Reassessing Kurt

I’m having a protracted email exchange with a reader, and we’re talking about a lot of things, but most particularly Kurt, and I’m really rethinking and reevaluating his character, in response both to this conversation and other conversations I’ve had about Kurt. The thing for me with Glee, as I recently mentioned, is that the show makes me so fucking angry that it is hard to evaluate characters out of context to do them justice, which is what I am really trying to do with Kurt.

And, honestly, I have been a little bit afraid to write about my rethinking of Kurt (which has been going on for several weeks now), because just as people attack me for criticising Glee, people also like to attack critics of shows when they give those shows credit for doing things right. I feel like people are expecting me to be a one note righteous brand of rage when it comes to Glee, and I have been playing into that, and I just can’t do that any more.

Yes, there are things about this show that infuriate me. The depiction of race and disability on this show makes me rage. And there is no way I would recommend Glee to someone. But, at the same time? The show actually does deserve some credit where credit is due for depictions, and I am tired of pretending like this isn’t true. So get ready for some righteous truth re:Kurt. If you came for the Glee hate, hopefully you can stay for the honest discussion about depictions of gay teens.

I still stick by the assertion that Glee has problems with vacillating tone, and that often the show is too damn subtle and hard to read; the commentary embedded in the show (and it is there, even as the show misses the mark by a mile on a lot of issues and is very unsubtle about a lot of the -isms it perpetuates) flies right over the heads of viewers. It’s trying to do something and falling just a little bit short, and I don’t know how to fix that although I suspect that evening out the highly inconsistent tone would be a big help. As would stopping with the hipster -isms that are intended to be oh-so-clever-and-funny; there has to be a way to engage with these social issues without making them cheap targets of humour.

But with Kurt, some interesting stuff is going on. I am not saying that I am completely pleased with his depiction or that there are not valid grounds for critique in how he is handled, because there are, and I will continue to make some of those critiques, but there is more going on with his character than with a lot of other characters on the show. Like I said in my post on Thursday, he is a character who can be read in multiple ways that appear to conflict, but don’t, really. Some people think he’s ‘too gay,’ which is bullshit, and they should be sent to go stand in the corner, but the reading that he’s a character who reinforces some problematic stereotypes is, I think valid. However, equally valid is that he’s a character who is honest and true to life.

I’m thinking about this particularly in the context of his dynamic with Finn. To my horror, I see a lot of people going ‘ew Kurt just can’t leave Finn alone’ and making other statements that make my heart ache. Making horrible statements about gay men and teens and justifying Finn’s abusive behaviour towards Kurt. This is not to say that there are not valid critiques of this storyline, because there are, like the point that by having Kurt pine after Finn all season, the show has desexed Kurt.

The thing is, well, I’ve been a high school student. I suspect most of us have. And when I was in high school, I couldn’t just turn my sexual attraction off. If I liked someone, whether or not that person was attracted to me, whether or not that person’s sexual orientation included attraction to people like me, I liked that person. And I could try to not be all up in that person’s grille, but it was hard, especially when we were thrown together by circumstance. And that’s what I see happening with Kurt. He can’t help that he’s attracted to Finn. He can’t help but hope that maybe Finn will come around. I have been there.

And I can’t help but note that the same dynamic between straight characters wouldn’t attract nearly so much attention (remember when Mercedes was going after Kurt?). So, one part of me is like ‘yes, Glee, this is good, you are depicting something honestly and you are forcing viewers to think about their assumptions when it comes to sexual attraction.’ But the other part of me is thinking ‘yes, this is honest, and it is true, but it’s also reinforcing stereotypes about gay men being unable to control themselves and forcing themselves on people.’ That’s not Glee’s fault, that’s society’s fault, and I think that’s the whole issue with Kurt’s character.

And the show undermines its own argument by having Mercedes effortlessly switch off her attraction for Kurt as soon as she realises he is gay. Glee seems all mixed up most of the time, and it makes it hard to distinguish the points that the show is trying to make; is sexual attraction something that can be turned on and off, or isn’t it? It sometimes seems like it can’t make up its mind, and my reader points out that this may be the result of network interference, with Fox being unwilling to rock the boat and jeopardise its ratings darling.

Unlike the other stereotyped characters, Kurt is an honest character. He is true to some lived experiences. But because of social attitudes about gay teens and gay men, this honesty is weaponised against him—at the same time that he is a true character, he’s also a stereotyped character. I think, genuinely, that Glee is trying to present his character in a way that challenges viewers. It is, and, seriously people, I never thought I would say this about Glee, but it really is trying to subvert a stereotype by presenting a stereotype in this case.

Is it working?  I don’t know. And I don’t know how to challenge viewers, short of leading discussion sections after each episode. ‘Gentle viewers, why do you think you react so violently to Kurt’s attraction to Finn?’ ‘Gentle viewers, do you see parallels between Kurt and real life people like Johnny Weir?’ ‘Gentle viewers, what do you think about the differing depictions of sexual attraction on this show?’

Maybe if the other stereotypes weren’t so very painful, and if characters like Artie and Tina and Mercedes were more real, what the show is trying to do with Kurt (and trying but failing to do with other characters) would be easier to read and understand. Both Kurt and Artie are stereotypes; the difference is that Kurt is a stereotype based on some realities (and, I suspect, the experiences of the creator), while Artie is a stereotype based on nondisabled perceptions of people with disabilities.

And that is where the difference lies. I think that Glee might actually succeed with Kurt, especially if things next season go as has been suggested/spoiled/implied. And this is one of the things that frustrates me most about the show, is that I can see the potential, what can happen when the show really tries. Now, if the show could only get some PWDs and nonwhite folks on the writing team to do the same for the other characters.

Originally published in a slightly different form on my Tumblr, but it turned so epic that I decided to post it here as well. Many thanks are due to the numerous people who had extended conversations about Kurt with me, both pro and con.