Is Glee the biggest Senior Prank ever?

a woman's hand scrawls the word 'Loser' on a high school notebook with a stereotypical drawing of a jewish woman, with frizzy hair, a large nose, etc and the character's name, Rachel Berry, written underneath it.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?

Join the Conversation

  • alice-paul

    Hmm. I read the show as depicting, pretty honestly, the brutality of high school, where almost anyone who is different gets treated poorly. I’m not a super fan of the show, but this element really rings true for me and the mean, offensive lines (like when the cheerleader says that Rachel should “move to Israel”) make me laugh the most because they reflect experiences I had as a teen. (I’m Jewish, queer, and disabled btw)
    I don’t think the show is particularly positive for marginalized groups, but it does entertain me.

  • FTWomen

    Sometimes, this level of scrutiny is exhausting.
    I would DEFINITELY agree the “wheels” episode of Glee was problematic, though I still would give the creators some (if only minimal) credit for trying to talk about a group of people that most media ignores. Though, I didn’t hear the “sardonic” tone in Sue’s voice when she said “handicapable.” I heard Sue’s standard tone of voice and that’s all, but I suppose that’s subjective.
    But I thought this Madonna episode was great. Just really, really great. I mean honestly, when is the last time anyone heard the pay gap and the words “misogynistic,” “sexist,” and even “FEMINISM” mentioned on a top-rated tv show? Or any tv show for that manner? I know lip service isn’t everything, but it meant a lot to me that this issue was even brought up. I was squealing. Not because this episode was perfect, but because it tried really hard.
    As for the issues surrounding sexuality…I guess I just thought it was very high-school, which is, after all, the context here. Some kids decide they aren’t ready to have sex. Some kids feel pressured to have sex and are disappointed when they do. Some kids, like Santana, have tons of sex and just don’t think it’s that big of a deal. How many 16 year old kids have fully “empowering” sexual experiences? It doesn’t work that way for everyone, and I don’t think this episode came off as either sex-positive or sex-negative. It was fairly neutral and that was fine by me.
    Beyond that, asking that all the high school girls treat each other with constant respect seems like a lot to ask. That’s not the high school I remember. I would like for there to be a little bit more of a sisterhood on Glee, too, and I actually think they’re moving in that direction. Rachel is no longer unanimously hated by ALL her peers. And, when she was? Well, I don’t know, she was SUPER ANNOYING. That’s kind of one of the great things about this show, in my opinion: even the characters you WANT unconditionally to love sometimes remind you that they are, in the end, only human.
    And finally, phew, I never understood the supposition that Rachel was painted as the “ugly” character. I think she’s painted like the nerdy girl with ridiculously preppy clothing who loves to sing and is more than a little arrogant. Of COURSE the mean girls draw ugly cartoons of her. She’s “not popular”! That doesn’t mean that the audience is instructed to view her as ugly, and in reality I think it might be the opposite.
    In any case, this is probably just me being a Gleek, feeling all defensive. But I also have to applaud Glee for trying, and sometimes I think it’s just nice to appreciate a small move forward for what it is. For me, this episode was just that. I look forward to a perfectly feminist show in the future too. For now though, I REALLY like Glee.

  • Tessa

    Ariel— Get your characters right, please.
    Quinn is the pregnant former cheerleader.
    FINN is the football and basketball player who was dating Rachel.

  • ClaireAllison

    Ariel, I believe the character who lost his virginity is Finn, as Quinn is the cheerleader he was dating.

  • Flor

    Good post. I think you are confusing Quinn, the pregnant teen, with Finn, the male protagonist.

  • jolie-laide

    This superficial analysis (and the fact that you got a major character’s name wrong!) makes me think that you don’t regularly watch the show.
    There might be some legitimate concerns to be made, but I was most confused about your criticism about ableism because I think Glee directly confronts that issue. Have you seen the episode in which Sue actually goes to visit her “handi-capable” sister? Earlier in that episode, she is harsh toward a girl with Down syndrome (Becky) who tries out for the cheerleading squad. When other characters accuse Sue of being mean, she calls them out for assuming that Becky can’t perform at the level of the other students. In later episodes, Becky’s disability isn’t even mentioned; she shows up in scenes as just another girl on the squad.
    I also disagree about the show’s handling of Artie, the kid in the wheelchair. The episode you mentioned (in which the kids all perform in wheelchairs) explicitly addresses the issue of ableism when Artie confronts the entire glee club after the kids discuss cutting him from a dance number.
    The fact that there are multiple regular characters with disabilities on the show (not merely one-off episodes devoted to understanding everyone’s differences) is unique and, I think, totally awesome.

  • katemoore

    Sue Sylvester is the villain; she’s supposed to be a sexist, homophobic and transphobic jerk because it’s in her character.
    The problem is whether she’s intended to be taken by the audience as pathetically wrong or as a brutally honest, un-PC Archie Bunker type (Archie Bunker, incidentally, was originally meant to be seen as wrong!)

  • MLEmac28

    As I remember, the discussion about Chloe’s post tended to agree that Rachel was supposed to be perceived as annoying and badly dressed, but not unattractive. Puck even called her “a hot jew.”
    Also Sue Sylvester is the antagonist, so cutting off a guys ponytail and harassing unattractive students is not something that she’s encouraging, and the humor comes from how ridiculous she acts as opposed to the idea of gender policing.
    While I certainly don’t think Glee is perfect, I give it some cookies for addressing issues that normally get ignored. Ultimately, they are out for viewers and ratings, and so doing a full on feminist show would probably be risky as they may alienate any viewers who haven’t quite gotten with the program. While we at feministing wouldn’t mind that, the show’s producers will, and it would be canceled, leaving us with nothing.
    My boyfriend’s very conservative parents watch Glee, and are being forced to grapple with some uncomfortable issues as a result. I’d rather Glee be a bit watered down and miss the mark in a couple spots if its making its likable characters address sexism.

  • Malory

    I agree! However, (this will show that I, too, am a Glee viewer) you’ve confused the characters of Finn and Quinn. Finn is the man; Quinn is his pregnant ex-girlfriend.

  • Murray

    Fifth paragraph down, replace “Quinn” with “Finn.”
    Glee is definitely aware of their contradictions, but I agree that the pictured sketch crosses a line.
    As far as “handi-capable”… they don’t do the research. Usually with Sue they want to prove she’s over the top, but they were playing her relationship with her sister for sympathy and one of the few things about her that she handles with care and subtlety. (The “she-male” thing… Sue… is generally designed to be offensive. Though usually they’re more creative about it.)
    If “Wheels” was inspired by recovering from such an injury, then might I offer that someone on the show gets injured and must recover that way, thus they can solidarity-wheelchair with THAT person if they must. And through that they respect Artie more. Or something. As is, I don’t think “Wheels” gets a pass.
    Glee is hit and miss, even with the things they TRY to do. Butbutbut… music… :-/

  • Kallistos

    One week prior to the women’s empowerment episode, two cheerleaders offer Quinn the promise of a threesome, for which he instantly forgets his feelings for Rachel.

    The character was Finn, not Quinn, lol. And as an avid Glee fan, I still see the overall point of your post. I’m going to have to watch this show more closely.

  • SwanSong

    “…two cheerleaders offer Quinn the promise of a threesome…The man, Quinn, lost his virginity…”
    The man is Finn, not Quinn (Quinn is the pregnant young woman).
    Definitely thought-provoking. I personally was ecstatic to see feminism on TV in a non-stereotypical way, but you are definitely right that Glee has its problems. I’m also going to keep an eye on Glee, and see where it goes.

  • hindeviola

    Can somebody please explain how “Wheels” was ableist? I thought it was cool how much positive attention was paid to Artie. I’m happy to hear an argument to the contrary – I just don’t see it right now. Thanks!

  • Ariel

    Ooh, thanks, you’re right! The show clearly confused me with its former power couple with similar-sounding names.

  • keelay

    Quinn is the pregnant girl (Diana Agron). Finn is the boy in question (Corey Monteith). Yes, it is annoying that their names rhyme.
    I can see how a lot of Glee can be problematic and I’m certainly not going to defend it all. But a couple of things. First, I think the other girls aren’t mean to Rachel because she’s ugly. Yeah, that’s what they pick on. But I think they’ve made it pretty clear that it’s her personality that really rubs her fellow Glee-clubbers the wrong way and frankly, isn’t it fairly realistic that these girls choose to take our their frustrations by picking on her looks? (I’m not saying it’s right. But I recognize it from my own yon days of yore.) It would be nice if they’d address this though.
    No comment on the virginity subplot except to say I kind of liked the role reversal in Finn and Rachel’s exchange the next day – she implied that she had “done the nasty” (to quote Emma) and it was no big deal (even though she decided not to), while Finn implied that he had decided not to sleep with Santana, even though he did.
    Finally, the actual name of “Other Asian” is Mike.

  • Lydia

    Ariel, I got plenty of “Jew” teasing when I was in middle school and I’m not 100 years old. I was the only Jew in my class and I heard plenty of nasty stuff about my nose and my hair, among other things. The whole country’s not like Berkeley, CA. Jews, as a group, are doing pretty well in this country so we’re not as vulnerable to the effects of anti-semitism as other groups are vulnerable to the negative attitudes towards them, but that doesn’t mean that anti-semitism doesn’t exist. It annoys me when people act like it doesn’t. Personally, that nasty sketch, while somewhat extreme, does not at all pass into the realm of implausibility to me.

  • Chelsa

    I think the Finn and Rachael sex scenes were played out the way they were on purpose.
    Finn found out that by being fitting into the “guy box” and loosing “it” already, meant he missed out on what he was hoping to experience. It didn’t make him feel more attractive, more manly, or like he had more value. It was a bit of a wake up call for him that fitting into gender roles (guys just wanna have sex), doesn’t necessarily make your life better.
    For Rachael, I think she’s starting to realize that her expectations are that there needs to be a level of intimacy and feelings between her and whoever she looses her virginity to. And maybe, Jesse (as much as she wants him to be) isn’t that guy at all. I think she pretended to have lost it, because she’s still pretending her feelings for Jesse are something they are not.

  • Athenia

    I think Mike (The Other Asian) and a few other characters are only in the show because they can dance; hence why no attempt has been made the flesh out their characters.
    Glee really doesn’t operate like your standard TV, it operates more like a high school play.
    Glee will die a firey death if it can’t stop being obssessed with it’s main characters.

  • Devoted_Toucan

    Yeah…I agree with the posts from people who disagree with the main points of the analysis.
    Whilst I’m lucky enough not to need a wheelchair (unlike some others with the illness I have), I would love for other people (at least those who I interact with) to understand how difficult it is for me to do certain things; even just to get around (which is obviously impossible because they can’t just develop the illness for a week and then have it disappear). I doubt Glee was trying to claim that the rest of the club completely understood how Artie must feel being in a wheelchair all year ’round every year; just that they got a taste of how difficult it is for him to get around and do day-to-day activities.
    And Sue calling someone a “he-she”, as has been said, is… Well, we know she’s meant to have a personality which contradicts those of the majority of Glee club and Will Schuester. They’re accepting and caring; she hates anything outside of the social ‘norm’. She’s not even nice to the people she does show a bit of decency to (…cheerleaders). We’re meant to see how obviously and ridiculously mean she is, and know that she’s the ‘bad guy’, and therefore that anything mean she says is just…her cruel nature :|. Whilst I hate the use of such terms, I think it’s rather obviously meant to be just another ignorant and harsh thing she says. And we know that people in real life really do say crap like it, whether a person is trans or not (e.g. to a male with longer hair).
    Lydia pretty much said it all about how a couple of students act about Rachel. Additionally, her nose isn’t the smallest, and if kids are going to pick on someone and involve how the person looks, they will emphasise features like that. I’m not Jewish, but my nose is bigger-than-average, and I’ve had plenty of comments about it from people whose personalities mine has clashed with.
    I feel daft for even having to put these points. Of course Glee isn’t perfect, and it’s had a few problematic moments, but I don’t understand how you came to an analysis like this.

  • Toongrrl

    Whoa….I thought some that
    sort of anti semitism just ran
    rampant in Bakersfield (religious classes), frizzy hair?? Anti-semites, get out of our way and our faces, and frizzy hair and large noses are beautiful. Signed, daughter of a mother with curly hair and a large nose

  • ruthieoo

    I agree with the larger critique that only the white students ever get the leads in the songs, which was why I applauded at Kurt’s and Mercedes’ decision to join the Cheerios. The token gay and black characters were tired of being marginalized in Glee club, and found a new venue for their voices to be heard. They are claiming a public space on their own terms, which is pretty damn empowering, and I think meant to be a critique of the marginalization of minority characters by Will.

  • Caro13

    A good post here from the Feminists With Disabilities blog about ableism in “Glee” including in “Wheels.”:
    Their “Glee” tag has some other relevant posts as well:

  • Ms. MAM

    I was hoping for a Glee post here, but what bothered me was not ableism (I actually think the show deals with it pretty well, certainly much better than most other shows) or the Liz Lemoning of Rachel (which does bother me), but the fact that in the “sex episode,” not one of the couples who planned to have sex brought up using protection.
    Given that Quinn is pregnant thanks to unprotected sex, and that Will Schuester has been open about eventually wanting a child, and that they had not one but three couples mulling over whether to have sex, it was totally senseless and irresponsible of Glee to not mention contraception anywhere in the dialogue. They could have done a LOT better than “don’t have sex because you’ll get pregnant like Quinn,” especially given the number of teenagers in their viewership.
    Having said that, Tina’s fierce feminist kiss-off and the boys reading the lyrics to “What It Feels Like For a Girl” were both awesome. The show certainly isn’t perfect, but they’ve had a number of really great stereotype-busting moments that it’s important to applaud.

  • Femanon

    Yes and let’s ignore all of the positive things about Glee, for example, Mercedes’ weight was only mentioned once – some jerk picked on her – but in general she’s not marginalized as “the fat girl” like most overweight girls in TV shows are. Now, Sue is going to make her lose weight in the next episode, but remember, Sue is SUPPOSED to be a nasty person.
    In another Mercedes moment, when Sue asserted that all the minority kids were on food stamps, Mercedes said “my dad’s a dentist.”
    Also, Ms. MAM, contraception HAS been mentioned. When Rachel joined the Celibacy Club, she said that the club was a joke, abstinence DOESN’T work in high school and the best way to prepare teenagers for sex is to teach them about birth control.
    And about the sketch, it’s not like it had the word “Jew” on it, Rachel has gotten flak about her nose being big before. And yeah, it’s kinda big, but no one’s making the connection between big nose and being Jewish, no one called it a “big Jewish nose,” it could be that in drawing an ugly picture of Rachel, her nose was made big because society views big noses, “Jewish noses” or otherwise, as being ugly.
    I’m a feminst, in general I consider myself very media-literate, but I don’t find Glee all that offensive. I’ll agree that Glee isn’t perfect, but I wish people would stop screaming about how every episode is offensive to some group.

  • tallest-spork

    Unpopular girls do tend to get painted as ugly by other girls in HS– “ugly” and “fat” are just standard insults enemies throw around, true or no. Considering the attention Rachel gets from the boys– Finn, Jesse and Puck– she’s hot enough in-universe.

  • Icy Bear

    I just started watching Glee last night (in part inspired by all the blogosphere obsession with it!) and instantly liked it enough to watch 3 episodes… but it really struck me that it WAS meant to be ironic, and that was the appeal. I saw in the show basically a sort of nostalgic mockery of the shallow, multiculturalist ‘diversity’ that was (and maybe still is, I don’t know) shoved down the throats of kids in American schools, preaching how we should accept everyone but lacking any substantial reflection on what social inequality does, how we all participate in systems of oppression, etc. Watching it kind of reminded me of those math textbooks I used to have, with a front cover that always had an Asian kid, a Black kid, and a Hispanic kid, and sometimes a person in a wheelchair, but the sweet white boy and girl were always smiling in the very front.
    Obviously, only have watched 3 episodes (and not from the beginning), I could be missing something crucial, but it struck me that Glee’s over-the-top multiculturalism is meant to be a joke on the shallowness of the PC ethics of American hipsters.

  • Jessica

    I agree…I actually really, really liked this episode of Glee. I certainly don’t think the show is perfect, but this episode just made me happy.

  • Ms. MAM

    Just to clarify — I know that contraception has been mentioned in other episodes of the show, which is great. But I still thought it was not responsible to leave it out altogether from an episode that dealt directly with sex in 3 separate plot lines.
    Having said that, I see way more positives in Glee than I do negatives. Having an episode about female empowerment that didn’t try to boil it down to “wear a thong!” was incredibly refreshing!