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.