What we’re told about Glee, over and over, is that the show is critiquing these tropes by depicting them. That the show is confronting viewers with uncomfortable issues and raising important questions. The show even won a diversity award. Sue Sylvester, with her over-the-top prejudice, is touted as a character who is supposed to be read as bigoted and horrific; that’s what makes her funny! Because no one really thinks that way, right?
Critical response to Glee, especially after “Wheels,” the very special disability episode, tended towards the “inspiring” and “touching” line of thought. This despite the fact that many people of disabilities specifically spoke out to say that they were not impressed, were in fact deeply troubled, and had been since the show started airing. Critics say that the show is filled with lessons and very special experiences for viewers, but is it?
Is it really making social commentary when it seems to be tending more toward the reinforcement of commonly held stereotypes? The thing about a lot of the behaviours on Glee is that people still engage in them, and a lot of the beliefs depicted as “satire” are beliefs that people still hold. Glee isn’t that much different than anything else on television; rather than integrating characters from marginalized communities, the show is careful to keep them at arm’s length. They can’t be love interests, they can’t have plots interwoven with the show which arch over the entire season, they must have their very own special isolated and discrete episodes. They must be heavily stereotyped, defined by their otherness, and kept firmly in the background so that the nice white people can do their thing.
When you see the whole cast on screen, it’s like there’s an invisible line between the white able people, and Everyone Else. Is that really groundbreaking? Sure, the cast is more diverse than the casts of many shows. But having a diverse cast does not necessarily mean that a show is contributing to the breakdown of the kyriarchy.
What kind of messages are viewers really taking away from this show?
And where will Glee go from here? “Sectionals” neatly wrapped things up, allowing Will to defeat Sue, get the girl, and reclaim the glee club for his own. We’re presumably going to be seeing the characters preparing for regionals over the next half of the season, and we’ll see the Will-Terri-Emma triangle play out. Quinn will have her baby. See a theme here? The forward-looking all involves the white characters.
It seems highly likely that the troped depictions will continue, that the show will continue to rely on hipster -ism for humour, and that the show will continue to hide behind “satire” when in fact it’s not satire at all, or even particularly funny. Is it funny to depict an Indian-American with American flag stationary and paraphernalia, when in fact, after 11 September 2001, many Indian-Americans felt obligated to slather everything they owned with flags to prove their patriotism so that they would not be harassed by people who thought that anyone with brown skin was a terrorist? Is it funny to depict a wheelchair user being jammed into a toilet when, in fact, people with disabilities in school are routinely tormented and abused? Is it funny to depict a Jewish girl as a shrew when, in fact, the idea that Jewish women are shrewish is a commonly held stereotype?
Can Glee redeem itself? Has this whole season been a long and complicated setup? If it has, it’s actually extremely well done and very subtle. But it seems more likely that the writers actually just completely missed the implications of what they were doing.