Tube Tied: Why Glee Bugs Me So Much
A year ago, right after the start of Glee’s first season, I complained in this space that the show was riddled with stereotypes. These days I haven’t much better to say about the show, other than that, from my perspective the writing has gotten even lazier, which I didn’t think was possible. This week’s Britney Spears episode, for example, didn’t even have a nominal plot, just a disconnected sequence of novocaine-induced hallucinations. Increasingly the show is just an excuse to connect musical interludes, and as people more learned in the field of music have remarked, the interludes are less and less good as time goes on. (I admit I loved the football version of “Single Ladies,” but it’s been a long time since the show did anything near that inventive.)
I’m hardly the only person who complains about Glee, of course. It seems to be something of a lightning rod for people’s complaints, particularly about diversity in television. The reason for this is somewhat immediately obvious; Glee presents itself as being a show about misfits. It’s taking up the banner for every kid who hates the social structure of their high school, whose clothes were mocked, who liked the wrong things (like music), or who were just, in the extraordinarily cruel way of teenage thinking, not the right kind of person, because they had a wheelchair, they were pregnant, they were black. For the people for whom any of these things were true, that’s a narrative that’s pretty close to your heart, and when people go to reproduce it in popular culture, to speak for what it felt like to be excluded and rejected—well, you feel a special ownership over that, I think. At least, I still do, though I’m now more than a decade away from that time in my life.
That’s why Glee’s laziness isn’t merely annoying, it’s infuriating.
And to be clear, I don’t need Glee to mirror anyone’s experience perfectly so much as I want it to take the burden it’s assumed for itself seriously. It’s not enough to assert, in each episode, that these kids are saved from their lives by the uplifting power of music. Increasingly, of course, the show doesn’t even bother with showing those challenges, which is kind of reprehensible, if you think about it. I mean, I’m writing this in the week that the media is all over a story about a 19-year-old from Rutgers who jumped off the George Washington Bridge because his really fucking cruel classmates decided to make some kind of Internet-show out of his bedroom activities with other men. We are not yet living in a society that is equal enough to keep people from ending their lives because they can’t see a place in life where they won’t be excluded and harassed.
I don’t want to over-stress the role that television can play in this kind of thing. But it does seem to me like one of the very few rays of hope you get, when you are a kid and the world seems to hate you, is to find some stories somewhere in the culture that seem to understand what you are going through. Television did this when I was a teenager, at least, effectively dramatizing through characters like Angela Chase and Darlene Conner what it was like to be a girl who wasn’t the “right kind,” whatever that means. Obviously the presence of those models in pop culture isn’t probably going to be enough to save anyone from the psychological consequences of structural discrimination. But it might be something, you know, and it’s a bone I wish the Glee writers could find it in their pens to throw their audience.
Because it’s possible, you know, to write a show about these issues where the “diversity” is not purely cosmetic. Where it’s about writing about actual human beings who live those lives. Over the summer, ABC Family was airing a show called “Huge,” which despite the off-putting title was actually doing this. I wish it’d gotten half the kind of publicity and network support Glee has.
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