Last night saw Glee return to US screens for the last eight episodes of its third season – it’s calling this run ‘The road to graduation’ – and found *spoiler alert* Quinn Fabray wheelchair-bound (but hoping prayer would help return the use of her legs) and Finn proclaiming Rachel‘s desire to go to New York was now a selfish act that didn’t account for his dreams. So the same as usual, really. Now with most of its cast if not leaving then at least changing status within the show, what can we take away from what will probably be seen as the first era of Glee?
It began as an unusual underdog, a musical comedy set in high school but aimed at adults, however, by the end of its first season it had become a cultural phenomenon beloved by children too young to gets its references to The Kent State Massacre or The Judy Garland Christmas Special. It was lauded for its diversity and dedication to being ‘inclusive’ and championing the maligned. It won awards: Peabodys, Emmys, Glaad awards. While the furore around it has somewhat dwindled and its fan base shrunk this year, still, the cast grace magazine covers extolling the message of positive representation that has become the grand narrative of Glee.
Forever ignored by mainstream press and the majority of critics is the one-sided nature of this inclusivity, the less positive message this show expounds week on week, that women are of less worth than men. I’m aware this sounds unlikely on a show whose female cast members are more well-known and heavily featured, but this is not a question of quantity but quality.
Glee seems to have four tropes of female characterisation and all its females must fit into one of them at any given time. Women are either someone’s girlfriend, a manipulative bitch, a whiny ‘diva’ or sexually promiscuous. Now any one of these would actually be fine if they made up part of a larger character profile, but in the majority of cases Glee’s woman are restricted to playing out these clichés and any attempt at character growth is more likely to be a move from one trope to another.
The one who’s suffered most in all this is ex-pregnant cheerleader Quinn Fabray who once uttered the line ‘I’m smart, super-pretty and relatively sane for a girl.’ This was while she was plotting to befriend Rachel to prevent her then-boyfriend from cheating on her so that she could win prom queen. After all, a girl is only as good as the man on her arm. This was before the plot in which her depression over giving her baby up for adoption and subsequent attempt to steal it back was only put to a stop when the father of the baby rebuffed her attempt to get pregnant again by calling her a mess and giving her a hug. In response Quinn suggested maybe she was just getting her ‘crazy, bad decisions out of the way early’ and magically she was fixed. That is until she actually started to get her life together, got accepted to Yale and back on the cheerleading team, then she got hit by a truck. Apparently, clever independent women must suffer.
Quinn might be the worst off when it comes to depicting sane, capable women but she is by no means the only one. The show’s protagonist, Rachel has two modes, ambitious and therefore in the eyes of the show, selfish and uncaring, or besotted with a boy and willing to do anything for him. Santana was a promiscuous bitch until she came out as gay, therefore rendering her almost asexual and as a consequence ramping up her bitchy one-liners. Brittany oscillates between barely functional idiot and silent, Tina only speaks about her boyfriend and Mercedes either complains about other girls or talks about food (don’t get me started on the race issues here). Even the teachers don’t fare much better. Emma has been a joke for most of the show because of her struggle with mental illness. It was all throwaway gags about cleanliness until it was seen as an impediment to her relationship with Will, then suddenly he was offering to ‘fix’ her and she was finally willing to seek help. She wasn’t worthy of his love until she was ‘better’.
Perhaps none of this would seem as bad if the male characters were treated as poorly, if Glee was an equal opportunities character assassinator. Unfortunately it’s not. In the episode that dealt with characters losing their virginity Rachel wanted to sleep with Finn to better equip herself to play a sexualised character in a play. Perhaps not the most romantic reason but it was a female character owning her sexuality. Finn denies her because it’s not about ‘them’. Later in the episode Finn is feeling emasculated and it’s decided that that is a perfectly romantic reason for them to have sex and the scene is played out in all its dimly-lit soft focus glory. Santana is then outed by Finn against her wishes. Her anger and desperation over the situation is depicted as an overreaction (really he was just helping her to stop being a coward (?))and as soon as Finn dedicates an acoustic rendition of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ to her, all is forgiven. When the same fate befalls a male character (Dave Karofsky) the storyline is given sombre reverence. More than once male characters have persuaded the objects of their affection to cheat on current partners because that’s romantic, when female characters do the same it’s duplicitous.
Men are the heroes of Glee, rarely wrong and always trying to do their best despite the issues that women create for them. The show will probably continue to be seen as progressive with little attention paid to the reductive approach it has to writing women. It’s a shame that a show which claims to teach kids being a loser is OK doesn’t want to teach them that being a girl is OK too. ■