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05.17.10

Glee's Harmful Simplicity

The hit musical series wallows in stereotypes and clichés, writes Andy Dehnart—particularly ones that have to do with being male and female, straight and gay.

Between spontaneous musical numbers featuring popular pop songs and Jane Lynch’s flawless delivery of every syllable, Fox’s Glee thrives on embracing individuality.

That was evident in last week’s episode, when characters’ struggles with identity led gay glee club member Kurt to dress in flannel, make out with a girl, and become more masculine in a misguided attempt to win his father’s affection. As it did with Kurt’s coming out last fall, Glee handled this well. “Don’t lose track of who you are just because it might be easier to be somebody else,” glee club adviser Will Schuester told Kurt. Eventually, Kurt’s dad confronted his son and said: “Your job is to be yourself. And my job is to love you no matter what.”

So many of the characters on Glee seem to just reinforce the way people already think.

Unconditional love is also what the show’s fans give it, embracing this progressive message—and the musical numbers—that Glee returns to episode after episode. But disappointingly, the breakout hit wallows in stereotypes and clichés, particularly ones that have to do with gender. Every opportunity Glee has, it turns its characters into what our society expects and demands from people based not on who they are as individuals, but what their genitalia looks like.

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Although the term “gender” gets conflated with “sex,” it refers to the behavior we expect, and even demand, from people based on their biology. That socially constructed idea differs between cultures and societies, but we expect men to act masculine, which includes all of the associated clichés, such as being athletic, aggressive, or emotionally reserved. Likewise, women are expected to be emotional, concerned with their appearance, and maternal. Gender is arbitrary, and while our expectation that, for example, men should be athletic might have a connection to physiological attributes, there are so many exceptions that rules just don't make sense.

Forcing gender roles upon people is damaging, but that’s what Glee does: it accepts society’s definitions and reinforces them.

One of the most damning examples is the character of Terri Schuester, who’s married to glee club adviser Will Schuester. As played by Jessalyn Gilsig, Terri is “the shrewish, nagging wife from hell,” as Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune wrote. [] The character confirmed our worst fears about women—that they’re devious and trying to force men into lifelong relationships the men don’t want—when she and her sister conspired to trap her unhappy husband in their relationship by pretending to be pregnant. When the fake pregnancy was finally revealed, Glee’s writers used that as an opportunity for a little violence against women—Will angrily grabbed her wrist and shoved her backwards—and worse, that’s violence the audience might actually support because of Terri’s awful behavior.

Gender roles oppress men, too, and Glee keeps its straight male characters in societally defined boxes. The two major teen male characters, Finn and Puck, are both clueless jocks. They may be in the glee club, but to appease our uneasiness with that derivation in gender roles, we’re constantly reminded how straight, obsessed with sports, and dumb they are. Finn, for example, was convinced by a conniving female character that he’d gotten her pregnant by simply sitting in a hot tub—without having sex.

Of course, setting an over-the-top dramedy in a high school begs for stereotypes. In high school especially, kids often pigeonhole each other to make themselves feel better about their own differences. Perhaps these gendered stereotypes, then, are just reflective of reality.

I asked my friend and Stetson University colleague Emily Mieras, an associate professor in American Studies who teaches classes in popular culture and gender studies, about that. “To me, the question always is with popular culture: Is the representation of those stereotypes raising awareness, or does the presence of stereotypes just reinforce the stereotypes people already have in their heads?” she said. “If it’s just reinforcing the way people think people anyway, I don't see that as necessarily positive.”

The characters on Glee do reinforce the way people already think and don’t question gender roles because these reductive, lazy portrayals are convenient devices for the writers. Even throwaway moments make it clear what is acceptable and what is not. In one episode, cheerleader coach Sue Sylvester, played by Lynch, cut off a male student’s ponytail in the hallway, and told him, “You no longer confuse me with your she-male looks.”

Sue Sylvester herself appears to be a more complicated example of gender. Her short hair and bullying, among other things, make her far more masculine. However, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Julia T. Wood writes in Gendered Lives that even though “the historical trend of emphasizing gender-stereotyped roles and images continues today ... it is sometimes challenged by alternative images of women, men, and relationships. Below the surface, however, most media products continue to reflect traditional views of women and men on a deeper level.”

That’s true on Glee. Sylvester’s short hair was revealed to be not a choice made by an empowered woman, but instead the result of a failed attempt at femininity: damage caused when she tried to make it look like Madonna’s. More damningly, when Sue actually pursued a relationship with a man she liked, she immediately softened, becoming conciliatory, at least until the relationship ended and she reverted back to her hyper-masculine, aggressive, and vicious ways. And there is the ugly stereotype: Women need men to calm them down.

Similarly, Will (Matthew Morrison) advises the glee club and isn’t obsessed with sports, and he’s more sensitive than our society demands men be, but the writers make sure he’s constantly fending off women or asserting his heterosexuality to balance that.

The gendered stereotype that has generated the most controversy is the one that makes people most uncomfortable: the feminine gay male. Kurt, played by Chris Colfer, sometimes even jokes that he’s so effeminate he’s not even male (“as an honorary girl, I have to agree”). Perhaps because Kurt is based on Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy, the show and its characters embrace his derivation from gender norms, and that has a positive impact. As Michael Jensen, the editor of the gay media website AfterElton, told me, “Kurt, for the most part, is meant to be taken  seriously and as a representation” of gay teens’ experiences, and “a lot of [gay teens] really identify with him and what he's going through.”

Yet even as Glee celebrated attributes that would typically attract jokes or taunts, the series usually just reaches for the ugliest gendered stereotype imaginable.

Former glee club director Sandy Ryerson, for example, was presented as an effeminate doll-collecting man who the show has strongly suggested is a convicted pedophile who has to stay away from students. Because he lusts after Josh Groban and inappropriately rubs a male student’s stomach, there’s no real stretch involved to see how Glee uses the character to illustrate one of the ugliest and most inaccurate stereotypes, that being gay makes one a pedophile.

That’s not very gleeful.

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Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and editor of reality blurred. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.