"On the Right Track, Baby"? Glee's Muddled Message about Difference
Group pic via tvguide.com.
On Tuesday, Glee aired their second vaguely Lady Gaga-inspired episode, "Born This Way." Like the first, Season One's "Theatricality," it was, to quote Alyx Vesey, "a mixed bag stuffed to the purse strings."
Then again, when it comes to me and Glee, ambivalence is never an option. As a gay, disabled ex-theatre kid and continued devotee to musicals, no show has ever made me so many implicit promises. In addition, I watched Ryan Murphy's original show, Popular, regularly as an adolescent, and most of Glee's characters are obvious reincarnations of that dramedy's ensemble, often differing in revealing ways.
Basically, if I were less politically inclined, I might be Glee's target audience. As it is, I'm alternately delighted and furious with their depictions of queerness, disability, and gender, usually within the same episode and often during the same minute.
Ostensibly, the "Born This Way" episode was about self-acceptance and bullying, or, as Mercedes put it in one of her few lines, "the thing that people use to crush your spirit." As usual, I enjoyed the musical numbers (except for the "Barbra Streisand" flash mob scene, which, in addition to being overly familiar, I frankly found embarrassing.) Mostly, though, I had looked forward to this episode because I knew Glee would get back to their oft-neglected queer issues, particularly the Brittany/Santana pairing.
The tension between the best friends/occasional lovers came to a head recently in "Sexy."
Newly self-aware, this week saw Santana hatching a convuluted plan around closeted bully Dave Karofsky: pretend to date him to maintain the illusion of straightness and make Brittany jealous, pressure Dave into apologizing for his homophobic attacks on Kurt, get Kurt to re-enroll at McKinley High, and hopefully wind up with extra votes for prom queen. While I'm not thrilled that Santana's lesbianism is a mode for manipulation, it's in keeping with her prejudiced and near-amoral character.
Here's the part that can't be justified: Santana ropes Dave in by threatening to out him. So much for last week's queer solidarity with Kurt and his boyfriend, Harry Potter—er, Blaine. To borrow a phrase from her, let's actually "keep it real": Outing is a really fucking awful thing to do to someone. It's not like telling a secret about, say, being afraid of the dark, and I hate seeing it used as a bargaining chip, let alone by another closeted queer character, which further sends the message that outing's marginally okay.
Fortunately, Kurt comes to the rescue. Or does he?
Threat or no threat?
Well, that was a bizarre turnaround, not to mention wholly unnecessary. Even if Kurt wanted to make a deal, he could have simply offered his return as his side of the bargain. Instead, he copied Santana almost exactly, resorting to sexuality blackmail despite having taken about two breaths since his condemnation of exactly that. (See what I mean about delight and fury in the same minute?) I hate that this tactic is being framed as how QUILTBAG kids interact with one another. Brittany eventually rebuked Santana for attacking others while not loving herself, but Kurt, who is often posited as the show's moral center, is apparently meant to be viewed as in the right. Sure, Karofsky's awful, but are threats that bank on anti-gay folk the way to "educate" self-hating gays? (Hint: no.)
The other main plot of "Born This Way" revolved around Rachel considering rhinoplasty in hopes of looking more like Quinn. This storyline was likely inspired by Ms. Michele's personal history, as she has been candid about her acting classmates expecting her to undergo the procedure in high school. Rachel's decision to accept her nose as is, amidst uncomfortable Jewish jokes, was inevitable from the first scene; less predictable was the revelation that Quinn had a nose job herself before high school. While I knew that some variety of the conventionally-attractive-girls-get-insecure-too message would show up, I'm troubled that the writers didn't come up with something other than "she used to be heavier and bigger-nosed." Don't quintessential popular girls have issues with their appeareances sometimes?
On the brighter side, Ashley Fink continues to rock her role as confident Lauren. As in Fat Girls, her charm might steal the show, especially now that Lauren is subject to fewer tired fat jokes. Unfortunately, this episode did feature plenty of gags at the expense of bigger people. This, for example, does not make sense to me at all:
Brennan, Murphy, and Falchuk know that fatness isn't a school club, right?
Arguably, though, the most bizarre angle of "Born This Way" was its attempt to address mental illness. Following the dissolution of her marriage, guidance counselor Emma's obsessive-compulsive disorder appeared to have taken over her life. As usual, Will condescendingly demanded she get help, while I wished, for the umpteenth time, that Emma would appear on Glee in a capacity that's not all about him. (Do you care about Will's personal life? I really, really do not.) Anyway, she attended therapy, leading to this strange scene:
As someone living with both type one diabetes and depression, let me assure you: not that comparable.
When it comes to Emma, Glee's message is unambiguous: She should be on unspecified pills. I'm wary of this depiction of OCD as an extreme and all-consuming condition; after all, in addition to being quite common, not everyone does or needs to treat it with medication.
The storyline is also at odds with the rest of the "Born This Way" (both episode and song) message of accepting your self-perceived flaws with pseudo-religious "meant to be" fervor. While there's nothing wrong with Emma seeking medical help in and of itself, it's easy to read the episode's conclusion, in which Emma takes her first pill and the teenagers perform the title music, as "Be proud of everything about yourself... unless you're mentally ill." Despite it's much-hyped ninety-minute length—which, sans commercials, added up to less than an hour—the ep was not nearly nuanced enough for a sensitive treatment of disability if, indeed, the folks behind Glee are capable of that at all. (Their track record does not inspire confidence.)
For all the fuss "Born This Way" is getting, someone who had never seen Glee might think it was an ultra-liberal battle cry against the status quo. I wish. I don't know about Lady Gaga, but my approval is limited.
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