Glee: The Halfway Point: The Introduction

This post contains spoilers through the Glee midseason finale, “Sectionals.” It also got really long, so I am breaking it up into multiple parts so that it will not be an impenetrable Wall of Text. This is part one of four!

Now that the midseason finale is officially over, we think it’s an appropriate time to write about where Glee is going, what it’s going to do when it gets there, and what we all think about it, since the show has attracted a great deal of attention in the disability community. Please note that the views/feelings discussed here do not necessarily reflect those of all FWD contributors, just mine (as always with posts which are not authored by “Staff”), and that comments will be tightly moderated. This is a place to talk about the problematic aspects of Glee, and we want to keep it a safe space for FWDers. There are lots of places on the Internet for Glee squee. This ain’t one of ’em.

One of the most common criticisms leveled against people who critique television is “relax, it’s just a television show.” This is frustrating and curious when it comes to Glee because many people are praising the show for “breaking boundaries” and “drawing attention to social issues.” Fans apparently want to have it both ways; they want to be able to defend the show on the grounds that it’s “just a television show” while patting themselves on the back for watching such a progressive, insightful, inspiring television series.

Critiquing television (and any media) is important. Thinking about the things that we engage with and the ways in which we internalize the values they depict is critical. We absorb messages from all the media we interact with, and we have an obligation to think about these messages. When it comes to Glee, some of the messages being depicted are extremely problematic. For all the song and dance, Glee is actually a very dark show, and it takes readers into some very dark places, even if they don’t necessarily recognize it.

Glee is a television show with a very particular type of humour, which involves referencing prejudices, stereotypes, and marginalizing tropes for humor. I refers to it as “hipster -ism,” inspired by Carmen Van Kerckhove’s discussion of hipster racism at Racialicious (more on hipster racism, hipster sexism, and hipster ableism). The idea behind it is that it’s supposed to be hip and funny because of course “no one really thinks that way.” Only, they do, that’s the thing, and that’s where hipster -ism falls short; it relies on an assumption which simply isn’t true, which is that racism, sexism, ableism, and other -isms don’t really exist any more.

What’s interesting about this kind of humour is that it tends to be leveraged in spaces which people think of as safe; with fellow white people, fellow hipsters, fellow able people, and so forth. This raises the question of whether or not it’s really all that funny. If jokes can only be told in a certain context because “some people might think they are offensive,” would that not seem to suggest that they are, in fact, offensive? Indeed, such humour seems to act in a very insular way; people are allowed to continue being racist, sexist, ableist, etc because they can hide behind the shield of “humour.”

If viewers don’t recognize that what they are seeing is troped and problematic, can they really be said to be viewing a critique or takedown of prejudice? Or is it more likely that they are nodding along with these tropes and having their values reinforced? The deleted comments on Glee posts over at this ain’t livin’, my personal website, would seem to suggest that the latter is the case.

“Get a sense of humour.” “Just settle down.” “Can’t you tell it’s supposed to be a joke?” These lines have been thrown over and over again at people who criticize Glee. Apparently, we just don’t get it, perhaps because we are all humourless feminists. It’s worth exploring why it is that shows like Glee are such a big hit, and why people are so resistant to examining their problematic aspects.

Numerous marginalized groups appear in Glee: women, people of colour, people with disabilities, and gays and lesbians. I’m going to examine the handling of each group over this series of posts and then speculate on where Glee might be taking us. There’s a lot of material for discussion here, so hopefully each post will be a jumping off point for a larger conversation.

Coming up next: “Women and Race on Glee.”

By 18 December, 2009.    media and pop culture, television  ,  


  1. One of the things I really struggle with is that a lot of the television, novels, and other assorted media that I like and love is problematic. Because there’s this element that I’ve encountered that if it’s problematic, I can’t like it, or that if I can find fault and criticism, that I can’t actually enjoy something. (or that criticism isn’t, in itself, a fun activity that enhances my joy in media).

    I like Glee. I haven’t had the time to watch it lately with all the overtime I’ve been working, but I’ve always been a fan of over the top high school drama/comedy and I’m a music theatre fan. There are jokes that I both find funny and problematic at the same time.

  2. nuri, I should note that I like a lot of things which are problematic. I don’t think that recognizing something as problematic and appreciating it are necessarily mutually exclusive. I mean, almost no media I interact with is unproblematic! And, like you, I actually enjoy critiquing and thinking about things I am reading/listening to/watching/viewing/etc. I happen to not like Glee, but that’s because it’s not really my kind of show, not because I think I need to dislike it because it has problematic content, and I would certainly never say that other people shouldn’t like it.

    What troubles me is the refusal among some folks to recognize/discuss problematic aspects of something because they think that if they say it’s problematic, they can’t like it anymore. There’s a lot of pushback on media critique in many areas of the Internet, and it troubles me on a lot of levels. For me, much of the joy in media is being able to critique and talk about it later.

  3. With regard to the “hipster race/sex/ablism”, I think this post is correct in stating that this type of humour makes an error in presuming that no one holds these opinions. Al Murray playing “The Pub Landlord” is a good example. Originally, this character was a spoof of the stereotyped British nationalist, but audiences go to see this character on stage because they agree with his opinions.

    With the regard to the “just a joke”, whilst I was looking for a quote to summarise Al Murray from a Stewart Lee routine (which I couldn’t find), I found something else that Stewart Lee said which makes a good response: “If your escape clause for jokes in which there are victims is that ‘it’s only a joke, back off’, what’s to stop that logic being turned back on you?”

  4. meloukhia, I’ve dealt with it in other areas. My favorite area of literature is Childrens and Young Adult lit. Apparently, I’m destroying people’s childhoods all the time by daring to point out the post-colonial, racist impacts and parts of Babar and Curious George.

    It’s kind of strange, if you ask me, the culture of consuming without digesting content.

  5. I intentionally didn’t watch Sectionals because after Mattress, I’m not sure that I can give Glee my implicit support by continuing to watch it. I’m aware that every hit that it gets on Hulu (or whatever, but Hulu is where I watch it) will somehow translate back to advertiser dollars. There are a lot of things that I watch and enjoy and love dearly that have terribly problematic elements, and I don’t boycott them; but with Glee, I really believe that the problematic now outweighs the lovable. For me, that tipping point was undoubtedly the scene of Will and Terri in the kitchen, and the other thing that’s problematic is that not a lot of my friends and acquaintances saw anything as being wrong.

  6. I don’t think there has been any tv show, movie or book recently that I loved and didn’t find anything to dislike or consider problematic. And for me, discussing what I do or do not like is an essential part of consuming media in an active way. I wil never understand why some people act as if critical thinking makes me a bad fan. I think the opposite is actually true. If I like something, than I want it to be good. I want the people in charge to become aware of the issues, to potentially fix them. If I didn’t bother to notice potential problems, that means the show/ movie/ book isn’t important to me. So many people do not seem to get that.

    What is interesting(in a sad way), is that many people can deal with criticism of plot-consistency, characterisation, bad dialogue or something like that (not all fans, but some), but when it comes to pointing out issues like racism, sexism, ableism or other problematic attitudes, they seem to loose all willingness to consider possible issues. Now, this is just me, but maybe the reason is that while bad writing and similar problems of story telling are apparent to these people, unlike underlying prejudices. Because to recognize prejudice, one has to know what they are, why they are wrong, why stereotypes are not “just “realistic” characters”. And far too many people- myself included far to often for my peace of mind- do not recognize these underlying prejudices. And since nobody wants to be a prejudiced person, acknowleging that such attitudes are underlying the media in question, and that people did not realize it because they share these same prejudices, is not something many are willing to do.

    Better to attack the person making the criticism, I guess.

  7. I loathe this show so much, I’m really excited you are going to write about its awfulness in such depth.

    I complain about it a lot on my blog and most of the things I say are not very original, but I’m going to link this post because it is about intellectual disability and I don’t think people have posted about intellectual disability on Glee as much as physical disability, race, etc.

  8. Oooh, thanks for the link, AWV. I should note that I would loveloveloveLOVE it if people linked to their own stuff on Glee as this series of posts unfolds; I tend to try to stay away from that stuff while I am writing because I don’t want to accidentally lift other people’s ideas (my brain is a bit of a sponge), but I would really like to read what other people are thinking and saying. This series is definitely not “everyone be quiet and listen to meloukhia rant about Glee” and I very much want folks to participate with their own thoughts.

    For those who are interested in more writing on Glee, access_fandom on DreamWidth has been doing linkspams which have a lot of great stuff in them. (access_fandom is also just generally neato.)

  9. I recently gave up watching Glee. I had fallen behind (as I often do with TV shows) and had four episodes piled up and I just thought, ugh, I really don’t want to have to stress over catching up with a series that infuraties me in multiple ways every single episode. I am still fighting the weird feeling that I should keep watching it in order to be able to critique it, but I think I am just going to stick to my guns and stay away.

    I’m really looking forward to this series, though. Reading criticism of Glee is much more enjoyable than watching the actual show.

    I posted some reviews of Glee on my Dreamwidth journal when I was watching it. I made the mistake of reposting my initial review (I think it was after watching the first six episodes or something) on and got several comments saying I just didn’t get it, that the premise went over my head, that it was meant to be ironic. What. Ever.

  10. This post has been included in a linkspam at access-fandom. Thank you!