Glee: Born This Way

Two things about this week’s episode: It was bad, from a purely structural/entertainment standpoint. Also, it was bad. Did I mention it was bad? And I didn’t like the music, but that’s because the numbers they chose this week were just not to my taste. The episode was all over the map, like the creative team wanted to cover eight different things at once. Indeed, it seemed like they were trying out for a PBS children’s special. Had I wanted to watch a very inspirational episode of specialness, I could have popped on some Veggietales.

I’ve talked about the shift in tone on Glee, and this episode was really illustrative of it. This was not an episode with fun singing. This was a painfully moralising episode where the show clonked viewers over the head repeatedly. It’s…maybe I was the wrong demographic for this episode, but a full hour of ‘it’s ok to be you’ from a show that actually spends a lot of time telling me it’s not ok to be me was a bit hard to swallow.

The storyline in this episode with Emma was extremely painful. We have Will pressuring her and demanding that she label her condition with a term she’s not comfortable with, that she call it OCD instead of whatever terms she might prefer. Badgering her, even when she’s made it clear that she wants to be left alone, suggesting that she’s ‘an expert at deflecting’ when she tries to push back and ask him to stop harassing her. Is this going to be a storyline where we are supposed to see what Will is doing as wrong, or are viewers reading him, once again, as the tragic hero, just trying to help his love interest ‘get better’?

That scene in the staff room was just plain painful, and Emma had what I thought was a pretty awesome response: ‘You think torturing me with unwashed fruit’s gonna make me take that step?’ Given the rest of the episode, I might have read this storyline as ‘Will is riding for a fall,’ but that doesn’t mesh with the way the show seems to view mental illness. Will tells Emma that they’re all ‘humouring’ her (that’s what ‘accommodations’ really are, don’t you know), for example, and that really they all just wish she wouldn’t be crazy. These lines were not shown in a ‘this is presented for criticism’ kind of way, but a ‘these are established facts’ kind of way.

And that’s definitely been the message projected throughout the show, that it’s bad that she’s crazy and she needs to be cured. This was reinforced in the therapy scene where the therapist basically suggests that she needs to be cured [1. With meds, of course, which…maybe those have worked for some other people with OCD? But they did not work for me.] to ‘find herself,’ which is a rejection of the way some people feel about their mental illnesses. This is not to say that all people with mental illness reject or do not want cures—far from it. Nor is it to say that there is only one right attitude to have about mental illness; there are many ways to feel about mental illness and they are all valid. But the predominant attitude about mental illness is that it is bad and needs to be cured, and that the idea of living with your mental illness, embracing it, of mad pride, is alien and scary to a lot of people. Reinforcing the dominant view doesn’t do much to destigmatise mental illness, even if it rings true to the experiences of some people with mental illness.

Some people with mental illness are ‘born this way’ and are happy this way, to boot. In a whole episode telling us about how important it is to just be yourself and not change yourself, one of the key storylines involved fundamentally changing a character’s identity and eradicating part of it because it’s ‘bad.’ I note, too, that Artie didn’t get a pride anthem, or even a pride shirt. Because, you know, what’s there to be proud of, right?

It’s clear that Emma personally wants to manage her OCD differently and that it is causing impairments for her; she wants to find a treatment that will be effective for her needs. But that doesn’t equate to wanting, or needing, a cure. And let me assure you that forcing people with anxiety disorders to ‘confront’ the sources of their anxiety is a really great way to create more anxiety and to make them feel even worse both because their anxieties will be more intense and because they are acutely aware that you just want them to be normal and stop being so crazy and why does everything have to be such a big production.

Is it possible that Glee is actually responding to criticisms of its handling of mental illness and it is planning to take this storyline in an interesting direction where Will Learns A Lesson, in keeping with the rest of the tone the show seems to be taking on, where all the characters need to be Educated (usually at the expense of a marginalised person)? Since we had the obligatory ‘there’s a stigma about mental illness, you know’ scene in a therapist’s office, that seems to be the way things are headed. (Will Glee acknowledge the role it plays in perpetuating that stigma?) Or is it, as usual, flailing around, not doing its research, and claiming to ‘educate’ viewers? Only time will tell.

I will note that if Glee really wants to clean up its act, it should start with hiring actual consultants with actual experience (like, say, people with OCD), which it may now be doing, but I doubt it, because it would be crowing about it from the rooftops. And it should try approaching marginalised identities from a position other than ‘the only way to incorporate marginalised people is to feature them in Very Special Episodes.’

What they’re doing with Lauren Zizes is actually a good example of how they could be handling marginalised characters; she’s there, she doesn’t give a fuck what people think about her, her fat is not the all-consuming main feature of her character, she does things other than just standing around, being fat, and talking about fat. Yeah, sometimes it becomes relevant to a storyline and her fatness becomes more central, but it’s not the subject of a Very Special Episode. And it’s not all we know about her. Unlike characters like Artie, and Emma, who are just The Disabled Ones. Mercedes, The Black Girl. Tina, The Asian Girl.

If they could get to where they are with Lauren with those characters, it would be such a better show. If those characters could be allowed to develop some personality, where their identities become part of who they are instead of their only distinguishing features, Glee would be offering all the education it needs to offer. It could go back to being a fun show with a mixed-up group of underdogs, confronting oppression by working in solidarity with each other, and silently challenging viewers to rethink their attitudes.

It also doesn’t escape my notice that the song they chose to use as the ender in this episode, the great positive affirmational number that’s supposed to leave everyone feeling good…has been criticised for racist content.