Are You Loving “Glee?” How to Talk to Your Teens About the Hot New Show

By | October 7th, 2009 | 6 comments

glee-castI’m wild about Glee. It’s inspirational television for teens, a beacon of hope that passion can trump status and music will bring us all together. I’ve got chills – they’re multiplyin’.

As a bonus, the show offers a whole lot of conversation starters for teen viewers, and I’m listing mine below. I’m going to let you see my cards first: I think the show does a shoddy job with its female and minority characters, who bring to life damaging stereotypes. But this is also an opportunity to talk about stereotypes with kids, so let’s use it. And there’s plenty to be psyched about: straight talk about girls and sex, a moving coming out scene between father and son, men who hug and cry, and, hello, Jane Lynch!

I’ll have more to come, I’m sure, but if I was teaching right now, here’s what I’d be asking:

On Race
How does Mercedes manage and express her anger? How might her comments and behavior reinforce stereotypes about African-American women and girls? Is this a fair representation of an African-American girl?

What I think: African American women and girls are often pathologized and labeled “too loud” or aggressive. When Mercedes belts “Bust Your Windows,” a song about her disappointment that Kurt will not reciprocate her crush, she becomes violent, smashing up a car. When she gets upset, she threatens to “cut” someone. Would Quinn or Rachel act this way? Mercedes is playing the “angry black woman” character. This is a gross, harmful generalization about African-American girls.

We hear almost nothing from Tina, the Asian-American character. How does her silence reinforce stereotypes about Asian-American girls? How does her style and personality undermine stereotypes about Asian-Americans?

What I think: Asian-Americans are often portrayed as quiet bookworms. Glee busts Tina out of the bookish part, but she says so little that she’s gutted of personality. If this weren’t such a hideous display of stereotyping, her lack of dialogue would be laughable.

On Gender
Do you think Rachel is a likable character? Why or why not?

What I think: Rachel is fundamentally unlikable by girls because she comes off as too conceited and arrogant. Can’t a female character be ambitious without being obnoxious? Would it be possible to represent an aspirational girl without painting her as a know-it-all?

What did you think of Rachel’s response to Finn’s manipulative behavior when he tried to get her to rejoin Glee? Should she have forgiven him so quickly? What would you have done?

What I think: Finn sexually manipulated and lied to Rachel. Within minutes, she’s singing and lovingly looking into his eyes. Did he even apologize? I think she looks like a doormat and shows none of the spunk she demonstrates in her professional projects – which further suggests she’s a caricature of an unattractive, ambitious female.

On Sexuality
Why would Kurt, who is gay, say “that’s so gay?” How might this be like other situations where you find yourself saying something that really degrades who you are? Think about girls who call each other “slut” and “ho” or who use fat talk (“I’m so fat”).

Would it be harder for the show to have a gay character who looked and acted more like a “conventional” guy? Why does Kurt have to be, well, so gay?

On Status
Puck tells Finn that Kurt doesn’t belong on the football team. What does Puck mean when he says, “I’m a stud. I can wear a dress to school and people think it’s cool?”

What I think: The terms of status in school mean that justice is always unequal. If you’re cool, you can get away with doing things other kids would get killed for. This is one of the foundations of  bullying and aggression.

But let’s end on a high note. On the bright side:

How does Glee club fight the rules of power and status at school? How does being in the Glee club allow members to break free of stereotypes about who’s in and who’s out?

What I think: Music levels the playing field. When the kids take the stage, passion smashes the hierarchy of high school to bits. And that’s why I get chills when I watch. Hope springs eternal.

6 Responses to “Are You Loving “Glee?” How to Talk to Your Teens About the Hot New Show”

  • Carrie says:

    THANK YOU! Ever since I saw that scene with Mercedes playing the angry black woman stereotype to a T, in the first solo I saw her do on the show, despite it not feeling at all like a part of her character, this white chick has been extremely bothered. I really enjoy the show, but seriously?? Why did they have to do that?

    Now, months after having the scene permanently seared in my memory, I decided to do a Google search on it as I was reminded of it while processing an experience I just had witnessing a couple white women in academia overtly pathologizing and literally labeling a young black woman as aggressive. Your article came up twice in the top 7 google hits, and was EXACTLY what I needed. Your reference to “Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationships” was enormously helpful. I was mulling over how to call these white women out, and help them see & understand what they were doing in a way they might actually get, and now I have just the text and entrance point. Perfect! Thank you!! I will be back to your site. ☺

  • Carrie says:

    THANK YOU. The scene when Mercedes sings “Bust Your Windows” and plays the angry black woman stereotype to a T without it even remotely feeling like part of her character, on top of the fact that it was the very first solo I ever saw her sing after religiously follow the show, has been bothering this white chick ever since I saw it. Perhaps even more so because of how much I love the show.

    I’ve never processed this with anyone, and came across your site when I was googling the subject just now, months after having the scene permanently seared in my brain, because of an experience I just had where a young African American woman was pathologized and literally labeled too aggressive with potentially devastating consequences.

    The reference you link – Between voice and silence: women and girls, race and relationship – could not be more pertinent to my situation, and exactly the type of credentialed text I need in order to be able to make my point heard by some white women doing the labeling.

  • Rachel Simmons says:

    THIS COMMENT WAS EMAILED TO ME BUT FAILED TO POST BECAUSE IT WAS LABELED AS SPAM: IT’S FROM “JON:” (and I think he’s so right on)

    Re: GLEE

    I have some thoughts about your question: “Would it be harder for the show to have a gay character who looked and acted more like a “conventional” guy? Why does Kurt have to be, well, so gay?”

    As a gay man, I am actually tired of media representations of us as ‘conventional’ and ‘just like any other guy’.

    Yes, some of us are ‘conventional’ (also known as ‘straight-acting’ in our community – which has its own problems, but I digress). But the reality is that many of us are flaming, effeminate, or just plain gay-acting. And I’m sick of progressives thinking that the only way for people to accept us is to have us portrayed just like any other guy.

    It would be like saying that racialized people need to be portrayed just like white people in the media in order to be accepted, instead of acknowledging the differences in culture and life experience that are influenced by race.

    Portraying us all as the same doesn’t contribute to building tolerance for gay folks, or to knock down the underpinnings of homophobia (which are often rooted in strict gender roles and misogyny).

    If anything it just reinforces internalized homophobia in gay folks, who often feel that the only way people will accept us is if we stop acting, well — so gay!

    Let’s stop telling people it’s okay to be gay because it’s not different, and instead tell people that it’s okay to be different.

  • Rachel Simmons says:

    Yes, I totally agree, Rachel disproved me big time last night with her brave approach to Quinn. I didn’t finish the epi because I wanted to leave some for the rest of the week (geeky thing I do to make it last – I DVR). I liked the first half – didn’t love. The Jane Lynch monologue was so funny I had to play it twice. Anyway…I love Rachel, too! But I think her arrogance is an unnecessary accessory to her ambition and smarts. Maybe “likable” was not the best word choice. Thanks for writing!

  • Breenla says:

    Tonight’s episode (10/7) was especially interesting for me after putting on the “odd girl out/curse of the good girl” lens. I especially enjoyed the part where Rachel approaches Quinn at the locker and confronts her about the tension between them. Personally, I LOVE Rachel, and think that she is a likable character. She stands up for what she believes in (most of the time), she sets goals and goes for them- perhaps I like her so much because I am a “Rachel” …like it or not. (I know people say I’m a “know it all” and I’m ok with that- it takes all kinds). What did you think of the episode?

Leave a Reply