Glee: The Power of Madonna

This week’s episode of Glee has gotten a lot of hype because it was the eagerly awaited Madonna episode, and it was also The Feminist Episode, with Madonna being used as the vehicle for feminist empowerment and awakening! Cue swelling music!

Now, I like Madonna. Do not get me wrong. I don’t quite think of her as a feminist icon, though; she doesn’t really speak to my brand of feminism in the same way that some other artists do, although I know that other folks view her very much as an icon. And I love her music. But, ok. Let’s accept that Glee is a mainstream show so they wanted to pick someone who is a pop icon for this episode. Picking some of the artists whom I think of as more feminist probably wouldn’t have made the episode such a good sell.

So, what did we learn about feminism in this episode?

Well, we learned that feminism is about taking control of your body. By not having sex. Now, again. Do not get me wrong. I think that not having sex is a perfectly valid choice and it can be perfectly empowering and I have even written about the fact that stereotyping of virgins on television makes me extremely irritable. But every single storyline about ’empowering women’ on television is about them choosing not to have sex[1. Sort of how like every single storyline about reproductive rights seems to end with keeping the baby.]. Which kind of sends the opposite message. Especially since, in this episode, we had two women choosing not to have sex, and one man choosing to have sex. With a girl who is pretty much treated as the show’s slut (and noooooo it’s not at all problematic that she’s Latina). Sex which turns out to be empty and meaningless. Ladies, take control of your bodies! Don’t have sex.

We also learned that feminism is about figuring out how to get in a girl’s pants. Well, at least, that was one of my readings of the end of the episode. This entire episode is shot through with Will trying to teach the glee club a lesson (a la ‘Wheels’) but, really, what I got out of it was ‘if you have a singing circle with the guys and mouth some stuff about objectification, women will want to have sex with you! So feminism is awesome! Go feminism!’ Will himself didn’t even seem to internalise the lesson he was supposedly imparting, considering that he ended on the note of disrespecting Emma’s autonomy by demanding that she go see a counselor to address her ‘problems.’ Contrast with Artie’s Big Teachable Moment in this episode, which is about learning that it’s not ok to tell your partner to change to satisfy you.

Now, granted, Finn doesn’t get the girl at the end of the episode. But note how Rachel’s stance toward him shifts once he busts out the ‘feminism’ and starts treating her like a fucking person. To me, this episode could be read not as ‘you should treat women as people,’ but ‘you should treat women as people so you can have sex with them.

Woo! I feel empowered.

Glee also got supermeta this week, with Mercedes cracking a snide line about how she’s tired of being pushed into the background for Rachel and Finn. This is not the first time she’s made a comment like that and I always am intrigued by those comments because, well, it’s true of her character, of course, and also of her characterisation on Glee. So I was pleased to see her and Kurt striking out on their own for their number, except of course that this is what the show does. It goes ‘tee hee, we are sooooo bad with minorities’ and it gives them a little special moment and then goes back to the nondisabled hetero white folks.

Some things I specifically liked this week:

  • Sue managed to make a series of excellently witty hair jokes without invoking any -isms. Pointing out that it is, in fact, possible to be funny without marginalising someone.
  • The Cheerios routine with the stilts. Amazing. Really, truly, amazing. Great choreography and athletics.
  • Speaking of which, the costumes for the rainbow bustier number? Sharp. As is Mercedes in a suit. Mercedes in a suit is print out and hang over my bed sharp. *swoon*
  • The episode did, in a clumsy way, explore some of the issues with objectification and exploitation of women in high school. I didn’t like where the episode took it (don’t do that because then you can’t have sex with them!) but I like that the show honestly depicted acts of sexism and their consequences, and that they were specifically framed and named as wrong by other characters. Other characters who thought it was wrong because then they couldn’t get any, not because it would be wrong to treat a person that way. Depending on how you look at it, this episode was very feminist, showing oppression of women followed by the adoption of ‘feminism’ to keep right on oppressing, or it was very not feminist, by depicting oppression and then showing dudes going ‘hey if I fake being a feminist, I can get some!’ I’m on the fence about this primarily because I do not trust Glee and it has not earned my trust; let’s not forget that last week’s episode featured a rape played for laughs. I’d be really interested to see how I would react to the same plotline transposed to another show.
  • The equal pay line was snappy. Especially since this episode aired on Equal Pay Day.

Some things I specifically did not like this week:

  • We saw Becky for all of 30 seconds in a scene which consisted solely of  ‘everyone laugh at the girl with Down Syndrome! Hahaha! That was hilarious!‘ Where was Becky in any of the Cheerios numbers?
  • Speaking of disability issues, how about that ‘handicapable’ sister?
  • Good jokes fallen flat. The ‘misogynist’ joke in which Brittany confuses ‘misogynist’ with a massage therapist was funny. It was. It was funny. I make malapropisms like that all the time and I laugh at them when they happen because, well, they are funny. Except that it was said by the wrong person. It was said by the ditzy girl, and we are meant to be laughing at her, specifically, not at the joke; it’s funny ’cause she’s stupid, geddit? What if Puck or Finn had said it? Or Quinn?
  • I saw what you did there with that homophobic and transphobic joke, Glee.

Ultimately, I’m not interested in arguing about whether or not Glee’s brand of humour is funny. Funny is subjective; for me, Glee isn’t funny, overall, even if there are moments in it which I like. My kind of humour doesn’t involve making jokes at the expense of people living in marginalised bodies, not even when it’s intended to be read as meta or as a commentary on that kind of humour. It’s just not funny, to me.

What I am curious about is what people internalise from watching this show. And I happen to firmly believe that -ism based humour is enjoyable to some people because of their own internalised -isms. Thus, shows like Glee reinforce that. And I think that Glee reinforces a lot of harmful things[2. It’s ok to make transphobic jokes! Empowerment is about not having sex, or if you do, keeping the baby! Wheelchair users are props which you can push around! Etc.!], making it all the more frustrating when the show almost gets there. This episode was so very close. I think if it had happened earlier in the series, before I learned to deeply mistrust Glee, I would have had a very different opinion of it, and it might have set a very different tone for the series.

I get that we are supposed to not like a lot of these characters. The distinction here is not that I think characters should be flawless[3. In case it’s not obvious, I love flawed characters and usually find them the most interesting and am bored to tears by characters who are perfect.] or that I think people are reading these characters straight. The distinction is the messages embedded in the show. Do people get that Will is a jerk for lecturing Emma about her life? Do people get that showing ’empowerment’ as a one sided thing is, well, one sided? Are people reading the undertones in the show, or just the surface?

And I think that illustrates the missteps that this show has taken. Glee has gone so far that at this point it can’t come back, for me, even with an episode which I might have regarded as very solid much earlier in the run. And I can’t help but wonder what people who have never been exposed to feminism took away from this episode.

Related Reading: Karen Healey’s discussion of this episode. Which is much pithier than mine!

One Reply to “Glee: The Power of Madonna”

  1. This was the most upsetting of all the episodes of Glee for me personally, but that was mostly just because I was seriously triggered by it.

    I mean, the “feminism” (which only sorta resembled any sort of realistic feminism) bugged me a lot. I don’t think Glee made some great big stride by making a message-driven, “moral-of-the-story” show which basically boiled down to “Girls and women: Own your strength and be empowered! When you do, the men and boys around you will realize that they’ve been jerks and reform! It’s THAT easy!” ‘Cause…well…it’s not that easy. And even worse, every single epiphany a man or boy on the show had was the direct result of a woman or girl “empowering” herself. Like it’s totally our responsibility to make men not be sexist anymore. I could go on ranting about this, but I won’t.

    I’ll just rant at the Will/Emma plotline. Because it’s what triggered me. This is a man who has shown himself to be a misogynist, a self-centered asshole, violent against his wife, and a cheater, all in the course of the last three or four episodes. I find it totally implausible that a woman would agree to have sex with him, change her mind moments before the act while she is ALONE and VULNERABLE in his apartment, and still make it home without being raped. A misogynist with a temper, violent tendencies, and a whole batch of excuses for his sexual behavior would NOT have let her go. And frankly, by including that plotline WITHOUT including a rape, I think it’s reinforcing a lot of really dangerous rape myths. Like that all a woman has to do is say “no” and it’ll just be fine, she’ll be safe. And that you’ll always be able to tell who the rapists are on account of their walking around kicking puppies all day. If a man has ever done anything nice or good in his life, then he couldn’t POSSIBLY rape a woman.

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