Last month marked a year since the pilot episode of Glee aired. Initial critical reception was tepid, with reviewers praising its theatrical take on high school extracurriculars but faulting its lack of dramatic substance. The show focuses on a high school show choir by the name of “New Directions”, melding the hyper reality of a musical with low-stakes emotional drama in a way Americans haven’t seen since Cop Rock. Needless to say, I’ve spent a great deal of my year watching it, and loving it, and waiting for new episodes to show up online.
This week was the season finale of Glee. The last episode, “Journey”, was a reminder of all that Glee does well. The creators of the series have bottled the zeitgeist in it’s quintessence: American Idol reminded us how much we like shows where pretty people sing, as a society we are slowly plodding our way towards acceptance of queers, and the producers cast young, vibrant actors at the pinnacle of their talents. It doesn’t hurt that the show exists in this weird Pleasantville bubble where the worst thing that can happen to you is you don’t win the big game or you get pregnant and get kicked off the cheerleading squad.
I wish I could have titled this piece “How Glee is Dissolving the Kyriarchy Through Song” or “Let’s All Go Out for Equality Slushies, Our Work Here is Done!” But I can’t. Because lately, Glee has been making me squirm. Somewhere along the way, Glee became problematic. It stopped merely depicting systemic prejudice and discrimination, and started contributing to it. And I can remember exactly when it happened.
In the episode “Hairography,” New Directions meets their competition for sectionals: a show choir for girls who have been released from juvenile detention and a school for the deaf. They attempt to add a bit of spice to their routine in a manner which is far too stupid to reprint here and at the end the deaf choir and New Directions sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” together. Well, New Directions sort of butts in in the middle and invites themselves to the song, but don’t they sound pretty?
Can I be honest with you? I cried like a baby. But after the episode finished, I started to suspect that the show was patronizing the disabled. It reminded me of that old Coke commercial, where everyone is holding hands on a hilltop, swaying to “I’d like to teach the world to sing” which is so heartening until you realize that this vision of world peace was brought to you by High Fructose Corn Syrup, which is going to kill SO MANY PEOPLE this century.
“Hairography” aired around the time that the mainstream started to embrace the show, a few days after the network renewed it for a second season. Glee had become appointment viewing, and people on the internet were live-blogging every episode. To watch Glee was to belong to something, and for those of use who participated in Theater or Choir in high school, it allowed us to relive and synthesize the experience of being a part of something that was both deeply emotionally fulfilling and socially ludicrous. The advertisers and the network rejoiced: we were invested.
Before that episode Glee was a show about a mythical school where people were courageous, and fought for each other, and no one was excluded. It was a show where you could watch football players dance to Beyoncé and imagine that homophobia and gender discrimination were in their death throes. That in fact YOU WERE MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE FOR WATCHING IT. Just by watching a show about attractive people singing show tunes and talking about gay rights, you were being a part of the solution. But consumption without sacrifice rarely makes the world a better place. After that episode it became a show about cruelty and diversity, or rather the steady dismantling of the idea of diversity in order to sell the constituent parts back to us. The only character that comes out relatively unscathed is Kurt. Kurt is gay. And on Glee, being gay is SERIOUS BUSINESS.
Before we talk about Kurt, let me get one thing straight: there is nothing in the world wrong with Kurt as a gay man. There is a lot of hatred of the feminine in the gay community, a lot of gay men ready to prove their masculinity by denigrating men with flamboyant or feminine gender expression. That is FUCKED. Kurt is a well-written character, and Chris Colfer is under appreciated for the depth and humanity that he brings to the role. He allows us glimpses into the pain and humiliation of being a person whose optimism and belief in the good in people continually allows other people to hurt him. Kurt has very thin skin, and our love for him allows us to experience a little bit of the bewilderment and frustration and terror of being the victim of anti-gay harassment.
But halfway through the series, Kurt develops a crush on Finn, the archetypal straight All-American football player. I can see why the writers did this: gay people sometimes fall in love with straight people, providing their first taste of the agony of unrequited love. But Kurt has a plan. He arranges for his father and Finn’s mother to meet and start dating, then schemes to have he and Finn share a room. In “Theatricality,” all of this comes to a head with Kurt’s redecoration of the room they share. Finn crosses a line and starts calling the new decorations Kurt bought “faggy.” Kurt’s father overhears this and kicks Finn out, but before he does he gives a really moving speech about overcoming his own homophobia. This needed to happen. Finn was being a SHITHEAD.
But what about Kurt? What if we changed the gender of either of them? Even better, what if we didn’t? Finn made it clear several times that he wasn’t interested. And no matter what you hear from beer commercials, there is not a thin line between courtship and stalking. If you push your love interest past the limits of your intended’s comfort or safety, you are stalking them. Gay men can stalk straight men. Straight men can stalk gay men. If anyone does it, for whatever reason, it is stalking. Cut that shit out.
This isn’t terribly surprising, considering the enshrined position gay characters have on the show. A position that every character should enjoy, but doesn’t. It isn’t that the show is “too gay”, it is that it treats its white characters and its gay characters differently than it’s characters of color. And because this is a show that is ostensibly about diversity, the other characters comment on this disparity. Mercedes, the show’s most prominent black character, comments on the fact that her race is a factor in how the other characters treat her. But this creates an odd critical parallax, where the show’s analysis of its own shortcomings isn’t as deep as the shortcomings themselves – they make a big show of being hard on themselves for the show’s hidden internal mechanics of racial displacement, but then it is TIME TO SING, AND COME HELL OR HIGH WATER WE ARE GOING TO TURN THIS MOTHER OUT!
The ways in which minorities are overshadowed by their white counterparts are threaded throughout the entire series. The show has 3 Asian characters: Mike Chang, Tina Cohen-Chang, and Coach Tanaka. Mike Chang NEVER SPEAKS. He is the Silent Bob of the Glee universe. Tina starts off with a speech impediment is faking a speech impediment, before she pairs off with Artie, the disabled character played by the abled actor Kevin McHale. Coach Tanaka emerges as a mid-season villain, the big nasty man who is keeping the quirky white lady and the talented white man from getting together and having quirky, talented white babies for great justice and dire necessity. To recap: one of them is evil, one of them doesn’t speak, and the other is given the courage to overcome her stutter through the transformative power of love appropriates a disability THAT REAL PEOPLE HAVE AND STRUGGLE WITH EVERY DAY to avoid speaking in class.*
Then there is Jane Lynch’s mesmerizing turn as arch villain Sue Sylvester, the over-the-top bigot who lives only to make others miserable. At the beginning, Sue was a cautionary tale about the dangers of ambition and competitiveness – an acerbic, one-dimensional monster of the type that used to populate the children’s television show Captain Planet. Every episode she would try to cut corners by dumping the sludge of discord into the placid waters of Mount Funshine, and all of the kids would CARE BEAR STARE her with friendship and diversity. YAAAAAAAAY, THE END.
But recently, we discovered Sue has a heart. And not just a normal squishy heart of ventricles and atriums, but an elastic heart, the expansion of which acts as a tidy deus ex machina each episode, allowing her to simultaneously be a heinous bitch AND save the day. (Like the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas! but also like the scene at the end of The Neverending Story 2 where Bastian wishes the evil princess Xayide had a heart and she BLOWS THE FUCK UP.) In almost every episode Sue decides she wants to be mean to everyone, people are sad, and then Sue decides to stop being mean to everyone. This has made her a more sympathetic character, and has also LEGITIMIZED HER BIGOTRY. Before, she was a paper tiger whose cruelty was understood in the context of it’s own defeat: she made New Directions stronger, forcing them to overcome their own inhibitions and putting things at stake. But now she has emerged as a sort of dark choragus, allowing the writers to simultaneously mine the natural discomfort we feel when someone breaks ranks and shows us our own racism and bigotry, turning that discomfort into laughter (without forcing us to linger too long on the matrices of prejudice that discomfort is built upon) AND lecture us on how FABULOUS diversity is.
Glee is still one of my favorite shows. Even with my long list of complaints, there are still moments when the show achieves the things it is attempting. The interactions between the students often remind me of the ways people can choose to transcend their own ignorance and sacrifice parts of their own privilege to empower each other. These moments make me hopeful that when the show returns in the Fall, I’ll be proud to call myself a Gleek.
* Thanks to Anna for the correction.