Don't get me wrong - I have nothing against fiercely competitive singing teenagers. I was a happy participant in my school's Glee Club for years, even mentoring younger members. Fortunately for my coincidental career as varsity volleyball captain, my high school wasn't as divided along the jock-nerd dichotomy as "McKinley High" (named after my old frenemy William, who condemned Spain's atrocities against Cuba only to "annex" it later, along with Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico - a Little Giants reference, mayhaps?).
No, my issue with Glee stems not from its weak laugh lines or hyper-saccharine locker room pep talks, but from its problematic themes on gender and the body politic.
For those of you as out of the loop as I was two weeks ago, the show combines serviceable covers of Top 40 hits with predictable high school sitcom plotlines. What is most offensive - aside from the show tunes - is how righteous the characters can be on matters of identity politics ("There's no way I'm sharing the choir room with a known homophobe," one incensed Glee Clubber pouts) yet still unapologetically solicit sympathy and humor from active subscription to the gender binary.
Firstly, the actors are supposed to be portraying high school students, but they are tiresomely sexualized. There is truly little that is teenage about their breasts, vocal ranges, and confidence. Note to Hollywood: Putting an actor in striped arm warmers does not make her a high schooler. She's still 24. I'm 24, and trust me: high school was a long time ago.
In any event, the show made me mad for a few reasons. Starting with the use of female bodies as sites of sexist projection, Glee falsely claims the high road on liberal compassion and instead reinforces a damaging status quo:
- When the Glee Club girls play on the football team as stand-ins, only the boxy, hard-featured girl is actually good at the sport. The other girls literally lie down on the field when it's time to play.
- Despite the fact that the girls played the first half of the game because the boys were too engaged in a petty argument to even take the field, once the boys decided they wanted to get back in the game, the girls all had to leave the field. This only reinforces females in their support role to male vitality and success.
- One of the episode's biggest ongoing laugh lines concerned the cheerleading coach, who, presumably menopausal, forces her athletes to slap each other and stuff chicken cutlets down their bras in order to revive her own mojo. [In an egregious yet entirely unsurprising subplot detailing the coach's pursuit of life thrills, an inept tattoo artist is coded as Latino.] Her coaching career is derailed, however, and she launches into a violent temper tantrum when told she cannot endanger the lives of her squad members by propelling them out of a cannon across the football field. Lesson learned: Her maternal instinct must be reinstated. Otherwise she is ridiculous, out of hand, even dangerous.
- In the end of the episode (spoiler alert!), the cheerleaders abandon their quest for state championship in favor of boosting at the sidelines of the big football game. Here, cheerleaders are not athletes and cannot claim power through self-determined physicality. They are again relegated, literally, to the sidelines in favor of demonstrations of masculine prowess and dominance. The lesson from this is that women are worthwhile only in their ability to support their men.
- Fittingly, the football coach is an ambiguously gendered individual known as "Beast." Her presence reinforces the idea that women can have knowledge and skills related to athleticism only if they are masculine in appearance and demeanor.
So in the end, Glee was just as annoying as I thought it would be, only more offensively so. My parents didn't let us watch TV for the longest time, and now I know why: If I want to be hit on the head by patriarchal conceptions of femininity and race, I can just go outside.