Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Glee" is reactionary and anti-feminist and also not entertaining

I got suckered into watching Glee on Super Bowl Sunday, and my initial groaning turned out to be wholly justified.

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.


  1. I like Glee, and some parts of it are stupid, but I honestly (and lovingly of you) disagree with your arguments.

    With the football game, the girls step in at the last minute to help out the guys -- they have no experience and the other team is all men. If they don't get on the ground then they're going to get in the way or get hurt. If there had been any scenes of them practicing or flag football or something, this wouldn't be necessary.

    The one girl who wanted to play is also on the wrestling team, and she's kinda fat and butch, but she's also got a really high self esteem and currently has the hottest guy on the show pursing her. I feel like that says good stuff.

    In regards to leaving the field - the girls didn't actually want to play, they were just helping their friends. They were more interested in the school winning the game then they were in attempting to take down the stronger, more prepared, members of the other team.

    Sue is fucking crazy, and everybody knows it. And by leaving the cheerleading championship the girls were 1. taking a stand against Britney being shot out of a cannon (which they kept saying would kill her) and 2. saying that singing in glee made them feel more themselves then doing cheer-leading routines. You have to remember that Sue purposely planned the competition to be the same night that the glee club was doing the halftime show for the football game.

    The actions of the girls reflect not their buying into a submissive and supportive role in regards to the men, rather they are defining themselves as more than cheerleaders. They are singers, they can be divas.

    One of the great things about Glee is that it suggests that the program helps students really figure out who they are, which gives them confidence most of them didn't have in the first episode.

    And in regards to Beast (whose last name is Beiste, pronounced Beast -- on purpose, I realize), they've talked her masculine appearance. And the way people treat her, how it's cruel, how she can be lonely, how she's still a woman and a person -- and should be treated that way. I'd be surprised if she didn't get a handsome loving boyfriend in a season or two, showing that everybody can be loved if they are good people.

    While I think Glee does play into a lot of popular/stereotypical conceptions of gender -- I think it also plays away from it. Finn wanted nothing to do with the homophobe, because the dude (who is secretly gay) threatened to kill Kurt (his adorable gay boy step-brother who got a great gay-bullying episode a few eps back). They've also dealt with some race stuff and adversity fairly well in other episodes.

    They may either hit your over the head with their message, or accidentally miss it completely -- but I feel like the show has a pure heart and is going in the right direction for tv.

  2. I have no doubt that the show teaches many valuable lessons, but this specific episode viewed in isolation - especially following the hypersexed Super Bowl and accompanying commercials that promote the objectification of women - lends itself to certain interpretations, one of which is the validation of heteronormative gender roles. "Glee" is useful as a reflection of our culture of male (and white, and physically able) dominance, but not insofar that it challenges these realities in a meaningful way. It doesn't advocate for anything better than a kumbaya session on accepting one another's differences, when it actually could use its platform more effectively in confronting the status quo.

  3. Found this when doing a random google search on Glee.

    You base your comments on one episode only. That's not entirely fair.

    The art of the show is subjective and I won't tell you "You must be wrong because you don't like it". What I do want to say that is that I consider myself to be an intelligent and strong woman and I love Glee.

    The show is the most diverse show on the network, and most likely television today. These students are dealing with discovering themselves and trying to understand themselves within the context of American society.

    Also, its a comedy, and I think people forget that. It should not be taken so seriously that you can't laugh at it.

    Ryan Murphy (the show's creator) has said that is an exaggerated version of high school. It was never meant to represent reality in the way that some drama's do.

    Tonight is the season finale and I'm looking forward to it, I care about these characters and I don't think they are anti-feminist.

    I'm 29 years old and the way you think and feel at 24 will change. I promise you. Things that once raised red flags don't anymore(like glee).

    Also the show doesn't need to be platform, we have enough of those. Some of the biggest pioneers in human rights movements have been entertainers and performers and athletes. By simply being the best at what they did and being likable that opened up America to a different experience. At it heart that's what Glee does.

    If we learn anything from Glee is should be that life is about finding joy. Instead of just focusing on what's wrong, maybe just enjoy the things that make you happy.

    If you want a more serious view or satire of American teens watch "popular" also by Ryan Murphy. No musicals in that show, it was in the 90's so might have just missed it, but it discusses sexuality, gender roles, social roles, and socio-economic roles.