Stage Left: Glee and the Textual Politics of Difference
Lucas Hilderbrand / University of California, Irvine

Glee cast

The cast of Glee

Perhaps no hit this fall has been more unlikely than Glee, a show about marginalized teenagers with mainstream ratings—and a (mostly disintegrated) musical to boot. It has courted a cult audience with its genre-bending and improbable choir group covers. But not unlike high schoolers themselves, Glee has awkwardly struggled to find its own identity and politics. From episode to episode—even sometimes within the same episode—the series lurchingly shifts in tone, from bitchy satire to gooey romance to after-school special lesson on tolerance to power-ballad emotive excess. From the start, Glee has operated outside the conventions of realist plausibility, but it nonetheless makes attempts at social relevance; in the process, at times it clumsily slights its multicultural cast with what I assume to be an assimilationist appeal for ratings.1 As I suggest below, the in-progress first season’s seemingly conflicted negotiation of difference has suggested an evolution from marginalization to self-critique to pleas for tolerance. One of the recurring problems with the show’s “progress” toward tolerance, however, is that in making reductive equivalences between different kinds of marginalized experiences, it flattens out the complexity of difference.2 Yet, in spite of these critiques, it’s hard not to sing along.

Glee

Glee members perform a number

All of Glee’s teen characters purport to be losers by virtue of their musical proclivities, but there remain clear social hierarchies within the group, even if they are not the ones the show typically acknowledges. I was struck during the pilot that, among the conspicuously diverse cast of characters, only the white characters are fleshed out as characters or get to sing the solos. (And here I should point out that the show’s ingénue, the type-A diva Rachel Berry, played by Lea Michele, is referenced throughout the series as both Jewish and white.) The rest of the cast seemed like set dressing. The show pays lip service to team solidarity, but the show has occasionally been out of sync with true equality. I have no actual access to network scheming, but this seemed to reek of the logic that the show had to be palatable enough for mainstream ratings before the minorities would incrementally get their own numbers and subplots. This fall, that’s pretty much what’s been happening.

The seventh episode, “The Throwdown,” then seems to call the show out on its prior politics of difference. In one of the show’s typically absurd situational set-ups, bulldozing Cheerios Coach Sue Sylvester (the witheringly funny and, incidentally, lesbian comic Jane Lynch) has been assigned to lead the glee club alongside its founding director Will Shuester (Matthew Morrison). Ever competitive and incisively savvy, Sue decides to divide and destroy the glee club by creating competing numbers. Her strategy? Pick all the minority kids who’ve been ignored by the Will—and by the show. With her trademark insensitivity, she hails “Sue’s Kids” as: “Santana! Wheels! Gay kid! Asian! Other Asian! Aretha! Shaft!” The students know exactly whom she means, and they join teams with not a little enthusiasm. At this point in the series, the fact that Sue calls two of the students “Asian” and “Other Asian” doesn’t merely reflect upon her; these characters, in particular, had never gotten more than momentary attention on the show. (I still don’t know Other Asian’s character name.) A few days later, when the two teams split after hanging out altogether in the rehearsal room, Artie (“Wheels” for his wheelchair, played by Kevin McHale) bids his friends, “Bye, white people.” Artie is white, but he’s only ever marked as “other” by the show. It should be stated, though, that the white minority characters have, up through episode ten, been privileged over the students of color.

If episode seven self-consciously addressed the show’s inequities between the “white kids” and the minorities, episode nine, “Wheels” was a plea for empathy and parity between others.3 “Wheels” was Artie’s episode, as it focused on his structural exclusion from the group because the school can afford neither a handicapped accessible van to transport him to competitions nor ramps to make the auditorium accessible. To raise empathy, Will assigns each of the glee members to spend three hours a day in a wheelchair and to perform a musical number in wheelchairs. That climactic number, “Proud Mary,” with its pun on “rolling” on the river, unabashedly showcases the minority students. It’s exhilarating in that they finally take center stage, and for a moment at least, music does seem therapeutic and celebratory.

But music is also the basis of competition, particularly for the solos Rachel typically wins. During the same episode, gay kid Kurt (Chris Colfer) wants to sing a female part in a number from the musical Wicked, which involves falsetto. After initial resistance, Will gives him the chance to have a diva-off audition with Rachel. (A recurring motif in the show is that Will, the presumed identificatory figure for the mainstream audience, learns to open his mind after initial ignorance, week after week.) If at first it seems that the equivalences the episode makes between Artie’s paralysis and Kurt’s feminine voice might be equivalences of castration, the characters refuse that point. Artie informs us (and his crush, “Asian” Tina, played by Jenna Ushkowitz—wait a minute, Ushkowitz?) that his penis is fully functional, and Kurt insists he’s more of a man than his father, because he has the strength to deal with taunts of “fag” and to eventually leave Ohio for gayer pastures. But the show also veers close to becoming the “disability” episode through the inclusion of a cheerleader with Down syndrome. This becomes an uneasy way to soften Sue’s character, and it likewise creates equivalences between disabilities and queerness.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ6EV6I-ZMI[/youtube]

The show is often at its best when it disrupts the expected ways of addressing difference, such as eroticizing Jewishness or letting the minorities sing about experiences not reduced to their identity categories, as with black diva Mercedes’ (Amber Riley) performance of romantic revenge on “Bust Your Windows.” The twist here is that she has let herself get hurt by a misguided crush on Kurt, and this number goes out to all the fag hags who’ve been scorned by their best friends. Even Will comes most alive when performing hip-hop numbers, and I’ll be damned if that white boy can’t dance. (Check out the “Bust a Move” clip below.) Yet in its matchmaking, the show has been consistently segregationist: the white, straight, able-bodied kids only date within their own demo, whereas the various minority characters have primarily had failed flirtations amongst themselves.4

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvDI7xfBXTA[/youtube]

When the plot veers into problematic territory, music has often been the show’s saving grace for working through issues and for giving the audience what it wants. British pop music scholar Simon Frith has insightfully suggested that musical investment is most intense in our youths as it functions to negotiate identifications, intense emotions, and the sense that time is both fleeting and never goes quickly enough.5 Arguably, marginalized youth—kids of color, queers, the economically disadvantaged—are the ones who invest in music most intensely and visibly, though the tastes and modes of consumption vary. Frith further argues that we use music to express embarrassing emotions we can’t articulate ourselves, a claim that was actually vocalized explicitly in episode ten, when students are assigned to sing ballads. Again, the show demonstrates a degree of self-awareness, but it simultaneously disappoints when, in this episode, the marginalized students band together to make the cheerleader and the football star feel better through song. This treacly performance brings me back to the series’ beginning, with its climatic attempt at uplift that worked in spite of the text’s conflicted textual politics of difference.

The pilot concludes with the glee club’s first knockout performance, a choral cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” For all the issues of representation the pilot raises, the number is nonetheless irresistible, even if this relentlessly peppy rendition evacuates the song of the working-class social realism and lustful escapism scripted in its lyrics. The lyric that does shine through is “living to find emotion.” And that emotion is glee—an affective boost that compensates irrationally, within the logic of the show, for the characters’ feelings of marginalization. Of course, that’s how music works in life, too. But this intensity of such investment in popular culture seems to extend beyond the characters to the show’s audience as well: this is a series that people really seem to want to love. It’s a show that the fans have, so far, not stopped believing in, even when the reality of its representations don’t quite live up to the utopian aspirations.

Image Credits:

1. Glee cast
2. Glee Club members

Please feel free to comment.

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  1. Although I am focusing on the issue of cast diversity in this column, it strikes me that Glee is also significant as a successful new industrial model that works through a diversity of platforms: an early pilot to build blog buzz, onscreen cast Twitters during the pilot’s rebroadcast, iTunes downloads of popular numbers week by week, embedded video clips that circulate the web without take-down notices, a series of CD soundtrack albums, and a mid-season DVD release. The musical numbers not only offer an additional revenue stream for the show, but it also revives the popularity of the original recordings. A comparative analysis with its fellow FOX series American Idol might also be illuminating. []
  2. For a critique of civil rights politics that draw equivalence between queerness and racial difference, see Janet Halley, “Like-Race Arguments” in What’s Left of Theory?: New Work on the Politics of Literary Theory (Judith Butler, John Guillory & Thomas Kendall eds., Routledge, 2000). []
  3. In the transitional episode, “Mashup,” the newly self-identified Jewish Puck, played by Mark Salling, has the epiphany that “Rachel was a hot Jew and the good lord wanted me to get into her pants.” But the show has also been intolerably cruel to the football coach Ken Tanaka, played by Patrick Gallagher, going so far as to blame his mixed ethnicity for his bad genes. []
  4. Significantly, the show fails most spectacularly with its most normative heterosexual relationship: Will’s marriage. His wife Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) is a hysterical shrew, whereas his extramarital crushes on the OCD guidance counselor Emma (Jayma Mays) and ex-high school diva on the skids April (played with torchy fire by Kristen Chenoweth) are treated far more sympathetically. []
  5. See Firth’s essay “Toward an Aesthetic of Popular Music” in Music and Society, eds. Richard Leppert and Susan McClary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 133-149, as well as his book Sound Effects (New York: Pantheon, 1981). []

10 comments

  • I agree with this piece’s central thesis, that the show’s central identity crisis has created a muddled and problematic treatment of any sense of difference beyond the traditional high school alienation suffered by everyone who happens to be in a Glee club (which, while not entirely lacking in consequence, is a discourse with considerably less complexity).

    However, what’s interesting to me is that if we go beyond the show’s text to the fan culture surrounding the show, the sort of piecemeal character development that defines the show (where characters emerge for their spotlight in one episode before completing disappearing in the next) seems to be mitigated by the way the songs allow the characters to live beyond the show’s narrative. After an episode airs, viewers don’t only experience Kurt’s defining moment in “Wheels” (his “Defying Gravity” ballad with Rachel) once – instead, they experience it however many times they listen to the song on iTunes or, even more commonly, for free on YouTube. Heck, it’s possible that they listened to the song before the episode even aired, which means that Kurt’s behaviour in the episode was expected, reinforced, and then solidified by a liberal use of the repeat button.

    And as a result, when they pop up for a single line in the next episode, viewers are reading into that performance not only what we’ve seen in the show thus far but also their own personal construction of this character through the use of song. This, of course, only goes for those characters who got songs of their own (Artie, Kurt, Tina), but fan response seems to be legitimately excited when someone gets a solo who isn’t Rachel/Finn/Will/Mercedes: there was celebration when Tina finally got a solo all her own on “True Colors,” a celebration that didn’t actually take place in the episode itself (which made no mention of this being Tina’s first real solo not counting her failed attempt to handle “Tonight” earlier in the season). These characters may not be getting what one would call consistent character development, and certainly there’s been some shortcuts taken when situating them within the show’s identity, but fans seem to be using what little music they get as a celebration of their character, and are attaching themselves to their character of choice accordingly.

    Heck, even “Other Asian” has become a fan favourite, if only because of how hilarious people find “Other Asian” (which was actually used by Tina in “Ballad,” which is a whole other can of worms) – I think the audience is actually enjoying sort of filling in the blanks on those characters who haven’t received any real development. In an ensemble this large, not every character is going to be as developed as others, but an episode like “Throwdown” so brought attention to Glee’s specific treatment of minorities that it has raised red flags in a way that other shows (like Friday Night Lights, which has always struggled with storylines which hinge entirely on racial difference) have not. Over time, as these characters potentially go from glorified backup singers to character who just don’t talk as much (while it does nothing for the article’s discussion of difference, Brittany has been emerging from the pack in recent weeks), these things could start to normalize.

    As to whether this process is only confirming a shallow and insufficient depiction of difference within the show’s universe, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that these episodes were made in a bubble. The show has only three writers, and these episodes have been “in the can” since August. As a result, there has been no opportunity to adjust for how the episodes are being received by wider audiences, or the role that music (and the distribution of that music) is playing on how the audience related to these characters. However, when the show returns in April, the writers will have had the advantage of knowing how the audience has been responding, and how these characters and their actions have been received. That, really, becomes the show’s real test: seeing how they react to what have been some legitimate concerns about character development (especially amongst the supporting cast) will be telling to how the show plans on deepening their ensemble in seasons to come.

    And as of right now, Ryan Murphy is on record as suggesting that “Wheels” (which is the most blatantly sentimental episode of the show yet) is their guidepost moving forward. So, make of that what you will.

    [I’ll make one personal disagreement with the article’s interpretation of the show itself: I think Kurt was anything but superior in his treatment of his father in “Wheels.” I don’t think he ever attempted to prove he was more of a man than his father so much as he knew that the way he understands his own sexuality is something his father will never be able to experience the same way, and that to expect him to do so in small town Ohio is too much to ask. I think the show’s been overwhelmingly positive regarding Kurt’s father all season, so I think to suggest Kurt views himself as in any way “better” than his father misrepresents their relationship.]

  • Myles – Thanks for your generous and insightful comments. I agree with your observations about how fans are appropriating and reading the text in ways that are more complex and even more progressive than the text itself. A reception analysis was beyond the scope of this column, but my interest in the show was sparked by the fact that so many people seemed so invested in the show so quickly. Like you, I’m curious to see if or how the show’s creators negotiate fan responses with the text itself when the season resumes.

  • I often find myself particularly frustrated by this show’s politics, but I also look forward to the show every week. Thanks for teasing out some of the reasons Glee enables this ambivalence.

    For one, I think you are absolutely correct that the show’s musical elements are key for smoothing over (or at least distracting from) the rough edges of Glee’s politics. For me, one of the most troubling examples of this (and one of those crazy tonal shifts) occurs in “Hariography,” when students at a school for the deaf perform for glee club. When we first meet the choir leader at the school for the deaf, he “hilariously” mishears everything said to him. LOL, he thought someone asked him if he wanted coffee! Later, when the deaf students perform Imagine, Glee clubers overcome with camaraderie join in—(lest we actually have to sit through a song on the show that doesn’t sound like it was performed by T-Pain)—in one of the most saccharine displays I may have ever seen. This too is followed by their leader mishearing things for uproarious effect. Not only do these moments oscillate between We are the World awkwardly earnest uplift and comedy, they carry different and somewhat competing political messages: one moment, the show implies that people with disabilities are funny and the next everyone sings for equality. Indeed, the musical numbers when used in this way do seem like the show’s saving grace – or at least a key moment for the heavily negotiated readings mentioned in the comment above. I think this same tactic also obscures some of the show’s unfortunate representations of women, who are generally either unbalanced, stupid, or a minority. (Did we really need two different female characters to use pregnancy to trap an innocent man?)

    At the same time, there’s something to be said for a show that puts some effort in representing people we don’t normally get to see on TV. Plus, it’s fun to watch a program that invests in innovative TV genre constructions. This, at least, is why I’ll be negotiating—er, watching—on Wednesday.

  • There are a lot of these comments that I do agree with or agree with in part. Glee is aimed at a teen/tween demographic. And, having teen/tween sisters, I know that children/young adults of this age do not get subtly and innuendo within dramas unless its, to quote The Lion King, ‘dressed in drag and doing the hula’. So Glee, I believe, by doing what they’re doing are aiming to make their demographic think. Does the gay kid deserve to be shoved into lockers just because he’s different? Does the cheerleader deserve to be snubbed just because she made a mistake and got pregnant? Does the kid in a wheelchair deserve to be dismissed and talked over because he’s not at eye height? Is it done subtly? Absolutely not. But I can definitely say that it made the tween/teens in my house think about the kids in their school. And while the politics within the show is rather clumsy from an adult’s point of view, if it can make even one tween/teen stand up against bullying in schools, then its alright by me.

    However, I’m not sure I agree with Kit’s comment about the women of the show. I know, being a woman myself, that especially on TV we want to see the female characters being strong and independent and fearless, because for so long TV has made women simpering, weak Stepford wives or whores. But Glee, though sometimes it fails or tries too hard, is attempting to portray people as they really are. And while the characters as they are on Glee are portrayed in an over the top manner, there are people with their characteristics out in the real world. Quinn is cruel when threatened and has made a mistake that is going to affect her for the rest of her life. Rachel tries so hard to succeed and be liked that she ends up ostracising the only people around her who could help her do that. Brittany lives inside her own head. Mercedes pulls on a fierce attitude to hide the fact that she’s dissatisfied with who she is. Santana doesn’t know what she wants, but she knows that she doesn’t want anyone else to have it. To me, these characteristics can be attributed to so many of the people I know today or knew in high school.

  • Katy, I think you’ve pointed out one of Glee’s definite problems: at what point does its depiction of sad, angry and fitful teenagers (who occasionally go over the top) go from realistic to sensationalist? I’ve had some intense Twitter conversations where I’ve defended the show not by arguing that it’s particularly “natural,” but rather that high school is inherently unnatural. Characters have sudden crushes and pursue sudden infatuations because this is typical high school behaviour, so to ignore that for the sake of narrative smoothness feels like it goes against the show’s methodology of, as you suggest, trying to capture something the teens can relate to as “real” in some way.

    I think the show’s issue is that part of its charm is how inherently unrealistic it is, with people spontaneously bursting into song and a husband spending months not realizing his wife wasn’t actually pregnant. I like that the show occasionally operates as a musical, characters using song to express their feelings (it was, after all, the entire plot to “Ballad”), but at times the show’s premise wreaks havoc with its politics. Characters are presenting themselves in so many different ways, sad one week and then frenetic the next (Rachel is particularly problematic in this sense), that there’s nothing to “pin down.” And by occasionally embracing this chaos without necessarily contextualizing its root causes (because some characters find themselves marginalized by nature of the large ensemble), the show risks feeling as if the sensational nuttiness of it all is a comic affectation more than a broadly drawn social commentary.

  • This is a wonderful piece – insightful and fun. thanks so much. I was just about to forward it to a bunch of my non-academic friends, when I realized something – although I know MANY people who love this show, it has not caught on (yet) with the academic crowd I know in the same way other shows (Sopranos, The Wire, etc.) have/did. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the show is HUGE among students and staff at the school of Music, Theater, and Dance here…

  • I really appreciated this piece and all the comments. I’m a big fan of the show, though its politics or rather its wavering relationship towards its politics frustrates me at times.

    Just a few things I wanted to point out, “other Asian” is Mike Chang. I think in one of the more recent episodes his name was dropped. He does have some fan websites too. Plus the actor, Harry Shum Jr. is a pretty amazing dancer – check out his YouTube videos – and is slated to be in Step Up 3D.

    As for Jenna Ushkowitz, she was born in Korea, but was adopted by a family in Long Island, where she grew up.

    The one thing I’m still unsettled about after my feverish wiki-ing of the different cast members is the managing of Rachel’s racial and ethnic identity. In the pilot, her fathers are black and white, and she tells us that they mixed their sperm together, so she’s not sure what exactly she got. Though this joke creates a space for a multiracial identity, for the rest of the series, she is considered white and Jewish, with her possible blackness completely removed from the equation. This is made a joke of in “Mattress,” where Rachel details how she is a member of every club. One of the photos we see is of Rachel with the Black Student Union, with her fist raised in power and solidarity. The three members, all male, look at her suspiciously, even though there is a slight possibility that she is black, since we’re unsure about her genetic makeup.

    Lea Michele has multiple ethnic identities as her mother is Italian American while her father is of Spanish-Sephardic Jewish ancestry, though in the US this would all be considered white, but “ethnic.” I think it is interesting that as a main character in a prime time network show there exists the possibility that she is not as white as most women on television, yet I feel like the potential for a multivalent identification is constantly squashed by the show – but hey, it’s complicated may only work in terms of a facebook relationship status when it comes to high school.

  • Pingback: Stage Left: Glee and the Textual Politics of Difference Lucas … central university

  • I really enjoyed this article, which read as a sort of summary of the problematic elements of ‘Glee.’ I realize I may have been suppressing a gut response to the overt political problems with ‘Glee’ simply because I am swooning over the entertainment value of the show. I mean, Van Halen’s “Jump” performed in pajamas, bouncing on mattresses — brilliance!!

    But it’s true — that moment when Sue Sylvester called out “Asian. Other Asian…” tripped a nerve in my politically-correct, child-of-the-80s ears. When I was at the age of ‘Glee’s “target audience,” my regular shows were ‘Party of Five,’ ‘Full House,’ ‘90210,’ ‘Blossom,’ and so on — shows that were lesson-driven, inoffensive, took themselves incredibly seriously — and whose casts were almost 100% white. It occurs to me that ‘Glee’ and all of its candor (certainly many of its musical selections) is the direct descendant of that TV generation. The humor of a generation that was raised on synthesizer soundtracks and artificial audience “awww”s as a lesson was doled out is resisting exactly that.

    The offensive moments in ‘Glee’ call attention to the multiculturalism movement — which was so earnest during my public school days in the 90s — and precisely where these good intentions went awry. I remember countless “celebrating our diversity” lesson plans in my elementary school classrooms, which may have done more to highlight and aggravate our differences than they did to bring us together. Who knows. ‘Glee’ presents this culturally awkward stage, then smoothes it over with pop music whereas sitcoms of the 90s simply tended to ignore the issues altogether.

    As I said, ‘Glee’ — at times offensively blunt — appears to be a very natural descendant of the 90s teen sitcom. Neither provides an entirely mature cultural outlook, but both are certainly entertaining.

  • Lovely, insightful article.

    I’m particularly compelled by a follow-up comment by Myles McNutt in which he notes, “that high school is inherently unnatural,” as a defense for the show’s reductive posture toward plausibility/characterization and follow-through of plot points.

    I’ve been toying with the idea that shows like GLEE are simply assuming the fleeting “glance” with which audiences today engage television. It is because our attention spans are assumed to be overwrought with television’s “semiotic/aural/visual” densities (Mimi White), perhaps, that shows have begun to abridge and reduce story lines to the levels they have. I recall waiting with bated breath for Ross and Rachel to finally bring their love to fruition in FRIENDS, and not once feeling manipulated or jerked around nonsensically. With GLEE, however, romances are picked up and dropped off like hitchhikers, at times being born and completed all in one episode.

    However, I return to Myles’ comment– high school is, simply, a time of reductive narcissism. This would be a compelling reason to shift the show’s protagonist role over to Rachel rather than Will– it is perfectly plausible that in her type-A self-concern she’d perceive her own world through a series of overwrought “glances,” dropping in and out of concern for others’ story lines and connecting emotional dots without much coherence.

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