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I Hated Glee Before It Was Trendy: At What Point Does Pop Culture Become Shitty Enough for People to Notice?

I had promised, gentle readers, to stop writing about Glee. After establishing a reputation as a trailblazer in the Glee-hating department, I wanted to rest on my laurels; or, more accurately, I wanted to stop wading through piles of communiques from angry Glee fans, and I wanted to stop watching the show because it was causing me to writhe in agony every week, and the blood pressure spikes weren’t good for me. I enjoyed a good long Gleeiatus, and I don’t regret a minute of it. However, circumstances have changed, and thus I need to come out of retirement for a Very Special Episode.

Last week on Think Progress, our pal Alyssa Rosenberg articulated some of the problems with Glee, arguing that:

[Glee is] a show that claims credit for seeing clearly and portraying teenagers’ lives honestly, but that can’t acknowledge its own cruelty and manipulation of other people. It’s one thing for bringing the underexamined lives of gay teenagers, of abused women, of gay people of color into the mainstream of popular culture. But spotlighting them only to use their pain to accrue credit to yourself isn’t admirable. And it’s not entertaining.

I got into a great discussion with her, Emily, and Arturo R. García from Racialicious about the show and popular reactions to it; Arturo and I both discussed the fact that it’s been heavily criticised since the start for the depiction of people with disabilities and people of colour, but this hasn’t gotten much traction. Glee has also done fairly terribly with domestic violence and sexual assault since close to the beginning, and while it may have been lauded for its depiction of queer youth, as Alyssa points out, even those depictions are sinking into a mire.

Surprise! A popular television show is exploiting people for ratings!

I confessed to some frustration to suddenly seeing more critics engaging directly with the problems in Glee, and acting like they’re new (note: Alyssa is not one of those people, so don’t think I’m picking on her!), when people like me and Arturo have been discussing the show since the start to pretty much resounding silence. As often happens, when an issue doesn’t directly affect you or a cause you’re close to, you tend to ignore it. Hence, most people ignoring criticisms from the disability community and people of colour when it came to the show’s depictions of our lived identities.

Emily pointed out that: “It’s not perceived as bias but rather a neutral reflection of objective ‘reality’” when it involves minority groups,  even when we’re saying otherwise. As per usual, those in power get to define the rules, including, apparently, the rules of how we live and interact with society, even though they have no actual knowledge of life in the body of a disabled person, or a person of colour. Evidently, one’s opinions about what these experiences should be like supercede reality, and thus Glee fans had little interest in our critiques.

Now that Glee is hitting closer to home, more people are up in arms; though of course there are still die-hard fans who refuse to engage with any critiques at all. However, they were always in it for the entertainment and nothing else and they’re an audience that those concerned about depictions were unlikely to ever reach. We can hope, and we can aim critiques at them, but ultimately, we do so in full awareness that those critiques are unlikely to be taken seriously.

Glee’s audience has always had a lot of members of the social justice community, though, and their refusal to engage with the critiques has been really frustrating. The show is tremendously influential and provides a great vehicle for talking about depictions in pop culture and who gets to write, define, and portray them. The fact that many people were resistant to hearing any criticism at all of the show was really frustrating, and it’s almost more frustrating that some are deigning to pay attention now that it’s involving more mainstream issues; queer youth have become a popular cause in the last few years, although a lot of that causemaking is also laden with issues of its own, like a focus on only certain aspects of the young queer experience (where are the queer and trans youth of colour, for example?). Say, the aspects Ryan Murphy was doing reasonably well until very recently.

The Ryan Murphys of this world exploit people for fame and profit, and always have. Viewers feed that by consuming the content they create but in the case of Glee it was particularly revolting because of how the show positioned itself: as progressive. As educational. As an after-school special to put teens into the shoes of minorities and build empathy and solidarity. Glee was going to show people that it’s okay to be gay and not cool to hurt people, and it won awards for this, along with accolades from a number of major culture-arbiters. Viewers could feel secure watching it because it was a ‘progressive’ show.

Despite the fact that critics were screaming to be heard; the same show that won an award from GLAAD was using terms like ‘she-male.’

Which raises the question: How bad does media have to get before criticisms can be taken seriously?

How many representations does it have to foul up before social justice-oriented fans are forced to face facts and engage with critics who disagree with their depiction of a show as a strong and useful piece of media? From the early airing of the pilot, people with disabilities were articulating thoughtful and complex criticisms of the show that were ignored, sneered at, and cast aside; we were told that we were too sensitive and not reasonable, and informed that characters like Artie were ‘inspiring’ and accurate, despite being told by people with spinal cord injuries like Artie’s that this was not true. Meanwhile, people of colour expressed concerns about the handling of characters like Tina and Mercedes, and those criticisms didn’t get much air time outside of spaces specifically dedicated to racial justice and conversations about race in pop culture.

Now, discussions about the problems with the representation of queer characters are starting to flower, and some of those same viewers who turned the other cheek before are actually paying attention. And acting surprised that there are legitimate grounds for frustration with Glee, that not everyone thinks it’s a great show social justicewise (let alone productionwise, which, please do not get me started). While there’s been kind of a running meme of hatewatching Glee, a lot of people haven’t really fully understood what that meant for a lot of critics; that we watched and critiqued because we felt it was necessary, since the show was so influential, and that the constant overriding of our voices was monumentally frustrating.

Alyssa says:

It’s become a show that’s not just sloppy but exploitative and manipulative of serious societal issues and human experiences. And it’s time to walk away, even for hate-watching purposes.

And I take exception to that, because Glee hasn’t ‘become’ that way: It always has been that way, it’s just that more people are noticing and starting to pay attention.

Which raises another question: in a critique-saturated world where so much amazing discussion is a link and a click away, how long does ignorance hold up as an excuse? Some very high-profile folks and sites have been talking about the problems with Glee since the very beginning, as well as a vast number of people who don’t enjoy that kind of platform, but are still determined to make their voices heard. When can we start differentiating between true lack of knowledge and willful ignorance? Because I’m pretty sure we passed that dividing line a long time ago with this show.

10 Comments

  1. Britta wrote:

    It was definitely always that way. The episode where Will patronizingly kisses the football coach because she had never been kissed before? And she finds it moving and kind? I almost threw up/ broke my tv.

    I still don’t know what the moral of that was. “Everyone is beautiful. Except some people are not beautiful, and we should pity them.”

    Monday, May 7, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  2. Lizzy wrote:

    “like a focus on only certain aspects of the young queer experience (where are the queer and trans youth of colour, for example?)”

    Hell, where are the trans youth at all? As a queer cis mixed-race woman, I certainly thirst for more and better representation, but I also have the distinct impression that I generally have more representation than trans people. Especially if we’re talking Glee, the queer kids of color at least have Santana and arguably Blaine, and the trans kids of all races have pretty much no one. I’m not trying to be all Oppression Olympics about it, but I feel like the fact that trans characters and queer cis characters are not remotely on equal footing here is getting a little glossed over. This is a show that (rightly, if still problematically) treated Finn’s gay slur as a big deal, and didn’t give a flying fuck about Mike using a trans slur (in the very same episode that censored the word “transsexual,” no less). I’m not saying that Glee is more transphobic than racist or that transphobia is more important than racism, just that we should acknowledge the sad fact that we aren’t even really at a stage where it makes much sense to talk about the diversity of trans experiences portrayed, because there’s practically zero trans representation to begin with.

    Monday, May 7, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  3. Renee wrote:

    @ Lizzy

    Well GLAAD would certainly say that Glee is representing trans people, even trans people of color, given the introduction of Unique a couple of weeks ago. Came as a surprise to me too; I *am* trans and I wasn’t completely sure what I was witnessing, seeing as how Glee is terrified of uttering the word “transgender” except as a slur. But hey, if GLAAD says so.

    But yeah, it’s terribly frustrating to see this show hailed as the model of progressive values and education while it craps on pretty much everyone everywhere. It’s some trick Ryan Murphy has pulled.

    Monday, May 7, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Permalink
  4. Ann wrote:

    I think a lot of the defensiveness came from the fact that the criticism began, as you say, as soon as the pilot aired. It seemed knee jerk rather than considered. Now it just seems prescient. The worst part about it is that the creators had plenty of time to fix most of their mistakes, but squandered it. Of course, they’ve also failed to make it much of anything remarkable, so maybe that isn’t surprising.

    Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  5. Catherine wrote:

    Wow. I watched the first episode, declared it bad but not MST3K bad, and was full of characters that could go badly, badly wrong. I’m glad I skipped this. More than just the music got mangled.

    Tuesday, May 8, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  6. Gabriela wrote:

    I always thought Glee’s intention wasn’t really to develop characters and give space to minorities… It’s just a bad written show that puts minorities there — WITH MUSIC! They just acknowledge the existence of minorities and that’s it – with music.
    ta-da! It ends up mixing a bunch of old clichés while calling itself educational and progressive. It just never sit well with me.

    Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  7. SheilaG wrote:

    Hey, I always hated the dumb show, and thought it a bad imitation of “Fame” to begin with. But then I HATE musicals of any kind, so I quit watching the show after a few episodes.

    It exploits topics of the day, but it is still as vapid as Brady Bunch… ugh oh, I’m gonna get by the TV police now!!!

    Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  8. Malisha wrote:

    I watched the first seven episodes of Glee as a kind of experiment. I had been baffled by a lot of the intolerant and upsetting attitudes of many of the 18-24 year olds I come in contact with, so I thought I’d take a gander at what kind of media they’re consuming. And ohhhhh man. In just the first seven episodes, I counted three or four outrageous insults directed at people of mixed race, addressing a character as “wheelchair kid” or “cripple”, and the idea that adults who work in a high school environment will enforce hierarchies of popularity and social stigma alongside teenage students.
    The worst part was all of it was coming from characters presented as likeable or at least sympathetic.

    Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  9. andybob wrote:

    I am quite startled that anyone would expect a television show to be anything other than exploitative, manipulative and stupid. It was created for the sole purpose of making money. For all their do-good posturing, TV execs are as interested in social justice as I am in learning macrame.

    How does mainstream TV portray non-mainstream people? As stereotypes of course. Just paint them in broad, neon-coloured brushstrokes and throw gltter over them in the hope that no-one notices that they are the same old stereotypes – only louder and more tuneless. Throw in some choppy editing to disguise the awful dancing and voila: another crappy TV show.

    Yet again, gay men are portrayed as vapid creatures who have nothing to offer the world except a pointless aquaintance with Broadway tunes. TV execs believe that straight viewers would have a collective meltdown if confronted by the fact that gay men are actually real people. Solution: turn us into cartoons – complete with cartoon problems.

    The so-what? dismissal of the cruel paternity fraud they tried to pin on the hapless Fin in the first season was a good indicator of the moral terpitude of the show’s creators.

    Since then, it has become a gaudy grievance circus where the feaks are obvious frauds. Time to run it out of town and replace it with…more crap.

    Saturday, May 12, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink
  10. scrumby wrote:

    “The so-what? dismissal of the cruel paternity fraud they tried to pin on the hapless Fin in the first season was a good indicator of the moral terpitude of the show’s creators.”

    So much this. I watched the sneak preview pilot and got the impression that Glee was a modern “everyone is awful” comedy show. The characters did and said terrible, unbelievable things in the name of really biting humor. I don’t whole-heartedly buy the edginess as truth-telling those kind of shows often sell themselves with; South Park sometimes functions as really brilliant social commentary/critique but it’s at the expense of a lot of objectionable content and blind privilege. Glee had all the later and an ever dwindling amount of the former. I kept waiting for the moment the narrative twists to show that Will, with his narcissistic desire to be the cool teacher that everyone comes to with their issues, is just as complicit in the culture of savage bullying and prejudice as Sue who overtly propagates it because he ignores his students’ actual problems in favor of ones he thinks he’d look good fixing.

    Monday, May 14, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink