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Sunday 18 July 2010, by Judy Harris

Swept up in the recent scuffles over representation in parliament (PR/AV/FPTP…) I’ve been thinking about representation on my little tv. It’s clear that of all my machinery the tv is the one least likely to make me ‘think the world more radically’. I expect it to be disgusting, disappointing and particularly muffling- like stuffing a load of sponge in your ears (I’ll admit the muffling is especially desirable sometimes).

Glee facetiously claims to rupture the mind-numbing life-scheduling of most teen dramas. Despite it’s charade as a mocking assault on reductive stereotyping I wouldn’t fault Glee for essentialising every shiny marker of difference paraded by its cast of characters (race, gender, sexuality, disability etc etc) if that was all it pertained to. But what’s so awful is that the stereotyping is partial. Glee refuses to archetype certain characters- as if it’s impossible for a straight, white, sensitive guy to become a trite cliche . The white heteros are many, they’re complicated and interesting. The ‘others’ are others- that’s their ‘thing’.

Whilst being gay or black is enough of a hook to hang a whole character on, the able-bodied white characters are given contradictions, home lives, conflict and even storylines. Sue Sylvester is fascism with a human face and she’s one of the most nuanced and well developed character in the Glee universe, unlike ‘other Asian kid’ or ‘wheels’ who barely have a character trait between them. Sure, Sue’s tough- but she cares about her sister with Down Syndrome! Sue just knows that work makes us happy, that’s why she’s tough on everyone. Handouts only handicap and Sue’s sister is ‘handi-capable’. One workcamp fits all, kiddies- no excuses. Her multi-faceted nature is explored via various camp snapshots – drugging the school principal, dancing with Olovia Newton-John and reading bedtimes stories about teddy bears.

Compare this to African-American songstress Mercedes whose family we’ve never met. When at last she was given something more to do than act sassy and black her plotline was about her being fat. Luckily for her all it took to reassure her was two white blondes telling her she was beautiful (Quinn the ex-cheerleader and Christina Aguilera). We didn’t get to meet Mercedes’ mother in the episode where she was taken to the nurses’ office- but that was ok because Quinn the Aryan single mother stayed with her instead.

Atop of all this women are constantly deceiving men about pregnancies and paternity (how long is this troubling mysticism of the womb going to maintain such momentum?) and Quinn reveals that only by getting pregnant did she recover from her eating disorder (i.e. a woman’s hysteria is cured by motherhood- thank Sigmund!). Fox/Cameron family values abound alongside Young MC in a pseudo-subversive funfest that’s reminiscent of The Simpsons. As Mr Schuester explains in an episode all about the nuclear family huddled on the sofa “you can be the life of the party, get drunk til you can’t see straight- but you’re always gonna feel empty inside until you find a home”.

It’s embarrassing to admit that I had high hopes for Glee. I thought it was going to be a postcolonial musical that finally brought together Judy Garland and Frantz Fanon. Instead it’s just an even more offensive ode to the living room.

Forum posts

  • (Q. Is V.E. liquid or pencil?)

    Hm, should I stick up for Glee or keep shtum and consign it to ‘secret-when-serious pleasure’ (aka ‘desirable muffling’) along with similar pseudoliberal entertainments S&TC, Brothers & Sisters, Desperate Housewives etc. etc.?

    Well, duh might as well try.

    The charges:

    1) partial stereotyping e.g. Sue v. Mercedes
    2) dodgy gender politics
    3) family values

    1) Sue’s soft side is a surprise and does provide a new dimension, but she is still a clown. Queen of the clowns if you will. I’m afraid I can see no variations in depth between all the other characters. As for stereotypes, Glee is one of the new breed of shows that deliberately ruffles PC feathers while espousing libcon values. It is television’s Avenue Q without the original songs. It was never going to be postcolonial, it’s post-’reality’. It has learned from talent shows that you don’t have to be beautiful to be on TV, you just have to sing really well and appear to be clean (blame Disney). In this context, Glee pinches ground as the first fully fictional entertainment to give us what we now think we want. We have not yet seen a young, gay character like Kurt in a lead role, at least not one who looks so … real. The same is true for Mercedes: she’s black and fat, but look! She’s actually black! And not that thin! She can sing as Effie from Dreamgirls without being a tragic victim and without having a name that sounds a bit like huffy! Quinn and Finn have to look pretty because these people exist in high school, but why is Q so curiously adenoidal? And why is F’s body shape oddly irregular? Could it be that our perfectometer has been reset by reality programming and fictional shows will never look the same again?

    2) Are Quinn, Emma and Terri really portrayed as role models? Aren’t they the definition of lame-os? This might be a problem were it not for Rachel, Merc and Sue. Can you see any of THEM concealing pregnancies or compromising their ‘personal goals’ for some guy? Well, yes you can because they’ve all had their moments, but the narrative thrust for those characters is well, basically Madonna. Oh, never mind.

    3) I’m guessing Rachel Berry is the only major character on international television to have two gay parents, right? That’s the kind of set-up usually omitted from ‘family values’ manifestos, but fair enough it’s still a family. Kurt’s dad’s speech is the kind every gay teenager wants to hear from a parent and it still manages to sound believable. He wants to understand his son but he can’t because, like everyone in Glee, he ain’t perfect. And Schue’s speech about finding a home? I think we all know he’s not talking about clicking your heels and going back to Kansas. Even Disney left Kansas City for L.A. Home is where the Glee is, silly!

    Ciao for now, you wonderfully defined vulva!


  • My dear Lobster, I wanted to say that I have to disagree with you on this one.

    I’ll try not to point out what has obviously already been said, and, promise, I’ll try to keep it short:
    I must admit that I’m a bit tired myself of all the usual hooha about pregnant teenagers; I managed to watch the entire first season of The secret life on the American teenagers, which has been, believe me, a very difficult and depressing task.

    You’re saying that the show is offensive and that it is full of stereotypes. Of course it is; it is after all an American show. But for once, I thought the show really conveyed a sense of self-awareness. Let’s just take for example one of the episode, the 8th, I think, that precisely makes fun of the shows that use minorities to sell themselves. Nowadays, it’s quite impossible to have a show without the token Black, gay, fat character. But to take that as the topic of an entire episode was in my opinion quite daring.

    In Glee, everyone gets a chance to shine through. We didn’t see Mercedes’s mother, so what? We didn’t see Artie’s one either, right? And what about Rachel’s gay dads? The fact is, in a series, there are only a limited number of episodes, so we might see them later in the second season. Let’s hope so.

    Glee is a show in which you can’t really love any characters, they all have flaws, and they all act in stupid ways. They sing well, that’s a fact, but they look more realistic than the characters in any other shows I had seen before, especially on American television. The musical genre allows them to be over the top and laugh at themselves.

    Anyway, can’t wait for the second season to come out. I hope it’s equally good and perhaps it will help change your mind (the baby seems to be destined to disappear, yeah!). May I add: if John Barrowman is in it, criticism of the show will henceforth be banned, sorry!!

Any message or comments?


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