I used to be a regular Glee viewer. For the first two seasons, it was possible (though not necessarily easy) for me to look past the cringe-worthy storylines and enjoy the musical sequences. But as each new episode aired, it became harder and harder to not feel angry about the one-dimensional characters and Ryan Murphy's obvious lack of ability to write for women, people of color, and people with disabilities. And honestly? With the exception of Kurt, the show's handling of queer issues has been disastrous, too.
I stopped watching Glee after seeing Season 3's episode "I Kissed a Girl," during which Santana performs Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" as if it were a song about lesbian reclamation rather than performative bisexuality for the sake of male spectators. (Don't worry, we will address Perry's song and what negative messages it sends about bisexuality later in this series!) But this episode wasn't the first time the show dropped the ball on queer representation. Season 2's episode "Blame It on the Alcohol" stands out as a prime example of Glee missing the mark on bisexuality, particularly bisexual men.
Discussions around sex and sexuality can sometimes be dignified by being medicalized or being couched in the terms of education. But sometimes that very frankness makes these discussions culturally unacceptable, even alongside completely normalized images of sexualized bodies, themes of promiscuity, and genres of "romance" that serve as thin excuses to repeat a hackneyed story about sexual conquest.
So I was watching Glee the other night, waiting desperately to see if Brittany and Santana would show some sign that they were still together. As I tried to peer into the minds of Glee's creators and discover their subversive intent in having the lesbian character Santana dance to a song with romantic lyrics about boy/girl love with the gay-in-real-life Ricky Martin, it hit me: TV is not activism. I mean, critiquing TV can be activism, but TV programming itself exists, by and large, in the service of profit, not activism. In recognition of TV's persuasive powers over "impressionable youth," there is a long history of the "after school special" and the "very special episode" of family sitcoms. But the structural inequalities and relations of rule responsible for the most urgent cultural problems of our time run way deeper than the politics of media representation.
Babies on TV serve as props for their parent's character development. On reality TV, babies are dreams come true and cute fashion accessories (for celebrity moms) or evidence of bad behavior (teen moms). On Dexter, toddler Harrison exists solely as a plot device to anchor daddy Dexter to the non-sociopathic world, and on Up All Night, baby Amy helps her hard-partying parents embrace adulthood. So, who exactly is doing the parenting here? Will the real parents please stand up?
One consequence of this kind of character presentation is that audience members can experience a sense of "she deserved it" when something bad happens. Take, for example, the domestic violence depicted in the Schuester kitchen, where Will grabs Terri, shoves her aggressively against a counter, and yanks at her clothing, all while she pleads with him to stop. This scene was not read as domestic violence by many viewers, because, well, she deserved it. If she hadn't been manipulative, he wouldn't have been "forced" to act in the way that he did.
This plays out continually in pop culture, where mentally ill characters are subjected to brutality and it is read as acceptable, appropriate, or even necessary in some cases, because of how their mental illnesses express. The symptoms and expressions of mental illness are not always easy to control, even for people receiving appropriate treatment, even for people who very much wish that these things didn't happen; it's not that people enjoy violent outbursts or crying jags or hallucinations. When viewers of pop culture receive the message that it is OK to behave abusively to someone because of mental illness, it sets a dangerous precedent.
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."