Tube Tied: Why Glee Bugs Me So Much

Michelle Dean
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A year ago, right after the start of Glee's first season, I complained in this space that the show was riddled with stereotypes. These days I haven't much better to say about the show, other than that, from my perspective the writing has gotten even lazier, which I didn't think was possible. This week's Britney Spears episode, for example, didn't even have a nominal plot, just a disconnected sequence of novocaine-induced hallucinations. Increasingly the show is just an excuse to connect musical interludes, and as people more learned in the field of music have remarked, the interludes are less and less good as time goes on. (I admit I loved the football version of "Single Ladies," but it's been a long time since the show did anything near that inventive.)

I'm hardly the only person who complains about Glee, of course. It seems to be something of a lightning rod for people's complaints, particularly about diversity in television. The reason for this is somewhat immediately obvious; Glee presents itself as being a show about misfits. It's taking up the banner for every kid who hates the social structure of their high school, whose clothes were mocked, who liked the wrong things (like music), or who were just, in the extraordinarily cruel way of teenage thinking, not the right kind of person, because they had a wheelchair, they were pregnant, they were black. For the people for whom any of these things were true, that's a narrative that's pretty close to your heart, and when people go to reproduce it in popular culture, to speak for what it felt like to be excluded and rejected—well, you feel a special ownership over that, I think. At least, I still do, though I'm now more than a decade away from that time in my life.

That's why Glee's laziness isn't merely annoying, it's infuriating.

And to be clear, I don't need Glee to mirror anyone's experience perfectly so much as I want it to take the burden it's assumed for itself seriously. It's not enough to assert, in each episode, that these kids are saved from their lives by the uplifting power of music. Increasingly, of course, the show doesn't even bother with showing those challenges, which is kind of reprehensible, if you think about it. I mean, I'm writing this in the week that the media is all over a story about a 19-year-old from Rutgers who jumped off the George Washington Bridge because his really fucking cruel classmates decided to make some kind of Internet-show out of his bedroom activities with other men. We are not yet living in a society that is equal enough to keep people from ending their lives because they can't see a place in life where they won't be excluded and harassed.

I don't want to over-stress the role that television can play in this kind of thing. But it does seem to me like one of the very few rays of hope you get, when you are a kid and the world seems to hate you, is to find some stories somewhere in the culture that seem to understand what you are going through. Television did this when I was a teenager, at least, effectively dramatizing through characters like Angela Chase and Darlene Conner what it was like to be a girl who wasn't the "right kind," whatever that means. Obviously the presence of those models in pop culture isn't probably going to be enough to save anyone from the psychological consequences of structural discrimination. But it might be something, you know, and it's a bone I wish the Glee writers could find it in their pens to throw their audience.

Because it's possible, you know, to write a show about these issues where the "diversity" is not purely cosmetic. Where it's about writing about actual human beings who live those lives. Over the summer, ABC Family was airing a show called "Huge," which despite the off-putting title was actually doing this. I wish it'd gotten half the kind of publicity and network support Glee has.


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17 Comments Have Been Posted

Seriously. They keep adding

Seriously. They keep adding more pretty white kids (and flashy guest stars) and still haven't gotten any further than sassy black chick, alternative Asian girl, bitter wheelchair kid, sassy gay, random silent Asian guy with the other characters. Not to mention that they totally wrote off Matt (aka 'Shaft,' the black male dancer) with one stupid line.

How many times can episodes tread the same obnoxious ground with the Will/Emma, Rachel/Finn romances?

No Need to Worry

Dear Michelle,

From the sounds of it, you are a consumer of popular culture. While this is in of itself not a bad thing, you must remember, that what we consider to be "Legacy Media" or traditional network programming will not change. Here is what I mean.

So, for the past 60 years, since the first episode of American Bandstand, we the viewers have bought into the notion that we must be passive consumer of media. The networks, with their incredible overhead and costs associated with producing "quality dramas and news" have been forced to only struggle against status quot if it meant maintaining or increasing profits. This is something that you cannot blame them for. NBC, ABC, FOX and others are simply behind the times.

Here enters the world of the need for the viewer to become more actively involved in change. I have sat through Portland State University's version of activism, I understand where many voices come from, but there is something to be said for not living in the world of filth that you are so concerned with.

In an earlier article titled, "Tube Tied: Why Television Is Good For Women, and an Introduction", you mention that, "The funny thing about this moment in TV culture though, particularly in the United States, is how incredibly rich and diverse television programming just is these days." While, I wouldn't argue with you that Network Programming has made some very outstanding efforts to keep up with the demands of viewers, they are still out of date and outmatched.

I say, instead of consuming television media and then producing media about it we reverse the process. Perhaps we produce our own media and have our network consume it. The barriers to entry for a global audience have never been fewer. I have heard your voice, but I wonder, what do YOU really have to say.

Bret Bernhoft

Response to pop culture

Hi Bret,

We asked Michelle to blog for us as a part of our "feminist response to pop culture." This means that our mission is, in fact, to consume media and then produce media about it. Your advice to "reverse the process" is a bit misguided here, as we aim to critique existing pop culture—not produce it.

Also, I personally find it a bit offensive that you'd imply that you don't know what Michelle has to say because you haven't seen any "original" media produced by her. Please don't devalue cultural criticism or suggest that Michelle (or the other bloggers here) aren't saying anything substantial just because they are critiquing work initially produced by others.

<b>Kelsey Wallace, web editor</b>

<i>Ask me about our <a href="">Comments Policy</a>!</i>

how patronizing...and willfully obtuse

<em> Here enters the world of the need for the viewer to become more actively involved in change. </em>

Which is exactly what Michelle is doing by critiquing shows in a cultural forum. Maybe that's not how YOU think change should be created, but it's narrow-minded and simplistic to think that change is created by only one form of activism---in this case, the form YOU prefer.

Michelle's work has been published in many places, which you would know had you bothered to do a simple Google search instead of simply retreating into a patronizing "Who are you again?" response.

If you have read her work still have to say "I heard your voice, but I wonder, what do YOU really have to say", well, that's simply a reflection of your own bias and/or poor reading comprehension.

Becky Sharper

This is by far...

... The most bizarre comment I have ever gotten. Thanks for that, Bret!

Great post! I really liked

Great post! I really liked Glee when it first started, and gradually started to lose interest, even finding it a bit distasteful. I couldn't put my finger on why my feelings about it had changed, but I think you've articulated it really well here.

FYI the Huge link you provided doesn't appear to be working. Speaking of which, that show was fantastic. If you haven't seen it yet, watch it. It's a refreshingly honest portrayal of fat people on TV.

I am not a fan of sitcoms or

I am not a fan of sitcoms or television generally these days so I avoided this from the start. It just sounded like a half-assed compendiums plus musical interludes -- and I loathe musicals.

That said, it is nice to see characters who you can identify with and television definitely needs more of them. Daria was my shit growing up! It helps that she and I look quite alike, too. The fact that that show aired on MTV kind of blows my mind. And a comic book character who I'm sure a lot of you are familiar with, Enid from Ghost World, too, is another one. (It still blows my mind how Dan Clowes, a guy in his mid-30s at the time, was able to describe the my experience of being a teenage girl as well as the experiences of many other girls I met later who also identified with Enid so well).

By the way, I went to college with one of the screenwriters from Huge, Savannah Dooley (total sweetheart, I went to a few of the same parties as her but she was a badass senior and I was a mere lowly, gawky freshman at the time) and her mother is Winnie Holzman -- the creator of My So-Called Life, so there you go. The premise of the show sounded horrible but then I found out who the screenwriters were. Plus Nikki Blonskey -- can't go wrong with her. And now I'm reading the link that you posted -- they had an asexual character on the show! That's amazing! Maybe I'll have to watch re-runs of this one.

woops, that meant to say

woops, that meant to say "half-assed compendium of stereotypes"

I'm mostly just frustrated

I'm mostly just frustrated with the fanatics who watch it. The other day on Facebook I posted a status about the (California governor hopefuls) debate and asked if anyone had watched. I got a comment -- word for word, no joke -- saying: "I totally would have....but it was up against the britney spears episode of glee! Can't miss that! Haha. Silly, I know. Yet totally true....."

What's true exactly?

Choosing to Move On

I have been a reader of Bitch Magazine for years and I think it's time for me to leave.

When considering the amount of effort Bitch's readers put forward in pointing out the evils in society, I cant but help and wonder, "What kind of world do you live in?" Perhaps you see it as a goal to "expose" and "create dialogue" around issues, but that only isolates your cause.

The world outside of popular culture, is the world worth living in. I have always loved the argument feminists' have made that popular culture is something worth fighting against. Just ignore it. I promise you that your perception of inequality and bias in the media has nothing to do with a solution for it. You will get no where with these people until you arrest control from them. It's actually ironic that you would ultimately promote their programming for them.

While my first response was perhaps a little rushed, the comments that followed fell short. I deeply respect the community that Bitch has created, but there is something distasteful about it. I wish you the best.


Excellent perspective on

Excellent perspective on Glee.

So long. You won't be missed.

I read Bitch regularly as well and often go over what its contributors write about with friends of mine, pointing out the sinister and subtle ways pop culture promotes harmful stereotypes. Frequently they are dismissive and unconcerned, but on more than one occasion they've come back to me some time later and said "you know, you're totally right. That show IS fucked up."

If you really believe you can just "ignore" a problem so vast and ingrained as structural discrimination, then obviously you've never experienced it. And you can stop your little internal monologue of "well, you don't know me and what I've been through", because anyone who lives with this shit on a daily basis knows it's NOT something you just ignore. And so long as the mainstream media continues to keep the trough full of it for everyone to feed on, then yes, they are the ones our acrimony should and will be directed at.

So adios to you as well. You won't be missed.

Glee and kids

"The crickets and the rust beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. 'Vamanos, amigos, ' he whispered, and threw the busted-leather flint craw over the loose weave of the saddle cock and they rode on in the friscalating dusk light."
Adios, Bret.

What Michelle is saying about Glee here reminds me of a conversation I was having with someone the other day about Glee, and particularly, the merits of a show about geeky high school drama/music kids with song and dance numbers. Although I am for that type of show on paper, I had to agree that Glee is also this hyper-commercial, cross-marketing hot mess. I still think Glee has its moments, but part of me hopes that all the weirdo kids out there today, with their odd ball senses of fashion and unpopular hobbies, will see the show's attempts to represent them as inherently flawed. And, then they'll channel that disappointment into far better and more interesting art and pop culture. That's my hope!


Eli Cash couldn't have said it better himself.

Simon Pegg (yes, that one)

Simon Pegg (yes, that one) wrote a Marxist thesis on movies that states that when a film has inherent ideologies, by watching it without being critically objective, you implicitly consent to those ideologies and "if you don't oppose it though, you just let it get right through, and decades of people just letting it all through have resulted in this culture that we have here of fear and ignorance." (direct quote)

Ignorance isn't always bliss.

I think I understand what you're saying, and I think I agree.

If I'm interpreting you incorrectly, I apologize, and regard the following as my thoughts built from yours. We can do better. We can talk about how corrupt society is, but in reality we are the society. What issues we have, we put there, and can remove just as easily. Most waste their time with the media, when media, and entertainment is a form of escapism. From our responsibilities, jobs, everything. But most people don't realize is that we are always learning, always thinking, even while escaping. In doing so, we subtly learn and act accordingly to what the media dictates. It shows how to act, how to dress, how to feel, how to look how you feel, what's acceptable, what's not, all of our little social conventions. And then we talk about how problematic our society is, and wonder why. But most people rarely do anything more than talk, and wonder. Feeling a false sense of accomplishment and confusing movement with progress.
The infrastructure built around our media, should be changed. It may be made for the people, but it's not made by the people. And it should be.

Thank you!

I would just like to say that i've been feeling very much the same way about Glee for a while. As much as I love the show, it adds so many typical stereotypes to some of the characters that it's almost embarrassing to watch at times. For example, the portrayal of Kurt, or Mercedes. While it's great to have an openly gay character, Kurt's is the type that portrays the stereotype: fashion forward, openly opinionated and unabashedly critical of other people's clothing, etc. I know so many gay men who are very much not like that, and I feel ashamed to see that such a hit tv show would stoop to such a 2 dimensional view of a gay man.

Or the character Mercedes, for example. Again, while it is so great that there is a black female character on a hit tv show, her character yet again reinforces the stereotype of a black woman: she is sassy, proud and loud. Not to say that the many black women who are like Mercedes are in any sort of wrong for who they are, but there are also so many facets to black women that it is unfortunate Glee producers picked this one instead of one that is less represented in the main stream culture.

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