(Not) “Born This Way”: Glee, Gaga, and the message of false love

Glee, the highly successful musical television show, appears to preach a message of self-love. One particular episode of the show, named after the “LGBT inclusive” pop single “Born This Way”, brands and promotes this love in ways both subtle as well as grotesque. This a self-love which I believe to be false and damaging for youth everywhere and through an analysis of the episode, I hope to reveal why.

The episode is based upon the assumption that “self” modifications of any kind are inherently wrong. One should never hide their “true identity”, or attempt to change that stable, internal sense of self through cosmetic surgery, and other “unnatural” alterations of the body. The show, working upon this premise, constructs its own moral framework of sorts, through which characters can come to rid themselves of shame. Through positive self-reflection and expression, the characters can achieve their own liberation. In this way, characters of all shapes, sizes and sexual orientations are given the key to attaining a positive “in your face” attitude.

Throughout the episode, viewers are given a glance at the personal histories and inner dialogues of two characters, misfit Lauren and popular Quinn. Quinn has had cosmetic surgery (a rhinoplasty) and through weight-loss and makeup, is in a constant state of “self-modification”, or at least maintenance of a “beauty” she has worked so hard to achieve. Lauren on the other hand is heavier, accepts this and in doing so represents a more rebellious archetype of femininity, expanding the possibilities of female identity in an age of the super-skinny.

The basic synopsis of the show can be described as follows: Lauren finds old photos of Ugly Quinn, Lauren puts up photos of Ugly Quinn around school, Lauren feels bad about this, people admire Quinn for having her “real” self exposed and finally Lauren and Quinn dance and sing with other members of the Glee cast, wearing shirts that proclaim in bold black letters their fabulous flaws. Lauren’s reads “Bad Attitude.”

Before critiquing the episode, or attempting to understand its implications for the future of gender, we must first look at the significance of the title. “Born this way”, written by the spectacle that is Lady Gaga, was hugely successful, yet controversial, due to its inclusion of the lyrics “No matter gay, straight or bi, lesbian, transgendered life….” followed by the chorus of “Born This Way.” The lyrics of the song also include categories of race, ethnicity and social class. At first the song, like the episode, appears to promote self-love and a refusal to conformity.

But we must ask ourselves, what is the nature of the conformity that Lauren, Quinn and other black, poor, queer kids face? And what path do we advice said youth to follow in their quest for “authentic” freedom. How should misfits confront conformity, and in doing so confront themselves?

I would contend that “Born This Way” actually blocks potential paths for liberation, by limiting the ways in which individuals can transgress conformity and express themselves outside of these norms. By forcing all people to accept that “who they are” is a wholly predetermined phenomena, we limit the ways in which individuals come to understand who they are and more importantly, who they can be.

Lady Gaga and Glee appear to celebrate misfits everywhere. However, is there a limit to the level of non-conformity that these social institutions will allow? Are there some misfits that they “prefer” over others? Lady Gaga and Glee are social institutions in the sense that they both publicly imply a familiar set of social norms, as both are interested in preserving certain aspects of western society. I would contend that one “value” that both Gaga and Glee seek to preserve is the gender binary.

The gender binary as the false dichotomy of “man” and “woman”, still serves as the foundation for much of our culture (which includes popular culture.) Binary gender assumes that only two genders exist in this world (despite much evidence to the contrary.) Binary gender is a fallacy that is kept alive and legitimate through mass media. Furthermore this fallacy is expressed in states of fierce stagnation and opposition, for this is the only way binary gender can exist. The extremity of masculinity can only be understood in relation to an even more extreme femininity. For masculinity is defined primarily by what it is not. Men are not passive, empathetic, trivial or weak. They are not subject to objectification and infantilization, nor should they be. Rather men are rugged, intelligent individualists able to manipulate and dominate the world at hand.

If Glee and Lady Gaga are intent on preserving binary gender, why are they expressing a supposed acceptance of imperfect female figures or transgressive modes of sexuality? Don’t these messages stand in stark contrast to everything that patriarchy and the gender binary are all about it? And how do such messages limit self-expression or liberation? The message is on the surface, a positive one. Love yourself. However what is limiting about the message as expressed in the episode, is the kind of self-love that one is allowed, and the kind of self that one is allowed to be.

When Quinn’s “real” self is exposed, the school community responds in a surprisingly positive manner. However, if body modifications are “superficial” anyways, then why is Quinn pre-surgery any realer than Quinn post-surgery? Is post-surgery Quinn more “honest” due to the exposure of her pre-surgery self? How our bodies appear, move and interact with others (in the context of gender) plays a crucial role in how others perceive us and thus how they perceive our gender. When post nose job Quinn puts on mascara in the morning, or eats a salad and some diet coke for lunch, she is consistently consolidating the image of a pretty, properly gendered woman. Similarly Lauren’s body weight in and of itself, plays a crucial role in how people see, or rather don’t see Lauren as living up to her potential femininity.

Clearly Quinn was not “born this way.” She has consciously engaged with gender in such a way as to conform to the prevailing norm. However, she recognizes the inherent artificiality of this process. But she does not recognize that artificiality as inherently negative. In fact at one point Quinn proclaims her own self-love, telling Lauren that she loves herself and “that’s why I did all those things. I’ve been that girl and I’m never going back. I was a miserable little girl and now I’m going to be prom queen.”

In this sense Quinn’s self-love is self-made. She was miserable due to the pains of being a “misfit.” She was thought of as ugly and thus identified as Ugly. She altered her appearance and in doing so engaged differently with the world. And only when others recognized her beauty could she begin to see herself in a more positive light. What is wrong with this picture? Is it Quinn and her decisions? No, it is the culture at hand that treated Ugly Quinn as being just so ugly. When Quinn altered her nose she did not alter herself, or rid herself of something necessary or essential to her inner being. To say this would mean that Quinn’s body is what defines her identity, and isn’t that the very thing Born This Way is trying to defy?

No. “Born This Way” is built upon the idea that beauty is universal and binary gender essential. Lauren is physically fat and she is radical due to her brazen acceptance of her “bad” undesirable self. Gay youth cannot help their desires, it’s not their fault, they were Born This Way!

Quinn’s relationship with gender is indeed one marked by a great deal of pain. However, she is brave in acknowledging our “unnatural” human engagement with gender. This is why the school responded so well to the photos.

Because the photos revealed how there is nothing natural or essential about beauty, or for that matter gender conformity. These are things subject to change and interpretation. This gives misfits hope. Being aware of the falsehoods of gender norms, allows us to consciously refute them in our daily lives. We can play around with and articulate gender in ways both authentic as well as parodic. Ways more powerful than Quinn could ever imagine.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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