Tuesday night’s season premiere of Glee may have been one of the most offensive hours of television I’ve watched in a long time. It seemed like every minute or two they would make another sexist, racist or homophobic joke. I was afraid Glee was going in a bad direction after the first few episodes of season one but none-the-less I kept watching. I understand the popularity surrounding Glee because it’s a fun show with silly over the top characters, and I’m kind of a sucker for musicals, however the offensive stereotypes masked in humour as well as continuous tokenizing has taken it’s toll. The season two premiere had me enraged.
Glee is a show that stars mainly white characters with a secondary cast of token “minorities” which is illustrated by the fact that only the white cast members were featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. The show is notorious for tokenism. It does so by including a limited number of individuals from oppressed groups to make a TV show (or workplace) “feel” more inclusive while maintaining the status quo. In this case the status quo is white and heterosexual. Token characters are usually relegated to a secondary or sidekick role. In Glee, nearly all the secondary characters are tokenized even as the writers attempt to cover it up by “special episodes about –insert oppression here–”.
There were so many problems with the season premiere that it would take me pages and pages to write it all out so here are my top 5 issues.
#1 TRANSPHOBIA & HOMOPHOBIA
In this episode we are introduced to Sannon Beiste (pronounced Beast – I CANNOT believe they had the nerve to name her Beast), the new female football coach at McKinley High. Immediately Beiste is made ridiculous because of her name, her appearance, her gender and her profession. The writers used all this to make jokes at her expense playing up her perceived sexuality and gender identity without ever mentioning it. Although Beiste does not necessarily self identify as lesbian or transgendered the writers are clearly playing on transphobia. I’ve already seen posts on the internet inquiring about the actor’s “real” gender. They did attempt to add complexity to her character by bringing in a bit of a back story which I appreciate but it doesn’t make up for endless homophobic and sexist jokes. Also they consciously chose to name her Beiste, a “butch” and monstrous name to match their casting, costuming and writing of the character. They clearly did this to create a hyper stereotyped caricature of a masculine or ‘butch’ woman with endless possibilities of homophobic and sexist jokes. Characters on the show that have a non normative gender presentation and don’t fit neatly into traditional “male” or “female” identities are often ridiculed; this even happens with Sue, the villain that everyone loves. Beiste is initially made fun of by other characters and framed as an outsider. Later the audience develops more sympathy for her through Will as he begins to see that she is a “person” too despite her monstrous appearance and behaviour. Although we are supposed to have more tolerance and some measure of sympathy by the end of the episode, she is still an over the top stereotyped, caricatured “other”.
#2 “FAKE” SEXUAL ASSAULT & RAPE
I’m so tired of the fake rape plot point in TV shows. Writers often use it because it provides a seemingly unpredictable twist in the narrative, but in this episode it’s just played for comedy. It’s another case of writers having fictional women use the fake accusation of rape or assault to destroy an individual as a personal vendetta. Sue convinces Brittany to accuse Coach Beiste of sexual assualt in order to get her fired. Although it is clearly and obviously a plot point played for laughs, the pervasiveness of this trope creates an environment where real women are thought of as suspect when reporting rapes and assaults. In the real world these sorts of false accusations are extremely rare especially in contrast to the real world epidemic: 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
#3 TOKEN ASIANS
Two characters whose names you probably don’t even remember are the “token Asians”. Tina and Mike are rarely featured characters and we don’t really know that much about them (do we even know anything about Mike other than his dancing ability?). During the introduction Tina and Mike used the accusations of racism to deny that they are dating. This down plays and trivializes the very real consequences of real world racism. It also perpetuates yet another myth that people of colour casually blame others for being racist so they can get away with something. The writers maintain racist representations further by having them fall in love at a summer camp for Asian stereotypes er… I mean, summer camp for “tech savvy asian kids”. And really, we learn about this through Artie’s imagination of what happened. It’s supposed to be funny that Artie (who is white) believes that this summer camp is full of Asian stereotypes, and the audience accepts this as fact since there is no other character there to contradict him. The show self consciously understands that there are Asian stereotypes and while they are trying to say that these racial stereotypes are bad they are actually creating and representing them as real.
#4 ALPHA MALE SYNDROME
I noticed in the first season that Artie’s dialogue is often sexist and misogynistic and that hasn’t changed. In this episode Tina is telling him that she wants to break up because he doesn’t really pay attention to her and he spends all his time playing video games. While Artie is defending himself he calls her “woman” in a condescending, sexist way. Two things happen from this interaction, 1. Artie completely disregards Tina’s concerns and reasons for breaking up with him. He pretty much ignores it and tries to be “macho,” join the football team and “get abs” to win her back. Artie is written as constantly trying to become an alpha male through ironic sexism and since he is one of the most sympathetic characters on the show we laugh along with the jokes. 2. Even though Tina had valid reasons for breaking up with Artie the writers discount all of that through an off handed joke. At the end of their conversation she says that she is attracted to Mike because of his abs.
#5 MAKING RACISM INTO A JOKE
Rachel’s treatment of the Filipino foreign exchange student, Sunshine was clearly and obviously racist. As audience members we know her assumption that Sunshine didn’t speak English and the way she spoke loudly and slowly to her was offensive. However I was disturbed at how seemly uncritical the show presented this, yes it was clear Rachel is being racist however Sunshine hardly reacts to her other then timidly stating “I speak English”. Sunshine just smiles at Rachel and then proceeds to sing a duet with her. If the writers had Sunshine actually react and respond to Rachel’s bigotry, then it could have been an anti-racist, teachable moment (which they have done successfully in the past with homophobia through Kurt’s character). Instead the scene was just played for laughs which made it really uncomfortable to watch.
Later on Rachel sends Sunshine to a crackhouse in a fit of jealously to stop her from auditioning for glee club. The problem with this is that in the mainstream media, through news media as well as TV and film, “crack house” is coded to mean a scary, dangerous place with poor, dirty, black drug addicts. It becomes a reoccurring joke throughout the episode when the characters repeat the word again and again reinforcing the fear of the “scary dangerous black person”. This comical and trivial use also perpetuates the myth that black folks are the majority of drug users in the U.S. when the reality is that drug usage between black and white folks is roughly equal.
Glee suffers from typical liberal politics by showing sympathy for the “other”. They are trying to show “normal” people (straight, white, male) that they should be “tolerant” of difference and “embrace diversity”. Herein lies the problem with this liberal belief, as Allan Johnson said in a speech:
I don’t use the word diversity in my work because I think the word diversity suggests that human beings have a problem with diversity, that we have a problem with human beings who are different from us, who look different, who talk differently, who eat differently, who dress or wear their hair differently. That there is something about seeing such people that makes us get kind of hysterical and crazy. But if you look at the history of contact among human beings who are very different from one another, it simply is not true… So difference by itself is not a problem for human beings which means that the solution to these problems is not to accept differences or tolerate them or even to celebrate them because the problem is how systems of privilege and oppression have been organized around these differences… Privilege and oppression are the problems which means that the solution is going to have to involve doing something about systems of privilege and the oppression that they cause.
The show rarely normalizes folks who deviate from the norm, it just asks you to accept or deal with them. It is frustrating to see these representations and jokes made on one of the most popular shows today, but even more so because the writers probably believe they are pushing boundaries and really embracing “diversity.” While Glee has an illusion of enlightenment on superficial or surface issues, they are still perpetuating deep seated bigotry. They are creating a space where racism, sexism, homophobia and ablism are prevalent and in the forefront of all the jokes. The show is not challenging discrimination and bigotry, they are maintaining the power structures that support oppressive behaviour.
ps. There have been some great articles written about the representation of ability on Glee, check out “‘This isn’t something I can fake’: Reactions to Glee‘s representations of disability” in the Transformative Works and Culture Journal and “The transcontinental disability choir: Glee-ful appropriation” at Bitch Magazine.