccharine dark comedy I’ve ever seen.
I also like it because instead of taking a stab at diversity, it actually has it. The caveat is that the diversity is totally unrealistic: somehow there are at least three Jews going to the same school in Lima, Ohio, which is actually more impossible than a lot of other things that happen on the show, but whatever. That the wheel-chair bound kid, Artie, isn’t some super hot chick missing a leg (looking at you Deuce Bigalow), but instead a nerdy, sweater-vest-and-glasses-wearing, paraplegic with a molasses smooth voice, is great. That the writers of Glee devoted an entire episode to showing what Artie’s daily struggles are like is, well, something I don’t know if I’ve seen on prime time television.
When I was initially writing this post, I kept using the word “disabled” to describe Artie, but the whole point of “Wheels” was to show Artie isn’t disabled. Except for walk, Artie does everything the other glee club kids do: sing, dance, play instruments, battle wits, go on dates, and maintain some level of self respect. My favorite moment in the episode is when Artie blurts out, “I wanna be very clear: I still have the use of my penis.” The act is so human, so basic, and so central to his life as a paraplegic it reminds us that he is simultaneously a person in a wheel chair and a teenage boy. Artie’s ability to walk away from Tina when she admits she’s faking her stutter shows he is, alternatively, confident enough in himself to prefer being alone to being with a fraud. He’s great.
In The Future of Human Nature Habermas writes that, “Since individuation is achieved through the socializing medium of thick linguistic communication, the integrity of individuals is particularly dependent on the respect underlying their dealings with one another.” What he is blathering about is that our sense of self is in large part formed around our interactions with our friends, peers, and society at large. He then goes on to discuss how this individuation relates to one’s sense of bodily (phenomenological) self, “Bodily existence enables the person to distinguish between these only on the condition that she identifies with her body. For the person to feel at one with her body, it seems that this body has to be experienced as something natural – as a continuation of the organic, self-regenerative life from which this person is born.” Emphasis mine. If a person’s body feels unnatural to her, then she has a fractured identity. What I disagree with is Habermas’ assertion that what constitutes a person’s body must actually be “natural” and/or “organic” and must link with what that person was at birth. To say Habermas is discounting or ignoring amputees and the paralyzed, among a multitude of other bodily changes that can occur after birth, is an understatement.
Artie’s dancing and countenance in a wheel chair, not to mention his confidence and honesty about his difference, disprove Habermas’ claim. I would argue that the body must not feel like something “natural” but like something contiguous and familiar. The body must feel as though it responds to one’s mind in conjunction with what is expected. Artie’s adaptation to life post-car crash at the age of eight, a situation that borders on normal, demonstrates the ability for the phenomenological body to incorporate (literally) non-natural and non-organic objects into the self. If Habermas had deigned to read Merleau-Ponty or Lacan he would have known these things. But, as we know from another lesson Glee bashes us over the head with: no one is perfect.
Oh, and Artie is singing Billy freaking Idol. The song choice couldn’t be more perfect. Artie’s identity and sense of self is heightened by his difference, hence the song “Dancing with myself.” Thus, Artie Abrams from Glee disproves Habermas’ thesis on phenomenological self requiring a “natural” and “organic” body. Enjoy the refutation:
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.