It’s getting difficult to bust a move these days without accidentally high-fiving a fellow Gleek (that’s a Glee geek for any of you weeks behind the rest of us). The FOX musical television show, which is eighteen episodes into its first season after taking a four-month intermission between episodes thirteen and fourteen, has garnered fans faster than one can say “break a leg.” Not only does its Tuesday night airings gather a respectable 13 million regular viewers, but the show is an online phenomenon, being watched and re-watched by millions at FOX’s site and hulu.com, re-performed and discussed by thousands on social networking sites, and tweeted about like none ever! And honestly, it’s not surprising. The show is about a group of “all-American” teens struggling with the day-to-day pressures of teenagehood in rural Ohio, who find an outlet in their show tunes choir where they can sing out their frustrations and connect across boundaries otherwise bisected. Many of the characters are beyond loveable, the humor of the show is off the wall and the musical numbers—including the singing, costumes, choreography and montages—are stunning. The combination has proved to be a powerful force.
At the same time, however, it has—per usual—raised a series of qualms in the feminist blogosphere. It is far from being the most PC show out there, a characteristic which sites such as Feministing, Bitch Media, this ain’t livin’ and others were quick to pick-up on. From the start, many have worried whether the African-American, Asian, homosexual, and physically disabled characters would simply unfold into token inclusions. Bloggers have continued to claim that characters such as Artie, Kurt, Tina and Mercedes have taken on predictable stereotypes and the show’s depiction of marginalized groups is in fact hurting more so than helping. These writers have also taken issue with the blatant bigotry of the Sue Sylvester character, who as the ever-competitive power-hungry cheerleading coach humiliates students and coworkers alike by picking at their greatest insecurities, whether it be their plummeting popularity, their seeming lack of overt sexuality, their looks or their weight, and they point out similar utterances of anti-semitism and transphobia from the mouths and pens of her beloved “Cheerios.” s.e. smith at this ain’t livin’ writes:
“[P]eople get that Sue Sylvester is supposed to be a bigot, but the problem is that some people don’t recognize it when she says bigoted things, whether they are racist, transphobic, sexist, ableist, classist…she’s hard to recognize as a satire for some folks because they don’t really understand what she’s saying.”
The argument being that viewers might not get that what she’s saying is awful and will take away from the show that it is in fact okay to speak about certain groups of people in hurtful and demeaning ways. These qualms, while understandable at times, miss the mark on two specific counts: 1. That the show is by and large about the mistreatment of its minority characters and 2. That humor, even when including hyperbolic representation, can be an effective means of critique and cultural commentary.
Since the airing of the second half of season one this April, Glee has taken up sexist, racist, homophobic and ableist oppression as the focus of its plot. Mr. Schuester has choreographed a number for the entire choir in wheelchairs, making them spend hours in the chairs each day, which causes them to recognize the challenges that Artie faces regularly, as the school—like many institutions—fails to take his interests to heart, seeing him and others like him as burdens rather than equal members of the school. Kurt and Mercedes, on the other hand, have tactfully maneuvered to repeatedly demonstrate to Mr. Schuester and their fellow Glee Club members that they deserve more than supporting roles in the choir. Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt, recently told Oprah:
“When I was in high school, I was daily reminded of my imperfections by other students and some times teachers, and to be a part of a project that celebrates your differences and makes your disadvantages your advantages has been very therapeutic.”
Furthermore, the show’s entire fifteenth episode, “The Power of Madonna,” was dedicated to illustrating the challenges faced by women—both young and old—in American culture and showing respect for whom they are both inside and out. The episode has generated a contentious discussion around whether or not Madonna is an appropriate role model/symbol of feminism and female empowerment, extending a debate that’s been ongoing since the release of her 1985 Material Girl video. Nevertheless, the boys’ singing of What it Feels Like for a Girl—including the dialogue immediately preceding and following the performance—is priceless and the episode’s concluding performance of Like A Prayer—with solos from Rachel, Finn, Kurt and Mercedes—is not to be missed.
While I, personally, find Glee growing away from the stereotyping of its lead characters exponentially as episodes proceed, there is no denying satire is regularly at play in the show, and that it is using humor to demonstrate common misconceptions and elucidate the horrific simplicities with which we often unconsciously conceive of one another. It resembles Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report in this manner, as characters take on one set of values in order to make apparent the validity of those exactly opposite. And I, unlike s.e. smith, don’t think that this humor is lost on Glee viewers. When Sue Sylvester tells her Cheerios not to complain—it’s not as if they’re being water-boarded—or claims that as a child she dyed her hair with napalm, I think it’s clear that we are not to take her literally. Similarly, when a back-up member of the choir is referred to as “the other Asian,” we are not to take the misnomer at face value but are instead forced to realize the discomfort that such a verbal reference elicits, making manifest the inappropriateness of what many may have previously thought but left unsaid.
At the same time, these harsh quips are mixed in with sometimes upbeat, other times soulful musical numbers, all of which manage to cheer the viewer without letting him or her forget the not always innocuous disparities these characters face. And general awkwardness and tension, particularly in regards to sexuality and gender, do not vanish when the music starts. Some of the shows most powerful numbers are pervaded with the difficult questions initiated in the dialogue and develop the tension therein. When Rachel and Kurt “diva-off” for the opportunity to sing the musical Wicked’s Defying Gravity solo, the show’s remixing of their auditions into a duet pits the two against each other, building the tension to the point in which Kurt purposefully blows the contentious high note, sacrificing his own dreams for the cares and concerns of Mr. Schuester and his father, both of whom—for different but related reasons—previously expressed discomfort in the idea of him singing a traditionally female part. It’s scenes such as these, where the show’s inability to go down calmly—to be consumed casually—becomes apparent, that make it a delightful anomaly on network television.