Glee: The Halfway Point: Women and Race on Glee

This is post two of four in a multipart series on Glee. The previous post was the introduction.

Glee‘s core message about women seems to be that they are all manipulative, evil, lying sneaks. The show includes not one but two deceptive pregnancy plots, interspersed with numerous depictions of women as nags, from Quinn pressuring Finn to get a job to pay for the baby to Terri trying to force Will into buying a house they cannot afford. The women of Glee are so troped that they almost seem like caricatures of themselves.

Among the teens in the show, we have Rachel, who takes care to mention her “two gay dads” and her Jewishness as often as possible, and who wants to be the star of everything. She gets her way most of the time, and when she doesn’t, she manipulates and maneuvers until she does. Rachel, of course, is in love with Finn; an ongoing theme in the show is that all of the men are awesome, with multiple male characters having multiple female characters pursuing them, despite the fact that they really aren’t very great catches.

We also have Quinn, one of the central characters of the piece. A young white Christian and member of the Cheerios cheerleading squad, Quinn is pregnant. For the first half of the season, we watch her lie and tell Finn he’s the father, because she’s decided that he would be a better parent, while indulging in a flirtation with Puck, the real father, who is depicted as boorish and irresponsible. The show even brings up a common sex and pregnancy myth about ejaculating in hot tubs, meant to be a dig at Finn for being too stupid to realize that Quinn is conning him. In the midseason finale, the truth is revealed, courtesy of Rachel, who tells Finn because she’s hoping to win his affections by unmasking his pregnant girlfriend.

Quinn had the potential to be a sympathetic character. We saw her standing up for herself and insisting that she be let back on the cheerleading squad after being booted for her pregnancy. We saw her being kicked out of her home by her conservative parents. We saw her struggling with the pregnancy and the decisions she had to make. But, in the end, Quinn feels like all the other female characters. She’s shown as manipulative, one dimensional, man-hungry, and catty, even if she has a softer side which comes out now and then.

Two of the teens are women of colour; Tina, who is Asian, and Mercedes, who is Black. Tina, whom we will discuss in detail a bit further on, is rarely seen, let alone allowed to speak. Mercedes is the caricature of the fat, sassy Black woman. Although she’s a very talented singer, we rarely get to see it. Both Tina and Mercedes turn solos over to Rachel on multiple occasions, underscoring the idea that women of colour should step aside for their white sisters. Both got a few Special Moments, but they haven’t been given nearly as much attention as the white women on the show. They are, in many ways, props, a theme which comes up with people in marginalized bodies on Glee over and over again.

The other people of colour we see on the show are Mike Chang, who is literally called the “Other Asian,” Ken Tanaka, Principal Figgins, and Matt Rutherford. These characters are kept primarily in the background, almost like set dressing; it’s interesting to note that we probably know more about the minor white characters, such as Brittany and Santana, than we do about the minor characters of colour. In all of the depictions of people of colour we see on Glee, there isn’t much that is new and original, that takes stereotypes on their head and turns them upside down, that really says much of anything at all. They are kept firmly in the background and to the side, with the show’s focus remaining fixed on the white characters.

Our Stories” is an excellent post by thedeadparrot which discusses the role of race on Glee from the perspective of a woman of colour; I would highly recommend reading it.

The adult women on Glee whom we see most often are Terri, Will’s wife; Emma, the school counselor; Sue Sylvester, Will’s archenemy; and Terri’s sister, Kendra. Kendra is seen primarily in the form of Terri’s accomplice, helping Terri fake a pregnancy, giving her tips on how to keep her man, and struggling with her obstreperous children.

Terri, Will’s wife, is introduced to us as manipulative, controlling, and schemey. We see scenes, for example, in which she buys a car to keep Will “occupied” so he won’t stray, nags at Will to get an extra job because she doesn’t want to pick up more hours at work, and gets a job at the school in order to keep an eye on Will.

Until shortly before the midseason finale, I thought the most egregious thing about Terri was that she was depicted as a stereotypical controlling harridan, and that she was faking a pregnancy. (I totally called “false pregnancy” from the pilot, incidentally.) But then, in “Mattress,” we saw a very disturbing scene in which Will finally learned that Terri was faking, and we had an abusive and frightening scene in the kitchen. I read it as domestic violence (trigger warning, link goes to a post discussing, graphically, the domestic violence scene in “Mattress”), as did a lot of social justice folks, and it explained a lot about her character.

Terri was the way she was because she was in an abusive relationship; I recognized a lot of her actions from previous episodes as outgrowths of coping mechanisms once I realized what was going on. If I had more faith in the Glee writers, I’d be going “her characterization is amazing and deep and complex,” but I don’t think that . I don’t think they meant for that scene to be read as abusive, and in fact I suspect that they want us to think of Terri as abusive. I believe that they want us to read her and her sister as conniving women who will stop at nothing to control Will. The nuance and ambiguity feel accidental to me.

Terri’s also fairly clearly mentally ill, although she has the TV sort of mental illness which is vague and unclear. Most heartbreaking moment in “Sectionals”? When Terri said she was getting counseling and trying to do some important work, and Will just shut her down and said “I hope that works out for you” while he walked out the door to capture the woman of his dreams. Ouch.

Emma’s another character with TV disability; she appears to have some sort of mental illness which involves “bizarre” habits. We as viewers are, I believe, supposed to think this is funny and possibly endearing. Anna noted that as the relationship between Will and Emma has deepened, her disordered behaviour has lessened, almost as though she’s being “cured” by the greatness of Will. And Emma troubles me, a lot, as a feminist. She has an unrequited love for Will which she subverts into a decision to marry Ken, but it’s clear that the marriage would be doomed if it happened, and she’s depicted as a vacillating, uncertain woman who only really blooms around the object of her affections.

In the midseason finale, we had Ken leaving her at the altar, and for a moment, Emma almost had her shining moment of glory. Will arrived after walking out on his wife, and basically said “ok, I’m ready, let’s do this,” and she struck out on her own and said “nope.” Choirs sang (not really). But then, scenes later, we have her and Will making out in the hallway. So…I guess that was shortlived resistance.

The depiction of mental illness on Glee with both Terri and Emma really upset me, and I know it troubled some other people as well. It played on a lot of stereotypes about mental illness and people with mental illness, and it also seemed to carry a subtle implication that most women are “crazy.”

Sue Sylvester, of course, is one of the most polarizing characters on Glee. She’s the one everyone keeps coming back to, the model bigot who is so outrageous that she’s obviously meant to be a satire and commentary on society. I mean, right? How could anyone really think that way? Well, newsflash, Glee writers, people do, and there are people who like her character because they agree with what she has to say, and what she does. There are also people who find her character comfortable because she allows them to engage in a little hipster -ism, laughing at bigotry and prejudice instead of being horrified by it.

Even the Glee writers seemed to feel like they were going too far, because they inserted the execrable “humanizing” plot with Sue and her institutionalized sister in “Wheels,” which was the Very Special Inspiration for Able People Episode. Amazingly, a lot of people lapped that entire episode up, including the scene with Sue, saying that it totally changed their perspective on her “tough, but fair” character.

Only, as I pointed out, being a bigot and having a disabled sister doesn’t excuse anything. It just means that you are a bigot with a disabled sister. I didn’t find that scene humanizing as much as I found it frustrating; we are now supposed to think better of Sue because she’s had it hard as the family member of someone with disabilities? Where have we heard that logic before?

Coming up next: “Disability and Sexuality on Glee.

8 Comments

  1. I’ve watched Glee from the beginning. The pilot episode amazed me.. a musical every week?! I was so excited! The more I watched it the more depressing it became depressing and disappointing. I couldn’t relate to a single character although I could relate to some aspect of each character. Although Will’s character is obviously supposed to be the victim in the adult roles- manipulated, tortured by not being able to have the woman he loves, trying to make the glee team work for the sake of the kids… it became obvious fairly quickly that what he was doing was cheating on his wife and often times making the children suffer for his own selfishness.. and of course, as this mentions, I had someone of a panic attack when the abusive kitchen scene came on. I was horrified. That’s the only real word I can find for it. I’m not so sure abuot the race issue as I don’t think any of the motivations are racial.. we see Tina and Mercades far more than we do some of the other white background characters but less than the main characters.. which seems pretty normal… although I will say that the school itself seems unusually white overall. Overall this was a great- and enlightening- post. Thank You.

  2. These posts are so spot on. From now on, whenever someone gets all OMG BUT GLEE IS THE BEST WHY DO YOU NOT LIKE GLEE on me, I’m sending them here.

  3. notthemarimba – I’m not sure about that working with some people.

    My sister said it wasn’t abuse, and she’s watched every episode.

    I told her lots of people disagreed with her. “Do I know them?”

    And she did what the husband did to my mom to show me it wasn’t abuse. Mom was not pleased, as it hurt.

    “Well, she hit him!” Mom – “So she had it coming? Is this fictional? Oh, it is? Then he didn’t do it, he just read the script.”

    I agreed that their marriage was a mess, but as you say on your site, he’s the hero. She’s bad already, of course she hits him. Just another wacky comedy woman!

    That was *one scene*. I might be able to discuss ableism on TV with my mom (she sees it when she sees how her students are treated) and she may listen to me babble on about the sexism of that ad, or whatever.

    But if it’s something my sister likes (or doesn’t care about)? She will shut me down. It’s not important, it’s just fiction, etc. And I don’t have the emotional spoons for it.

    Glee didn’t look good from the promos, but now I’m curious about the show and know it’s on Hulu. I may watch the pilot, BUT I’ve got two movies from Netflix on the table!

    (And I do watch problematic shows – Gossip Girl fan here! But I wouldn’t mind discussing the problems with the show – if I’d seen anything past the first season.)

    These promise to be a very interesting series of posts, meloukhia. And I can’t help but chuckle at the timing of Glee’s popularity and the start of this blog – for somebody interested in disability/race/gender/etc issues at the 101 level, Glee is great start point, since there’s a chance ou watches it.

  4. Excellent post, though a quick correction, Santana is Latina.

  5. I think Terri is one of the most difficult characters to get a grip on. I know a lot of fans love her (and her sister) for being “batshit crazy”. Others hate her for being a manipulative lier.
    I am not sure that everything she did could be explained away. Because faking a pregnancy, and taking it as far as she did, was incredibly cruel. And the character only offered “I do not want to lose my husband” as a justification. Add to that the way she dismissed Will’s work and put unreasonable demands on him, she was easy to dislike. The question, to me, is why the writers decided to write the character like that. Why couldn’t the have given Will a wife who wasn’t a complete charicature? Because Will had to be able to end the marriage and get together with Emma without being a bad guy? It’s a clear case of the character being written according to the story line, instead of haveing a story line develope naturally because of the characters. And as the glee writers often do, the character that was turned into a stereotype to make the story work was a woman.

    I find her sympathetic because I read her in a sympathetic way, thanks mostly to the (great, I think) actress and the few scenes we got where she wasn’t being manipulative. The scene at the ob-gyn, for example, when she desperately asked Will to always remember that they loved each other, or the moment with her sister when she almost decided to tell Will the truth.

    And then came “Matress”. I am still not sure how I feel about that entire episode. Either the writers were aware of the way this scene would read to many viewers as one of domestic abuse, in which case the way they resolved it- by having Will be the injured party- is deeply troubling. Or they were unaware of the violent (under)current of the scene, in which case they are disturbingly unaware. Either way, the scene and the resolution of the story line, made the already erregeous characterisation of Terri and the Schuster’s marriage so much worse.

    I have read that the shows creator is known for taking his supposed “heroes” apart, showing their flaws and faults. I keep hoping that this will happen with Will. It has been hinted at a couple of times, when Will would let his ego get in the way of doing what was right for the glee kids, and the way he flirted with Emma despite both of them being in relationships. But unfortunately, his treatment of the kids always seems to be forgiven by the end of the episode, and his behaviour as a husband is often forgiven (by fans, at least), because after all, Terri and Ken are so wrong for them, and Terri especially is a manipulative liar. I guess what I am trying to say is that, while I certainly see him as a deeply flawed character, I think the show is being too subtle about it, compared to the extreme way the other (female) character’s flaws are always made glaringly obvious. The actors and the more alert viewers might be able to see his faults, but they are to easy to handwave away for those who just want to “squee” and “enjoy the funny show”.

  6. I stopped watching after a few episodes because of all this stuff; I didn’t even get to the “Mattress” episode you’re discussing here, or the wheelchair dance fail I’ve heard some about, so I dont feel I can comment on that.

    I do note though the way in which camp performance is used in the show, that the writers were trying to go for camp (knowingly or not), and the white actresses in the show are largely very conscious of that and play their campy roles very well. The white men are played “straight” (as in as is, not as in heterosexual) and valiant, men of color played “straight” and pathetic,and the women of color could have been large cardboard cutouts playing miscellaneous lines taped from other shows.

    The effect is that, where camp plays with the awful bits of reality, twisting them into absurdity, in order to turn oppressive tropes in their head, Glee portrays as absurd certain bits of the writers’ realities that they perceive as the most awful, and since the writers’ realities are pretty similar to mainstream tropes on and off TV, nothing is turned on its head. Camp is used in the show to reinforce the same oppressive structures.

    Buuut that’s what too commonly happens when folks in the mainstream get hold of tools of the counterculture. Hot Topic selling anarchy-branded crap as the simplest example.

  7. This post has been included in a linkspam at Access-fandom. Thank you!

  8. I realize this isn’t a recent seres of posts, but I just want to say that your thoughts are spot on!

    I too loved the pilot episode, but I was hoping that as the series progressed, the characters would become more complex and layered. Rachel is undoubtedly the main character, yet how can the audience connect with a character who continues to be so annoying and manipulative? Kurt has yet to shatter the stereotype of the homosexual male as a prissy, snarky diva, who identifies with women more so than men, and is perpetually pining for a straight male to “recruit”. Mercedes has yet to be something other than a curvaceous, finger-snapping lady of colour.

    The show is starting to bring Santana (yes, who is Latina) into the spotlight a little more. She even got to sing in last night’s episode. However, what’s also deeply troubling about this new (if small) emphasis on her is that she is starting to become the most ruthless and conniving of the glee kids (even though in the midseason finale, she and Brittany stated how much the enjoy glee, and that it’s the best part of their days…and now that Quinn is off the squad, these two have become Sue’s main henchwomen, and are hellbent on destroying the club? I thought they loved it! Consistencyfail, Ryan Murphy!). Her characterization as a mean and promiscuous character has not lessened, I’ll say that much! While some people would say,

    “Well, Santana is a nasty and loose girl who just happens to be Latina, the writers aren’t implying that all Hispanic people are like that,”

    I think that in our multicultural society, where TV is still sadly so imbued with token ethnic characters, that the writers should be much more sensitive to the characterization of their characters of colour.

    Again, love the criticisms, and I hope to see more as the second half of the season progresses!