LGBQT Representation on Television: Kurt

Glee is returning next week, and I’m honestly still uncertain about whether or not I want to keep watching it and writing about it, because Glee is starting to feel more like homework than anything else. (And I fear the Joss Whedon-directed episode coming up; I don’t know if I am up for being simultaneously attacked by Glee apologists and people who think that Joss can do no wrong, and yes, I have reached the state of cynicism which means that I assume that the episode is going to be extremely problematic.)

At any rate, I thought it would be worth examining the character of Kurt since the show is about to start up again.

Kurt is a character I find deeply troubling. Like the other leads on Glee, he’s extremely stereotyped. It was supposed to be obvious to viewers that he was gay even before he explicitly came out because he is effeminate and fashion conscious. He’s fastidious. He likes to sing. He prances. He flails his hands around. Gay, right? Totally gay.

He’s so Gay on Television that when he comes out to his father, the scene is anti-climactic because his father had already assumed that he was gay. Not because Kurt and his father enjoy a close relationship or because Kurt’s father is in touch with his son. Because Kurt “acts gay.” And thus, a scene which might be terrifying  and sobering and a reminder of the very real dangers of coming out is turned into a humorous and heartwarming moment; see, kids, it’s ok to be gay, because your conservative parents will love you anyway since you’re just so damn adorable.

Certainly, there are gay men who are like Kurt. But they aren’t the only gay men in the world. And to be Gay on Television means that you are probably going to be depicted like Kurt. I’m not sure that characters like this really do much for the cause of gay rights and breaking down perceptions about gay folks. Viewers aren’t taking much that’s new away from this character and he just reinforces the idea that effeminate men are all gay and that it’s very easy to tell when someone is gay. Just look for a love of musical theatre and jazz hands!

Kurt is allowed a few variations from the Gay on Television norm. It is established that he works on cars, for example, in a scene in the garage his father operates. But even this scene is kind of ruined by the show’s need to put him in a special coverall and to have him fuss about getting dirty. Likewise, it turns out that Kurt is a phenomenal kicker, as he discovers when he joins the football team, but the football team’s performance of “Single Ladies” kind of soured me. It was like Kurt can’t be allowed to do anything unless he’s gay about it. He can’t just be a good football player. He can’t just enjoy working on cars sometimes.

We don’t know much about Kurt as a student; I guess it’s hard to figure out how to put a gay spin on, say, history class. What we know about him is mostly his social life and his relationship with his father. There’s a scene in which Kurt indicates that he’s willing to not pursue relationships because his father is getting hassled, in which the show makes it seem like it’s harder for Kurt’s father for Kurt to be gay than it is for Kurt himself.

Kurt’s father gets harassing phone calls, but Kurt himself doesn’t seem to experience very much harassment, for a young gay man. And that surprises me, because harassment is pretty much the name of the game when you are gay in high school. Sure, there was the scene in the pilot where he got tipped into a dumpster; but look how funny it was, he was allowed to take off his sweater first so it wouldn’t get dirty! It was almost as though the characters, much like the show itself, were going through the motions because they felt obliged to.

As one of the marginalised people in the already marginalised glee club, Kurt has a fierce rivalry going on with Rachel. Which  provides yet another opportunity for the show to push a gay stereotype, that gay men are demanding divas who all crave the spotlight. And, of course, Kurt has his obligatory straight lady friend, Mercedes, who at first lusts after him and then becomes a faithful follower. One thing I do like about their relationship is that we don’t see Kurt giving her fashion advice and providing her with a makeover (that’s reserved for Rachel), and Mercedes is kind of allowed to be her own person, rather than a toy and dressup doll for Kurt.

The thing which I find troubling about Kurt is that he feels to me like the classic representation of the tame gay man. He’s nonthreatening and safe. He’s fun. He’s cute. He doesn’t do much to challenge the viewer or to force people to examine their own feelings about gay men. Thus far, he hasn’t had a boyfriend, although I hear that’s supposed to change in the second half of the season; if he really does get a boyfriend it may radically change the way I feel about how his character is handled.

Is Kurt’s representation doing anything for actual gay men in the real world? What ideas are viewers taking away from Glee? Have any viewers seen Kurt and gone “oh, I change my mind, gay people aren’t horrible and evil”?

2 Replies to “LGBQT Representation on Television: Kurt”

  1. Oh, please keep writing about Glee! I can understand that you go through a lot of crap on it, and homework is always annoying. But on the other hand, I feel like you’ve made me a much more responsible viewer. I’m so much more conscious of the messages the show is projecting.

    And then there’s the time after I saw “Mattress.” The second the show ended I ran over here (or your old website, you know what I mean) and was relieved to find someone else who thought the Will and Terri scene was problematic and disturbing. You have no idea how many conversations I’ve had with friends who think I’m overreacting when I tell them that that scene is an example of domestic abuse.

    I know you get a lot of crap for your commentary on Glee, but I just wanted to throw a bit of praise in there as well.

  2. Okay, and now a real reply to the post.

    I hear that’s supposed to change in the second half of the season; if he really does get a boyfriend it may radically change the way I feel about how his character is handled.
    I hadn’t heard this! That makes me feel a lot better…although they could certainly still ruin their representation of a gay relationship as easily as they ruin their representation of a gay character, I do feel like it will be difficult for them to create two cookie-cutter “TV Gays” as you put it. Unless they want Kurt to date a twin version of himself, it might just force the writers to admit there is more than one “type” of gay male out there in the world.

    You commented on how Kurt’s rivalry with Rachael pushed a stereotype, and I do agree that the fact that he backed down from the opportunity to sing “Defying Gravity” cemented his nonthreatening nature. However, I did find the intercut scene where Kurt and Rachael sang that song, a really demanding song that requires significant vocal prowess, was a notable moment showing Kurt’s strength, and showing that he should be valued as more than a token gay man in a show choir lineup. And maybe that value applies to him as a character, and not him as a gay man (since the song is still a song intended for a female singer, and the show made that very clear)–but isn’t that the goal, anyway?

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