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In a recent episode, seeing the Glee kids' insensitivity to the challenges faced by their disabled friend, Mr. Schuester ordered all of them to spend three hours a day in a wheelchair and learn for themselves what it was like to walk in their friend's shoes--or roll in his chair. A second subplot explored the love and tension between a flamboyantly gay kid and his devoted, conflicted dad. A third forced us to revisit the judgment we'd reached about the show's most gleefully conniving character, cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, who has all the charm and subtlety of a python. She accepted a clumsy girl with Down syndrome onto her immaculate squad and treated her just like all the other members--brutally and contemptuously. When Mr. Schuester challenged her motives, she stared him down. "You don't know the first thing about me," she told him, and as we watched her arrive later at a nursing home, smile so tenderly and sit down to read Little Red Riding Hood to her big sister with Down syndrome, we realized the same was true of us.
The point is not whether there is an embedded moral message to be found beneath all the snark and snideness in this show or any other. The point lies in the surprises that jostle us out of our smug little certainties and invite us to weigh what we value, whatever our faith tradition. I'm reminded of the furor over kids' reading Harry Potter, which some conservative Christian parents rejected because the books dealt with magic and witches and wizards. I never understood why J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis' witches and wizards got a free pass just because the authors wore their missions on their sleeves. (You see it in the Twilight saga too; we're O.K. with vampires and werewolves as long as they're fighting it out to protect a girl's virginity.) If, to some parents, J.K. Rowling's subtlety makes her lessons suspect, I think it makes them powerful. Kids, like adults, resist force-feeding. When a whole generation obsessed about Harry, parents everywhere were given a rich new repertoire of characters and plotlines with which to teach about loyalty, courage, humility and, Rowling's central message, the notion that love has ultimate power, even over death.
That one, actually, wasn't even very subtle.