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Glee: Confronting Adversity with Hyperbole and High Notes

May 13, 2010

It’s getting difficult to bust a move these days without accidentally high-fiving a fellow Gleek (that’s a Glee geek for any of you weeks behind the rest of us). The FOX musical television show, which is eighteen episodes into its first season after taking a four-month intermission between episodes thirteen and fourteen, has garnered fans faster than one can say “break a leg.” Not only does its Tuesday night airings gather a respectable 13 million regular viewers, but the show is an online phenomenon, being watched and re-watched by millions at FOX’s site and, re-performed and discussed by thousands on social networking sites, and tweeted about like none ever! And honestly, it’s not surprising. The show is about a group of “all-American” teens struggling with the day-to-day pressures of teenagehood in rural Ohio, who find an outlet in their show tunes choir where they can sing out their frustrations and connect across boundaries otherwise bisected. Many of the characters are beyond loveable, the humor of the show is off the wall and the musical numbers—including the singing, costumes, choreography and montages—are stunning. The combination has proved to be a powerful force.

At the same time, however, it has—per usual—raised a series of qualms in the feminist blogosphere. It is far from being the most PC show out there, a characteristic which sites such as Feministing, Bitch Media, this ain’t livin’ and others were quick to pick-up on. From the start, many have worried whether the African-American, Asian, homosexual, and physically disabled characters would simply unfold into token inclusions. Bloggers have continued to claim that characters such as Artie, Kurt, Tina and Mercedes have taken on predictable stereotypes and the show’s depiction of marginalized groups is in fact hurting more so than helping.  These writers have also taken issue with the blatant bigotry of the Sue Sylvester character, who as the ever-competitive power-hungry cheerleading coach humiliates students and coworkers alike by picking at their greatest insecurities, whether it be their plummeting popularity, their seeming lack of overt sexuality, their looks or their weight, and they point out similar utterances of anti-semitism and transphobia from the mouths and pens of her beloved “Cheerios.” s.e. smith at this ain’t livin’ writes:

“[P]eople get that Sue Sylvester is supposed to be a bigot, but the problem is that some people don’t recognize it when she says bigoted things, whether they are racist, transphobic, sexist, ableist, classist…she’s hard to recognize as a satire for some folks because they don’t really understand what she’s saying.”

The argument being that viewers might not get that what she’s saying is awful and will take away from the show that it is in fact okay to speak about certain groups of people in hurtful and demeaning ways. These qualms, while understandable at times, miss the mark on two specific counts: 1. That the show is by and large about the mistreatment of its minority characters and 2. That humor, even when including hyperbolic representation, can be an effective means of critique and cultural commentary.

Since the airing of the second half of season one this April, Glee has taken up sexist, racist, homophobic and ableist oppression as the focus of its plot. Mr. Schuester has choreographed a number for the entire choir in wheelchairs, making them spend hours in the chairs each day, which causes them to recognize the challenges that Artie faces regularly, as the school—like many institutions—fails to take his interests to heart, seeing him and others like him as burdens rather than equal members of the school. Kurt and Mercedes, on the other hand, have tactfully maneuvered to repeatedly demonstrate to Mr. Schuester and their fellow Glee Club members that they deserve more than supporting roles in the choir. Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt, recently told Oprah:

“When I was in high school, I was daily reminded of my imperfections by other students and some times teachers, and to be a part of a project that celebrates your differences and makes your disadvantages your advantages has been very therapeutic.”

Furthermore, the show’s entire fifteenth episode, “The Power of Madonna,” was dedicated to illustrating the challenges faced by women—both young and old—in American culture and showing respect for whom they are both inside and out. The episode has generated a contentious discussion around whether or not Madonna is an appropriate role model/symbol of feminism and female empowerment, extending a debate that’s been ongoing since the release of her 1985 Material Girl video. Nevertheless, the boys’ singing of What it Feels Like for a Girl—including the dialogue immediately preceding and following the performanceis priceless and the episode’s concluding performance of Like A Prayer—with solos from Rachel, Finn, Kurt and Mercedes—is not to be missed.

While I, personally, find Glee growing away from the stereotyping of its lead characters exponentially as episodes proceed, there is no denying satire is regularly at play in the show, and that it is using humor to demonstrate common misconceptions and elucidate the horrific simplicities with which we often unconsciously conceive of one another. It resembles Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report in this manner, as characters take on one set of values in order to make apparent the validity of those exactly opposite. And I, unlike S.E. Smith, don’t think that this humor is lost on Glee viewers. When Sue Sylvester tells her Cheerios not to complain—it’s not as if they’re being water-boarded—or claims that as a child she dyed her hair with napalm, I think it’s clear that we are not to take her literally. Similarly, when a back-up member of the choir is referred to as “the other Asian,” we are not to take the misnomer at face value but are instead forced to realize the discomfort that such a verbal reference elicits, making manifest the inappropriateness of what many may have previously thought but left unsaid.

At the same time, these harsh quips are mixed in with sometimes upbeat, other times soulful musical numbers, all of which manage to cheer the viewer without letting him or her forget the not always innocuous disparities these characters face. And general awkwardness and tension, particularly in regards to sexuality and gender, do not vanish when the music starts. Some of the shows most powerful numbers are pervaded with the difficult questions initiated in the dialogue and develop the tension therein. When Rachel and Kurt “diva-off” for the opportunity to sing the musical Wicked’s  Defying Gravity solo, the show’s remixing of their auditions into a duet pits the two against each other, building the tension to the point in which Kurt purposefully blows the contentious high note, sacrificing his own dreams for the cares and concerns of Mr. Schuester and his father, both of whom—for different but related reasons—previously expressed discomfort in the idea of him singing a traditionally female part. It’s scenes such as these, where the show’s inability to go down calmly—to be consumed casually—becomes apparent, that make it a delightful anomaly on network television.

Roxanne Samer is the Visual Arts Editor at Gender Across Borders and an avid Gleek.

  1. May 13, 2010 4:26 pm

    Hey Roxanne,

    I don’t know much about Glee specifically, but I think it would be worth considering some of the general criticisms of disability simulations. See, for instance:

    • Roxanne Samer permalink*
      May 14, 2010 8:07 am


      Thanks for sharing these sources with me. I was not familiar with this line of criticism (it wasn’t raised in the critiques of the show that I read), but I can definitely understand them now. When I related that particular plot line in the post, I didn’t mean to be out and out defending Mr. Schuester’s decision (I have myriad problems with how he runs the show choir and treats certain members though more subconsciously than purposefully like Sue), but I did mean to emphasize it as an example of the show taking on oppression as its subject matter. It’s important for me to be clear that I don’t read the show as a sexist, racist, transphobic, ableist tool of propaganda–which so many of those opposed to it seem to–but instead as an example of popular media taking on these issues in some of their ugliest forms through humor and song. The blatancy with which characters’ differences are addressed read to me to as hyperbolic confrontations of oppression. Obviously, not everyone agrees…

  2. RachelintheOC permalink
    May 13, 2010 9:11 pm

    Excellent article that explains so well the finer points of what makes glee so great.

    While I find it hard to believe that educated people can somehow miss the blatant satire of the show, in particular of Sue Sylvester, I will (grudgingly) concede that young kids may not catch the nuance.

    But so what? Maybe instead they’ll see that when Sue referred to “the other Asian,” the looks she got from the other kids were appropriately distateful. The education is there, folks. You just have to pay attention.

  3. May 14, 2010 2:04 am

    I agree that humour can be an effective means of critique and cultural commentary, but I’m quite far from convinced that this is what’s going on with Glee, or that the show is about confronting oppression. Even if this was the case, it doesn’t take away from the fact that, as many people have said, lots of casual viewers are going to understand Glee as laughing at these various groups, or just not think about it that hard and take it as a cue to simply laugh at the non-white/disabled/queer etc characters themselves.

    To be frank, I’m not convinced that the show’s makers are really invested in fighting oppression. The show mostly focusses on the characters with the least oppressions on their backs, like Will. As Elizabeth just pointed out, the disability simulation was hugely problematic. Mercedes and co. might mention that they want a bigger part or more solos, but that’s not really a proper attempt on the part of makers at recognising how people of colour, in her case, get shoved out of the limelight, because Rachel and co. still get most of the main parts and attention. It’s not even an attempt at recognising problematic elements in the show, because if the show was serious about promoting equality, characters like Mercedes would actually get major parts, or even an equitable share of the limelight in a show that is supposedly about the ensemble, instead of just talking about it sometimes. Such moments seem to be simply momentary displays of (faux) inclusion by way of warding off criticism. It’s those kinds of lazy gestures at not-quite-inclusion or attempts to acknowledge how the show is problematic or whatever that make me doubt the show’s makers really care.

    And the use of “satire” is so much worse. When there are jokes about ‘shemales’ and such, how many people do you really think are going to think ‘oh, that’s transphobic, and this is meant to be a critique of transphobia in our society!’? Transphobia is so normalised that that sort of consideration isn’t even going to be apparent to most viewers. As you pointed out, satire necessitates audience understanding that satire is what’s actually going on. That is, in the case above, the audience has to understand that “shemale” is an epithet used to demonise a group of people who are subject to incredibly high rates of violence and discrimination – and that trans women are really women, not “actually men pretending to be women” as that epithet implies (well, it doesn’t just imply it, it’s quite explicit, but you know what I mean). But transphobia is highly prevalent, so what the use of that epithet does is to provoke laughter, or shock and anger in my case and the case of many others. The effect, by and large, isn’t one of solidarity with trans women but appropriation of an insult. What the effect of this type of humour is going to be for most people is a repetition of all those horrible tropes they encounter every day, not commentary on them. And in combination with all the other factors that might, just possibly, be failed attempts at promoting the interests of oppressed people, this “satire,” if it is intended to be that, just fails that much harder, because there’s no successful element off which it might reflect as satire. Essentially, when oppressions are the butt of jokes on this show, there’s no real reason for me to read it as satire, because the show is reinforcing oppression in all those other ways. The “humour” just reads like ‘oh we’re such postmodern hipsters being ironic okay!?’

    And regardless of the makers’ intent, regardless of how the audience may or may not be supposed to take it, there isn’t really a doubt that many people are not going to take it as satire, are not going to be challenged their thinking. And even where the intent may well be to do right by marginalised groups, that doesn’t mean the makers necessarily must succeed – as we can see with, for instance, that horrible disability simulation. Intent doesn’t make a whole lot of difference with regard to impact! There are valid reasons to complain about the show, and valid reasons to be hurt by the dynamics. Personally, I think viewers are being presented with a really confusing combination of oppressive elements and a sprinkling of really poorly done attempts at empowerment. Which is not to say that you’re wrong – that the show’s makers aren’t trying to be anti-oppressive – simply that your reading it in the way that you are doesn’t invalidate the readings of all those bloggers and other people, which have pretty solid grounding.

    Also, on another note, s.e. smith’s name’s all lowercase, and the site is this ain’t livin’ :).

  4. Roxanne Samer permalink*
    May 14, 2010 7:56 am


    Thanks for pointing out those two typos. I have gone back and properly de-lowercased and punctuated those citations.

    I completely agree that a few of the jokes on the show stand out as more distasteful than others, and I am not meaning to defend every decision made by the show’s writers & producers. I completely disagree, however, with you that the show is somehow only about its white, heterosexual characters. Kurt and Mercedes, in particular, are front and center of most of the recent plot lines, have had some of the most amazing performances and are clear fan favorites. And while Rachel may have an unfair share of the solos, she should not be grouped apart from those targeted by the shows antagonists, the Cheerios, as her race/religion is brutishly dragged into conversations by those seeking to ostracize her (Rachel: “Can I ask you guys something private?” Quinn: “Yes, you should move to Israel”).

    Furthermore, I stick by my argument that the show can be read satirically (an action taken not on part of the makers but the viewers) and that the pleasure that is derived from watching it–for some of us at least–comes from what we see as a subversive empowering message. No one I know watches because they take joy in seeing women, people of color or physically disabled high schoolers treated poorly. The show itself, I feel, prevents one from identifying whatsoever with Sue and her cruel Cheerios. Rather, it is a show for those who can in some way or another relate to being a misfit, an outsider and who have fun seeing them fight their oppression through song and dance with style, beauty and class. I do not mean to discount some viewers uncomfortability with certain derogatory comments, but I do feel as if awful statements are made about people every day in real life and that television’s role is not to pretend that oppression doesn’t exist and simply show people of different backgrounds getting along seamlessly. I, personally, do not mind receiving my cultural critiques with a light dose of humor and and potent dose of musical theater. Seriousness and silliness are not mutually exclusive.

  5. May 15, 2010 6:53 am

    Wow, Roxanne, you’re pretty much entirely responding to things I didn’t actually say there. You are of course not obligated to respond to my comment, but I’d really rather you not knock down things I didn’t actually put up.

  6. Roxanne Samer permalink*
    May 15, 2010 9:14 am


    I am sorry that you are disappointed with my response. I was responding to some of your key points, namely your claim that the show ” mostly focusses on the characters with the least oppressions on their backs, like Will,” which I did translate to “the show is somehow only about its white, heterosexual characters.” I state it yet again, I disagree that somehow the show focuses on those like Will, Finn, Quinn, Puck and Rachel (?). I also don’t think that the scenes and entire plot lines where those such as Kurt and Mercedes struggle with lack of popularity or attention (think of the entire episode two weeks ago where one group worked together to earn the attention of the cool kids) as well as the scenes where they fight for the top solos are simple “lazy gestures at not-quite-inclusion or attempts to acknowledge how the show is problematic or whatever,” like you say. I think that these characters were written into the story from the start with one purpose being to draw attention to the caste system of high school and extra-curriculars. It happens in real life. In high school theater or choir, there tends to be unequal distribution of leads and solos. Choir directors play favorites, and in many cases minorities or those who make society uncomfortable (such as trans women) get neglected, overlooked or openly oppressed. I think this is a key focus of the show’s plot line.

    I also addressed your concerns about satire, and I think it’s probably best to agree to disagree. While it depends on the audience, many of those who watch it, at least in the adult demographic, DO understand the derogatory comments that are made and don’t take them as the punchline to a joke to repeat in our own lives. As I wrote in the article, we recognize the horridness of these statements, become more aware of how language constitutes inequities in society and identify with those being teased rather than those teasing.

    I also tried to put some of this reading of the show in the hands of the readers, as your comment seemed to read my article as purely addressing the interests and goals of the show’s makers. I do not know the writers or producers personally. I have seen interviews with them where they do state some of these same claims for the show as a show about the inequalities within society and some of the actors have expressed similar sentiments (see quote in article), but I also think it demands an active audience in order to work properly, and I recognize that some, particularly young audiences, might not “get” all of the intricacies therein.

    I hope this helps to address your concerns. We may just have to agree to disagree, though that doesn’t seem to be okay to you….

  7. May 18, 2010 4:06 pm

    i really appreciate the discussion going on here. roxanne, i think you did a great job of teasing out the arguments against the show and pointing out ways in which it subverts them. i think chally has good points, too. most everyone agrees that the wheelchair episode may have been well-meant, but failed in a lot of ways. to me, this is the crux of what’s happening with Glee. i’m an idealist in a lot of ways, but i’m also realistic in my hopes for progressive movement in mainstream entertainment. Glee is VERY much mainstream and, while i’m not saying we SHOULDN’T expect more and demand more, i think we also need to celebrate move’s toward more progressive messages.

    again, i’m not saying we shouldn’t criticize the show for its faults, but i feel like the best criticism sometimes comes from those who are also fans. i’m an unabashed fan and watch every episode hoping that it will better than the last, in respect to all of these issues. so far, they’re doing pretty well and some of the arguments i had early on have been addressed (like in the Kurt/Mercedes rebellion to perform with the Cheerios). i really hope it continues in this vein and that the fans keep watching AND critiquing.

    • Roxanne Samer permalink*
      May 20, 2010 2:11 pm

      I completely agree! Fanship doesn’t preclude criticism! Keep it up!


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