“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.