Racy Thoughts: Glee's Magical Friendship

Kurt and Mercedes from Glee Regular readers of Bitch know by now that Glee, while addictive and entertaining (if you try and tell me you didn't make a heroic attempt at recreating the choreography from "Safety Dance" alone in your room, I'm going to straight up call you a liar), is imperfect. This week's episode, which tackled religious belief (or the lack thereof), was no different.

I've been having a difficult time trying to figure out how I should interpret the show's ending: Mercedes, who is Christian, is concerned that her best friend Kurt, a staunch atheist, is having a particularly difficult time dealing with his father's coma without having a belief in something greater than himself—even if that something isn't necessarily God. And that sounds fine, right? It sounds like something one good friend would do for another: hope that he or she is equipped to handle a difficult situation with as much support and perspective as possible.

What complicates this situation for me, though, is the fact that I'm a little tired of women of color, on Glee and elsewhere, acting as a means to an end where a white character's well-being and ultimate salvation are concerned. The "magical negro" archetype—a term coined by Spike Lee—and, increasingly, the "religious Latino" (see Devil as a recent and particularly over-the-top example), and the "the mystical Asian" are tired, frustrating, and seem more than anything like the handiwork of a lazy screenwriter. We've got Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost, Gloria Dump in Because of Winn Dixie, Every Black Female Character in The Secret Life of Bees, and Louise (Jennifer Hudson's character) in the Sex and the City movie. That's not to mention every East Asian character that's sold an "ancient Chinese secret" to a white hero/ine or South Asian characters teaching wayward white folks how to eat, pray and/or love.

But maybe, sometimes, a gospel choir is just a gospel choir. Maybe I'm just projecting my own frustrations onto Mercedes' and Kurt's interaction. Sure, it was trite and not exactly groundbreaking plot development (plus, it kind of made me miss Sister Act), but it was also a genuinely sweet, touching moment that demonstrated the deep bond between two friends.

So I'm interested in knowing what you all think. Was this aspect of the episode also frustrating to you? Can a character of color act in a stereotypical manner without being a stereotype? And, damn, when will Mercedes get her own damn story arc? Quinn handing her a protein bar to magically cure her disordered eating was just a tease, as far as I'm concerned.

by Alejandra Alvarez
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14 Comments Have Been Posted

When I heard that the episode

When I heard that the episode was going to be centered around religion, I found myself making predictions that fell exactly into the stereotypical lines you described; Kurt as an atheist--or at the least, not religious in any strong, describable sense-- because of his homosexuality and his sense of ostracism therein, Mercedes as the described "magical negro", saving him from his bleak views on life and religion, Finn with a shallow, comedic relief-worthy misunderstanding of religion, Quinn as a surprise faithful, etc. I don't know if they ever explicitly stated Arty's views on religion, but I assumed prior to Tuesday that he was either disillusioned or agnostic at best. That is, however tangential at best.

I wasn't exactly sure how I felt about the show falling into the racial stereotype with Mercedes. On the one hand, I live down the street from a predominantly Black Southern Baptist church, so I know that in part, Mercedes' portrayal was accurate. But I too, as the author mentions, am tired of the strong, faithful black woman swooping in and saving everyone. She didn't convert Kurt by any means (which would have been quite the wildly paced change of heart for him), but she still acted as that familiar catalyst.

Glee is not particularly well-written, from little I understand of creative writing and the narrative process. The characters are all, for the most part, unlikable (take your pick: monstrously selfish starlet, manipulative, shallow cheerleader A, B, or C, obnoxiously "Gothic" Asian, unrealistically dopey, sex-driven football player A or B, etc.), off the wall, tropey, and predictable. It is, as inoffensively as I can say this, the crytal meth of television. You know what's going to happen, and it's going to destroy your brain cells, but God if it isn't addictive. With all of this in mind, then, it is no surprise to see them tether Mercedes in as the Magical Negro. It's clean cut, it's familiar, it's everything that Glee screams.

My final verdict on it is still uncertain, though. I know that the image of the deeply spiritual black woman is not untrue, as again, I can walk down Tennessee Street on any given Sunday and pull aside about one hundred Mercedes' from a crowd. I do understand that that's not necessarily the generalized experience of the black woman in America (and truthfully, to suggest that any group has a generalized experience is pretty heavy), so I'm not wavin it off as "oh those crazy black folk, what are they gonna do next??" I don't think it's Glee's job to break any given molds, and in a way, I'm glad they didn't. To me personally, had they gone a different route and made Mercedes, say, a staunch Atheist, it would feel painfully evident that they're trying to be edgy for the sake of being edgy, which doesn't accomplish anything. If she was shown or as or implied to be an atheist early on in the series, perhaps that particular alternate universe would seem less grating and fake to me, but Glee doesn't do too well in the characterization department other than some obvious revelations from the more major characters. They follow the formula for a feel-good show down to a T, and I don't expect anything different from them, because the formula exists for a reason.

Eh, I say let 'em get away with it.

You brought up something I'd

You brought up something I'd also been thinking about: What if Mercedes had the same intentions - to help a friend going through a hard time - but subscribed to a faith that the media doesn't normally associate with black women? It would have been interesting if she'd also been athiest, like Kurt, or spiritual-but-not-religious, or Buddhist.

This episode also made me realize that viewers don't get to see the family lives of cast members who aren't white. We've heard about Rachel's dads and we've gotten to know Finn, Kurt, and Quinn's parents... but why didn't we get to meet Mercedes' family members when she took Kurt to mass?

100 Mercedes

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for your comment. However, your example of a church in your neighborhood as being representative of the experiences of black women is problematic in some of the same ways that <i>Glee's</i> portrayal of Mercedes is. Saying that you could "pull aside about one hundred Mercedes from a crowd" erases individual experiences and further stereotypes black women.

- Kelsey


I don't think an atheist black woman, or of any other faith, would have been "edgy." You're assuming there's a "right" or "normal" kind of black woman, and that someone who has more than the two-dimensions many characters of color are granted in mainstream media would have to be some scheme of television producers--yanno, not like there are women like that actually exist. And no, you can't "Pull aside one hundred Mercedes." Kelsey's right--it erases the individuality of church-going black women (you erased the individuality of black women in general with your post) without a second thought.

it's not Glee's job to break molds--but as lots of feminist blog posts have pointed out, it's the fact that Glee seems to think that it is breaking down cliches and being progressive--when actually they keep reinforcing stereotypes. And whatever they're doing, I don't think they should just be able to get away with it, which is why I'm glad Alex is writing about it!


@Kelsey, I know that people are unique in every sense of the word, which is why, after writing that, I wrote: "I do understand that that's not necessarily the generalized experience of the black woman in America (and truthfully, to suggest that any group has a generalized experience is pretty heavy)". I wasn't trying to imply that all black women are Southern Baptist Revivalists, but it's not surprising, in the same way that it wouldn't be surprising to see a white businessman, or a nerdy Engineering major.

@Katie33, I don't mean edgy in the actual sense, I mean it in the Glee sense, in the Glee universe, where everyone is a fantastic singer and dancer, where everything seems to be made of sunshine and rainbows, where, upon his profession of atheism, the entire room looked at Kurt as though he had committed some abhorrent crime. Edgy in the context of Glee. I don't think it's edgy to be atheist, not in the slightest, but to this universe, it seems that it is.

@Snarky's Machine no, no it doesn't make you edgy. Sorry if I offended you.

Again, I am on the fence about this episode, but overall, you have to understand that a group of "high school" students in Glee club aren't going to be able to adequately explore every avenue and philosophy of religion in a half hour (or, in Glee time, a few days). Did they fumble when it came to the atheist's perspective? In many ways, yes. But I think the episode, at the very least, stirred things up (within its own context, at least).


Hi Patrick, I'm black,

Hi Patrick,

I'm black, female and <em>JEWISH</em>. Guess that makes me "edgy", huh?

I think it's possible for a

I think it's possible for a character to act in a stereotypical manner without being a stereotype. So, the stereotype here is that Mercedes is a black woman, and as such, she is spiritual. If the show explored why her spirituality is important to her, rather than how her spirituality is useful to her friend, it would become more individualized, and less stereotypical.

Great piece!

I loved reading this, especially since I've been struggling with the episode myself. I enjoyed the portrayal of Kurt, who seems to be the most popular character, as a strong atheist. Not to mention, he FINALLY had a storyline that wasn't all about being gay. Still, I was troubled by the implication that the separation of church and state is an evil force (by surrogate of Sue) to keep the good Will from letting students sing about God because the most vocal seemed to "really want to."

I appreciate your expansion on the racial angle of the episode and think it's dead-on. The portrayal of Mercedes as a mystical, spiritual force felt especially ridiculous in that what she actually believed, or even whether she was Catholic or Protestant, was never clarified. It was supposed to be enough to know that she had faith and that this faith would ultimately rise above her comrades' and give Kurt peace. As it was, while I was glad to see more Mercedes, her behavior in this ep made her seem one-note at best and insensitive at worst. To summarize:

Kurt: I don't believe in God.
Mercedes: I have a song for you, Kurt. It's about God!
Kurt: Thanks, but I'm an atheist. Please drop it.
Mercedes: Sorry I didn't respect your wishes in your time of need. Now come to church with me!

Actually, this storyline was

Actually, this storyline was *still* about being gay. Kurt's whole reasoning behind being an atheist is that religion treats gays and women (and science) terribly, and he can't believe in a god who would make him gay and then put him on earth to be tormented by his followers. :/

I had a problem with this episode as an atheist.

I have a problem with Kurt's decision to be an atheist being such a horrifying choice. I think we are supposed to feel like that is a little sad, and that annoys me.

In addition, I think Sue -- while overboard as always -- is right that the kids should not be singing about god in school. Yes, students should be able to express myself and the separation of church and state shouldn't mean all talk of religion or god is banned, but these kids didn't join bible club. Being asked to sing songs about spirituality, even if they're non-denominational, is still not quite right. And if a kid was a part of a group that encouraged that, it could make a student feel uncomfortable and isolated.

I agree. Whilst watching, I

I agree. Whilst watching, I turned to my partner, and said, "Is it wrong that I actually concur with Sue?!!"

Frankly, as someone who identifies as agnostic/borderline atheist, I felt both the atheist and various expressions of faith were abhorrently simplistic. I wasn't happy with the way <i>Glee</i> dealt with either. I also wasn't happy that the option was to be Christian/Catholic (it wasn't really specified... sort of a no-one's-going-to-realize thing, I suppose?) or an atheist, and then Rachel added in as an afterthought (to show diversity, presumably. Ha).

Agreed. Fail, Will.

<i>Yes, students should be able to express myself and the separation of church and state shouldn't mean all talk of religion or god is banned, but these kids didn't join bible club. Being asked to sing songs about spirituality, even if they're non-denominational, is still not quite right. And if a kid was a part of a group that encouraged that, it could make a student feel uncomfortable and isolated.</i>

I completely agree. I thought the assignment to sing about your own thoughts or beliefs could have been okay in theory, though it still had the potential to create barriers or make kids feel unsafe. The final scene, though, in which all of the kids are singing the same song, set off warning bells in my mind, especially when Will said, "They really wanted to sing this song, Sue." Yeah, Will? Who is "they?" Which kids stayed silent out of fear of disagreeing with the majority, or even just the more outspoken members? The song may not have subscribed to a specific denomination, but at that age I probably would have been one of the uncomfortable quiet kids, wishing we didn't have to sing a belief in "God" at all.

it's not just Mercedes

How abotu Sue's older sister as the innocent believer inspiring Sue to not be a repressive tyrant because of her childish reasons for non-belief. How about a portrayal of atheism more complicated than "why do bad things happen to good people" and "god's followers are dicks" or is logic and skepticism just to much to handle?

I don't mind the idea of students being able to address their own faith/spirituality in a public school. Where I think Glee stumbled was in endorsing the ridiculous tendency of both the religious and skeptics to not simply live and let live. Kurt specifically asks the club not pray for him and instead they all go have prayed circle at his father's beside. Sue makes a wonderful case for respecting personal belief even if it's an absence of belief and then jumps on the "you can't do that in a public school" bandwagon. And wasn't that just awesome because then the religious (read Christian because Judaism was hardly addresses as a separate faith) get to be poor little martyrs who's faith is being crush by those evil secularists. I liked the ending with Mercedes church and Mr. Hummel's bedside but there was no reconciliation between the faithful and the not. Kurt got Mercedes message about hope but she learned nothing from him because apparently rational understanding of facts has no value in times of trouble.

Team Glee

Glee has always been a show that illustrates stereotypes, but in its defense it has used them to push a lot of boundaries. Let us not forget that this is a primetime show taking on the theme of religion. Can perfection be obtained in a depiction such as this? I do acknowledge the use of the "magical negro" stereotype in numerous texts, and was reluctant to see it appear on Glee. But if you watched the episode you had to have noticed the religion discussion that included the entire Glee club. There were many other characters in on the religious debate with Kurt, and many others who tried to influence him.

I feel like Mercedes was most involved because she has been Kurt's closest friend in the Glee club throughout the entire show. And I think that Mercedes' role in this episode was well put together. She may have represented a stereotype but she did so without being stereotypical. Yes, she was another black woman who was religious. So if you must you could put her into the "magical negro" stereotype. However she was not overly flamboyant about her own religion; the depiction was not derogatory in the slightest. She was merely searching for a solution to help her friend cope with a crisis. I do not think any textual signification should suggest that Glee should be condemned for depicting another "magical negro" stereotype.

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