Glee: Actually, pretty much a letdown

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 ├╝ber-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.


  1. Eileen says

    It bothered me that all of the black/asian/gay/disabled/other folk ended up basically singing back-up for the white kids throughout the pilot, but I hope that the problem will be rectified in future episodes.

    I also didn’t see the need to have all the female leads be basically negative. The white glee girl is a Tracy Flick rip-off, for instance, but the white jock and the teacher are just sensitive and misunderstood. Again, I’m hoping that the other two glee girls, whose parts are currently wildly underdeveloped, will make up for this eventually.

    I do get kind of sick of waiting for things like this, though.

  2. says

    I was pretty disappointed to, and I don’t think the other Glee kids will get much more time in the show. I mean, I don’t have high hopes for it. The only thing I really enjoyed was the singing and dancing, heh. (The other school doing Rehab was amazing!). Though I’m not convinced that they’re all singing their own parts? Especially when they sang Golddigger – it just didn’t really feel like the teacher was actually singing his part? What a let down if that’s the case!

  3. says

    TallyCola, I think I agree with you that I’m doubtful the other Glee kids will get more air time on the show, and if they do, I’m really doubtful it won’t involve some seriously heavy stereotyping. Also totally agree that the singing and dancing was the best part, but that the syncing was far from solid on it, so the illusion was definitely broken.

    Eileen, well put about all the female characters being negative, but the teacher and jock just being “sensitive and misunderstood”. Worse, though, so much of their reason for being so stoically silent about their suffering comes from the unreasonable demands of the women they’re in relationships with. It’s part of the whole ‘sensitive man, on life’s journey all alone’ schtick.

  4. says

    I haven’t seen the show, but:

    The remarks about the sensitive, misunderstood guys and the negative female leads – especially paired with the failure to characterize the women/girls beyond their relationships to men/boys – reminds me of a show I almost reviewed last year. In it, all the men were long-suffering, misunderstood or self-sacrificing, while the women nagged them, never gave them credit and thought THEY were the mistreated ones when it was really the menz, poor things. And it was all played for comedy without any suggestion that these were anything but normal, average people. Also, nothing bad EVER happened to the women on the show. Nothing REALLY bad. Just minor inconveniences that they whined about like 6 year olds who’d never been told no.

    I felt clobbered over the head with the message, “Yeah, you complaining bitchez always complain about us men doing you wrong when in fact you treat us horribly and we put up with it because we love you so much and have a duty as Menz to protect you and stuff! Why, I bet there’s never even been an actual wife beating, ever! You lying bitchez!”

  5. says

    Now that I’ve watched three episodes of this show, I’m interested in what your definition of “disability” is that you think that none of the characters you’ve listed have one.

    Emma’s mental health condition is specifically called out as one in the text – twice. Her “boyfriend”, the coach, tells her outright that (paraphrased) “no one will love you because you’re crazy”, and Sue also says “It’s nice that you’re using your mental illness to help these kids out.” (sarcastically, of course.)

    I’m not even going to get into the way this is presented.

    There is so much disability fail in this show – Tina’s got a speech impediment, Darren is, I think, supposed to come across as having some sort of cognitive disability, the shop teacher with the addiction to cough syrup who cuts off his thumbs, the constant “You don’t want to be like the special ed kids”….

    Goodie. We get to be on air so we can be mocked and Fox can tell me how inclusive they are.

  6. says

    Anna, that was actually just an editorial oversight on my part. I’m totally with you on the treatment of Emma’s mental illness, including the way it also played into the flirtation between her and Will, and the hint of the trope that she could be rescued from her own mental traps by a Good Enough Man. Thanks for pointing it out.

  7. Carol says

    Rachel is not white. She has two fathers, one black and one white. Biologically we don’t “know” which one is her sperm donor father. The actress herself is a Latina and was told she’d never make it on TV because she’s too “ethnic”. My read of some of the show is that there is sizism is an issue more so than race. As the show is a satire, no one is going to be treated “respectfully”. These aren’t real people; they are cartoon characters. I also think there is some time to develop some of the other characters, which they will hopefully do.

  8. Scarlett says

    Yes, the show is a satire, but it isn’t equally discriminating in who it makes look bad. The two male leads come out looking far better than any of the women, who are various combination of vapid, possessive, shallow and unstable. Will and Finn, by comparison, just seem to be trapped by the wiles of aforementioned women.

  9. Hailey says

    I’d love to see another post about Glee now that the first season has finished and (in my opinion) only got worse and worse in terms of its portrayal of the female characters. The “feminist” Madonna episode was one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever watched.

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