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.
[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.
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.