“On the Right Track, Baby"? Glee's Muddled Message about Difference

born this way group pic via tvguide

Group pic via tvguide.com.

On Tuesday, Glee aired their second vaguely Lady Gaga-inspired episode, “Born This Way.” Like the first, Season One’s “Theatricality,” it was, to quote Alyx Vesey, “a mixed bag stuffed to the purse strings.”

Then again, when it comes to me and Glee, ambivalence is never an option. As a gay, disabled ex-theatre kid and continued devotee to musicals, no show has ever made me so many implicit promises. In addition, I watched Ryan Murphy’s original show, Popular, regularly as an adolescent, and most of Glee’s characters are obvious reincarnations of that dramedy’s ensemble, often differing in revealing ways.

Basically, if I were less politically inclined, I might be Glee’s target audience. As it is, I’m alternately delighted and furious with their depictions of queerness, disability, and gender, usually within the same episode and often during the same minute.

Ostensibly, the “Born This Way” episode was about self-acceptance and bullying, or, as Mercedes put it in one of her few lines, “the thing that people use to crush your spirit.” As usual, I enjoyed the musical numbers (except for the “Barbra Streisand” flash mob scene, which, in addition to being overly familiar, I frankly found embarrassing.) Mostly, though, I had looked forward to this episode because I knew Glee would get back to their oft-neglected queer issues, particularly the Brittany/Santana pairing.

The tension between the best friends/occasional lovers came to a head recently in “Sexy.”

Newly self-aware, this week saw Santana hatching a convuluted plan around closeted bully Dave Karofsky: pretend to date him to maintain the illusion of straightness and make Brittany jealous, pressure Dave into apologizing for his homophobic attacks on Kurt, get Kurt to re-enroll at McKinley High, and hopefully wind up with extra votes for prom queen. While I’m not thrilled that Santana’s lesbianism is a mode for manipulation, it’s in keeping with her prejudiced and near-amoral character.

Here’s the part that can’t be justified: Santana ropes Dave in by threatening to out him. So much for last week’s queer solidarity with Kurt and his boyfriend, Harry Potter—er, Blaine. To borrow a phrase from her, let’s actually “keep it real”: Outing is a really fucking awful thing to do to someone. It’s not like telling a secret about, say, being afraid of the dark, and I hate seeing it used as a bargaining chip, let alone by another closeted queer character, which further sends the message that outing’s marginally okay.

Fortunately, Kurt comes to the rescue. Or does he?

Threat or no threat?

Well, that was a bizarre turnaround, not to mention wholly unnecessary. Even if Kurt wanted to make a deal, he could have simply offered his return as his side of the bargain. Instead, he copied Santana almost exactly, resorting to sexuality blackmail despite having taken about two breaths since his condemnation of exactly that. (See what I mean about delight and fury in the same minute?) I hate that this tactic is being framed as how QUILTBAG kids interact with one another. Brittany eventually rebuked Santana for attacking others while not loving herself, but Kurt, who is often posited as the show’s moral center, is apparently meant to be viewed as in the right. Sure, Karofsky’s awful, but are threats that bank on anti-gay folk the way to “educate” self-hating gays? (Hint: no.)

The other main plot of “Born This Way” revolved around Rachel considering rhinoplasty in hopes of looking more like Quinn. This storyline was likely inspired by Ms. Michele’s personal history, as she has been candid about her acting classmates expecting her to undergo the procedure in high school. Rachel’s decision to accept her nose as is, amidst uncomfortable Jewish jokes, was inevitable from the first scene; less predictable was the revelation that Quinn had a nose job herself before high school. While I knew that some variety of the conventionally-attractive-girls-get-insecure-too message would show up, I’m troubled that the writers didn’t come up with something other than “she used to be heavier and bigger-nosed.” Don’t quintessential popular girls have issues with their appeareances sometimes?

On the brighter side, Ashley Fink continues to rock her role as confident Lauren. As in Fat Girls, her charm might steal the show, especially now that Lauren is subject to fewer tired fat jokes. Unfortunately, this episode did feature plenty of gags at the expense of bigger people. This, for example, does not make sense to me at all:

glee screenshot

Brennan, Murphy, and Falchuk know that fatness isn’t a school club, right?

Arguably, though, the most bizarre angle of “Born This Way” was its attempt to address mental illness. Following the dissolution of her marriage, guidance counselor Emma’s obsessive-compulsive disorder appeared to have taken over her life. As usual, Will condescendingly demanded she get help, while I wished, for the umpteenth time, that Emma would appear on Glee in a capacity that’s not all about him. (Do you care about Will’s personal life? I really, really do not.) Anyway, she attended therapy, leading to this strange scene:

As someone living with both type one diabetes and depression, let me assure you: not that comparable.

When it comes to Emma, Glee’s message is unambiguous: She should be on unspecified pills. I’m wary of this depiction of OCD as an extreme and all-consuming condition; after all, in addition to being quite common, not everyone does or needs to treat it with medication.

The storyline is also at odds with the rest of the “Born This Way” (both episode and song) message of accepting your self-perceived flaws with pseudo-religious “meant to be” fervor. While there’s nothing wrong with Emma seeking medical help in and of itself, it’s easy to read the episode’s conclusion, in which Emma takes her first pill and the teenagers perform the title music, as “Be proud of everything about yourself… unless you’re mentally ill.” Despite it’s much-hyped ninety-minute length—which, sans commercials, added up to less than an hour—the ep was not nearly nuanced enough for a sensitive treatment of disability if, indeed, the folks behind Glee are capable of that at all. (Their track record does not inspire confidence.)

For all the fuss “Born This Way” is getting, someone who had never seen Glee might think it was an ultra-liberal battle cry against the status quo. I wish. I don’t know about Lady Gaga, but my approval is limited.

by Deb Jannerson
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25 Comments Have Been Posted

mental illness

OCD isn't all consuming for everyone who has it, but for some people it definitely is. I've certainly seen it take over people's lives. So i don't find the depiction of Emma's OCD as severe and all consuming problematic, at all.

Not everyone who deals with mental illness needs to take meds, but some of us feel that we do. I certainly do. People need to do what works for them. What works for one person may not work for another., and that includes meds. I was actually really pleased with the episode, because I feel like more often then not taking meds is stigmatized. I've been on the receiving end of a lot of judgmental comments.

I feel the same way. I have

I was deeply disturbed by

OMG, I hated Will so fucking

OMG, I hated Will so fucking much in this episode. Especially when he tried to force her to eat the food. I had to stop myself from breaking something. Like, wow. Sit down and shut the fuck up. Shoving it in our faces won't make it better. It just triggers us. Just goes to show how fucked up Glee can be at times. And by "at times" I mean most of the time (Why am I still involved with this show? I blame the ridiculously good celebrities and music).

And the thing is that there

And the thing is that there is an "exposure" method to dealing with phobias and other anxiety disorders, but that's not the way it is done. It is usually very gradual. For example, with an arachnophobe - you'd start with maybe reading or talking about spiders, then looking at pictures at them, then being in the same room with one, then being near one, etc. But no one other than Fear Factor thinks that shoving someone into it headfirst is a good idea. It's incredibly irresponsible, in my opinion, for Glee to promote the idea that what Will did is right. People who don't deal with anxiety disorders may think that is actually a good idea, and that could be dangerous for people who are really severe. As you said, it could trigger a panic attack - or even worse.

also a MD sufferer

When did Kurt threaten to out

When did Kurt threaten to out Karofsky? I don't remember that scene. *scratches head*

hey, yeah, I've also had

hey, yeah, I've also had people tell me to my face that I shouldn't be taking meds. A friend actually dramatically rolled their eyes when I tried to say that I can't right my own brain chemicals. It takes a lot to get to me, but that's one thing that does/can. It's awful to hear a flippant comment about meds, especially when you've really struggled with a mental issue. There's nothing I've wanted more then to be really ok without meds, but I'm not.

Yeah, one of the things that

Yeah, one of the things that bothers me about recaps like this on Bitch and similar sites - and which causes me to lose respect for the people writing them - is when they criticize shows for having characters doing problematic things who are prone to doing problematic things. Anyone who has watched this show consistently knows that Santana is prone to being a bully and blackmailing people and stabbing them in the back. I mean, for Pete's sake, she gave several people mono as a way to expose Quinn and Finn's cheating! It's been made clear that Santana doesn't care how low she has to stoop to get what she wants, and that she's not a role model. Having her do a despicable thing does not mean the show is promoting it.

Of course, Kurt is a different story. But I didn't get the impression from him that he was actually considering outing Karofsky. I didn't get the impression from Kurt's speech that he was really considering outing Karofsky; I think he was merely illustrating that when the only other option was something that would violate Kurt's moral code, he had to play along with Karofsky and Santana's charade. Then again, I usually hear "I have two options" as a way of explaining that one only has one real option, as the other would be too despicable/ridiculous to consider. I can see how others would have come away with a different impression of that comment.

TV online

I only watched the first 10 minutes or so of this episode, as it was part my bedtime, but even that was enough to make me upset by all of the sanctioned bullying in this episode. Dear Will is certainly the pot calling the kettle black as he fights for the bullying to end, while at the same time perpetrating bullying against a co-worker. Way to go, Glee writers and editors!

I used to be a Hulu person, before all of the ads. Since then, my pal Mal has introduced me to Project Free TV. I think the address is free-tv-movies-online.me. So far, the only thing I *haven't* been able to find is a movie titled "Nazi Mystery: Twins in Brazil." Hopefully this site will help with your online viewing pleasure! :)

Now that you mention it, I

Now that you mention it, I can see how "be proud of who you are unless you're mentally ill" could easily be the message of this episode of Glee.

But what bothered me even more than that was the fact that Will (a) is still treating Emma like a problem to be solved, instead of a human being, and (b) seems to think taunting Emma with one of her anxiety triggers (unwashed fruit) is somehow helpful. Also, (c) that taunting Emma with unwashed fruit *did* seem to be somehow helpful, since Emma did go to therapy, start taking a mystery SSRI, and show up in the final scene in her OCD t-shirt (to Will's approval, natch).

In real life, however, taunting someone with their anxiety triggers is just plain cruel and far more likely to make the person trust the taunter even less. At least, were I in Emma's shoes - and I also have a quality-of-life-impairing case of OCD - I wouldn't trust Will as far as I could throw one of those unwashed blueberries after he pulled that stunt.

I feel like Glee has a looong way to go before it "gets" OCD.


I don't think they were comparing diabetes and depression. They were comparing the need for medication. As someone who struggles with severe, debilitating clinical depression and living in a society that sees people with depression as simply "weak" or "not trying hard enough to be happy," making that comparison comforts me and helps people not struggling with mental illness realize the severity that depression and other mental illnesses cause. This stigma against people with mental illness often makes me feel ashamed of myself and doubt my illness. Someone with diabetes would never have to deal with this. So understanding it as a concept of "diabetes medication is to depression medication as malfunctioning pancreas is to malfunctioning brain chemistry" can be incredibly comforting to remind myself that this is not my fault, and that it's not something I can control. Just like diabetics can't control the fact that their pancreas don't work, I can't control that my brain doesn't work correctly. We both have to take supplements to help us process our bodily functions.


Karofsky has completely lost any expectation of privacy concerning his being gay, when he chose to embrace homophobia and bully and harass other gay kids. Telling him to stop (and help solve the problem) in exchange for continuing to keep his secret is quite decent, even, since it leaves his hypocrisy in-tact to the public and would even improve his image.

Kurt would not be "outing" Karofsky. Karofsky outed Karofsky when he assaulted Kurt and forced a kiss on him, then behaved like a creepy stalker. If anything, Kurt's keeping his secret is like a battered wife facilitating her abuser.

Who is ashamed of what

I thought the t-shirt design was 'something you [the designer/wearer] used to be ashamed of about yourself.' If that is the case, maybe Emma was right to make a shirt that said 'Ginger': did she ever say she was ashamed of her behaviors associated with her OCD? She always seemed completely open about her need to clean her food before she ate it, and none of the other faculty ever made comments about it; even Sue never took a shot at her (giving her the moral high ground over Will). Will was the one who acted ashamed of Emma's behavior, telling her she should be ashamed of her mental illness so she can become un-ashamed of it and put it on a t-shirt. He could have simply pointed out how her cleaning behaviors appeared to be interfering with her ability to live and enjoy her life and perhaps she should talk to someone. (I'm impressed she managed to work at a public high school with the severity of her disorder; those kids don't wash their hands after using the bathroom!)

Some of the other shirts seemed forced as well. Lauren used to be ashamed of her bad attitude; name one person who had a bad attitude and was ashamed of it. Puck's shirt has 'I'm with stupid' with an arrow pointing to his crotch; is he ashamed he has a penis, ashamed of many of his sexual encounters (some of which were with grown women who paid him, officially for his pool-cleaning services)? Mercedes used to be ashamed she didn't have a weave; this may just be because I'm a white woman ("cracker"), but is that really something young Black women are ashamed about?

I think that's a very good

I think that's a very good point-- I know that I refuse to be ashamed of my anxiety disorder.

I thought some of the shirts were more playful than others. A lot of the Glee kids aren't ashamed of themselves, so their t-shirts were a bit of a stretch. Puck's shirt made sense to me, though. Since he started dating Lauren, Puck has expressed regret for following his sexual impulses. He even went so far to join the abstinence club for a day or two.

Weird shirt

I find Mercedes' shirt bizarre, too, because it's something she <i>doesn't</i> have, not something she's ashamed of having. I'm glad they didn't make it about her weight again, though.

I think "T-shirts name

I think "T-shirts name something you're ashamed of" line from the show was unfortunately imprecise and that's throwing a lot of people off. The T-shirts, as I see them, represent things that you've struggled to accept or struggled to have accepted by others.

Regarding Mercedes' shirt specifically: for African-American women, hairstyle choice is an unbelievably complex issue fraught with all sort of political, ideological, racial, gender-based, etc questions. I assure you that for Mercedes to not have a weave is quite legitimately something that she could have struggled with at some point in the past, and/or gotten considerable grief over from others in her family or community. The Chris Rock-produced documentary "Good Hair" is an excellent recent examination of the complexities of hairstyle choice for women of color.

Kurt's Threat

When I watched it the line "I could tell the truth" implied to me not that he was going to tell everyone that Karofsky was guy but that Karofsky had assaulted him by kissing him. I honestly don't think that point was dealt with particularly well, the only person that seemed to grasp how horrible Karofsky's act of forcefully kissing Kurt was Kurt at that moment (he kind of got over it pretty quickly). So I guess I feel like Kurt being honest with the school or his Father about the exact nature of Karofsky's abuse doesn't bother me.

bisexuality in glee

I'd love to hear what others of you think about how Glee is dealing (or not dealing) with bisexuality. I'd originally assumed that Santana and Brittany were both bisexual, and was pleased by the inclusion but troubled by the lack of discussion of their bisexuality. I now understand that Santana is a closeted lesbian who simply uses male partners for cover and personal gain. But when Brittany said in this episode that she "think"s she's "bi-curious" I was really disappointed that they were so noncommittal about it. She's been intimately partnered with Santana pretty much throughout the entire show, and doesn't seem to be faking her simultaneous interest in male partners. So why can't they just come out and say that she's bisexual, full stop?
I admit that I don't watch too many television shows, but the only show I'm aware of which includes an out and affirmatively bisexual character is Grey's Anatomy. Are there any others? Is anyone else annoyed by Glee's approach to bisexuality?


Co-signedx67. Brittany has been more overtly queer than Santana for most of the show (eg. fantasizing about the coach, talking about how hot Britney Spears is, proudly announcing that she's made out with a lot of girls.) I'm not sure if we were supposed to think Brittany thought "bi-curious" actually meant "bisexual" the same way that she thought "Lebanese" meant "lesbian," and I can't help but suspect that this dual possibility was intentional on the writers' part. I hope her identity is delved into a little more, especially because Kurt's and Blaine's explorations of potential bisexuality were, uh, not so great.

As for other shows, I hear good things about bisexuality on <i>Degrassi</i> but can't back that up as I've never seen it. Even queer-positive shows like <i>South of Nowhere</i> and <i>The L Word</i> have a spotty track record with bi issues.

As a bisexual I'm really

As a bisexual I'm really annoyed by their approach to the issue, too. I was annoyed when they decided Santana was gay rather than bi, and I might be able to read it as an interesting approach to her character (since she truly doesn't care much about the feelings of guys she's with, or anyone other than Brittany) if it weren't for Ryan Murphy's comments about Blaine's sexuality where he said he is not bi because "kids need to see him as one of them." In other words, bis aren't really queer or really victims of homophobia so screw them!

I remember some commenter on AfterEllen, I think, saying that the only letter in LGBT that Ryan Murphy gives a crap about is the G, because that's what he is. I'm getting an increasing sense of that. And while I really want to believe Brittany just said bicurious because she didn't know better, I don't trust Glee. I'm waiting for the inevitable hand-wave that she is either straight or gay, despite her outright admission in "Sexy" that she has feelings for both Artie and Santana. I mean, Santana said she was attracted to "men, women, and human-shaped shrubs" and they still made her into a 100% lesbian!

Is OCD the problem or her virginity?

I could accept Emma's OCD issues as a compelling issue in itself, but since we generally only see it in regards to her relationship to Mr. Shu, it's just down right creepy.

Nobody cares about Emma's OCDness, but once Mr. Shu wants to bang her, now she "needs help." Now it's a competition of "who will cure" Emma--because everyone else who is normal has had sex at 35.

I want Emma to be able to deal with her issues, but from this episode, it seems that her issues aren't going to be resolved by sleeping with Mr. Shu.

While I was disappointed that

While I was disappointed that Kurt and Santana would threaten to out Karofsky, I wasn't really surprised by either. Santana because, as many others have pointed out, wouldn't know queer etiquette, and even if she did, probably wouldn't care. People here have been saying that it seems out of character for Kurt to out Karofsky, but honestly, do you remember the questionable things he did not so long ago in an attempt to seduce Finn? Its not like outing Karofsky would be the first immoral thing he's done on the show. Also, like someone above mentioned, the scene could easily be interpreted as Kurt saying that he would tell people that Karofsky kissed him, and I fail to see how telling the truth about his assault would wrong anyway. I mean, if it had been a girl grabbed and kissed by a guy in a locker room, would any one here be saying that she should keep quiet about it?

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