My partner and I were really enjoying Glee until one of us, I don’t remember who, pointed out that it seemed to be a bit misogynist. Now that’s practically all we can see.
We were slow on the uptake because the show seems upbeat. It’s like Star Trek in that major issues are often resolved in the last few minutes of every episode, except that the solution is always, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” It’s an MGM musical for our times, where every character becomes the best version of him or herself the moment the music begins to play. It might be even more uplifting, because between songs these are not Fred Astaires or Judy Garlands. The teachers and students of Glee are the sad lost souls of the Heartland living out Springsteen lyrics while dancing to Broadway melodies.
I love this premise, but Glee’s handling of sexuality and gender leaves a bitter aftertaste. Underneath the charm lurk a bunch of nasty archetypes I hoped TV had outgrown.
Let’s start with Kurt, the gay high school student, because he is the canary in Glee’s coal mine. In the episode where he comes out to his father, we find him re-enacting the “Single Ladies” music video with two girlfriends in his basement. While I get that the show is always eager to find excuses for its characters to bust a move, must the only openly gay boy in the show spend his leisure hours working on choreography?
At the end of the episode, he comes out to his father, who is totally unfazed. He has always known his son is gay, he explains, because when Kurt was three, the only thing he wanted for his birthday was “a pair of sensible heels.”
In a later episode, when there is a girls vs. boys competition in the Glee Club, Kurt assumes he is on the girls’ team. He is incensed that Mr. Schuester directs him back to the boys’ side of the room, and later betrays them to the girls, explaining that his allegiance is still with them.
An episode or so after that, he ends up with a Slushie all over his face. His response is to turn to his girlfriends and say, “I need a facial, STAT!” They all duck into the ladies’ room together.
In addition to the fact that none of these gags are actually funny, they are also indulging in cheap, inaccurate stereotyping. The gay boy considers himself a girl. He loves cross dressing. He just wants to sing and dance with his only friends, the girls. Caring for his delicate skin is the most important task in his life.
One thing that I have never seen with my gay friends is gender confusion. They don’t think, “I like boys, so I’m a girl.” They are men who are interested in other men. They might make jokes about how they are preternaturally good dressers, but they aren’t actually spending hours trying on women’s shoes or exfoliating.
What really pisses me off here is that Glee is trying to pass itself off as a modern show that embraces the values of tolerance and understanding, but then turns around and others the only gay kid in the show. It’s completely backhanded.
It’s the insidiousness of the female characters, however, that’s most disturbing. The show revolves around two love triangles. The first is that of the teacher, Mr. Schuester, who is in a loveless marriage to Terri, while he and Emily, the school guidance counselor, pine for one another. The second is that of Finn, the quarterback and the lead male singer in the Glee Club, who is dating the head cheerleader, Quinn, while he and the best female singer in Glee Club, Rachel, pine for one another.
- Will and Terri = Married.
- Will and Emily = In Love
- Finn and Quinn = Dating, expecting a baby
- Finn and Rachel = In Love
Will and Finn are the good guys of the series, a pair of kind-hearted Lost Boys who have been ensnared by treacherous women and are being kept from the happiness they deserve with the Good Girls. Will’s psychotic, manipulative wife is faking a pregnancy in order to preserve their marriage. Finn’s girlfriend, Quinn, is pregnant and has decided to keep the baby.
Naturally, Quinn is lying to Finn. She’s telling Finn that it’s his baby when it is not. She cheated on him with his best friend. In fact, she and Finn have not even had sex. He thinks that because he ejaculated while sitting in a hot tub with her, she somehow got pregnant. Finn is too naive and ignorant to know that’s impossible.
(It’s worth mentioning that the friend is absolved of any real wrongdoing here. He goes on being the lovable reprobate who is guilty about what happened with Quinn, but nothing more. Quinn is the betrayer here. He’s just following his horn-dog instincts. This is almost identical to the way Glee creator Ryan Murphy’s other big hit, Nip/Tuck, handled the relationship between Christian Troy and David MacNamara. Christian and David’s friendship trumped any reprehensible thing Christian might do because, hey, you can’t blame a man for screwing.)
Meanwhile, Will’s wife is claiming to be pregnant and is using a small cushion to fake a bulge. Will does not think it’s odd that he hasn’t seen or touched Terri’s stomach in months, and Terri has cut a deal with Quinn to take her baby when it is born. Quinn will go on with her life, and Terri will produce the baby that will save her marriage.
Terri dodges a bullet by using her stupid, cow-like sister to blackmail the OB/GYN into cooperating. Terri’s sister has been cranking out babies, “each one dumber than the last,” and she threatens to sue the doctor and ruin his reputation. The doctor goes along with Terri’s deception.
Notice a pattern here? We have two good, decent men who have been ensnared by a mysterious reproductive system they do not understand, and women who use their uteruses to trap them and ruin their lives. One of the women is aided by her sister, who speaks with a rural accent and craps out kids.
Ah, but if only Finn could get with Rachel and Will could get with Emily! These are the good women of Glee, who are above all defined by their adoration for the show’s male protagonists. Rachel is a sweet, loyal, generous girl who is unpopular despite talent and beauty (welcome to TV high school). Emily, on the other hand, is an awkward guidance counselor with a phobia of being touched or otherwise experiencing contact with another person. Ball of neuroses that she is, however, she finds a horse-whisperer in Will. She, too, is loyal, selfless, and honest.
To summarize the lesson:
- Bad Women use sex and childbearing to ruin men’s lives.
- Good Women are loyal and selflessly supportive.
Which leaves one last character to consider: Will’s nemesis Sue, the cheerleading coach.
Sue is unquestionably the strongest, toughest, and funniest female character in the show. The only thing she values is winning, at everything, and right now she sees the Glee Club and its charismatic coach as a threat to her primacy as the only winner in a high school full of losers. Worse, the Glee Club actually threatens her cheerleading team, as it is pulling cheerleaders into its orbit. Cheerleading is no longer the only thing her her girls’ lives. So Sue must destroy Will and his little club, using ever more nefarious and hilarious means.
Unfortunately, Sue is also not a Real Woman.
We know this because she is always wearing a track suit and has her hair cut very short, giving her an androgynous look. She bites out her words like a Lee Marvin character. There is no one and nothing in her life. In contrast to Quinn, who is always in a cheerleading outfit, and Rachel, who is usually in some variant of the Sexy Schoolgirl outfit, Sue stands out as the one sexless character in the show.
For one episode she mellowed, appearing to be on the cusp of turning into a good person. We saw her dancing and laughing with Will. The reason? She had developed a crush. She was suddenly (and unrealistically) in love, and it changed everything. Naturally, about 3/4 of the way through the episode, the relationship collapsed. She caught him with another woman, and the relationship ended. Prior to this, it’s worth noting that she had mistakenly bought a zoot suit for a dance date, not understanding that the men wore the zoot suits.
Immediately thereafter, Sue went back to being a vindictive bitch. A man briefly feminized her, transforming her into a sympathetic character, but when he spurned her she reverted to being the harsh androygne.
My problem with Glee is that it’s a decent show that uses heteronormative stereotypes for cheap laughs and as plot elements. There is not a single character that really cuts against the grain of gender roles, despite all the “quirky oddballs” in the cast. It’s a show that is so charming, you may not notice that its sexual politics are disgraceful. But they are, and once you spot them, they color every scene and every line of dialogue. The show is still enjoyable, but there’s something rotten at the heart of it that always leaves me uncomfortable as the credits roll.