As a long-time ‘Gleek,’ I’ve been putting this off as long as possible, I promise. “Half-Way” stayed quiet for the past several weeks, while Glee has experimented with and failed to execute the trope of the ‘Very Special Episode’ that brought us often controversial episodes of ‘70s and ‘80s classics – one my personal favorites (discovered during research for this post – I’m not that old) being Blossom’s “Blossom’s Blossoms” tackling . . . you guessed it – the scary monster named menstruation.
Now, I could forgive Glee for failing to educate me on the inner workings of my womanly parts, but the way it has been brushing by some of the most intense social issues of our times is unconscionable. Three weeks ago, we had a transgendered boy (coincidentally, this guest spot being filled by the winner of the reality show The Glee Project, Alex Newell). The show came back from hiatus in April with a wheelchair-bound Quinn – injured from her texting and driving accident. And two weeks ago, we had Coach Shannon Beiste reveal that her husband had beaten her.
It’s not that these things couldn’t all happen within the scope of a single high-school population or even within the span of a few months. The unrealistic quality, rather, comes from the way in which they are depicted and discussed.
“Don’t text and drive. Ever. It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
“I admit that I’ve worn some flamboyant designer outfits, but I’ve never dressed up like a woman.”/“That’s because you identify yourself as a man. I thought you of all people would understand.”
“I was shocked, I was ashamed, so I made excuses for myself to make it okay. And I heard you girls say that you thought your boyfriends would never do anything to you like that. And a week ago, I would have said exactly the same thing.”
The emotions behind these moments don’t feel authentic. They present like a counselor’s pamphlet or health-class film-strip . . . saying all the right things on the surface, but never braving the kind of gray area subtleties that could really move the audience to resonate with a true and meaningful message.
One of the most basic reasons for this lukewarm feeling on the part of the viewer is that the ‘very special’ parts of recent Glee episodes have been relegated to B-roll footage – shoehorned between NYADA auditions and disco costumes (not that Naya Rivera didn’t look like even more of a bombshell than usual in her “Saturday Night Glee-ver” jumpsuit number). Twitter tags for an episode that covers domestic abuse while the Violence Against Women Act is being debated for renewal in Congress shouldn’t consist of #NYADAauditions, #KurtsAudition, and #RachelsAudition.
But that’s the thing. These hot topics don’t seem to be included in the recent episodes in an effort to spark substantive discussions among viewers. As long as Fox, Glee, and Ryan Murphy get their pat on the back for taking on such controversies (as they predictably did from their long-time supporter, GLAAD, for their inclusion of a transgender character), and a sprinkle of blow-back from the conservative fundamentalists (again, as they of course received from their long-time critic, Bill O’Reilly, for the same storyline), they are allowed to retain their reputation as a socially-conscious and cutting-edge program.
However, as Alyssa Rosenberg contends in her article, “‘Glee’ Is an Immoral Television Show and It’s Time to Stop Watching It,” Glee’s recent writing practices have become unethical and manipulative:
It’s one thing for bringing the underexamined lives of gay teenagers, of abused women, of gay people of color into the mainstream of popular culture. But spotlighting them only to use their pain to accrue credit to yourself isn’t admirable. And it’s not entertaining . . . Murphy gets a lot of credit for sensitively portraying the lives of sexual minorities in particular. But it’s time to start calling him what he is: a cynical exploiter of oppressed people who has very little actual interest in actually exploring their experiences in rich, complex, compassionate ways.
I can’t deny that I will always advocate for representative media – even when said media is incomplete or problematic. Seeing a simulacrum of oneself and/or one’s life in popular culture is psychologically beneficial – period. However, it’s not nitpicking for the fun of it to be bothered by the fact that an episode covering domestic violence doesn’t once mention non-heterosexual partner abuse – and in fact even shamefully includes Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango,” which legitimizes the cycle of violence (and which the Glee kids were criticized for . . . but for all the wrong reasons!). It’s not expecting too much to have more than a simple “yes” answer to the question posed to Beiste by one of the kids: “Are you considering pressing charges?”
“Well yes, I am considering it, but given that my bruise is faded, I have no substantive evidence, and even if I did, the judicial system serves largely to re-victimize and stigmatize abuse survivors, I’m also considering moving on with my life in the best way I know how.”
Glee is a television show, and we all know this and our expectations should be managed accordingly. But when the writers and creators actively choose to take on the mantle of responsibility that is an examination of social evils, and fail to prioritize it properly, we also get to be disappointed and angry. We deserve so much more.