My Beef With “Glee”

“Glee” is kind of a big deal right now.  They’re getting gushing write-ups in Rolling Stone, episodes of “The Office” devoted to them, and, oh yeah, outselling the Beatles.  The “Glee” Christmas album is predicted to be this season’s biggest hit.  There’s no show I find so simultaneously entertaining and enraging as this High School Musical for the slightly older set.

First, what “Glee” does right: it captures beautifully the unironic joy of singing and dancing, even when you’re not very good at it.  (Let’s face facts: Finn is a terrible dancer, and Mike Cheng is a terrible singer.)  Good performance demands unselfconsciousness, while so much of the teenage experience is deeply, desperately self-conscious; watching a group of teenagers have fun so freely is just plain fun to watch.

Now, what “Glee” does wrong: just about everything else.  Contrary to the plaudits offered the series by Rolling Stone, the show is a damn near train wreck, narratively speaking (fake pregnancies! Magically-disappearing-when-inconvenient adoptive mothers!), and the only character arc with any real resonance is between Kurt and his father.  In fact, “Glee” has won a lot of praise for its handling of the character of Kurt, coming to terms with his sexuality.  WHY, then, did this week’s episode continue the joke of Kurt, during a boys versus girls sing-off, attempting to join the girls’ team?  For a show that is supposedly sophisticated in its handling of a gay character, it’s awfully lazy to conflate homosexuality with transgender.  They are two separate identities.  If Kurt prefers to be on the girls’ team because they don’t bully him, or he has more female friends, that’s fine; but explain that, instead of letting it be a cheap shot.

“Glee“‘s gender politics, however, are by far its weakest point.  The landscape of the show is now populated by a stunning number of virginal females — not merely high-schoolers Rachel and Quinn (who has, in religious parlance, “rewrapped the gift”), but also guidance counselor Emma and even Bieste, the football coach, so insecure about her femininity that she had to be serenaded by a group of high school boys.  “Inappropriate” doesn’t even begin to describe it.  “Insulting” comes closer.  “Disgusting” might hit the mark. 

“Glee” seems to take great pride in its slut-shaming.  Quinn’s lone drunken tumble was punished by pregnancy; the other sexually empowered women on the show are all either villains (Sue Sylvester, Santana, and Will’s now-ex-wife Terry) or else pathetically dim (Brittany, sympathetic and hilarious but hardly a hero).  The female characters are also held to a rigid physical standard: while wheelchair-bound Artie gets to enjoy a tumble in the sack with Brittany, stocky Bieste is left confessing that she has never been kissed, while heavyset Mercedes is the only character amongst the entire club of New Directions with no romantic storyline whatsoever.  It is Rachel, Quinn, and Emma — all three beautiful and virginal — who are upheld as the ideal women.

And then there is the matter of Dalton, the out-of-nowhere all-boys prep school which appeared in this week’s episode as a haven of tolerance and civility, in stark contrast to the unruly public school where the show is set.  Kurt visits Dalton and witnesses not a school, but a utopia: all colors and creeds and sexual identities in perfect harmony.  The fact that all these Dalton boys are also fabulously rich is not held against them, but instead used to justify their good manners: of course the wealthy are better than the commoners!  After all, they’re wealthy!  The idea that wealth is some kind of antidote to incivility is a very old idea, and also a horribly damaging and incorrect one (and one that a different teen show, “Gossip Girl” — for all of its flaws and fetishizing of material wealth — dismantles pretty thoroughly in each episode).  But it’s an idea that “Glee” presents without any question. 

It is, of course, a challenge to pair something as unfettered and fun as singing and dancing with any kind of critical cultural interrogation.  But it would also make for a much better show: less didactic, more challenging, and ultimately, more interesting.  I wrote previously about the particular joys of “Ugly Betty,” a show which managed to be at once celebratory and hilarious while still doing more than offering formulaic retreads of age-old narratives about gender, class, and sexuality.  If the rest of “Glee” were as good as its musical numbers, it might look a bit more like Betty, and a lot more like a good show.

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