Tuning In: Sue Sylvester's "Vogue"

Glee made its return to Fox on Tuesday, following American Idol's Elvis night, which I thought was boring even with Adam Lambert.

In truth, I found the "Hell-O" episode to be pretty disappointing as well. The song selections were predictable. The plot was ridiculous, with its principal characters swapping love interests and getting further away from the partners they want. (Oh, and of course there was the whole potential date rape, date rape joke at the very least, situation.)

In addition to that nonsense, "Hell-O" quickly regressed back to some of the high school dramedy's inexcusable habits. Misogyny and racism have dogged the show from the beginning. Will Schuester makes out with a rival show choir director after discovering that guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury is a virgin. Pillsbury gives Schuester emotional space to heal from his broken marriage. Finn Hudson laughably channels his supposed inner rock star with the The Doors at Schuester's behest and entertains the prospect of a Cheerio sandwich before "discovering" that they're mean girls. Rachel Berry's feelings for Hudson shift to the star of the rival glee club who doesn't respect her. Berry leads two songs while minority characters Kurt Hummel, Mercedes Jones, Tina Cohen-Chang, Artie Abrams, Santana Lopez, and Mike ("Other Asian") Chang once again sing back-up. Boo!

But cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester's take on Madonna's music video for the 1990 hit "Vogue" following the episode was and remains the main event.

While I often find this to be the case, as Jane Lynch is the show's not-so-secret weapon, I found it interesting that she set up next week's much-anticipated "Madonna" episode. I'll admit that I find the trailer for "The Power of Madonna" to be more than a little disconcerting. Is no one going to question Madonna's awesomeness, much less challenge the idea that Madonna's sole contribution to women is the celebration of their sexuality? Hopefully Sylvester will complicate things, as I feel she did with her seemingly faithful rendition of "Vogue."

On the surface, Sylvester's "Vogue" closely recreates the look of the David Fincher-directed clip and many of the original's signature moments. Also, having Sylvester play Madonna is inspired. While Sylvester is older, doesn't sing, and isn't as conventionally attractive as the show's other female stars, she embodies the Alpha female identity Madonna represents for many fans.

But while Sylvester's sexuality is ambiguous, Lynch is a lesbian and plays the character with the same butch swagger she brought to characters like Best In Show's Christy Cummings and The L-Word's Joyce Wischnia. This reminds me of how Madonna often dabbles with lesbianism. Before she kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, Madonna was well-known for her friendships with Sandra Bernhard, Ingrid Casares, and Rosie O'Donnell. Madonna's insinuation into the LGBT community also took on racial dimensions with "Vogue," which pilfered from black drag culture with little attribution and much emphasis on the blond pop star. This is true of the music video, the song, and even Madonna's performance of it.

The back-up performers in Sylvester's "Vogue" are worth consideration too. Several of the dancers appear to be minor characters from the show. As they are men of color, this reifies the notion that both Madonna and Glee relegate people of color to the background. However, I did enjoy the inclusion of Amber Riley and Chris Colfer, who play Jones and Hummel. They are my favorite characters on the show and wish their talent could be put to better use than playing the sassy black girl and the gay teen boy. But, as on Glee, their knowing winks and glances often steal the show. I'd also like to point out that the music video subtly acknowledges the source material by positioning Riley alongside Colfer in the same configuration that Madonna's long-time back-up singer's Niki Haris was in for the original music video.

Finally, I'd like to point out things Sylvester adds to her version of "Vogue." She doesn't do the more physically demanding choreography featured in the original music video, most notably the floor slides. She also rejects being touched up by a make-up artist, while Madonna remains serene if bemused. Sylvester's matte lipstick is chapped, revealing the strain of performance that Madonna's perfectly drawn lips try to obscure. Best of all, Sylvester changes two lyrics. "Ginger Rogers dance on air" becomes a tribute to her own gracefulness. "Bette Davis, we love you" is turned into an at-face admission that she hates Schuester, who I'm waiting for her to unfavorably compare to Jon Arbuckle.

Thus, this music video makes obvious what many of us have known for some time: Glee's use of music may be interesting and some of the young talent is compelling if underused, but its star is Jane Lynch.

Comments

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Mr. Schuester

I'm really glad that you wrote this because I'm an avid Glee watcher but have definitely been feeling a little funny about several things in the show.

First of all: I agree with you, Jane Lynch is the star of the show, hands down.

Second: Schuester has really been pissing me off. Going back a bit, the most uncomfortable scene that I've watched on a comedic tv show recently was when Schuester found out that his ex-wife was pretending to be pregnant he reacted by throwing her pregnancy pad at the wall, threatening her, and when she raises her hand to block him he grabbed her wrist. I felt like I was watching a scene that was going to result in a rape or a brutal beating. I really didn't like how this seemed to come across as a legitimate reaction to what she had done. Since then, I haven't been able to look at Schuester as the lovable character that they make him out to be on the show.

And last week was really the icing on the cake. WTF. I get so sick of seeing this scene play out where the girl says she's a virgin and the guy stands back and gets this look on his face like "Oh shit I'm too much for her. She's going to take this way too seriously once I de-flower her." Bullshit. And making out with the other glee coach was ridiculous.

So, anyway, f Mr. Schuester. I'm sick of him.

Also, the scene I just wrote

Also, the scene I just wrote about can be watched here: http://www.hulu.com/watch/110121/glee-mattress
At about 25:18.

Schuester

A guy can't get angry for being manipulated and deceived without it being a precursor to brutality? The fact that the moment is tense speaks to the success of those involved in creating a believable scene.

Schuester questions his wife.
Throws a pillow at the wall.
Corners his wife.
Grabs her arm.
Rips off the 'baby'.

Unless you think Shuester's anger is illegitimate, I can't understand how the sequence of events is inappropriate given the context. I suppose one could argue his character isn't violent, so it's an inaccurate portrayal of how anger manifests in someone with his behavioral type. However, it could be such a devastating betrayal to the character that awareness of it results in an atypical response.

Violence= Never OK

I don't think that Schuester's anger was illegitimate, but I don't think that it's ever OK for anger to manifest itself into violence. This scene made me really uncomfortable; I can't imagine how a woman in a situation like that would not feel extremely afraid and violated. I don't care what she did, that wasn't OK.

Even the way that the scene is shot is violent. Look at the point-of-view shot with Schuester walking into the kitchen while Terry stands at the stove with her head turned away. That's totally the kind of shot (along with the shaky camera work and suspenseful music) that is used when the woman is about to get killed by the slasher. I'm not saying that I thought he was going to kill her, but I definitely felt uneasy and afraid of his character.

I appreciate what you said about this scene being a break from his usual character, because it definitely was...The thing that I've enjoyed about Schuester's character is that he's been portrayed as a straight and charismatic male who embraces a lot of traditionally feminine activities (singing, dancing, teaching), is emotionally literate, and also manages to get by without having his heterosexuality questioned. He's three-dimensional and manages not to be the butt of the jokes (outside of Sue's comments about his hair, but no one is exempt from her wrath). I was looking forward to seeing how the writers would portray Schuester when it came time for him to find out about his wife's fake pregnancy. I was HOPING that his character would demonstrate that men do not HAVE to become violent when angry. But alas, Schuester's character conforms to masculine stereotypes. He reacts violently and it is deemed appropriate because she is "crazy" and outside of this scene he is a "nice guy".

Violence = Not OK

Loving this discussion. Also, I'm glad that you all brought up the scene between Terry and Will, as I was very disturbed by it as well. While I believe Terry's secrecy to be completely in the wrong, I also sympathize with Terry's desperation informed by her limited circumstances in the rare moments when the show depicts her as a person and not a shrill harpie. I credit Jessalyn Gilsig with doing a good if thankless job in making her character relatable, particularly in that scene.

However, I basically think Will acts in this manner to reassert male dominance after feeling emasculated by his wife. I understand that he's hurt, but his violent behavior is inexcusable. If ever there's a time to take a walk around the block before working through an argument, it was then.

This brings us to Will, who I don't like at all. Basically, I think he embodies all the misogynistic, sexist, and racially ignorant tendencies of the supposedly sensitive male. His outsider status as a dorky glee club director obscures his societal positioning as a white, straight, conventionally attractive man. Furthermore, he purports to be inclusive and devoted to his kids, yet habitually overlooks/undervalues students like Mercedes. I found his behavior with Emma boorish, yet a truer indication of who he is than incorporating wheelchair dance routines into New Directions' repertoire. And I could live a long, happy life with the show without him rapping or donning a fedora like Justin Timberlake. White boy fail.

In short, I relish the moments when Sylvester cuts him down, even if I also wish that she was a glee club supporter. I only wish that more folks weren't on his band wagon.

Alyx Vesey

Male dominance?

I think the writers felt Mr. Shuester confronting Mrs. Shuester and becoming angry was a better scene than had he become depressed upon discovering the padding and walked out of the house (and the marriage). I thought his aggression was out of character, but because it is a deeply emotional moment I accepted it.

I agree with you that this scene is the most in-depth look we are given to Mrs. Shuester's character. For once, she's not an antagonist, and I enjoyed that fleeting moment.

"Basically, I think he embodies all the misogynistic, sexist, and racially ignorant tendencies of the supposedly sensitive male."

Oh, good god. I don't even know what to say. I could try to advance my authority as a sensitive male, but that would just open me up to being a supposedly sensitive male. I could try to offer a view on possessing unreasonable expectations, but that would just illustrate my inability to grasp the sociological significance of the material. I disagree with your assessment, but I don't think there's anything I can do to breach your stance.

Male dominance?

I agree with you about the confrontation being a deeply emotional moment. I'm not even necessarily advocating that the scene be taken out, as I think these moments happen in relationships that may not otherwise have a history of violence.

What I take issue with is how many people are quick to take Will's side. This solidarity is in large part orchestrated by the writing staff, who clearly set Will up to be sympathetic because he has been cuckolded by his shrewish wife. The writers could've done more to problematize both characters, but they chose not to. Had they done so, it might have illicited far more ambivalent feelings from the audience toward both characters.

As for disparaging comments regarding my criticisms around supposedly sensitive males, I'd hedge that you have about as much interest in my "authority" regarding my own feminist opinion as I do with your ability to speak as an authority to sensitive males, supposed or proven.

But I will clarify my comment that you quoted above. What I was originally getting at is that ingrained values are instilled in all people, not just cisgender boys and men. While they impact all of us differently depending on our gender, sex, sexuality, race, class, age, body type, and other identity markers, we must all work to unlearn them. Mediated representations are not above reproach in this matter, as they are created by people.

Platforms like this one are places in which we can contend and unlearn with one another, in a respectful manner. Thus while I'm not particularly interested in you breaching my stance on this matter, I am willing to have these sorts of conversations.

Alyx Vesey

not as inclusive as it claims to be

Furthermore, he purports to be inclusive and devoted to his kids, yet habitually overlooks/undervalues students like Mercedes.

Oh my god, yes. Although this isn't a problem with Will's character as much as it's a problem with the show. Except for maaaaaybe Santana Lopez, lately most of the minority characters are lucky to get one line per episode. They're certainly not getting any plotlines.

Who is the aggressor?

The scene is about betrayal and confrontation. If it were not suspenseful, the writers, actors, and director would have failed. The violence in the scene is of a minimal degree and is not blatantly disproportional to the emotional pain felt by the character so as to make it unjustifiable.

If the character was just upset, he could gather himself before becoming further angered, but the nature of the betrayal and the continual lies pushed him past that point. There’s nothing unrealistic or inappropriate about that progression.

On top of which, violence is a component of expressing anger; it’s not a stereotype and it’s not a sex-restricted behavior; it’s a consequence of becoming enraged. The degree and form it takes are all dependent upon particular situations, which makes it impossible to unilaterally declare violence an unreasonable consequence of becoming angry or to propose violence itself is intrinsically immoral.

In this particular scene, there is nothing disproportional about Mr. Shuester’s hostility to lead to the conclusion that he is blameworthy for misconduct. I could even be convinced to believe that Mrs. Shuester was antagonizing him and is more at fault for the escalation of the scene. Although that is quite a stretch, through dramatic irony I am aware that she is the perpetrator of an ongoing fraud and sought to avoid detection when confronted.

Who is the aggressor?

I'm going to have to disagree about your argument that "violence is a component of expressing anger" in terms of validating Will's behavior in this scene. I also find it really troubling that you believe Terry to be antagonizing him and is more at fault for the escalation of this scene, as it seems like you're suggesting that she was asking for violence.

Perhaps you think Will is the "victim" in this situation, but I think Terry is also a victim in many ways too. If I remember how events played out in this episode, Terry was planning on telling Will the truth but then witnessed an exchange between her husband and Emma, who she knew he was attracted to. This coupled with the wrong-headed advice of her sister indicate to me that Terry needed proper guidance. Will's ripping off of her fake belly was not that.

Bottom line: Will is the aggressor. I don't condone Terry's misguided actions, but I don't think they deserve the threat of violence. Clearly both parties contributed to the deterioration of their marriage. An objective third party or mediator is needed in such a tense situation.

Alyx Vesey

Well put, Alyx. Thanks!

Well put, Alyx. Thanks!

Where did I suggest Mrs.

Where did I suggest Mrs. Shuester was 'asking for it'?

I stated that it is reasonable to conclude she is more blameworthy for the fight because “... she is the perpetrator of an ongoing fraud and sought to avoid detection when confronted.”

‘Will is the aggressor.’

Did he force his wife to conspire with her sister to deceive him? Did he cause her to routinely lie to him, to manipulate Quinn, and to blackmail her doctor? He did not, these were her decisions, and as such there is no logical way to reach the conclusion that Mr. Shuester is blameworthy for his wife’s perfidious actions. And if he is not blameworthy for her actions, if he is not the cause of the deception, he cannot be the aggressor.

‘I don't condone Terry's misguided actions, but I don't think they deserve the threat of violence.’

Had she simply not sought to continue manipulating her husband when confronted by him, the argument might not have become violent (and it’s a rather minimal amount of violence as there is no physical harm inflicted); however, she pushed Mr. Shuester beyond that point. This scene is the definition of antagonizing someone through passive-aggressive means. Did she deserve the threat of violence? Her actions triggered the response; in the precise sense, she deserved it because she caused it.

“This marriage works because you don’t feel good about yourself.”
“This marriage works because I love you.”

Man, those pseudo-sensitive males must be terrible people for you to hear these two lines and side with the former person.

Seeking to avoid detection

Seeking to avoid detection when confronted does not make her the aggressor. Her husband was angry and cornering her. Of course she lied; she was trying to get out of an intimidating and scary situation and it's a totally reasonable thing to do when trying to de-escalate a situation like that.

I don't think this scene was unrealistic. These kinds of scenes play out all the time, but I don't think that makes it right. Anger does not have to progress into violence. There are plenty of people out there who are able to keep their anger in check without becoming violent, and we can always use more male characters who are able to demonstrate this.

FYI: The confrontation

FYI:

The confrontation starts with a calm question by Mr. Shuester.
Mrs. Shuester responds with deception.
He remains calm and asks another question.
She responds with more deception.
He becomes angry and throws the padding at the wall.

Her actions are understandable, but she is still blameworthy for her lies.

Also, she is not the aggressor because of this scene, but, rather, because “... she is the perpetrator of an ongoing fraud...."

The pilot spoke volumes

While I find some of the characters likable, Will has never been one of them, and I've been continually annoyed at all the focus on him. I got somewhat nervous during the scene you mentioned, but I found his behavior in the pilot far worse. He planted drugs on a kid in order to blackmail him into *joining his club.* Last time I saw someone behave in a comparable way, both of us were about eight, and Will is not just an adult, but a teacher, and a supposed role model for that same kid.
I was disappointed, but not too surprised, when he cheated on Emma so quickly (and yes, I do consider it cheating or at least betrayal, since he led Emma to believe they were a committed couple from the beginning.) We already knew he's primarily after his own gratification at the expense of treating others well.

The pilot spoke volumes

Agreed on all points. I also think he's technically cheating on Terry when he kisses Emma in the first half's finale.

Also, I forgot about that scene in the pilot and appreciate the reminder. Wasn't it Finn that he planted drugs on? Hardly proper teaching behavior. My mom's a choir director, and she's had no problems recruiting jocks for her ensembles. It's all about acquiring trust and getting them excited about making music.

Alyx Vesey

Yep

It was indeed Finn. Maybe Ryan Murphy didn't want Finn to join of his own accord since that would repeat Josh's actions in Popular, but surely there could have been a less alarming plot device.

I love Jane Lynch, but how

I love Jane Lynch, but how did this differ much from the original video? The production values are high, she seems fairly serious except for the one moment she pushes the make-up artist away. Where was the humor?

I love Jane Lynch, but how

Fair question, Suka. Apart from the extratextual awareness of Lynch's lesbianism and how I believe it informs her characterization of Sylvester, I don't believe it differs much at all from the original music video.

However, I think the strict adherence to the clip aligns with Sylvester's Alpha female persona. And while I don't think humor was necessarily the goal of the music video so much as it was meant to ramp up interest for next week's episode, I did find the faithful rendition funny, particularly in those moments when Sylvester unexpectedly deviates from the original.  

Alyx Vesey

<3

Thank you, Alyx! As someone who often enjoyes Glee, yet agrees with almost all of the criticism she has read, I love seeing fellow feminists weigh in. I appreciate the nuances to your viewing of "Vogue;" I would not be surprised if Jane Lynch intended to criticize Madonna, minority co-opting and celebrity culture in general. Honestly, I was so irritated by the time the video came on that I barely watched. I thought "Hell-O" was awful, largely for the same reasons you've covered here. Considering how popular Mercedes, Artie and especially Kurt have become amongst fans, I was surprised and dismayed to see the other characters (including the one whose pregnancy, though not character, has dominated most of the show) only have several lines revolving around schoolwork and Rachel.
The sexism is becoming more and more alarming, and arguably the two most sympathetic female characters (Emma and Rachel,) were treated brutally in this episode. Why does the sweet guidance counselor have to be a virgin? If she were only relatively inexperienced for her age, would it ruin the "purity" she embodies? Her germaphobic tendencies -- are they supposed to be a heroine's tragic flaw? *eyeroll* -- are way overemphasized at this point. As for Rachel, I found it refreshing to see a young woman who didn't hate herself at the forefront of a show at first. More and more, though, the writers have been harping on the fact that everyone hates her *because* she's confident and ambitious. To drive the point home, this episode features a horrible scene in which Rachel herself declares that she has to date whomever offers, since it might be her "last chance" at romance because of "the type of person" she is.
I feel like the "strong female" has been demonized by the character of Sue, too, but Lynch plays her as such a charismatic villain that it's arguably less problematic. The trouble with making Sue so likable, of course, is that she's *not* just a rival to the characters; she hates racial minorities, LGBTs and the disabled. And then there's the date-rape situation, UGH. Why didn't they just have Sue seduce the principal? Is it so hard to believe anyone could find her attractive in some way?
Oh, and the sexually ambiguous cheerleaders offer to make out for a guy.
I was first interested in Glee because it was created by the same people as the smart show Popular, but should things continue this way, old loyalties may not hold me.

I don't think Sue hates

I don't think Sue hates minorities; she'd probably see that as a waste of time. In Sue's world a person's value is a direct result of how useful they are to her and for the most part that's been the white, pretty, "normal" children. If putting Mercedes at the top of a cheer leading pyramid would win nationals, Sue would do it. She can and will use any tool at hand to achieve her goals and while it's harsh almost to the point of evil, that honesty is admirable. Especially when put against Will Shuester's (and the show in general's) half-assed attempts at fair play.
Shuester is constantly on a platform of moral superiority when it comes to the inclusion of all the students in glee which is funny seeing how often he is motivated by guilt. The "Defying Gravity" episode is the best example. While under the threat of a lawsuit suddenly Mr. Shuester has a revelation about fair competition? And did anyone else feel that Tina's "Tonight Tonight" was more about putting Rachel in her place than giving Tina a shot? This pattern get's repeated through the show. Mercedes fights and wins a well deserved solo but come performance day Rachel has to take over. The deaf kids put on an uplifting performance at Mckinley High but at seasonals they're a joke. Does Kurt ever return to his position as star kicker after everyone else gets back on the team?

Sue may have the board set against people but at least it's always the same game.

Sylvester and Lynch

Sue calls Artie "cripple" and "half-person," calls Mercedes and Matt "Aretha" and "Shaft," and in case her comments against Rachel's dads were too subtle, she outlined her hyperbolic homophobia with the Sneaky Gays segment. Yes, she wants to use people for her own purposes, but I personally think it's fair to say that Sue hates minorities. Possibly this *stemmed* in her regarding them as less beneficial to herself, but it's there either way.
I understand at least one reason behind why viewers defend her: Lynch's charisma makes Sue seem so acerbic and powerful that we want to like her, but even for those of us who hate Will (and my hand is up,) it's not necessarily that simple. I, for one, keep wishing I were watching Joyce Wishnia, whom Lynch played with similar ruthlessness but also feminist sentiments.

Bothered as well...

I was bothered by the virginity scene too- but not because she was a virgin, but because it so clearly was meant to mark her as a strange person. Why is it so unacceptable to have never had sex before?

I agree that Will is a problematic character at best- he is misogynistic and is a cheater. I also hate the way that Rachel is constructed as being a 'bitch' because she is self-confident. She reminds me of myself before middle school when my self-confidence was removed by the teasing and cruelty of my classmates. I love her confidence.

I am most bothered by the way that characters that are not white, able-bodied or straight are pushed to the side or used as devices. Artie is not a toy to be pushed off stage as a joke. Kyle is not your punching bag. Mercedes and Tina are not a backup singer- they are just as talented as Rachel.

I also think that Jane Lynch, while amusing, is not without problems. I don't see her as the 'heart' of the show. In fact, she is the character that most often makes me angry. She is meant to appeal to hipster-types and be 'ironic' but she is also a confirmation of bigotry and that is a problem.

This. Thank you. I haven't

This. Thank you. I haven't caught up with this season of Glee--it was getting a little too over the top campy for me--but I am a bit annoyed if they're using Emma's virginity to indicate her strangeness. Why is it that the media seems to only be capable of portraying virginity as one of two opposites--either a morally pure, superior choice or a sign of being strange, odd loser?

To be fair, I'm biased in this area, as someone who is a virgin well into her twenties, far past when society considers it acceptable. And I certainly don't think that we should take the route of revering virginity and judging others, but that also doesn't mean that it's cool to slam someone for not having sex. Why can't we just accept virginity for what it is--as Inara points out in Firefly, it's simply a state of being. Nothing more, nothing less.

I don't think the character

I don't think the character of Sue Sylvester is sexually ambiguous at all. There was an episode when she was dating the male anchor of the new show she does a segment on. If anything, she may be bisexual, but I don't think there has been any indication towards that direction. Jane Lynch is playing a character and I think you are conflating that with who she is in real life in regard to her sexuality. Additionally, I think her un-p.c.-ness has to do more with the fact that she just is angry at the world and pretty much hates everybody. While I certainly don't condone it, I think it is done in a manner that does not lend itself easily to viewers believing that it is an acceptable or decent way to talk and behave. Either way, congratulations to Jane Lynch on getting engaged last week!
I do agree with the problems of racism though. The Mike character (I had no idea that he had a name either) is very attractive and probably the best dancer on the show, he should have more air time... or at least a few lines!

I don't think the character

First off, I second the congrats on Lynch's engagement.

Sylvester dating the male anchor doesn't really convince me of her sexuality anymore than coaching the Cheerios convinces me that she loves kids. If anything, her dating him could just as easily read as trying to abide by cultural norms, which she clearly holds dear in other aspects of her life. In her world, weak people simper for inclusiveness. The strong conquer, often by passing or assimilating.

I think this also informs how she views race (where she clearly exhibits racist beliefs), as well as the disabled. She's vehemently opposed to Will's condescending notions toward inclusivity, treating Cheerio Becky (who has Down syndrome) as she would any of the other squad members.

Again, I don't necessarily think Sylvester's a lesbian (though that zoot suit she wears in "Mash-Up" pinged my 'dar, to say nothing of her track suits). Thus, I am trying not to conflate Lynch with Sylvester, apart from the characterization the actress brings to the character that recalls other explicitly lesbian characters she has played. But I certainly think she's queer. Don't forget that the anchor cheated on her, the anger of which she took out on pregnant Quinn Fabray by kicking her out of the Cheerios. Fabray can abide by supposed female biological destiny, but Sylvester cannot.

Alyx Vesey