In Defense of the Immoral “Glee”

Is Glee immoral? So immoral that progressives should stop watching it?

That’s the contention of Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress.org, whose manifesto about the show’s immorality has been flying around the Internet, aided in part by 5,468 of my closest friends who emailed, Facebooked, and Tweeted me the link, asking what I thought.

Rosenberg is not a conservative outraged at Glee‘s celebration of cultural diversity; she’s a progressive who thinks Glee is mangling its handling of serious cultural and social issues, such as the Coach Bieste domestic violence storyline in the most recent episode, “Choke.”

“(O)ver the past two seasons, it’s become impossible to escape the conclusion that Glee is an immoral show,” she writes. “It’s become a show that’s not just sloppy but exploitative and manipulative of serious societal issues and human experiences. And it’s time to walk away, even for hate-watching purposes.”

She makes a good case. I share nearly every problem she has with the show. I think it does treat serious issues lightly, and even its celebration of freaks, geeks, queers, and outsiders can’t compensate for that, at least, on a political level.

But no, I don’t think Glee is an immoral show, and I definitely don’t think progressives need to stop watching it. To explain why, I’m going to tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I was in love with a girl in my high school. She was blonde and smart and amazingly talented, and I wanted to be with her all the time. She seemed to feel the same way, although we never talked about it, and pretty soon our parents and all the other students in our school took notice.

Our parents were mostly just white-lipped about the whole thing, never coming right out and saying what they were really worried about, which was not that we were “spending too much time together” but that we were l-e-s-b-i-a-n-s. Shhhh, don’t say it out loud.

Our fellow students were not so shy. They definitely knew what to call us – mostly words neither of us had ever used about ourselves yet, but ones the meaning of which was perfectly clear.

And you know, I loved this girl in that all-consuming, passionate, possessive way that marks so many first loves. And all through high school, although we both dated guys from time to time, I never once felt like there was any guy in her life who meant more to her than I did.

Until there was.

And what I felt then was not just the usual agony you feel when the person you love falls in love with someone else. It was the realization that she was moving away from me into the world of “real” relationships, and I had absolutely no way to compete with the crushing load of societal, cultural, religious, governmental, and family expectations and rewards that came with being in a heterosexual relationship.

So, I survived. I grew up and fell in love with other women, and saw the world’s attitudes toward homosexuality change. If you’d asked me at 16 if same-sex marriage would ever be legal anywhere in the U.S., I’d have sworn the answer was no. And I was wrong.

But one thing didn’t change. I never really saw my own first love on television, until one night I was watching Glee and saw Santana Lopez tell Brittany S. Pierce she loved her. And when Brittany said she’d gladly be with Santana if she wasn’t already in a relationship with Artie, Santana said, “But he’s just a stupid boy.”

I went from normal engaged watching to sobbing in a single moment, because of that six-word recapitulation of absolute otherness.

That does not, of course, mean Glee isn’t a mess. It is. For all they’ve gotten right in their portrayal of Santana, it’s still the case, as Rosenberg says, that Naya Rivera‘s “performance makes it easy to forget how far she’s exceeded the material she’s been given.”

But there is something immeasurably precious about what we glibly call “visibility.”

I think a lot of people believe that means “parity,” some sort of proportional representation of our numbers reflected in the casting and story lines of popular television shows and films. But “visibility” is not a quota. It’s about being seen, yes, but most of all, it’s about seeing ourselves.

Glee has reflected a lot of pieces of my life back to me as it’s told Santana’s story. And it’s done the same for all kinds of other under-represented groups.

Start with this one: This is a show that has had two fat girls as major characters, Mercedes and Lauren Zizes. How does that feel to all the girls out there who aren’t a size 2, to see these young women singing and dancing (and, in Lauren’s case, competing in high school athletics) instead of agonizing over a diet and how they need to lose weight?

In fact, the one time Mercedes is pressured into losing weight, we got a PSA about self-acceptance and a heart-rending confession from the beautiful, slender Quinn that she struggles with an eating disorder and body image problems.

When Lauren was trying on prom gowns and didn’t find one that she liked, no one said to her, “It’s because you’re too fat.” It was clearly presented as a failure of the prom gown industry. And when a threatened Quinn told Lauren her campaign for prom queen would be treated like a joke, Lauren didn’t dissolve into a pile of tears and self-hatred; she told Quinn girls wanted a prom queen who was like them.

I’m not saying Lauren’s act of cruelty to Quinn that followed was okay, but I do think that seeing someone wield the ultimate weapon plus-sized girls have been conditioned to let destroy them – “You’re fat!” – and show it having zero impact on Lauren’s emotional state is revolutionary.

I’ve called Glee out for racism in its portrayal of its characters of color a number of times in my recaps. For instance, I find its characterization of Mercedes as “lazy” particularly problematic, given the pervasive stereotype of the fat, lazy black woman. And while I know we’re not supposed to agree with her, the next time Sue uses the words “taco truck” in any discussion of Santana I’m going to throw something at the television set.

 

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