Glee: The Halfway Point: Wrap Up

This is part four and final of a multipart post on Glee. Previous posts included the introduction to the series, “Women and Race on Glee,” and “Disability and Sexuality on Glee.”

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.

By 28 December, 2009.    media and pop culture, television  ,  



9 Comments

  1. Everyone I see talking about Glee says how wonderful it is, how it breaks the stereotypes it sets up, but I’ve seen no actual evidence that it does. I haven’t actually seen it, so I can’t make a fully educated decision, but my instincts are warning me to stay clear and I think I’m gonna listen to them.

  2. Heather — It occurs to me that dominant peoples who think something “breaks down stereotypes” are actually seeing it conform to stereotypes, just not the ones they originally expected.

  3. Yeah, wouldn’t breaking down stereotypes just be that Mercedes likes really old classic show tunes and gets in fights with Rachel and Mr. Schue because she thinks they do too much recent music, and Kurt likes writing dramatic poetry and wearing those pants with chains on them–you know, like they would be characters who have different personality traits while also belonging to minority groups. Except if that was the case no one would be going “THIS SHOW IS SO GREAT IT BREAKS DOWN STEREOTYPES” because the only reason people say that in the first place is because someone is like “um, Glee is offensive.” The characters would just be themselves.

  4. Amandaw – that’s a pretty brilliant point which I am going to ruminate on (with Glee & other things) a lot in the future, I suspect.

  5. I would like to thank you so much for writing this series! I am so frustrated by the common saying, “Oh, stop looking so much into it! It’s just a TV show. Stop taking it so seriously.” This post simply proves that doesn’t cut it. These characters do matter and this show does not exist within a vacuum. I have found this show fascinating and had really high hopes for it at the beginning. I’m finding now, though, that the production numbers are the only thing keeping me watching this show, and otherwise I am getting so frustrated with it. Because it was so difficult to express my concerns and discomfort with a lot of what was happening on the show (i.e. blatant domestic violence – thank you for calling that out!), it’s been so great to find blog posts like this because it perfectly describes the issues I have had about this show. This is such a great post and I’m going to recommend it to anyone who watches this show!

  6. I can see where you’re coming from with a lot of what you’ve been saying (the only one that I personally noticed while watching was the deaf choir but I can recognise more of them) but I don’t think that the people bulying Artie was meant to be funny.

    It seemed to me that the point of that scene was that Finn realised that he was doing something wrong and horrible and that’s why he stepped in. *shrugs* Just the way I saw it.

  7. I have only just finished watching the first season of Glee and I just wanted to say thanks for saying everything I was thinking about it (and so eloquently). I was horrified from the first episode by the portrayal of women and the casual sexism that underlies the whole thing. And then the domestic abuse! For goodness’ sake! I am so very glad that other people noticed how terrifying that scene is and the different light it throws on the whole show. Not to mention all the other many many things that are wrong with the show. (Much as I enjoyed it actually when I wasn’t cringing.) It really makes me concerned about the complacency of our society and the general belief that things like sexism/racism/homophobia don’t exist anymore and disablism never existed in the first place, it’s just reasonable to ‘treat people who have different needs differently’. Aargh. Anyway, just glad you’re doing what you’re doing. I really enjoyed your pieces about it.

  8. What is the domestic abuse that’s been referred to? I haven’t seen all the episodes, so I don’t know what I missed.

  9. That would be “Mattress,” the 12th episode.