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OMG Glee: Bold Champion of GGGG Rights

Last week, Glee gave me a few minutes of happiness, a small, exquisite brain vacation. Kurt, dealing with homophobia from friends and bullies alike, snuck into a rival boy’s school to spy on their Boy’s Choir, The Warblers, and was serenaded by a possible love interest to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” The way it was shot was very smart, allowing the audience to place themselves between Kurt and Blaine, to experience those first initial stirrings of puppy love tangled up with a vocal performance that has been rolling around in my head for a week.

I am not going to discuss how many times I watched that segment of the show. Seeing that overly romanticized “Boy Meets Boy” moment elicited some mixture of wistful longing for a something that will never happen and a Mirror of Erised moment where I had to wake myself and push back against the manipulation. Wishing intensely that it would have happened for me when I was younger, or that it would happen now isn’t productive.

I went to a High School where my father was a teacher, and I wasn’t out to him, so I couldn’t have a boyfriend. And while I’ve come to an uneasy truce with my body issues, I am still totally oblivious to people showing me positive attention and the only thing I’ve ever learned about flirting is that fat people aren’t supposed to do it. Once upon a time I used to go to dance clubs and not smile at anyone because I was mortified by the idea that they would see me and be repulsed by my attraction to them so I’d stand in one place and smoke half a pack of cigarettes and go home miserable. But that’s all changed now. I don’t go to clubs anymore.

It felt unfair that I was being invited into this vision of young, attractive, thin love just to be reminded the second that it was over that it didn’t apply to me. But even worse was that the one person I identify with on the show, Coach Bieste, was mistreated, insulted, patronized, and subjected to an apology from the very people that hurt her. Every single episode with Dot Jones in it has made me cry. Every single one. I identify with Kurt from time to time, because I went through those things when I was younger. But her experiences are all the things I am going to go through for the rest of my life.

Glee doesn’t tolerate gender variance in women. For Kurt, it is fine. Kurt is the show’s baby, Kurt is the show’s lesson. People are mean to him, but he is eventually victorious. But when Sue showed up to a date in the first season in a zootsuit, she was spurned for another woman. When Mercedes reimagined the role of Frank-N-Furter in the Rocky Horror episode, she did in a way that was unmistakably feminine. And now we have Coach Bieste. Who is tortured repeatedly for being gender variant. The members of Glee Club used the thought of her to kill their sexual urges, and Will FUCKING TOLD HER ABOUT IT. And then told her it wasn’t personal.

Over and above how shitty it was for the characters to do that, the show dressed Jones in lingerie and made her look grotesque in the characters’ fantasies about her to drive the point home. This actress was handed a script that said to her “We think you are an ugly person and we think that might be good for a few laughs.”And all season Sue Sylvester, the one character who should fucking know better attacks her incessantly, letting her know that she isn’t wanted, loved, or respected. The sight of a lesbian actress playing a straight woman harassing a butch woman for her gender presentation gives me motherfucking Kyriarchal vertigo.

But while this is going on, no one acknowledges that she is being attacked for being gender variant. Kurt’s oppression is discussed at length, constantly, but all we hear her say are things like “I know I’m different.” To recap: being attacked for being an effeminate man is terrible, and we’ll talk about it and come to a resolution, but being a masculine woman means you should just get used to being everyone’s punching bag.

26 Comments

  1. Paula wrote:

    When I was watching the episode last week I was hoping you would have something to say about it. I was horrified that Will basically told Coach Bieste that she was ugly – in what fucking universe would that be a good thing? Oh, and the pity kiss he gave her made me want to punch him in the throat.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  2. Thank you so much. The pity kiss was disgusting, and the speech about how she’s not a lesbian, she’s “just a girl who wants to be pretty” but has never been kissed – just a million times ugh.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 9:12 pm | Permalink
  3. Katie wrote:

    I am glad that you wrote about this. It made me really uncomfortable when I was watching last week. Your other point is part of what has made me uncomfortable with this season.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  4. notemily wrote:

    I didn’t watch last week’s episode, but I heard about it, and I couldn’t understand why everyone was talking about Will kissing Coach Bieste being so “sweet.” It sounded patronizing and awful to me. I wish she had slapped him in the face and said “don’t pity-kiss me, asshole.”

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Permalink
  5. Andy Godfrey wrote:

    “Seeing that overly romanticized “Boy Meets Boy” moment elicited some mixture of wistful longing for a something that will never happen and a Mirror of Erised moment where I had to wake myself and push back against the manipulation”

    Yes. That totally sums up the ambivalent reaction the glut of gay teen movies brings out in me.

    I’m also not terribly impressed they would use Katy “Ur So Gay/I Kissed A Girl and My Boyfriend Liked It” Perry’s music for that scene.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 10:20 pm | Permalink
  6. Alden wrote:

    The problem with Glee is that it tries so hard to be progressive, to have good things to say… but fucks them up entirely. Like having an episode where religious folks constantly annoy Kurt about his atheism and have him stand his ground… only for him to five minutes later participate in a song where the bulk of the featured lyrics are “Yeah, God is good, yeah, God is great…” in a way that could easily be read as Kurt bending to the religious pressure of his group, ALONGSIDE Sue’s atheism being ‘revealed’ to be just anger instead of a ‘real belief’ by her sister. As an atheist, I was both pleased and frustrated by the show’s inability to tell its message clearly.

    I think that happened again here. Because I believed both – that Will’s kiss with Bieste was condescending, but also that it was sweet. Because Will has been established as the kind of guy who CAN see Bieste as beautiful, even as he isn’t personally pursuing her, I believed it. And I also believed his rationale – yeah, the kiss didn’t have all the prospects that Bieste had set her hopes on, but it showed her that a man could kiss her and enjoy it, that she was touchable, something the world had spent all episode telling her she wasn’t. And everyone bemoaning Will’s behaviour is denying Bieste’s agency, I think – she had plenty of time to tell Will that she wasn’t interested in a pity kiss, and it hardly came as a surprise. Maybe it’s just because of the parallels to my own experience that I connected with the moment; as someone with self-esteem issues, the first step was believing I COULD be kissed, that it could happen and it wouldn’t be a disaster, before I could start believing I could be desireable. And it helped, even just a little, with my sexual confidence. So I get what Bieste might have gained from it.

    But I also see that this was a show that was SUPPOSED to be about how Bieste was beautiful, and we were repeatedly shown images that presented her as “of course she’s ugly!”, which completely contradicted that final scene with Will. They were trying to subvert it, but the subversion was so weak and condescending that you could tell they didn’t really believe it. I don’t think this is a case of Glee being actively anti-gender variance, but again compromising its own message by contradicting itself. Which is an awful shame, because I do sense good intentions. Deep down.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 12:10 am | Permalink
  7. Leah wrote:

    Garland, thanks so much for highlighting this misstep. This was a big mistake, especially for the episode pitched as a reply to gay suicides. Bieste’s storyline made me furious, and, although I, too, was moved by “Teenage Dream” I was really upset by the rest of the Kurt storyline.

    His teacher’s indifference to bullying is sadly true to life, but it was irresponsible for the show to promote the idea of confronting bullies, who may be dangerous. I went into more detail in a piece for the Huffington Post.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 12:59 am | Permalink
  8. Knightgee wrote:

    I don’t think the show is pushing an anti-gender variation in women with Bieste’s storyline. I did not get the impression that the show was by any means endorsing the kids’ behavior and the juxtaposition of the forms bullying can take with both Kurt and Bieste seemed to be the point of the episode. It’s made clear that it’s awful that they are treating her this way and making her feel unwelcome. The problem is that the amends they make to her are rushed and completely pitying in a way that condescends to her rather than demonstrates a sincere recognition of exactly why they were wrong. A pity kiss and a dance number don’t an apology make.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 1:20 am | Permalink
  9. Yes! Thank you for summarizing all that made me uncomfortable with this episode. I went ALL CAPS on the screen too when Will told Beiste, and not only for her sake. Those kids confided in him and telling her was a huge invasion of their privacy. I know Will is supposed to be a teacher but betraying the trust of all those kids? He should be fired.

    I’m intrigued by your analysis tying together the deprecation of butchness throughout the season. I think I’ve been holding out for a butch counterpart to root for and because the show is so didactic I figured they’d have one. Like the homophobe being gay: nice message, but not a very original idea.
    Also: The paragraph that ends: “I don’t go to clubs anymore.” Niiiiiiiice.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 1:55 am | Permalink
  10. whatsername wrote:

    Yeah, this episode was uniquely intense on the “OMG THIS IS SO FUCKED UP” but “OMG THIS IS SWEET” switching up from scene to scene.

    It’s ridiculously clear whose oppressions the Glee writers at least somewhat “get” and which they are completely and utterly clueless on. It’s just sad.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 2:50 am | Permalink
  11. Alicia wrote:

    They are totally dropping the ball with Will this season. Didn’t he used to be some kind of moral center? Well, no more.

    Actually, they’re kind of dropping everyone’s ball — and not in a fun way.

    The pity kiss didn’t completely horrify me — partly because I was expecting it, with gritted teeth, and also because I was 90% sure they were going to make Bieste fall in love with Will on account of the pity kiss. Which they didn’t. So, for me, the scene was sweetened by deep, deep relief. Low expectations for the win.

    But this is not meant to rebut the revulsion this scene — no, this whole episode both elicited and deserves. The guys were trying to quote “cool down” during makeout session because — why? They would come? And that’s bad? Or would they spontaneously rape the girl involved? Is that what we were meant to be worried about?

    And did anyone else notice how in the show’s moral langugage the fault was implicitly the girls’, for not putting out? Because that’s what started it all, so the guys were just problem-solving or whatever.

    And the whole comic-Bieste-fantasy thing happened to Finn, Sam, and Tina, but the whole Glee club was implicated for no apparent reason. And then — yes, “subjected to an apology.” I nearly put my fist through my computer screen.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 3:02 am | Permalink
  12. Rachel wrote:

    Shocker that the dude and his dude matters are getting love/rights/privilege/attention first…?

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 6:02 am | Permalink
  13. Brenda wrote:

    Thanks for this! When Kurt told Blaine that he’d never been kissed before the bully I was like “oh no there is a pity kiss coming!” But then he didn’t pity kiss him and I was like “yay, this was handled sensitively and had characters acting at least somewhat like real human beings!”

    And then… I was cringing for the whole conversation, since I knew Will was going to kiss Coach Beiste. To be fair it is totally in character – he would think that he has magic kisses that would solve everything. (He was never the moral centre! He planted pot in Finn’s locker to trick him into being in the glee club in the pilot! He is flawed but trying just like everyone else on the show.) It was as nice a moment as it could have been under the circumstances due to sensitive acting (Dot Jones has been consistently great so far!), but the whole storyline was such a mistake. I didn’t find the lingerie scenes funny and there must have been some other way to establish that this tough lady (IRL a world champion arm wrestler!) has feelings (and is actually still a lady!) without resorting to strategies that kind of undermine their whole point that she is worthy of being sexually desired and loved.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 6:08 am | Permalink
  14. hn wrote:

    I really couldn’t disagree more: To me it seems Glee is exactly where it wants to be, including all the supposed ball-droppings. It’s purposefully bigoted, like the characters. They are all fairly stupid, mostly amoral. It’s really refreshing to see that the show only relays its “lessons” indirectly: you not only see the characters acting like assholes, but actually the whole show is so mean towards its own characters and contrasts itself so nicely you can’t but want to punch the creators. Which I think is exactly what they intended. You think about the issues even more than if it was just presented to you fairly. You didn’t just witness characters being bullied. The show is a bully! And it’s right in your face! Do something!

    British TV does this far more often, mostly because they trust their audience to be more intelligent so not everything has to be spelled out. Now Glee does that too, finally.

    I could be wrong and the creators are just douchebags, but they would have to be incredibly bad at everything for that to be an accident…

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  15. Shinobi wrote:

    To H N’s point. Sometimes I can’t tell if Glee is satirizing something, or if I am projecting my own values onto the writer to make something i don’t agree with into satire.

    I’ve stopped watching because I freaking hate auto tune, and the plot is no longer compelling to me.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  16. Mongoose6 wrote:

    I don’t know HN, if you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. I wouldn’t overestimate the intelligence of network television. I wouldn’t expect Glee’s writers to be super meta ;-)

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  17. Katie wrote:

    I just can’t quite get behind the theory of Glee being “meta-bigoted” (Is that a word yet?), i.e. purposefully dropping the ball. The show has such a strong tendency towards raining anvils of morality, even when using anti-morality as a preferred story telling and/or teaching tool in an episode. I do get that they employ antipathetic characters and stories to point out foibles or drive home a lesson, but this is not the same thing.

    To cite a specific example, this week’s show featured “jokes” towards the end of the show that made me want to yell at the TV in disgust. If you can watch the scene, it comes at 39:11. It was played for yuks, and was there for no greater purpose for that scene other than yuks. I think it specifically highlights the difference between writing a character who expresses ignorance, and in this case, the writers expressing their own ignorance through a character.

    My transcript of the scene:

    Holly Holliday (Gwyneth Paltrow) stands in front of the class dressed in period costume.

    (school bell rings)

    Holliday: (grinning) Mary Todd Lincoln in the house! My husband was probably gay, and I’m bipolar, which makes me yell things like “That teapot’s spreading lies about me!” Or… “That can’t be my baby because I don’t love it!”

    Schuester: (knocks on open classroom door) Ms. Holliday, can I talk to you for a sec?

    Holliday: Sure. (gestures her hands out towards the class as she walks towards the door)Guys, practice your bipolar rants, okay? See? History can be fun!

    History can be fun. Guess what’s not fun? Bipolar disorder. It’s terrifying and horrible for those who have to deal with it, and it’s terrifying and horrible for those who cope with their family and friends dealing with it. It was not funny or fun when one of my and my husband’s best friends went on a bipolar rant that his parents were not his real parents, and that he’d met his real mother, who was also the same woman he was having a sexual relationship with, that he was in love with her, and that he was going to go into the forests in Alaska like Chris McCandless but he’d be fine and wouldn’t starve, don’t worry, because he had a sleeping bag and knew how to eat bugs and insects. It was not fun or funny when my father-in-law flung himself down in anguish onto the living room floor just as a dinner party was wrapping up while screaming and crying that no one loved him and he may as well kill himself, then fly into some kind of rage and start throwing and breaking furniture, and then rip a door off the hinges so hard that the door frame itself was dislodged, all while self-medicating by drinking to excess.

    That scene didn’t cause me to think about mental health issues, or history, more deeply than if the writers had presented it without the thoughtless joke; The scene was not done with an eye on showing us directly or indirectly how awful people who aren’t sympathetic towards mental health issues can act. I think rather, it’s yet another example of how people who are progressive on some things can be incredibly limited, ignorant, and cruel by way of disinterest, in expressing their view of other things.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  18. carovee wrote:

    I wondered if anyone here was still watching the show. I liked the Kurt story line because a) Shuster ignored the bullying even when Kurt called him on it and b) the bullying didn’t stop and Kurt was obviously trying hard not to let it get to him but was visibly scared and hurt. Both of which are, I think true to life. It’s just too bad that the writers can’t focus that kind of sensitivity on the rest of the characters. The whole Bieste storyline could have been handled so much better and more directly parellel to Kurt’s storyline without a whole lot of effort.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  19. Kate wrote:

    @Alden – The thing is, though, Bieste doesn’t have any real agency. She’s a fictional character, and her actions and emotions are dictated by the writers (who, btw, are primarily men). She couldn’t have rejected the kiss or called Will out on his condescension because she wasn’t written that way.

    I can respect that you have a different reading, but I think asking people to respect the (man-made) choices of a fictional female character as though they were those of a real woman–as though they came from the complications of life rather than the brains of writers who want to tell a simple story–is a flawed way to defend it.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Permalink
  20. Carol the Long Winde wrote:

    I was watching this show with my 13 yr old son, and screaming through the whole episode. “No! NO! God no! Don’t confront the bully alone!” and “No, No pity kiss! WTF? Beiste definitely
    would have been kissed by now!” I too had self esteem issues and relate to the Beiste character the most…and the pity kiss would never have made me feel better about myself.
    Oh well. It lead to a good conversation with my son about how to combat bullies in school. And to think about baseball statistics if he doesn’t want to get a surprise erection during algebra.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 10:45 pm | Permalink
  21. Anica Lewis wrote:

    I liked Kurt’s storyline a lot, but was intensely frustrated by Schuster’s behavior re: Coach Bieste. What possibly annoys me more is how everyone else in the show is SO SURE that Schuster is a fantastic teacher who Really Cares about the kids. (Well, Sue doesn’t think that, but no one takes her seriously, because she’s the villain.)

    Time and again, the kids/Emma/everyone else expounds on the wonderfulness of Schuster. (When Coach Bieste first arrives at school, she tells Schuster that people have told her that he’s “cool,” with the implication being that he’s sympathetic and understanding. While I do believe he means well, he make constant mistakes! And I couldn’t believe that, when Schuster’s all, “I hope you’re happy. Coach Bieste quit. I’m ashamed of you,” no one in the glee club calls him out on TELLING COACH BIESTE. (And of course there’s the fact that three fourths of the club had no idea what he was talking about.)

    Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink
  22. laura k wrote:

    Thanks for this excellent post. I thought this episode was both one of the best and one of the worst. The scene you shared above made me giddy I liked it so much (Kurt’s face just…so perfect). And I appreciated that the writers make a big point that the people who are supposed to be protecting Kurt (the school administrators and teachers) aren’t doing it, and that that’s not ok. I guess I just kind of loved this alternate world that Kurt was shown, and that the writers didn’t just say, “Ok, he’s going to enroll here now,” they show that he still has to work within the limitations of his own life, with the idea that there are alternatives. I’m not expressing myself very well, I suppose…

    But yeah, the Bieste scenes, so awful. And yet again, Glee shows that the “adults” in the show, for the most part, act far more childishly than the kids. I think the writers make that kind of explicit, when Will says something about how they all chose to stay in high school by becoming teachers.

    Glee: Still horribly flawed, but I thought this episode was the best so far this season. It actually seemed to have a plot, at least.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  23. mamram wrote:

    Regarding the Glee: meta or not? question, I strongly suspect that it’s some of both. The show definitely has plenty of problematic moments—the bipolar joke stuck out at me too—but based on Ryan Murphy’s earlier work, I am pretty confident that the writers are going for something more subtle than, good guys: always good! bad guys: always bad! There are viewers who want to see things that way, and as a result will selectively ignore things that suggest that a protagonist can be deeply flawed and that an antagonist can be good from time to time, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that if Will Schuester does some ass-headed thing, it means the writers are endorsing that behavior.

    Basically, I think the show is written in such a way that if you don’t pay much attention, you can get a kick out of the musical numbers and move on. But, if you do pay attention, there are a lot of indicators that the writers intend for the characters perceptions of themselves, the other characters’ perceptions of each other, and the viewer’s perception of them to be three different things (if that made any sense). The differences are most stark in Schuester’s case.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  24. Alden wrote:

    (Though there are elements of this response to Kate that apply to the original post and its discussion of how Glee frames things such as gender variance, there’s a lot here that could be read as a DERAIL, so, warning. Also, terribly sorry, Garland! Won’t happen again.)

    @Kate: Rereading my original comment, I do see now that it comes across as a bit silencing/attacking toward those who read the scene differently, and I apologise; my intention was never to silence or to attack, but offer an alternate reading. Rather than ‘Bieste’s agency’, I was moreso talking about whether Bieste’s character was respected when the scene was framed as ‘sweet’, and whether the writers had considered her characterization as an important tenet of the scene.

    My argument was less that “Bieste had agency and could easily have made another decision!”, but that the writers were indeed taking care with Bieste’s characterisation in that scene, and her characterisation framed her as an active, willing participant in the kiss. The scene took care to show Will giving Bieste indications that he was about to kiss her, time with which Bieste could consider the kiss, and her decision to move forward and kiss him back before their lips touched. It also reestablished this by having their dynamic after be playful and friendly but not romantic, rather than awkward, angry/cold or one-sided longing on Bieste’s part. So, in that sense (that the writers were considering her characterisation and what she would do), the character did have a form of agency in the scene. I thought that reading might be of interest to those who were confused by the framing of the moment as ‘sweet’, when they read it as condescending or disgusting. A kiss in which Bieste actively participated, and which seemed to be welcome before, during and after by Bieste, seems less condescending or disgusting than one in which she is considered an empty cipher the writers use to demonstrate Schuester’s heroism.

    Of course, I’m not defending the character of Will or the show’s idealisation of him: the moment in the first season finale where he kisses Emma had me growling for ages about how he basically sexually assaulted his ex-girlfriend in a moment framed as ‘romantic’, and I felt the same after his awfulness in the Rocky Horror episode was brushed off as a bad-but-acceptable result of his and Emma’s epic love story. Nor will I say that the show doesn’t have a record of sexism. I just thought that the framing of that scene wasn’t as egregious as some others did, and wanted to offer my alternative reading. It might be worthwhile for me to note that the episode was penned by Brad Falchuck, who is MUCH more respectful of the characters and their subtleties than either Murphy or Ian Brennan, which is one reason why I was a bit more charitable to this scene than I might have in a Murphy or Brennan script.

    On another note, I noticed Schuester specifically refer to her as ‘Shannon’ after he told her ‘the secret’. I’m hoping that won’t stop, because it feels a lot more respectful to her than the depersonalising/masculising ‘Beast/Bieste’.

    Friday, November 19, 2010 at 2:44 am | Permalink
  25. Nell wrote:

    This video gives me a similar warm and fuzzy feeling:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jkK0bfJhYhw

    Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  26. Bethany G. wrote:

    I’ve never watched Glee, but I’m kind of curious about it. I looked up the characters on the Glee wiki, and Coach Beiste sounds like someone I’d really sympathize with. I don’t expect the show to have perfect standards, since people in RL are often bigoted and immoral, but Glee is doing the same as other shows that use non-conventionally attractive or gender variant women as jokes. The coach sounds like a great character. I’m disappointed that the show is sending the wrong message with this.

    Kurt does sound interesting, and he reminds me so much of a guy I know from high school (who watches Glee). I like the idea of presenting a gay teenager’s issues on a mainstream TV show, but I wish that a male character wasn’t, yet again, taken more seriously than a female character.

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink