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“Glee” grows up… a bit

November 11, 2010

A little while back in the comments, Dante asked me what I thought about Glee’s treatment of gay characters. I haven’t always be thrilled with its hyperdramatic portrayal of its only one (or of its two atheists), but this week was pretty on-the-mark in that respect.

I don’t think anyone watches Glee for the plot, but consider this fair warning I’ll be spilling plot points in episodes up to and including Tuesday’s “Never Been Kissed.”

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Kurt (Chris Colfer) because he seems so determined to be himself, and also because Colfer is a fantastic singer and an endearing actor. But it’s been hard to ignore some of the character’s stalkerish behavior, especially his bewildering crush on Finn (Cory Monteith), a character I find thoroughly uninteresting with a voice that’s much too auto-tuned.

Still, there have been a few good moments between the two, even if they didn’t always fit within the plot. Exhibit A would be when Kurt’s father (Mike O’Malley) yells at Finn after Finn goes off on Kurt using words like “faggy.” The dad’s speech, about how everyone knows using “gay” and “fag” as a general pejorative is derogatory, was great even though plot-wise Finn was rightly creeped out by what was going on. And in “Duets,” the episode Dante asked me about a little while back, Finn finally called Kurt out on his behavior, saying if he had acted that way towards a girl she would’ve rightly been upset.

While Kurt has been a fun character, he’s also an extraordinarily stereotypical gay character. He loves show tunes, is always wearing the latest ridiculous fashion, goes with the girls when the club is split by gender, and is a bit obsessive in his crushes. In “Duets” he decided to drop his duet with another boy because he thought it would ruin the boy’s reputation and decided to take “the high road,” which was either tragic or offensive. Then he went on to do a “duet” with himself as both a man and a woman, which was either knowingly glib or offensive — I couldn’t tell which. (It also bothered me that he was portrayed as hating religion because he’s an atheist, but that’s another matter.)

Last night we finally got a new gay character, and he’s a breath of fresh air. With Blaine (Darren Criss), we see a kid who’s confident in who he is, apparently a pretty normal guy who’s had it rough but who’s done a good job of dealing with it. The way he’s presented is dreamy, to say the least:

Basically, Blaine is perfect and lives in a perfect environment. But I’m okay with that for now, since I also went to a school where bullying wasn’t tolerated, even if it wasn’t quite as ideal (or nearly as preppy) as Blaine’s. I’m also operating under the (potentially naïve) assumption he’ll become a little more real later, but in this week’s episode his function was largely to counterbalance Kurt, and it worked well.

(Criss also seems like a stand-up guy. For further reading, check out Vanity FairOn the Red Carpet and Towleroad.)

Along with Blaine we get a closer look at Karofsky (Max Adler), the bully who’s been bothering Kurt for a while now. The bullying of LGBT youth has only recently received major attention and this episode was well-timed, but I thought the resolution of the story missed the mark a bit. Yes, deep down many homophobes are sublimating same-sex attractions, but I saw coming the moment when, instead of punching Kurt, he kisses him, and I thought the show glossed over the fact that it was an assault. Amazingly, they didn’t play the incident up very much and left Karosky barely fleshed out at all.

Much more unfortunate was the entire plot surrounding the very gender-nonconforming Coach Beiste (Dot Jones). At the end of the episode the lesson we’re left with is, basically, that people can tolerate you even if you’re an ugly weirdo. I’m not quite sure what they were thinking when they brought the Beiste character in this season, but I think they’re treading some pretty dangerous water.

The problem with Glee (besides the gaping plotholes) is that it asks us to laugh at characters and then tells us to be sensitive about the very traits it just mocked. That’s just the case with Kurt’s femininity and Beiste’s masculinity. I’m all for seeing the humor in everything, particularly ourselves, but it gets a bit confusing for the viewer and a little uncomfortable at times. Things improved a bit this week — I’d say the Kurt-Blaine plot was one of the best arcs yet — but I’m definitely hoping the trend continues and we don’t slide back into laughing at Kurt getting stuffed into trash cans.

ETA: Some have also brought up the fact the school left Kurt to deal with the bullying on his own, which is definitely not appropriate. But that’s a pretty fair reflection of reality, and the fictional school Kurt goes to hasn’t stopped any other kinds of pretty serious bullying (like locking a student in a wheelchair in a porta-potty or throwing slurpies on just about everyone all the time).

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sylvi permalink
    November 11, 2010 2:15 am

    A couple of things.

    First: the minute the set changed to Blaine’s high school, I turned to my friend (with whom I went to college) and said, “Hey, it’s just like Vassar!” Was it *just* like Vassar? No. But the beautiful buildings, sentiments of acceptance towards its (large) LGBT population, and virtual idolatry of its homegrown a cappella group sorta made it feel like home… I miss Vassar :(

    Second: I disagree slightly with your feelings on Glee’s portrayal of Coach Beiste. I think that toning down the “ugly weirdo” thing would be a step in the right direction, but I think they’ve also taken some strides towards demonstrating that she is, in fact, an asset to the community in terms of her coaching abilities (and that deep down her players recognize this). Furthermore, she is a character that is universally picked on (a sad reality in our world is that these people certainly exist), and she reacts towards her circumstances in what I think are very believable ways: she picks on others and then regrets it; she tries to leave; she carefully tries to tease apart who her “real” friends are. And ultimately, she turns out to be a pretty upstanding gal and a champion of the underdog in her own right. And the moral of the story to me was, “We still sorta think you’re a weirdo, but we’re also still growing and learning and slowly coming to realize that we like and respect you anyways.”

    Glee is far from perfect. I think that the show is largely hedged in by some really poor character choices that were made early on, due to which most characters are essentially stereotypes of themselves. However, I think that the show has done a pretty admirable job of rising above its pseudo-soap opera beginnings and addressing some relatively tough topics regarding gender, sexuality, different types of families, disabilities, sex, fitting in vs. being true to yourself, etc. Has their treatment been perfect? Of course not. But I think that the show deserves some brownie points for even “going there.” Given their mainstream American audience (they’re on Fox, for crying out loud!) I think they’re doing a pretty decent job of developing their initially two-dimensional characters in ways that push boundaries and promote universal acceptance and respect.

    • November 11, 2010 10:49 am

      You put it better than I did, Sylvi.

      I like Glee, and I think it does do pretty well with social issues. I’m holding it to a much higher standard than other shows for precisely that reason, much in the same way I’m more critical of President Obama’s social policies than Bush’s – because I expect more.

      You’re also right that the characterization has gotten a lot better, and you give a perfectly plausible explanation for why. I do hope it’s just them struggling against earlier mistakes and not continuing down that path. As for Coach Beiste, I guess I just felt it was all a little too forced, but I do have to admit we’re analyzing a show that’s basically an excuse to string music videos together.

      As for Dalton (Blaine’s school with a name that made me laugh in recognition), I also thought it looked familiar. My own high school, while co-ed and much less fancy-pants, also didn’t tolerate bullying (at least in high school) and I got barely any flak there when I came out. Plus, our singers were considered cool!

      It certainly had shades of Vassar too, especially in the students’ apparent ability to do whatever they wanted at any time with no adult supervision. Kurt managed to just drive over there in the middle of the day and waltz around, and then Blaine did the same! Don’t these kids ever have class?

  2. Sara permalink
    November 11, 2010 6:48 pm

    Kurt’s character is interesting–Read and I watch the show together and sometimes Read will point out shortcomings in Kurt’s character (like his stalkerish attitude and, in the religion episode, his general intolerance/disinterest in accepting even the idea that other people were showing their care for him through prayer, even if he himself didn’t believe in the concept) and my first reaction is generally to defend him. However, thinking about it further, I wonder if I’m defending him because I think he’s right, or because he’s “the gay one” and I don’t think he should be picked on.

    I don’t think the show is intentionally trying to create a character that has depth in this way–if anything, I think Kurt (and Artie) have become a kind of jumping off point for all the various “issue” plots they can create–but it is interesting to look at. Personally, I think they should have explored more with Quinn’s pregnancy, and I’m hoping they continue to give Puck a more detailed plotline.

    As for the Beiste issue, I think it’s a case of biting off more than they could chew. She really has the ability to be an interesting and dynamic character but I doubt they have the time in their juggling of all the other half-constructed plotlines they have going to give her anything truly worthwhile.

    • November 12, 2010 12:14 am

      Very good points, Sar. I find myself seeing both what you and Read do in Kurt, and I’m still not exactly sure where I fall. But I was definitely thrilled at the one point, near the end of the episode, when the bully pushes Blaine up against the fence and Kurt pushes him off him in what was actually a technically good throw (at his center and on the weak line).

  3. TheBloomingCyclist permalink
    November 29, 2010 6:11 pm

    I enjoy Glee and I try not to hold it to too high a standard, as I recognize that it just entertainment. BUT, I wish that if they’re going to soapbox, they’d really address the issues head-on!

    For example, my biggest complaint with the whole bullying storyline was that they made Karofsky a closeted gay! Making the bully of the gay kid a closeted gay is NOT dealing with the bullying problem. If you’re going to tackle that issue, tackle it head on, not use a cop-out like making the bully a gay who hasn’t accepted who he is! To me, it’s like saying “all homophobes are actually gay!” and is not going to help stop the bullying- it’s just going to make homophobic straights all the more defensive and mean.

    And you could make the same argument for how the handled Quinn’s pregnancy. They brought up this great storyline of teen pregnancy, but yet refused to follow thru. Where are the consequences Quinn has to deal with for getting pregnant? Well, I guess now she’s more reluctant to have sex again, or open her heart up.

    My other quibble with the show is how Beiste might be ugly, but really she’s just like any other female and wants to be loved! why can’t Beiste just be happy with who she is? I would like it if she already had someone who accepted her for who she is or left her a contented bachelorette!

    Anna

    (love the blog!)

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