After watching each new episode, I remain unsure of whether Glee is one big joke on the entire blogosphere. I wonder whether, in fact, Glee’s writers, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, are laughing at feminists, queer advocates, differently abled folks, and communities of color, who explode with anger and blast Glee headlines across the internet before tuning in for the next episode. Just how meta is this show?
This week’s episode was another onslaught of disconcerting messaging about beauty. Within the episode, titled “The Power of Madonna,” this week’s musical challenge to the Glee club at McKinley High School was to empower the ensemble’s young women to demand respect from their male peers by singing Madonna songs. Quite a feminist message! But what about women demanding respect from each other? As a Jewish character and the female lead, Rachel Berry primarily endures harassment from other women in the choir. In the first scene, one of the cheerleaders is seen sketching Rachel’s face with illustrated Jewish stereotypes, and the title “Loser.” The cartoon-Rachel has a humongous, knobbly nose, frizzy hair, and buck teeth.
These anti-semitic stereotypes are a century and two World Wars old! And as Chloe wrote last week, the “Liz Lemoning” of characters like Rachel is out of control:
One of the running themes of Glee is that Rachel, played by Lea Michele, is talented, but annoying, badly dressed and physically unattractive. [...] Liz Lemon, like Rachel, is a flawed character, but the constant references to her ugliness are just absurd. And while beauty is of course subjective, these two women absolutely meet our culture’s standard of female beauty: they’re young, white, slim, cis-gendered, well-proportioned and able-bodied, with long shiny hair and smooth skin. They may not be Victoria’s Secret models, and they may have brown hair and glasses, but they certainly still meet society’s standards of female beauty.
Is this, then, a joke on us as viewers? Could the writers be implying that no matter how closely an actress or a young women may fit our culture’s beauty standard, that every woman or her peers will engage in self-destructive criticism of her appearance?
It is nearly unfathomable that Glee is oblivious to its contradictions. One week prior to the women’s empowerment episode, two cheerleaders offer Finn the promise of a threesome, for which he instantly forgets his feelings for Rachel. The empowerment episode featured three characters “making their sexual debut” (Read: virginity is not a loss). Two were women, one was a man. One woman locked herself in her bathroom, while the other told her partner she wasn’t ready. The man, Finn, lost his virginity, but “didn’t feel anything because it didn’t mean anything.” So much for empowering sexual experiences, à la Madonna!
Did the writers know that Sue Sylvester’s sardonic use of the phrase “handi-capable” to describe her sister is problematic? Is it purposefully funny that every character is tokenized? Or as JB Beeson points out, that one of the characters is simply called “Other Asian?”
Episode 8, “Wheels,” struck me as ableist. In “Wheels,” students in Glee Club use wheelchairs for a week in school and in rehearsal to understand the experiences of a classmate who uses a wheelchair year-round. Are Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan exonerated from accusations of ableism because “Wheels” was inspired by Falchuk’s 2008 recovery from a serious spinal cord surgery?
The last project on which Murphy and Falchuk collaborated was the filming of a TV pilot featuring a transsexual gynecologist. Does their intent to write an entire series with a trans main character explain the ten seconds at the start of Episode 14, in which Sue Sylvester cut off a young man’s ponytail in last week’s episode to rectify his “she-male looks”?
If this is a joke, Glee is beyond my sense of humor– I’m not laughing. But I’m still watching.
Related: “Pretty Ugly: Can we please stop pretending that beautiful women aren’t beautiful?”