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.“