Glee takes on abstinence and sex education

I am loving Glee. As a kid I thought life was a musical (and I never grew up). This show feels like it was made for me. It’s so gay. It’s got Jane Lynch as a delicious villain who loves social hierarchies and is constantly claiming gender discrimination. There might be more musical talent on display than in the High School Musical movies. And unlike those films, which push a conservative Mormon “family values” agenda, Glee has already shown itself to share some of my politics. Bullying is depicted in a way rarely seen in pop culture: Quinn Fabray constantly aims transphobic insults at Rachel Berry. Bulimia and body image issues are covered. And in the second episode the show takes on abstinence only programs and comprehensive sex education.
Glee takes place at William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio, the kind of public school where the principal’s pastor gives him a list of acceptable songs for the Glee Club to sing. The school has a Celibacy Club, led by Quinn, that demonstrates abstinence is about a lot more than not having sex: programs in U.S. schools push a religious ideology, teach conformity to the compulsory gender binary, and censor information about contraception. Celibacy Club meetings start out divided by gender before the students “come together to share [their] faith.” We’re shown just how little these young people actually know about sex. While talking about cheerleader’s skirts (all the female members of the Celibacy Club are cheerleaders) Puck, one of the guys, says, “Santana Lopez spun open her [skirt] the other day and I swear I could see her ovaries.” Funny? Yes. Also, scary. There probably actually are high school guys who don’t know what ovaries are or where they are located. I feel really bad for any woman who sleeps with a guy so clueless about her anatomy. The cheerleader motto about the skirts is: “It’s all about the teasing and not about the pleasing.” Talk about teaching conservative gender roles. Women are supposed to attract men using their sexuality, but not give men what they want: sex. Abstaining is women’s responsibility because desire for sex is supposedly a male trait.
Rachel attends a Celibacy Club meeting and during a ridiculous activity with a balloon this exchange happens:

Rachel: Did you know that most studies have demonstrated that celibacy doesn’t work in high schools? Our hormones are driving us too crazy to abstain. The second we start telling ourselves that there’s no room for compromise we act out. The only way to deal with teen sexuality is to be prepared. That’s what contraception is for.
Quinn: Don’t you dare mention the “C” word.
Rachel: You want to know a dirty little secret that none of them want you to know? Girls want sex just as much as guys do.
Male student: Is that accurate?

Like I said, I love this show. Not only do they show some of the ideology taught in abstinence only programs, they offer a passionate and compelling argument for education about contraception.
Glee really might be the anti-High School Musical. While that series of movies models abstinence and heterosexual gender norms, Glee is actually engaging with issues in an intelligent way. And the show is hilarious, moving, and full of fabulous musical numbers at the same time.
You can watch both episodes of Glee online here.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • nilbog

    I have to say that I just do not get this Glee thing. First and foremost it seems to me to be a show about white people in love with people of color and people with disabilities as mere foils for the white folks storyline. Of course the two white kids are the stars of glee club; of course the two students of color, the student in the wheel chair, and the seemingly gay student are just there to make pretty white girl and handsome sports-loving guy’s singing group better! I know that there have only been a few episodes so far, but there has been almost no characterization of any of the non-white characters. I am sure that the creators of the show think that they are being “inclusive” and multi-cultural” but so far it has felt a bit like tokenism to me. I don’t know, maybe my dislike for musical theater is clouding my judgment.

  • llevinso

    I was wondering if Feministing was going to talk about Glee. I too am totally in love with Glee and I was going to write my own community post about that Celibacy Club scene but I just didn’t have the time so I’m so glad to see it posted here on the main page Jos!
    I understand what nilbog is saying though and I am waiting for the other characters to break out more. Although I don’t think they are just tokens because as you can see they have awesome voices. But I did just want to point out that the main girl character, Rachel, is not just a “pretty white girl.” She is actually mixed. She is half Spanish and half Italian I believe. But I do understand what you’re saying in that she looks like a “pretty white girl.”
    Of course the show isn’t perfect and we should continue to look at it with a critical eye, but I’m pretty impressed so far with a show like this on network tv. And I just love Jane Lynch. She’s the reason I tuned in in the first place.

  • Mikaela

    It’s been quite a while since I saw the first episode of Glee, but I’m pretty sure that Rachel’s exact ethnicity is unknown. She says that her two fathers (one Caucasian, one African) mixed their sperm together and it is a mystery as to which one fertilized the egg of her surrogate mother. I’m not sure if that kind of process would actually work, but Rachel says that she thinks it is absolutely romantic, or something like that.

  • Ambrrr

    When Jane Lynch muttered “Offensive” under her breath at the phrase “Cock of the walk” I knew this show was something special.
    And for those already offended over the “non-inclusion” of non-white characters, how about waiting until more than two episodes have aired? I try (try being the key word) to give a show at least half a season to make an impression. If we haven’t heard a peep from the other Glee club members by then I’ll revise my opinion. Until then, keep calm and carry on. Chip chip!

  • Kathryn

    Actually, based on the introduction of the “pretty white girl” character, her race is in question: she has two dads, and they used a surrogate and a mixture of their semen, and as she says, they still don’t know which is her “real” father. The pictures showed a white man and a pretty light-skinned black man, so it is possible, at least, that she is biracial in the narrative. Just throwing it out there. I have no idea about the ethnicity of the actress.

  • forreal

    Now, let’s hope they take a more progressive view of characters with disabilities than they have as of yet:

  • erinelizabeth

    I cheered when I watched this scene the other day, and was waiting for it to show up here. And then “Push It!”
    Yes, I agree that so far the non-white/straight/able-bodied characters have been woefully underused so far, but I’m hopeful that will change based on spoilers I’ve seen/heard.

  • rissa523

    It is noteworthy that you mention the cheerleaders are the members of the abstinence club. In many parts of the country (usually rural Christian right) its completely okay to be a “tease”, just don’t be a “slut”. Unfortunately, this is a really damaging dichotomy to keep propagating. Its the same reason why oral sex is becoming so popular among teens. No, it isn’t Bill Clinton’s fault, a high school senior would have been 4 yrs old when that happened. Its a movement in this country to protect a girl’s virginity at any cost. So engage in any sort of anal sex or oral sex just keep that precious hymen safe.

  • davenj

    Jane Lynch alone makes this show worth watching, but it’s also got a compelling narrative with a broad range of characters, and it manages to shoot down high school stereotypes much moreso than your average teen comedy. It’s got an inclusive cast (just look at the characters in the glee club), sharp writing, and feels really tight for a 42-minute show. Not to mention it has a sense of humor about itself.
    I went into it with moderate expectations that were more than surpassed. I watch a lot of TV, and this, folks, is good TV.

  • americanaexotica

    I am also hoping that the other members of the glee club get some more characterization. There are only six of them in the first place, so it shouldn’t be that hard. Plus by now we get it. Singer love jock. Jock is torn. Cheerleader is evil Easy.
    Also, did anyone else wonder if that balloon game was real? it seemed so absurd, but then when i thought about all of the other abstinence only stuff, I had no idea.

  • llevinso

    So true, I forgot about that part of the pilot. We have no idea what race she actually is on the show.

  • Mishi

    Every time I think about this show a huge smile pops up on my face. It’s amazing and so full of…well…glee. Plus it reaffirms by belief that life would be SO much better if it was a musical.
    That being said, I was watching with a male friend of mine and when Jane Lynch said the comment “I refuse to be discriminated against because of my gender!” my friend said “Now THAT’S what I mean when I say feminazi!” and I said “That’s offensive, don’t say that.” and he was like “It’s accurate” and then I banged my head against a desk while trying to explain to him that when you make comparisons between feminists and nazis you undermine everything they’ve (we’ve) worked for.
    I hope they have actual feminist characters (besides Rachel) to counteract the (albeit hysterical) straw feminism coming from Jane Lynch.

  • llevinso

    I don’t know if the balloon game is real or not. But it reminded me of middle school dances where teachers would go around saying “Leave room for Jesus!” And they’d make sure there was enough space between the couple to fit basically another human being.

  • sushi

    This show is so good. Too good, probably, too last in today’s viewing climate. Perhaps I’m being too cynical, but I fear my favorite new show won’t be able to compete against whatever stupid reality show or talent competetition it ends up going up against in its time slot.
    I hope I’m wrong.

  • Mishi

    Well it’s Fox, they’ve had a HUGE advertising campaign for it, and it’s not a timeslot that’s against any of the big reality shows NOT on fox (Survivor, Big Brother, Dancing with the Stars) and it has heavy promotion during So You Think You Can Dance and will probably have heavy promotion during American Idol so I actually have high hopes that it will be okay.

  • englishteacher

    I know that Glee’s second episode did well with the ratings this week, beating out “America’s Got Talent.” I LOVE musicals, and since ABC broke my heart and canceled “Pushing Daises” (they’re trying to win me back with “Castle,” but Nathan Fillion just doesn’t break into song like Kristen Chenowith), it’s filling a void. Also, fun fact for those who don’t know, Lea Michelle originated the role of Wendla in Spring Awakening on Broadway.
    I have to trust that creator Ryan Murphy (who also created “Popular,” if anyone remembers that show) does plan on using the other Glee kids more as the episodes progress. What I’ve heard from DVD commentaries is that showrunners are basically told to keep repeating their pilot for the first part of the season, which explains why the second episode basically just explored the already established dynamics of the pilot episode.

  • Opheelia

    I’m so glad this came up! When I watched Rachel’s outburst during the Celibacy Club scene I had the biggest smile on face. (I’ll admit it, I even cheered and clapped a little…) I’m also hoping they develop the rest of the club’s characters, but the club is obviously going to grow into a show choir. I hope they don’t lose all of the currently minor characters in the process.
    I don’t want to spoil things for folks who haven’t seen it, but I’m really interested in people’s opinions of Terri, the club director’s wife. Maybe we’ll wait a week or two? ;)

  • Athenia

    Yeah, that balloon game was really shocking. I wonder if that’s real.
    I was very disappointed that Mercedes didn’t get the solo in the “Push it” song.
    And like how many other people have pointed out—I hope the other characters get more air time.

  • Opheelia

    That’s hilarious!!!! I had a hard time not spitting out my coffee at that image.
    Sidenote: I’m going to start saying “Leave room for Jesus,” when I don’t want to eat an amount that leaves no room for beer.

  • nicole

    Lea Michele, I know, is part Italian. I’m not sure if she’s part Spanish, but I know she is also Jewish.

  • sushi

    I do hope you’re right. It’s up against two crime shows with loyal followings (criminal minds and law and order svu), america’s next top model, and two new comedies on abc.
    It’s just been a long time since I’ve seen a quirky, well written show like this last and not go the way of pushing daisies or freaks and geeks.
    I’ll try to think more positively, though.

  • nilbog

    I don’t really want to drag out my point; it was just a gut reaction to the first two episodes! But for the better part of a century, people of Italian and Jewish descent have most commonly been considered white (see for example Thomas Guglielmo’s book “White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945 or Karen Brodkin’s “How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says About Race in America” ). I recognize that whiteness is not monolithic and is an evolving concept, however in this case it seems to me to be about audience perception not the actual descent of the actress. However, I must have missed the part of the episode about her parentage (which doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense!). I’m still skeptical, but we shall see!

  • Flowers

    “But for the better part of a century, people of Italian and Jewish descent have most commonly been considered white.”
    ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME???? The Holocaust happened within the last 100 years, and the United States did not care AT ALL about rumors that Jews were being slaughtered. The Holocaust Museum in DC just had a white supremacist go in with a gun intent on shooting people just this summer. The “War on Christmas” has been a thinly veiled anti-Semitic rant for the last few years. Yet Jews have been considered white for the last 100 years?? Are you delusional??

  • nilbog

    ummm . . . really? What census box do you think most Ashkenazi Jews would check? Look, I’m not trying to say there isn’t rampant discrimination and that people don’t continue to harbor anti-semitic thoughts and sometimes act on them, but that’s not what we are talking about here. We are talking about perception of whiteness
    Additionally I cited sources validating my point, I’m not just saying random shit (nor am I trying to seem annoying academic-y and elistist, but I am not making things up). Also, race, ethnicity, and religion are different (but inter-related) things.

  • nilbog

    Crap, that was supposed to be a reply to Flowers. Either way, though, this discussion isn’t relevant to the OP and so I am checking out.

  • ohmyheavens

    Please correct me if I’m wring but I was under the delusional impression that being Jewish was a religious denotation not racial?
    Most Jews are white but they are not WASPs, just as most Italians were considered “others” until recent history, they are white but not WASPs. When the U.S. does it’s census Jewish does not show up in the race category.

  • MK

    Many people consider their Jewish background to be an ethnicity or race, in addition to a religion.
    When the U.S. does it’s census Jewish does not show up in the race category.
    The racial options on the U.S. census have been in flux from the beginning. Originally the 3 options were white, black, and mixed.

  • Sandra

    I used to be a pretty committed Criminal Minds watcher but I’ll take Glee over CM anyday. I can watch Glee with my daughter and spouse (CM can get a bit violent for a 10 yr old kid) and, not only do we all enjoy it, it provides us with a jumping off point for discussions about peer pressure, sexuality and high-school life in general. I’m hoping that the writers do explore other issues but I’m pleasantly surprised with how they’ve looked at abstinence-only/celibacy club so far.
    I’m sure the other members of the glee club will get their own story lines. It’s an ensemble cast and they’ve been included in all the promotional stuff that I’ve seen so far. I’ve only seen the pilot and premiere so I’m going to give them a little time to develop the characters before I decide that they’re all stereotypes.

  • Sandra

    I was a bit intrigued by Terri towards the end of the season premiere. I was prepared to hate her and cheer for Amy but the writers are giving her character more like-ability (I don’t know if that’s a word, but hopefully you know what I mean). Obviously, the relationship between Terri-Will-Amy is reflected in the Quinn-Finn-Rachel triangle as well, so I hope we’ll see a little examination of Quinn’s motivations and feelings as well. Evil Cheerleader notwithstanding, it seems that Terri and Quinn are doing their best to be ‘good girls’ by a prevelant definition of what a ‘good girl’ should be and they lose as much in the process as their significant others.

  • gwen86

    I’m pretty sure that part about not knowing which one was her dad was a joke – it would have to be some serious genetic gymnastics for the african-american dad to be her genetic father.

  • Mollie

    This is exactly my problem with the show. The only black character is a total stereotype. Thank you for posting this link.