Glee: Theatricality

So, remember how, writing about Glee last week, I discussed the fact that the show is straddling a strange divide between feeling filled with stiff, awkward, Teachable Moments, and the over the top camp that the show is getting so much attention for? And how I said that really wasn’t working for me, on a lot of levels? Vascillating between tones is a tough line to walk and Glee has not been doing it well in my opinion, although apparently a lot of notable critics disagree.

This week. Was not the solution. Glee has apparently decided to take a serious turn and it’s not working out at all well. Here’s the thing. There are lots of saccharine teen dramas that are filled with lots of Learning Experiences and occasional light humour. Those shows have a place, they are a genre. It’s not something that I am personally interested in, but it’s a genre, and I respect it. Then you have your biting social commentary embedded in sarcasm, which is what Glee is trying to do and failing at.

The two do not mix well. Oil and water, people. If Glee thinks that it can get away with extremely problematic and troped characterisations because it’s including Learning Experiences, it is wrong. It is very, very wrong. Indeed, a show that is presenting itself as oh so very socially progressive will be held to a high standard, because it is opening itself up to scrutiny.

Glee has had a number of Very Special Episodes, which plays into the show’s metamythology; it wants to present itself as something that is resisting stereotypes, breaking ground, teaching people things. Thus, it has to single out the minorities on the show and use them as teaching objects. Glee apparently missed the class about how you can show, not tell.

‘Theatricality’ was all about how it’s ok to be yourself, and it was also a Very Special Gay Episode, and I will be honest, I cringed throughout. It just felt embarrassing. It was so earnest and serious and stagey, all at the same time. I wanted to hide under a blanket or something.

Let’s explore the highly problematic narrative of shuffling Kurt off with the girls, yet again. ‘The girls in the glee club pay tribute to Lady Gaga,’ says the synopsis, and that tells you a lot about how people view Kurt. People. Gay men are not women. I really cannot say enough that I view this is a reiteration of a very old stereotype and it’s also a very neat neutering of Kurt. He’s made as nonthreatening as possible by the fact that he hangs out with the women and sings in a tenor, and note that he was not given a conscious choice in this episode. It was assumed that of course Kurt would prefer to perform with the girls. And, you know, there absolutely are gay men like Kurt. There are gay teens who feel more comfortable hanging out with girls. There are gay teens who love musicals and dressing up. All of these things are undeniably true, and I want to support the creation of a world where all of these things are safe to do, where gay teens can be themselves.

The problem with Kurt is not the character, it’s what the character represents. The problem is that he doesn’t seem break any new ground for gay characters on television, no matter how hard Glee tries to wrap it up in claims that you can just ‘be yourself.’  The problem is that I don’t really see how Kurt’s characterisation advances the cause of out gay teens. Are there any homophobic bigots sitting at home watching Glee and thinking ‘gee, I should stop picking on that poor gay kid’? Probably not.

He’s a caricature of the television gay male. Sure, it’s a stereotype rooted in a reality, for some gay men. But this, or the deeply repressed closeted gay man, is the only gay representation we see. That’s not balanced. That’s not resisting stereotypes and dominant narratives. I think it’s dangerous to criticise a gay character for being flamboyant in a way that argues that gay men shouldn’t be flamboyant, but I also think it’s valid to criticise characterisations like Kurt’s because of what they represent.

I would like it if we had progressed enough, as a society, that characters like Kurt felt natural and organic because there was such a broad spectrum of gay representation on television that it didn’t feel like a reiteration of a stereotype, but an affirmation of an identity. I would also love it if we didn’t automatically assume that characters like Kurt are gay. Since neither of those things are going to happen in the near future, I think we need to ask how characters like Kurt can be a presented in a way that doesn’t reinforce stereotypes. So far, I feel like Kurt’s characterisation has been harmful, although I know that people disagree. I’m just not sure what readers are supposed to be taking away from his character. That all people who act like Kurt are gay? That all gay men act like Kurt? Because the message I am taking away is certainly not ‘it’s ok to be gay, and to be like Kurt’ considering the fact that Kurt is surrounded by harmful, inaccurate, and infuriating stereotypes.

I think there’s a takeaway there. The other characters poison me on Kurt, making it really hard for me to view his character objectively, or as a standalone. Conversely, so far most of the people I’ve seen talking about how Kurt is such a terrific character are fans of the show and like the other characterisations. I think that shows how difficult it is for us, as viewers, to separate out the elements of a show. One could also ask if they should be separated, or if the show should be viewed as a whole.

Sure, one could argue that he’s a representation of how difficult it is to be out and gay in very conservative communities. And one could argue that it would be empowering for gay teens in those communities to see Kurt, just like I might have benefited from seeing trans* teens when I was Kurt’s age. And maybe if Kurt’s character wasn’t wrapped up in the identity of a show that claims to be teaching viewers something, that’s exactly how I would read him. Maybe I would really like his character if he was being allowed to be just a character, instead of The Token Gay Character Who Is Here To Teach Us.

I’m not a gay teen, so I can’t speak to whether or not Kurt’s character is empowering for those viewers. If he is, that’s not something I really want to take away from them, but I’m wondering if there would be a way to strike a balance that provided viewers in general with a great gay character while also showing gay teens that they are not alone. Like, maybe giving Kurt a boyfriend who is radically different from Kurt (and isn’t closeted and tragic), to provide us with a more balanced representation of gay identities?

For those who do view Kurt’s depiction as positive but agree that other depictions are problematic (and I think that this is very much a case where there is no right and wrong, and there are many ways to interpret his character): Why is it that the gay character is the only one that the show can do reasonably well? What does that say about the creators of Glee?

This show is so fucking hypocritical, it makes me scream. It wants to  be given cookies for Teaching Us Things but what is it teaching us? The episode led with an intro reminding us that if you are a wheelchair user, being a dancer is not a dream you can realise. Later in the episode, viewers were indirectly lectured on using the R-word, in the same scene that involved a lecture on the F-word. While comparing both to the N-word.

Let me repeat myself here, in case this is not clear: Glee depicts incredibly problematic and heavily criticised characterisations of disability, and it wants to be patted on the back for reminding viewers that, hey, you shouldn’t use that bad word. Anna wrote recently at FWD about why talking about language isn’t enough, and Glee has clearly bought into the idea that if it identifies the ‘bad word’ and pledges not to say it, it has accomplished the goal. And is now an ally. No. The R-word isn’t the problem. The social attitudes are the problem. And guess what Glee is doing? It is reinforcing those social attitudes. It is saying that disability is a horrible miserable fate, that people with disabilities primarily have a role as object lessons and teachers, not human beings, and it wants to be applauded for telling viewers not to use the R-word?

In a scene where it is basically implied that the R-word is the new N-word? That the F-word is the new N-word? Fucking no. Homophobia is not the new Black. Ableism is not the new Black. Homophobia is homophobia. Ableism is ableism. Racism is racism. And bad words are symptoms of problematic social attitudes. They themselves are not the problem. Appropriation of other oppressions is not the solution to resisting oppression.

Calling someone a faggot isn’t bad because it’s like using the N-word. These are two separate issues, and I do not appreciate seeing them conflated.

And, as Everett Maroon pointed out, this scene with Kurt’s father was marked by aggression and violence (comments recommended). It’s a theme that runs throughout the series, with the expression of masculinity often taking the form of  violence, that contrasts all the more starkly with Kurt’s femme presentation. Go read the rest of his post, instead of reading me repeating it to you, ok?

In comments on Everett’s post, several folks brought up the racialisation of homophobia on Glee and particularly in this episode, in the context of a larger discussion about how the show claims to be transgressive when really all it does is appropriate and stereotype the experiences of marginalised groups, and do it badly, to boot. On Twitter, mike_le pointed out: ‘The homophobic football player on the last #Glee episode’s had more lines than any other black male on the show so far. Kinda a bummer.’

I think that actually tells you a lot about this show.