Glee has won a lot of awards. Several of these awards have been specifically given on the grounds of the show’s depiction of marginalised groups.
A Peabody Award for ‘the musical dramedy that revolves around the motley members of a high-school choral club [that] hit especially high notes with episodes such as ‘Wheels,’ about the daily struggles of a wheelchair-bound1 singer.’
A diversity award from the Multicultural Motion Picture Association: ‘The musical comedy series features an array of students in an uncool high school glee club, including a boy in a wheelchair, a geeky girl, a gay student, an Asian and an overweight African-American girl.’
A GLAAD media award. ‘The GLAAD Media Awards elevate and promote fair, accurate and inclusive stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, people and allies that have increased awareness, understanding and respect for the lives of LGBT people.’
A ‘television with a conscience‘ award for its depiction of disability. ‘Glee was selected for an episode called ‘Wheels’ where teacher Will Schuester challenges his students to spend a week using wheelchairs in order to better understand a fellow glee club member who relies on one.’
These are just a few examples. Curiously enough, some of the people in the groups which Glee is supposedly representing with such sensitivity and ‘conscience’ are furious about these recognitions. While Hollywood and the media are salivating over Glee, some folks are not so happy. People of colour, trans* folks, and people with disabilities have all condemned the depictions in Glee, arguing that they perpetuate harmful stereotypes and that, at times, the show actually freely promotes things which are really hateful.
So, what’s the deal here? Why are supposed advocacy organisations and the media rolling over for Glee while some individuals and activists continue to be furious about the show?
The answer, I think, lies in the mistaken belief that any type of representation at all is a good representation. Just showing people in marginalised groups at all is surely better than not showing them, right? Seeing them on the screen reminds people that they exist, and will perhaps pave the way to better depictions in the future, so we should be rewarding shows which try. If we hand out awards to shows like Glee, it tells other producers that they, too, should incorporate more depictions of marginalised groups into their shows.
Yet, what these rewards really do is reinforce the idea that these depictions are perfectly ok. Sure, go ahead and say ‘shemale’ on television. Keep on pushing the people of colour to the back of the chorus line. Hire talented Latinas to play ‘the help.’ Keep on keepin’ on with the stereotypes.
Glee is not an award-worthy show. There are shows out there that are depicting people with disabilities, people of colour, and queer folks in ways which are positive. Ways who refute stereotypes. Ways which challenge viewers and ask them to think about how they view people in marginalised groups. Ways which are, dare I say it, educational for viewers who might not have been exposed to very many social justice advocates.
What Glee shows viewers, mainly, is that people with disabilities are props. That people of colour are set dressing. That gay men are effeminate and floofy. That transphobic speech is totes ok; sure, people get that Sue Sylvester is supposed to be a bigot, but the problem is that some people don’t recognise it when she says bigoted things, whether they are racist, transphobic, sexist, ableist, classist…she’s hard to recognize as a satire for some folks because they don’t really understand what she’s saying.
Awards of this nature should be given out with care. If an organisation can’t find a show to recognise in a given year, it should say so. It shouldn’t necessarily give a show an award for trying. Unless, of course, the award is specifically framed that way. A citation like ‘Glee is commended for attempting to depict people with disabilities, even though that depiction is extremely problematic and may actually do more harm than good. This award is given in recognition of the attempt, and in the hope that Glee will consider the criticism and improve.’ Or perhaps ‘Since Glee is trying to integrate queer characters, it should be commended, since it’s already doing much more than many other shows, even if that depiction is rather awful.’
Is any representation a good representation? I don’t think so. I think that harmful representations should be acknowledged as such. By all means, props to Glee for trying but I’m not going to stop criticising the show just because it’s trying. Especially since the show is representing itself as some great thing for diversity, like it’s depictions are positive, I am damn well going to criticise it until the cows come home, because it is exposing itself to that criticism.
The fact is that a lot of the criticism about Glee is being dismissed in part because of these awards. ‘What do you mean, Glee is transphobic?! It won an award!’ These awards have the effect of silencing criticism, of suggesting that the only people who are still upset about Glee are those upstart activist types who just won’t be happy with anything. What more could they possibly want, the show has been given the stamp of approval! Clearly they are just looking for something to get upset about.
If these organisations refused to give in to Glee’s award bait, if they instead said ‘sorry, we reserve awards for shows which have good representations,’ maybe attitudes about Glee would shift. Maybe people would actually start seriously considering the criticism instead of writing it off and ignoring it. Maybe newspapers would be reporting on that criticism seriously, instead of having ‘isn’t it funny’ features about how those quaint activists just can’t be satisfied.
And maybe shows would stop throwing in crappy representations of people in marginalised groups in an attempt to get awards. Maybe they would actually put some thought into their depictions and try to come up with something awesome which breaks down stereotypes. And maybe people would stop defending Glee with their tiny little examples of things the show does right, arguing that these somehow outweigh the show’s glaring problems.