Glee has become a popular talking point for feminist, queer and other leftist bloggers, critics and academics. Upon discovering the show and coming to love it last spring, I wrote a post on Gender Across Borders about the show’s use of hyperbole and musical numbers in its confrontation of wide-ranging forms of adversity. And just last week, my colleague Jessica Mack wrote a piece on the recent GQ publicity stunt pulled by the show’s actors Lea Michele, Dianna Agron and Cory Monteith. While the show’s use of excessive and sensationalistic publicity, among other things, is far from unproblematic, it has, as of late, been creating some of the most innovative and challenging work on television.
I recently read Patrice Petro’s “Mass Culture and the Feminine: The ‘Place’ of Television in Film Studies” (1986), which provides a useful history of early discourses on the differences between television and film’s modes of address and reception. She outlines the way in which gendered metaphors have been utilized throughout the 20th century to siphon off mass culture from high art and enumerates the manner in which this conversation has been carried into the television vs. film studies debate. Whereas participants in high art have been characterized in masculine terms—productive, active and focused—mass culture audiences have been perjoratively feminized due to their presumed passivity and irrationality. The twenty years since this article was written have certainly brought about significant changes in attitude towards television in the academy, however, hierarchy has not been eliminated, either in the academic or public realm.
Rather than television vs. film, the divisions now seem to lie within the media themselves, meaning one now finds there to be films and television programs deemed worthy of critical discussion separated from those that are not. The term “quality television” has come to stand-in for HBO and Showtime series, the structure, content and writing of which resemble that of the “higher arts,” namely films, operas and novels. Not surprisingly, due to the higher costs of access to cable shows, “quality television” has come to ideologically align itself with its predominantly older, white, leftist and upper middle class audience. In direct contrast to these series are those with mass audiences on network television, which, for financial and regulatory reasons, are more limited in what stories they can tell and in what manner they can do so.
And yet, as of late, Glee has taken important steps to complicating means and modes of visual pleasure and identification common to network television, and, in many ways, its doing so can be thought of as “queering” TV spectatorship. While homosexual characters are at this point far from new to network television—as demonstrated by Anna McCarthy’s article “Ellen: making Queer Television History” (2001), which I also recently read—Glee has made the stigmas surrounding male homosexuality, as well as that of other oppressed groups, a nodal point of its plot in notable ways. But queerness in the shows is not just a matter of subject or theme. Rather, it can be used to describe its modes of address and reception as well.
Since its inception last year, Glee has defied genre limitations, combining elements common to melodramas, sitcoms and musicals, causing it to stand out among its more traditionally structured competitors. Its setting in a Midwestern high school has confused many due to the rather adult content that it brings to representations of adolescence. As the show has developed, it has taken on more and more characters, creating a truly ensemble cast of current and past high school “misfits,” and looking to one or more of their struggles—often related to sexism, homophobia, racism, classism and/or ableism—each episode. This approach seems to complicate reception studies’ presumed suture on the viewer’s part, as s/he is offered a plethora of figures from which to identify, none of which appear as idealized and singular representations. Rather than a strict separation of characters based on sexual difference, there is a multiplicity to each of their identities. The intertextuality and hybridity of the show’s form further complicates this process as well. While there is some accuracy to criticism leveled at the show’s selection of primarily musical and mainstream pop numbers, the songs’ meanings are often playfully altered in their performance within the context of the show and in many cases do not drive viewers back to the originals, as would be expected, but create a new cultural fan base around the Glee version.
Just this last week on Glee the 2010 Katy Perry song “Teenage Dream” was performed by a male acapella group at a rival high school, Blaine (Darren Criss) the lead singer of which directs his reiteration of the song text towards Kurt (Chris Colfer), establishing the show’s first male to male love song serenade. This discursive performance quickly became a big hit, the single selling 55,000 copies within its first day, a record for any individual song on the show. Furthermore, the episode, “Never Been Kissed,” became the number one most downloaded TV episode on iTunes. While the heterosexual “origin” appears to be nothing special, especially when listened to alongside the visuals of its music video, the Glee “copy” plays with the significance of the song’s lyrics, adding levels of meaning that have clearly been appreciated by the show’s fans. This phenomenon has in many ways disproven critiques of the show’s forwarding of mainstream music and its tangential problems such as cyclical heterosexuality, as the Katy Perry original has reportedly barely changed in sales records, while the copy, by way of its sales records, has illuminated the fervor of the queer Glee fan base.
The transition in mass cultural criticism that Petro traces “from an attack on unity or realism, to a privileging of negativity or modernism, to a call for involvement through realist forms” (16) is interesting due to its relevance to the cable vs. network television dichotomy today. HBO shows, such as The Wire and The Sopranos, are so often praised for their realism, while network shows such Project Runway and Glee are dismissed as for their flamboyancy and campy style. And yet, the most recent episode of Glee has demonstrated the age old saying that “a book should not be judged by its cover,” or in this case, a TV show by its genre/style. While melodramas have been feminized and sitcoms heteronormatized in the past, they have not been without merit for the feminist and/or queer viewer, and we are currently living in an era where network TV shows are hybridizing genres, which, though flawed, interpolate queer viewers in their maneuverings of textual performance and multiplicitous suturing.