“Glee”: what rising tide?

13 March 2011

“A rising tide raises all boats,” the expression goes, except none of us believes it in this economic recession. Nor do I believe it in Glee, the infectiously appealing school glee club TV show that has become so profoundly eloquent about the experience of its openly gay student, Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) at the same time that it leaves its female characters to flounder in a sea of stereotypes and cat fights. Is this where we’ve come? Feeling deeply for that sweet, angel-voiced white guy whose sexual orientation makes him a target of bullies, while mocking all the girls around him?

It took me a while to like Glee — but it was on TV constantly when I did research overseas last summer and I got hooked. And its treatment of Kurt is amazing, especially scenes with his regular-Joe, baseball cap-wearing father (Mike O’Malley) who doesn’t quite know what to do with a gay son but makes do. This material makes me cry and makes my jaw drop for its sensitivity and confirms why my straight college students are so comfortable with their LGBTQ peers; I really think it articulates things about being gay in high school that appear nowhere else. But what does the show do with all those great female characters? Maneuvers them from one romance to another. Will Quinn go out with Sam or Finn? Will the pretty school counselor ever date Will, the glee club adviser? or even, will the cheerleaders Brittany and Santana ever develop a relationship beyond their secret “girl kiss” makeout sessions? The show doesn’t care about women except as comic relief and plot devices. The show addresses fat phobia, but only by having its mohawk-wearing, football-player stud Puck start up a comically-tinged flirtation with the glee club’s wrestling star/fat girl. It’s utterly depressing. 

I 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 shouldn’t ask more than fluffy entertainment value. But now that I’m a fan of the show I have to hold my nose during the parts about the girls, who are so one-dimensional that I rolled my eyes during a trumped-up special sharing moment between secret lovers Santana and Brittany. I guess we got our feminism episode last year; in the meantime we just need to hope that Brittany doesn’t break Artie’s heart, that Tina doesn’t break Mike’s heart, that Quinn doesn’t break Finn’s heart, and that at some point the token African American, Mercedes, gets to date anyone at all. The show’s emphasis on sexuality (hey, it sells commercials) means that the female characters remain undeveloped but have elaborate sex/relationship lives on the show. In short: that rising tide for white gay men is drowning feminism on this show.

7 Responses to ““Glee”: what rising tide?”

  1. […] Originally posted &#1072t th&#1110&#1109 time: “Glee”: wh&#1072t rising flood? « Feminéma […]

  2. I am a white gay man, but I can’t stand watching Glee for the very reasons you so astutely point out in this article. I love reading your blog and wish more people would see it. Yes, I find it profoundly disturbing that while the gay character is somewhat interesting, the show plays into the worst stereotypes of girls and women. Great post!!! You might enjoy my today’s Women’s History post:
    Your fan,

    • Didion Says:

      Wow, thanks, Michael! And I’ve been reading your blog ever since you pingbacked my Helen Mirren stuff — you draw attention to stuff I hadn’t even heard of yet (like Oprah and Wal-Mart, which is SO depressing). And Glee… I like Kurt so much, and see how powerful that story is for straight viewers who might be wrestling with prejudices about gays & lesbians, but does it have to be built on a whole array of stereotypes about women? Jeez.

  3. freewomyn Says:

    I agree and disagree with you. I do think that Kurt’s character is the most well-rounded, which is surprising, considering that they wrote the part specifically for Colfer – Kurt wasn’t one of the originally planned characters. Unfortunately, his story has taken a back seat – and as a result, I’ve lost my interest.

    I think that Glee does have a positive portrayal of students like Becky and Artie – the show has gotten numerous awards for having a diverse set of characters, and providing positive portrayals of folks with disabilities.

    That being said – the women on the show ARE one note. I fast forward through all of Rachel’s scenes. I’d like to see more of Mercedes, Tina, and Santana . . . big surprise – the women of color are in secondary roles.

    I guess my main disagreement with you is that I love the portrayal of Sue Sylvester. Yes, she’s a caricature, but she also breaks a lot of boundaries. When she married herself, I thought it was brilliant. And Sue’s relationship with her sister and Becky are the most honest relationships on the show.

    Anyway – keep up the good writing. Maybe Glee will take note.

    • Didion Says:

      Fair enough — I love Sue and only wish there was more of her, and I agree about the surprisingly sweet relationship between her and Becky (and Sue’s sister, for that matter).

      I don’t think I’d complain so much if I hadn’t seen one of those “which Glee girl are you?” questionnaires, which made me want to vomit. I mean, can anyone really tell the difference between Santana, Quinn, and Rachel, aside from clothing choices and different boyfriends? And these are the show’s MAIN female characters.

  4. Marie Says:

    Great post! I completely agree with you–some of the scenes with Kurt have brought tears to my eyes (especially the one with Kurt and Finn when Finn dances with him at the wedding). But you are so right about the female characters, with the exception of sweet-and-sour Sue. The whole scene with Santana passing along mono to Finn? I hated that episode. It was so ridiculous. We need to mount a letter-writing campaign!

    • Didion Says:

      Ugh. I know what you mean. It’s like they’ve demonized Santana so much that they had to make her cry in the next episode…yet without really encouraging us to like her much. Honestly, I think it’s the worst kind of lesbian stereotype. And with that I return to the view I had way back last summer, wondering whether the show’s creators just really hate women. (Except Sue, who’s consistently awesome.)

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