Glee’s problematic representation
And that’s what we hope will never happen again on Glee
Content warning: Discussion of sexual violence.
The hit 2010 comedy-drama television show Glee has been challenging to re-watch in recent years, considering its ill-fitting humor and character-reliant stereotypes.
Glee’s popularity stems from its outcast narrative. The McKinley High School show choir group “New Directions” goes from underdogs to champions, facing obstacles along the way. The show choir is both socially and organizationally ousted by the community where normally only few students join, and it is often the victim of budget cuts by administrative staff. The ensuing plot follows an unlikely group of students directed under Mr. Schuester who are determined to win a national title. If they don’t, their funding gets transferred to Glee club nemesis and cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester.
Re-runs of Glee have become incredibly tasteless with its extremely stereotypical character development (Editor’s note: Though the media has recently become aware of the intention to make Glee a satire, at the time of its release this wasn’t obvious to the impressionable teenagers who made up the majority of its fan base and lacked those critical thinking skills.) Mercedes Jones, a Black powerhouse singer, embodies the loud, take no for an answer young woman resistant to authority. Mike Chang, an Asian student, fulfills the stereotype of the highly academic student whose parents scrutinize him when he does not achieve near-perfect grades. Brittany S. Pierce, who embodies the dumb blonde, constantly makes ridiculous choices whenever she is put in any position of authority.
The Glee writers have taken these stereotypical traits and created entire characters around them, but never straying from those key identifying features, which are the roots of these stereotypes. Their inclusion of marginalized identities without moving beyond such stereotypes can also be perceived as tokenism, which is the symbolic effort of representation that ends up entrapping someone within a particular group. This is incredibly harmful because oftentimes people are forced into a corner based upon a stereotypical assumption and then ridiculed because they are perceived as a said stereotype.
Lots of Glee’s humor relates to crude and obscure situations, such as Sue Sylvester’s snarky and insulting comments to William Schuester and fellow Glee club members. Some of the humor has aged quite poorly, such as situations handling sexual misconduct, which were heavily joked about in various episodes. For example, in the “Pilot” episode, original choir director Sandy Ryerson was fired for inappropriately touching a student. Furthermore, in Season 1, Episode 14, “Hell-O,” Sue Sylvester blackmails Principal Figgins by date raping him and threatening to send pictures and videos to his wife if Figgins does not give Sue her job back. These acts are meant to get laughs from fans but are insensitive to victims of sexual assault.
Glee also incorporated scenarios where individuals of marginalized groups were ousted because of modern belief systems. In Season 4, Episode 17, Rachel’s boyfriend Brody Weston was discovered to be a sex worker to pay his tuition. Upon discovering this, Rachel, Kurt, and Santana were disgusted by Brody’s decision, and he was immediately rejected from the friend group. Sex work is any individual’s choice and should be treated with respect, just like any other profession. Nevertheless, the situation painted sex workers with the same, tired old brush as a stain on society.
In Season 2, Episode 3, entitled “Grilled Cheesus” – yes, they really went there – Kurt’s father suffers a heart attack, rendering him unresponsive in a hospital bed for days. The Glee club members try to support Kurt with religious serenades and by participating in prayer circles, making Kurt, a young gay man who has a complicated relationship with religion, uncomfortable and angry in an already distressing situation. Religious beliefs should be respected in general, and particularly in distressing situations and because it is incredibly insensitive to force them upon anyone.
Glee demonstrates itself to age exponentially worse with every re-run it makes. From heavily dependent stereotypical characters to mortifying sexual misconduct jokes to insensitivity to one’s intuition to a different lifestyle, it proves to be triggering for many viewers.