My Bitter Case Against Glee

Let’s talk about Glee, which for the moment is almost everyone’s darling show.

I hate Glee. I watched the screening of the second episode at Outfest 2009, when it was not on anyone’s radar yet, and I thought it was moderately offensive but extraordinarily campy and funny. So, I decided to watch the new season on Fox. Unfortunately, the episodes got progressively more problematic, and by episode 7, Throwdown, I decided I was done.

That episode really made me detest Glee. But normally, I’d just accept that it was a problematic show glumly, like much of television, and move on with my life. The problem was that my friends wouldn’t let me move on. Many of my friends adored the show unequivocally, many of my other friends saw problems with it but treated it as their ultimate guilty pleasure. Many of my online friends had a total obsession with the show, to the exclusion and abandonment of other fandoms. As a result, I still managed to learn most of the drama going on Glee even after I stopped watching. I couldn’t understand the fervor. Why? WHY?!

Glee has the fingerprints of a white gay cis-gendered able-bodied male’s privileges all over it. It gets a pass from many critics because it does “all” the stereotypes, contains offensive material for “everyone” in a surface way, and features an incredibly diverse cast. Underneath though, the gay storyline with Kurt is treated delicately, and the campiness of the show screams HOMO, but everything else? Trashes minorities like it’s going out of style. And I can’t get with that.

First, the whiteness. Who are the main characters on the show? Mr. Scheuster, of course, Emma Pillsbury, his romantic love interest, definitely Sue Sylvester, Rachel Berry, Finn, Quinn. Could it be that they’re all white? Why yes, yes it very well could be.

Now, there are Mercedes and Tina, clearly second fiddles to Rachel Berry. There’s Santana, sidekick of Quinn. There’s Matt and Mike who are both POCs and can barely be called sidekicks, more like cardboard cutouts to fill out the football portion of the Glee club. The principal of the school. There are quite a few people of color on the show, which is more than you can say for many other shows, but none of them are main characters. They all just don’t have the chutzpah to share a star with white people, apparently.

Most US shows don’t feature main characters of color. But Glee has been hailed as progressive by a large number of blogs and news publications, including Feministing, ABC, etc. (can’t find the links to any of the specific articles, sorry, but you can Google “Glee” + name of publication to get a sense of the gushing praise) And the way Glee treats people of color in its episodes? Really doesn’t cut it as progressive. You know, the first season of Grey’s Anatomy featured a similarly diverse cast with Sandra Oh as a main character of color, ish, maybe the main sidekick, but no one ever mentioned that Grey’s Anatomy was incredibly diverse, maybe because no one pretended that show was supposed to be progressive.

Second, the gayness. We have Kurt Hummel. He had a really good coming out episode. He then proceeds to get a storyline involving difficulties with his father, who seems to love Finn as a son far more than he ever did Kurt. This spans some number of episodes and culminates with Kurt’s father proving that he’s still a father by beating down Finn for using the word ‘faggot’ to his son. What a tender story. What about everyone else’s?

And yes, Kurt is also the only explicitly queer character on the show – Santana and Brittany have had implied sex, and Sue Sylvester, well – but no other “token” character gets the amount of background and the kind of treatment he does.

Third, cis-genderedness. When Kurt has his coming out episode, his dad utters the line, “I knew you were gay ever since I saw you walking in your mother’s high heels at age 3.” or something approximate. There’s also the ridiculous Beyonce song Kurt sings all the time, prancing around like a faerie. Now, this show is all about campy stereotypes. And of course not all transwomen wear heels starting from age 3 and sing Beyonce, actually I don’t know any, but. First conclusion upon seeing son wear women’s clothes is gay and not trans implies ignorance. Let’s not forget that in such a diverse cast that prides itself on being such a diverse cast, there’s no transgendered character at all.

Fourth, able-bodied. Case in point: Artie as a token character. It’s hard to wage a tirade against Glee sometimes, because they do have several good points, especially compared to other TV shows. For example, they actually thought of a disabled character with a personality. But they hired an able-bodied one to play him. “It’s hard to say no to someone that talented,” they said. I’ve heard that countless times. It doesn’t endear me to you. I also heard that in a future episode after I stopped watching Mr. Scheuster has everyone get into wheelchairs for a day because then they can experience what it’s like to be disabled. Because a single day in the life of a minority gives you a real understanding of what it’s like to be a minority.

Fifth, maleness. Who’s a good female character on the show? Has some outstanding positive qualities and some less visible negative ones. Let’s see. Sue Sylvester is a queen bitch if there ever was one, so is Quinn, Terry is a bitch AND dumb, Rachel Berry is disgustingly self-absorbed and arrogant. Santana is also a bitch, Brittany may literally be dumber than a rock, neither have much of a personality beyond that. Tina has been faking her stutter and has no spine. Mercedes and Emma Pillsbury are pretty solid. That’s uh, 2/9. When I first started watching this show, I remember thinking, “OMG, aren’t there ANY female characters that are fleshed out and likeable?”

By contrast, Mr. Scheuster was definitely created to be the amicable foil to Sue Sylvester, though I hate him. Kurt and Artie are also supposed to be likeable. Puck tries to be a good person too.And Finn, though he may only be brighter than Brittany, is just an incredibly earnest All-American guy. Matt and Mike are barely there, but they’re perfectly bearable. So that’s, 7/7.

There is something wrong with this picture, seriously. At first I thought maybe I wasn’t getting it, that there was some underlying message the creators were trying to get out through that woeful trap known as comedy that I didn’t have “enough” humor to understand.

Then I saw the 7th episode, Throwdown. It features the students of color breaking away and singing in a different group in competition against the white students, who have too much screen time. Meta? Internal reference to the lack of main characters of color? Maybe! But evidently not.

Because the concluding line in the episode was offensive post-racial thinking in a nutshell. All of a sudden the students are united by Mr. Scheuster cheerfully saying, (paraphrased) “You’re all minorities! For example, you can’t tell your left hand from your right, you can’t tie your shoe…” And then they all laugh and hug and resolve their differences.

Fuck you, Mr. Scheuster.

21 thoughts on “My Bitter Case Against Glee

  1. Many, many good points. I will only touch on one: the able-bodied part. If ‘Glee’ is ableist, nobody told Zack Weinstein. As far as he’s concerned, the best person for the role should get the part, and I have to agree with him. I was once in the room with a director who wanted to put someone who wasn’t right in a role simply because that actor wasn’t white and she was trying to diversify the cast (which she totally admitted), and while I understand and appreciate that instinct, it was my fucking play and her job was to give me the best cast I could have. Plus, who wants to get a role out of a feeling of duty or pity? Gonna quote Zack on this one: “I didn’t want to get the part if they felt guilty or obligated. I didn’t want to get the part just because I broke my neck four and a half years ago and happen to look young enough.”

    Above all, entertainment must be, well, entertaining, and that’s much harder to achieve if your actors aren’t a good fit. Again, because he’s just so damn eloquent, I’m gonna borrow Zack’s words: “As long as actors with disabilities are given the opportunity to audition and are as seriously considered as able-bodied actors, I have no problem. The best actor should get the role.” Because, as you said, a character in a wheelchair with a personality is a good thing in itself. (And, side note, since they cast Zack, they’re clearly not opposed to casting PWDs.)

    I have seen precisely one episode of ‘Glee’ – the one that Zack guest starred on, since I know him personally – so I don’t feel qualified to respond to the rest of your post. But, it does seem that any depiction of disability anywhere is always polarizing: some people were offended by Lady Gaga starting the “Paparazzi” video in a wheelchair, but some PWDs were delighted and wrote Lady Gaga to tell her so. I say, let ‘em be delighted. I’ve never lived their life, so who am I to be upset on their behalf if they’re glad? If the character of Artie, even as a token, even played by an able-bodied actor, increases PWDs’ visibility and agency and makes them go “yay,” that’s fuckin awesome.

    The problem, really, is that the bar has been set so low with diversity in TV shows that ‘Glee,’ as problematic as it is, is still a big step forward. If there were more shows out there doing a better job with diversity than ‘Glee’ is, then by all means, fuck ‘Glee.’ But as of now, from what I can tell, it’s either ‘Glee,’ or shows with ALL white (not counting occasional totally boring tokens), all straight, all able-bodied, even-more-male-dominated casts. Unless there are some shows out there I’m not watching that are exceptions to this? In which case, tell me what they are so I can watch them and join in the ‘Glee’-bashing.

    • I think the problem is that, in practice, it winds up a lot more like the racebending fiasco with that Last Airbender movie. Sure, they tack on “any ethnicity,” but it’s clear they’re trying to cast someone White. Of course, it’s rarely that honest or obvious.

    • Zack probably knows more than I do about the casting situation, since he’s set to be guest-starring on Glee. If he says Kevin McHale truly did blow everyone else out of the water, then I have no rebuttal. The problem with “casting the best” is that “the best” all too often is white or able-bodied or what have you, and it doesn’t just happen to be that all white and able-bodied people are better at acting. Much of the time there are biases involved.

      The opportunities for minorities in acting are already limited, and I imagine even more so for disabled actors, that when a role is specifically created for a group, it’s a big deal, and an affront to cast yet another actor from the majority. RVCBard has already given The Last Airbender as an example. That was offensive, to have these roles made for APIs in a feature film and then give some more white actors/actresses the leads. Have you seen Asian Americans play leads in any films recently? I don’t recall any.

      As for TV shows, I think Glee is certainly the most diverse out there, but far from the most progressive. Friday Night Lights is a more progressive show in my opinion. For other diverse casts, I don’t know what’s happened to Grey’s Anatomy since I never liked that show, but hopefully the current cast still features Cristina Yang and Miranda Bailey, those two lesbians, etc. Undercovers, the new NBC show, has POCs as its two leads and looks awesome. I don’t watch enough TV to truly be able to make comparisons of diversity between shows – after Glee offended my sensibilities the only thing I was watching was Dollhouse, so.

  2. Fantastic post. Sums up nicely all the problems I have with this show.

    A side note though: Lea Michelle, who plays Rachel, isn’t white, though they do their damndest to make it seem like she is.

  3. Lea Michelle, who plays Rachel, isn’t white, though they do their damndest to make it seem like she is.

    This is why racebending should be a word in the English lexicon.

  4. I’m currently watching season one of Glee now. And to be honest I’ve heard mixed things about the show. Prior to watching the DVDs on Netflix, I had only seen the episode directed by Joss Whedon which guest-starred Neil Patrick Harris. Having watched Disc One, *shaking my head,* there are things I like about the show and can even appreciate even if it’s problematic….other stuff however, *shaking my head.*

    This post goes back to a point that I’ve been making for years, visibility is not progress. Just because you have a diverse cast does not mean you’re being progressive, especially if the main characters are white and the minorities are relegated to marginal and/or stereotypical roles.

    • visibility is not progress. Just because you have a diverse cast does not mean you’re being progressive

      Exactly.

      *goes back to Glee-less ignorance*

  5. You’re right, it’s terrible. For the reasons you listed and many, many more…

    Because the season descended into Rachel’s search for her mother, as having two dads apparently left her unfulfilled.
    Because they had Artie get out of his wheelchair and dance in the ‘Dream On’ episode. Thanks very much, Joss Whedon.
    Because Mike is still ‘Other Asian’.
    Because Dijon Talton still doesn’t have a promo shot.*

    On and on and on down that particular rabbit hole we go. Apparently my fondness for autotuned pop crap is the only thing keeping me watching. I truly never understood the concept of a ‘guilty pleasure’ before this.

    *Oh hey, I just looked this up (mainly to check on his character’s name since it’s probably only said once in the entire season. Apparently he’s been cut from the cast entirely, with no explanation. Funny, that…

  6. I have a problem with the tokenism in Glee, as well. It’s checklist diversity, a rainbow-wash over the white birch structure. And yet… in this second season, they have created a pretty solid, meaty role for the most genderqueer person I have ever seen on prime time television. The new football coach is a very large, muscular woman called Coach Beast who BOTH owns the locker room and is allowed to be vulnerable and human. It goes beyond visibility.

    But, if somebody sees tokenism in this character, too, I would like to know about it.

  7. I know that this is late, but this is the same problem that I have with the average teen fiction. That is focus on too much on white people. That’s why I don’t watch it.
    Also, it seems that these type of shows get praised alot more than shows with actual diversity.

  8. As I person who watches and enjoys Glee, I feel I should point out that many of the issues you point out in this post have since been rectified. Such as the addition of a trans* character, more evenly distributed story lines between characters, resulting in much more fleshed out and important poc characters (although Rachel is still undisputedly the main character). That said, a lot of new issues have cropped up.
    Also, what you said about the female characters being unlikeable and having less positive qualities than negative. I disagree, strongly. All of the characters on this show (or nearly all of them) have a lot of flaws… so do people in real life. The male characters are equally as likely to be flawed as the females. Besides, like-ability is so subjective, for example, I hate Finn with a burning passion but you list him as one of your likeable male characters.

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