“Glee” and a very special feminism episode

24 April 2010

I’d never seen “Glee” before — and let me say, it’s utterly delightful — but stumbled across its “The Power of Madonna,” that is, its very special episode on feminism.  And then I found hundreds of posts online, treating it as if it were an important intervention on feminism because the words misogyny, sexist, and objectification were used on a mainstream TV show. 

I’m tempted to suggest that a perky TV comedy can treat the topic of women’s feminist anger BECAUSE it’s perky comedy.  I’m tempted to trot out Susan Douglas’s notion of enlightened sexism again (Susan, perhaps I should receive commission?); point out that “girl power” is a fundamentally hobbled form of feminism; and remind us that Madonna is hardly an ideal feminist.  All of this is true.  But frankly, it’s just a pleasure to see a storyline in which high school girls get mad and seek a way to articulate a feminist identity (and then sing!).  At this point, us brow-beaten feminists will be thrilled with anything. 

The show starts with the girls in the glee club having a powwow about dating, a conversation that can be summed up by one character’s resigned assessment that “we have to accept that guys just don’t care about our feelings.”  When a well-meaning male teacher tries to intervene, an even more resigned girl pushes him back. “The fact is that women still earn 70 cents to every dollar that a man does for doing the same job.  That attitude starts in high school.”  (Wow. Count me happy on hearing this in prime time.)  Slowly the girls start to fight back and express themselves verbally as well as in song.  My favorite is when the “they just don’t care about our feelings” Asian girl takes a sexist boy’s head off:  “My growing feminism will cut you in half like a righteous blade of equality!”

They build up tension and resolve it by singing a lot of Madonna songs and gradually convincing the reluctant boys that this music shouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable.  There are some tedious side stories about various women asserting themselves sexually (to say no or otherwise).  (JEEZUS, people, does feminism always have to be exactly equivalent to sex?)  Best of all is a transfixing number with the cheerleaders doing a routine on stilts to “Ray of Light.”  Throughout, Jane Lynch is great as the unhinged director of the “cheerios” who idolizes Madonna. 

Please, let’s just stop calling this feminism.  I enjoyed this show perfectly well without having to engage it on those terms.  Feminism can’t be made palatable to a reluctant public by dressing it in a Madonna pop song for one episode; nor is it reducible to The Power of Madonna.  Let’s get happy about some feminist stuff coming up, and some women with powerful lungs belting out terrific Madonna covers.  But let’s just call this what it is:  “Glee” is just its own thing.  We can all be happy that these girls articulate a version of anger and empowerment, and hope that more TV shows engage with those subjects — hope, indeed, that more actual girls get angry and empowered.  Hell, at this point I’d take the Spice Girls’ version of girl power again.

7 Responses to ““Glee” and a very special feminism episode”

  1. Dan Says:

    I still feel it doesn’t address the root cause of Glee’s problem; that all the female characters are in some way reliant on men for affirmation of their looks, personality, talent, you name it. Even if it did show men beginning to understand the effect their behaviour has on women, it still took a man to impose it on the women. The only strong female lead, Sue Sylvester, has to behave like a man, and she is hated for it. Glee is mysoginistic. Period.

    That and Will has now sent two women to counselling because they cannot deal with him correctly. What does that say about equality?!

    • didion Says:

      Wow. This is what I get for not watching the show until last week — I had no idea that this episode was apparently designed to address problems with the show overall; I actually thought it was more representative of how the show portrays women.

      When I got your comment I trawled around online and found a comment from Slate’s June Thomas saying that she really liked the show but felt that its writers just hate women. And her description seems accurate even for what I saw last week, although it makes me sad. When are TV writers going to have stronger women on their staffs? Not only that, but in retrospect the older women on the show seem to be portrayed in particularly vicious ways.

      So I agree with you, Dan — this is a classic case of TV pretending to “take feminism into account,” then returning to its tried-and-true misogynist ways. Damn.

  2. Aisling Says:

    Although I agree that it’s only a drop in the ocean as far as feminism is concerned, I do have to say that the fact that a discussion of this sort was aired on prime time television, musical comedy or not, is important. I have to say, I’m only 20, but the reaction I found in response to the episode was astonishing. The vast majority of people (women and men)I know did not realise the pay difference between the sexes and were of the opinion that women are now equal to men in pretty much all ways. Even if the show didn’t tackle the subject in a particularly throrough way, at least it made my generation a bit more aware of what’s happening regarding the status of women and their rights. Feminism is seen as a dirty word by people of my age, if you’re a feminist, you’re seen as butch, and almost an anarchist. Maybe (hopefully) this will change with more information and futher discussion of the subject.

    • didion Says:

      Good point. So maybe the most ideal situation might be that more TV shows demonstrate at least a casual acknowledgment of gender issues. They don’t have to come out flying a big feminist flag, but they might show women taking more control over their lives. Hell, they don’t even have to call themselves feminists. (But still, I’d really like “feminist” to be reappropriated as a positive term by young women and men like you.) TV can just stop pretending that everything is A-okay for women, so long as they’re not butch, an anarchist, or fat!

  3. Amelia Says:

    Thanks for this post. I’m starting to really enjoy watching Glee & I saw this “Feminist” episode recently. I was happy that issues of feminism were being at all & that feminism was talked about as a positive thing. Sexual respect & coercion are important feminist issues (particularly at High School) and I was glad that these issues were dealt with… particularly considering that there is a lot of sex on Glee.

    I’d be interested in reading more about Glee’s portrayal of girls/women… Glee does deal strongly in stereotypes, but it also seems to make an effort to address various issues of socially ignored & low status people. One of the main characters is an effeminate gay guy, Kurt. In one episode, his stepbrother Finn (the jock) says, “Recently I’ve made some foolish decisions that have hurt people… No one has taught him more about how to be a man than Kurt”. Kurt is a stereotypical gay guy in many ways (effeminate & really into fashion), but the other two gay guys on Glee are not stereotypically gay at all. I think it is a risk putting an effeminate gay guy onto a TV show, but Kurt comes across as really authentic & therefore likeable. His character seems believable and three-dimensional despite it’s strong stereotypical nature.

    Glee also has a strong focus on disability awareness & rights. The “cheerios” leader Sue Sylvester has a close relationship with her sister Jean (who has Down Syndrome) & calls her sister “handi-abled”. The Glee kids also spend a day going about in wheel-chairs to learn what it is like for the wheelchair boy in their club.

    Glee is really strong on stereotypes, and it could definitely deal with feminist issues more, but in general I like the way it has tackled several different social issues (that involve low status or minority groups in society).

    • Didion Says:

      I agree wholeheartedly, Amelia — in fact, I watched a lot of Glee while I was abroad last summer and was so struck by disconnect between the show’s powerfully strong portrayal of Kurt vs. its stereotyped girls. I’ll catch up on what I’ve missed in the meantime and write another post.

  4. […] know a show can’t do everything. When I saw last year’s special feminism episode with all those Madonna songs I argued that we …. But now that I’m a fan of the show I have to hold my nose during the parts about the girls, […]

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