“Being part of something special makes you special, right?”
When 14-year-old me first heard Rachel Berry say that on Glee’s pilot episode, I sat up and listened. “Right,” I said back to my TV screen, because I, too, wanted to belong to a community of like-minded people who would support me as I discover myself. Throughout its six-season run, Glee tried to extend the message of “you are not alone” to minorities and marginalized folks. 2019 marks ten years since the dramedy first aired, and many fans and critics celebrate Glee’s diverse characters and stories as they reflect on its legacy.
Glee’s diversity made a significant impact on me. It was the first time I saw so many people of colour, LGBT+ people, and people with disabilities as regular characters on mainstream TV. What’s more, they were not miserable most of the time but doing fun, everyday things that teenagers do, like having sleepovers, going on dates, and singing and dancing.
It wasn’t until I stopped watching the show and viewed it from a distance, that I understood it had more significant problems than plot holes. Ones that could not be glossed over by overloading us with songs. As I rewatched a few episodes for the 10th anniversary, I saw that merely having a visibly and nominally diverse cast of characters wasn’t enough. It is not the same thing as representing marginalized identities and representing them positively.
The approach that Glee took to be inclusive set itself up for a tricky situation. The spirit of Glee grew from its relentless championing of the underdog, the misfits and outcasts. It was ambitiously determined to highlight a wide range of important social and political issues and believed that the power of song could resolve most of the problems. But to celebrate everyone’s differences, Glee often essentialized differences, including those rooted in systems of power.
In an early episode of Season One, Will Schuester tells all the New Directions members, “You’re all minorities – you’re in the Glee Club.” As he says this, the camera focuses on Mercedes, the Black plus-size girl, and Kurt, the white gay boy, before zooming out to the whole group. It’s such a ridiculous line because it shows how simplistic and reductive Glee’s vision of equality is. It equates Mercedes feeling marginalized because she’s a Black girl, to white boys like Finn and Puck having their high school popularity status threatened because they joined the Glee Club. And surprise, surprise, Will is a straight white cis man, which makes his words extra patronizing.
When Glee does shine the spotlight on the marginalization experienced by people of colour and LGBT+ people, it tends to overlook intersectionalities. Ryan Murphy devoted a lot of care to develop Kurt, who’s a white gay cis male like himself, and his coming out storyline. Santana, a Latina lesbian, did not receive similar treatment.
Santana got a complex arc that involved her questioning and coming to terms with her sexuality, but it was not handled very sensitively. When she was outed by Finn, a straight white man, he was presented as thoughtfully helping her accept rather than hide who she is. Santana forgives him once she hears his moral judgement, and he becomes the saviour. No one pointed out the multiple positions of privilege Finn exercised over Santana, and the specific struggle of her coming out as an Afro-Latina lesbian in a predominantly white and heteronormative school was ignored.
Glee broke ground when it introduced Unique, the first openly transgender teen character on mainstream TV. However, it seemed like she was little more than for Ryan Murphy and Co. to tick off a new box on the diversity checklist.
Unique was a Black, plus-size trans woman, but once again the writers ignored how the transphobic bullying she faced – which also came from the New Directions members, by the way – could be further complicated by her race and size. The writers treated Unique with so much disrespect, and there was even a catfishing storyline that perpetuated the dangerous notion that trans people like to deceive others about their gender.
If the writers were trying to right that wrong by giving us a new trans character in Coach Beiste, it showed that they still did not understand how to write a trans character sincerely. Beiste, who formerly longed to be treated “like a girl,” came out as a trans man in Glee’s final season. This conclusion of his arc not only happened without developing his internal transition at all but also significantly weakened the representation of a masculine, straight, cisgender woman Glee had beautifully set up before.
These and more problems could probably have been avoided if Glee had had more people of colour, LGBT+ people and women in the writers’ room. If any of the writers were Black women, they might have given Mercedes a compelling story arc that stretched for more than just one or two episodes.
Mercedes’ body image storyline was taken up and dropped within one episode: her insecurities about her size went from a crisis to magically overcome after a pep talk from Quinn (a thin white girl), and the inspiring lesson capped off with Mercedes singing Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.” This hasty resolution is even more troubling after Amber Riley, who played Mercedes, opened up about her struggle with body image halfway through Glee’s run.
If any of the writers were Asian, they might have given Mike more than just a bunch of throwaway lines. They might not have reduced Tina to someone who continually complains (justifiably) about not getting solos, and then gets called selfish by Mike, the only other Asian. Simply having more women writers might have seen Glee stop pitting their female characters against each other over boys and solos, and build more real, supportive female friendships besides just Brittany and Santana.
Glee also desperately needed to cast an actual wheelchair user as Artie, or at least have one as a writer or advisor. Besides getting so many technical aspects of wheelchair mobility wrong, the show also constantly suggested that Artie’s chair emasculates him and makes him undesirable sexually. To defend his masculinity, then, Artie is sexist. The only other character in a wheelchair, played by real-life wheelchair user Ali Stroker, appeared in just one episode and reinforced the show’s ableist stereotype when she said she doesn’t date “losers in chairs.” The writers did not do enough research about the experiences of people with disabilities and relied on their assumptions.
Strangely enough, the writers of Glee seemed to think they can get away with racist, ableist, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic lines because they wrap the words up in satire and humour. Sue calling Tina and Mike “Asian” and “Other Asian” respectively, and Unique a transphobic slur “she-male,” is supposed to be “funny.” It was not funny when Sue reacts to public assumptions that she may be a lesbian by hurrying to find a man. The irony that Sue was played by Jane Lynch, an actual lesbian, does not undermine homophobia like the writers probably intended for it too. It might even suggest to some viewers that the fear of being gay is okay since it is endorsed by a lesbian actress and gay writer. Such things were what we definitely could have missed on Glee.
The thing is, Glee had so many chances to tackle social issues by giving them more narrative attention genuinely. It would have been more powerful than Sue’s supposed satire and an inspiring song. Kurt and Santana’s biphobic comments might not have been so problematic if they did not go unchecked, and instead opened up important conversations about how bisexuals face biphobic discrimination from other LGQ+ people. Tina’s wearing of blue contacts because she hated her brown eyes should have been followed by an examination of her internalized racism, rather than be treated like a throwaway comment.
It is not just insensitive, but also dangerous to throw harmful stereotypes and severe identity crises at viewers, and only address them half-heartedly through Very Special Episodes.
Many Gleeks still do not recognize, or refuse to admit, the show’s many problems. They are nostalgic about the “hysterical one-line zingers” without acknowledging the hate speech disguised in the humour. Even Pride.com does not point out that Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” was a profoundly problematic choice as Santana’s unofficial coming out song, but celebrate the scene as one of the moments that made Glee “the best LGBT show on TV.”
As we look back on the show for its 10th anniversary, it’s essential that we recognize the problems that Glee had alongside its groundbreaking efforts at diversifying TV. Even the shows and characters we loved are imperfect. By more critically evaluating a show that won a Hollywood diversity award ten years ago, we can reflect on how our expectations of diversity in the media have changed, how we do not want diversity that is simply tokenism and does not value minority voices. Then, we are better able to tell the industry the changes we want to see.
Ryan Murphy’s new show Pose is significantly better at representing the intersectional lives of black and brown queer people. Guess what the one distinct difference between Pose and Glee is? Pose actually has queer people of colour, including cis-women and trans people, in the writers’ room, the cast, and behind the camera. Steven Canals, a gay Afro-Latino, is the creator who had the idea for the show.
Glee’s attitude towards social equality was a product of its time. The show came out in 2009, just a year after the United States elected its first Black President, Barack Obama, and many started to wonder if the US was entering a post-racial era. The rise of Glee also happened alongside that of Twitter, where it seemed like one could easily participate in social activism by posting a trendy hashtag. But Twitter was also the platform that the huge Brittana (the Brittany and Santana pairing) fandom used to successfully pressure Ryan Murphy to make the girls a canon couple and treat them like he does the straight and gay couples. We have more power than before to make our voices heard and fight for what we want to see in the media.
And now, with a new guy in the Oval Office who uses Twitter to spread hate nationally and internationally, we cannot afford to dismiss systemic power imbalances in the name of equality, or accept offensive “jokes.” It’s 2019, and we are not satisfied with being just a part of something special if it just keeps us in the background; we want to be a part that’s heard, seen and respected.