There are lots of things I really wanted to like about Glee. It’s definitely creative and different, it demonstrates some appreciation for high-school-outsider status, and it’s probably the first tv show that I can think of that really engages my love of musicals. Having observed some of the commentary surrounding the special preview episode that aired this summer, I was already aware it wasn’t going to be all good (Lauredhel’s, in particular, stands out in my memory as making some really good points about both race and disability in the show). Somehow, though, I still couldn’t help but feel disappointed with the official pilot episode.
A quick overview of the female characters that the show focuses on (meaning that they’re either main characters or they serve some purpose in advancing the plotlines) really only highlights the disappointments. Note, first of all, that all of these characters are white and without disabilities (I’m not positive, but I think most of them, if not all, are straight as well). The non-white characters, the gay male, and the student in a wheelchair function, essentially, as scenery or props, without any real personality or relevance. Beyond that, we have:
- Rachel the overachiever/social outcast – from a feminist perspective, this character is actually not terrible. It’s hard not to appreciate the point she makes about girls wanting sex as much as boys, especially coming from a high school character. The extent of her smitten-ness with the über-popular (and taken) Finn, however, and her seeming willingness to be used by him, kind of bugs me, especially given its juxtaposition with the relationship between the two teachers (Emma and Will).
- Emma, the aforementioned teacher – the unrequited love trope is often problematic, and Emma’s storyline so far seems to contain all the problems with the female side of this standard. The overwhelming social awkwardness of her character, the desperation she feels about his unattainability, the not-completely-oblivious way that Will brings himself into her life, the use of another, far less conventionally attractive, man to distract herself/forget her crush. I’d like to see this character’s purpose grow beyond her crush on Will, and the end of the episode does suggest that it will
- Sue, the cheerleading coach – actually, Sue (played by the absolutely hilarious Jane Lynch) is the bright spot in the show, for me. If I continue watching, it will likely be primarily as a result of her brilliantly over-the-top awesomeness.
- Terri, Will’s wife – Terri is obviously not supposed to be a character that we like or relate to. She’s intended to be something of a villain, which is in itself a problem, in my mind. This character probably represents my biggest problem with the show – the wife is the source of the lead male character’s deep-seated unhappiness. He doesn’t seem to really love her so much as what she represents (family, tradition, values) and most of his relationship with her seems to revolve around a sense of duty and responsibility. She’s extraordinarily self-centered, materialistic and shallow. Their marriage cannot possibly be a partnership, because she’s portrayed as too childish to understand the kinds of sacrifices that are necessary in such a relationship. The one time she does make a concession – giving up the dream house she had been talking about – it’s as part of an enormous act of manipulation and an attempt to ensure her husband’s continued affection with a fake pregnancy. The whole ‘hysterical’ and then fictional pregnancy storyline, which suggests that she knows her husband’s commitment to her is primarily based on his commitment to being a ‘family man’, but can’t quite take in all the implications of that, has the potential to make this show absolutely ludicrous in all the wrong ways. Also, the fact that Terri is clearly desperately unhappy herself is at best a secondary point, since we’re not really supposed to think about this character from her own perspective, but rather in terms of what she does to her husband. The motivations behind her wildly inappropriate actions are not really considered, because they don’t really matter to the show. She doesn’t really matter.
- Quinn – Since the show operates with parallels between the adults’ lives and the teenagers’, Quinn serves as Terri’s teenage doppelganger, and she’s just as frustrating. Again, we have a selfish, shallow, manipulative woman who is standing between our hero and a satisfying life. He may be popular, but he can overcome the kind of status-driven meanness that he starts from. She is the one that really controls the social hierarchy, who forces him to behave in appearance-driven ways, and who creates the dominance structure that, in the universe of this show, is the biggest threat. Where adult Terri lies and controls using babies and pregnancy, teenage Quinn uses sex and virginity.
I feel like the biggest problem is that overall, the female characters continue to exist in relation to the two lead men. Since this is a show that is marketed to appeal primarily to young women, and in particular to those who are/were not terribly popular in high school or other hierarchical social structures, I can’t help but find that extremely distracting. I still want to like the show, but it’s not looking likely.