"Glee": Five Lines that Should Change Your Mind

I'd hardly be the first to suggest that Glee is neither as subversive or as progressive as its quirky humour and 'inclusive' cast of characters might suggest -- but this week's episode, "Home", seems to me to be a tipping point in terms of bad, bad politics. If you love Glee for some reason, I think this might be the week to reconsider your feelings.

I give you five lines -- selected from many -- that should change your mind.

1) "Hold up, did she just say she was going to eat us?"

Mercedes goes on a diet this week, after being ordered by Sue Sylvester to lose ten pounds. As a plot point, this probably had to happen at some point: after all, can a larger woman appear regularly on television without at some point having to acknowledge a wish to change her body? While I'm not surprised that such a plot line emerges in the show, I'm floored by the way in which it's executed.

First, it's made clear that the slim and attractive cheerleader characters are all normally on some version of Mercedes's diet, and that they pragmatically regard subsisting on a (frankly deadly) liquid diet as the price they must pay for their status. When Mercedes is made miserable by her diet -- starting to picture her classmates as cakes and hamburgers before she faints in the cafeteria -- the "maintext" message is something along the lines of "diets don't work, and crash diets are really really bad!". But why is it Mercedes, the heavier African-American character, whose appetite is so enormous that it has to be caricatured, if numerous other characters are on the same diet? The subtext here is clear: to me, this moment dramatizes any number of cultural anxieties about the unruly appetites and voracious carnality of 'plus-sized' women -- and perhaps yet more problematically, about the unruly appetites and voracious carnality of women of colour.

2) "You're so lucky. You've always been at home in your body."

It gets worse after the cafeteria scene, as Mercedes and Quinn bond in the nurse's office about their experiences with food. Quinn tells Mercedes that she's "been there, hating [herself] for eating a cookie", but that she's "[gotten] over it". Mercedes acknowledges the racial difference here, saying that Quinn probably had a reasonably easy time coming to terms with her thin cheerleader body and "white girl butt".

But it's not being white and thin and popular that's made it possible for Quinn come to terms with food: it is instead the magic power of white-lady motherhood. "When you start eating for someone else," she says, "so they can grow and be healthy, your relationship to food changes. What I realized was, if I'm so willing to eat right to take care of this baby, why am I not willing to do it for myself?".

Two things there. First, Quinn's tummy appears to be smaller than it was before Christmas. Is she not still pregnant? Is she in fact eating? And second, why, in the 21st century, do we have a plot where a mean white girl gets mystically transformed by impending motherhood into -- what, Harriet Beecher Stowe?

Worse still:"You're so lucky," Quinn says. "You've always been at home in your body. Don't let Miss Sylvester take that away from you."

What does it mean when a character who personifies white middle American femininity enviously declares a larger African-American woman to be "at home in her body"? Does she long to be free from the shackles of conventional beauty? To be "at home" in a body that gives in to its appetites, regardless of social consequence?

Julia Starkey has written an essay, "Fatness and Uplift" (included in Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby's book Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere) that provides a really excellent comment on this kind of thinking.
My experience of being a fat black woman has not been a fat-acceptance wonderland. I don't feel like I have been shamed for my body, but I have felt pressure to have a more socially acceptable body size.... Because of the history and attitudes in my community, I feel a responsibility to act in a manner that adheres to a strict code of conduct. Part of the code is hiding its existence from mainstream white culture. I struggle with those pressures when I don't feel like pulling myself together, when I want to toss a scarf over my messy hair and go grab some milk at the store, when I want to snarl at someone rather than do racism 101 for the umpteenth time. Being told by white women that I have it easy when it comes to my body image dismisses all of the complexities and difficulties of my identity and reduces them to "Cosmo says you're fat. Well, I ain't down with that!".
Making assumptions about someone's identity and culture based on fragments of pop culture is dehumanizing....Sometimes what you think is fact is based on false premises. Black women do not live in a fat-acceptance utopia, and you're making racist assumptions if you think they do. (Emphasis mine.)
Of course it's possible to read Quinn's comment as one about Mercedes's self-confidence in general. But -- if it's not that, or not just that, it's also a comment about longing to cross to the other side, to the "fat-acceptance utopia" of African-American culture. As Starkey makes clear, that's a longing that depends on false assumptions about other peoples' lives. When you combine these false assumptions with the power dynamic implicit in the interaction between Quinn and Mercedes, you've got a major problem on your hands.

And don't tell me that it didn't ring false to you when Quinn's hand was the first one raised in the auditorium when Mercedes asked, "how many of you feel fat?". Or -- when it turned out that Mercedes's grand gesture of resistance to Sue Sylvester was a bland performance of a Christina Aguilera song about self-esteem.

3) "You always give me the right advice, Mr. Schuester."

Am I wrong, or does "good advice" in Glee always get passed from a person with more power to a person with less power? This week April appears. She's now not only a drunk, but also the mistress of a very old, very wealthy strip-mall owner -- which doesn't stop her from throwing herself at Will. Despite being in the midst of a divorce, Will declines her advances, and gives her kind, brotherly (or fatherly, or paternalistic) advice: "Are you really where you want to be? Being somebody's mistress? Don't you think you deserve a little bit more than that?...You're always going to feel empty inside until you really find a home." She agrees to ditch the old man, saying, "You always give me the right advice, Mr. Schuester."

And thank goodness for his advice: when April ditches the old man, who promptly drops dead, she makes off with $2 million in hush money that will apparently make it possible for her to head off to Broadway. So, of course -- doing the right thing pays off. It's wonderful! And it tells us that women who listen to the kindly Mr. Schuester -- who "always gives the right advice" -- end up better off.

This is a trend in Glee. We've got kindly white people (Mr. Schuester and Quinn in this episode) giving valuable advice to their social subordinates, with magical results. All of this goes to show, of course, that the white people (especially men!) in power are actually really wise and benevolent, and that if you were to listen to them, be nicer, work harder, settle down into a 'real home', and eat nourishing food that would properly sustain any fetuses you have might have in your womb, everything would be better for everybody.

4) "We got a deal here, right? I don't try to change you, and you don't try to change me."

Kurt's father, Burt, is dating Finn's mother, after being set up as part of Kurt's diabolical plan to get closer to Finn. All of this backfires, though, when Burt and Finn get along a bit too well, bonding about what Burt calls "guy stuff" (i.e. football). When Kurt confronts Burt about this, Burt reminds Kurt that he loves him, and rebuffs Kurt's suggestion that Finn is the "son [he] always wanted". Kurt should accept this, of course, because Burt is 'sympathetic to [his] 'stuff'" and sat through Riverdance three times. And further, they've got a deal: "I don't try to change you, and you don't try to change me."

Isn't that some version of the deal that has been struck with the "queer community" in general in the twenty-first century? "Okay, I guess you're here to stay -- and I guess we can be civil to you. But definitely do not, under any circumstances, try to change us. We will not be converted to your 'lifestyle'."

And of course, it's not coincidence that "gay" is a lifestyle on Glee. Kurt is a charming character in some ways -- but his queerness is made apparent mainly through his love of musical theatre, cosmetic products, and interior decorating. His sexuality is only on display in song (as in the "House is Not a Home" number, which he directs to Finn): it is his lifestyle, his interests and fashion choices, that his father doesn't "try to change".

The entire arc of this plot, of course, also functions to cast Kurt as a schemer, and an outsider to normative family relations. Witness the end, where Burt and Finn reconcile and sit down to watch a basketball game -- while Kurt, feeling the loss of his father as punishment for pursuit of Finn, stands outside, spying through a window like an hysterical woman scorned in a stalker movie.

5) "This family manages. We get by. You just don't know any differently because you think what we have is normal."

The counter to this relationship, of course, is that of Finn with his mother. Finn isn't pleased about having Burt take his long-dead father's place, and he declares that he likes his family as it is. His mother replies: "This family manages. We get by. You just don't know any differently because you think what we have is normal." Later, she says, "We don't need any more memories or ghosts. We need a family. A home."

This is a more obvious example, I think, than the others I've raised, but let's recap: a family is not a family, nor a home a home, without a male head of household. A single mother and son can "manage" or "get by", but must indeed be haunted by their lost husband and father. They cannot be happy until they allow this lost husband and father to be replaced. And a young man who has never known his father cannot, either, know what "normal" is.


Instruments and Ideology

My sister had some pictures taken recently for an album release -- and gosh, if they aren't adorable! Let's take the one, for example.

She's happy, delightfully signalling her Eastern Canadianness with her galoshes, and standing on iconic Haligonian territory (even if she's blocking the view of the clock tower). Yet when I was giving her feedback on the pictures, I said, "ooh, Julia, don't use that one!". Not because I don't like the picture -- but because she's in fact holding a cello. In the others, she's holding her usual instrument, a guitar.

Now, in my fairly professional estimation, Julia is a much better guitarist than she is cellist, and she's certainly a more serious guitarist than cellist. For that reason, it seems more honest for her to pose with the guitar. But that's not why I had this reaction. It's because she's not a real cellist.

We talked about this, and the conversation was handily archived by Gmail. (What follows is edited to remove the parts where I told her that she's a terrific guitarist, on the whole making it sound like I'm a jerk.)

Julia: I actually will be playing cello on the album, and strangely I have been getting lots of cred on my cello lately. Did you know since being the only cellist at the ECMAs I have played on 4 studio albums with cello? (though, to be fair, one was [ex-boyfriend's] band)
me: wha?
That's... weird to me!
Julia: Its weird to me too. (cello) I am mediocre, and not classical at all but... people love it! And fretless playing by ear? Is EASY and amazing on an instrument tuned in fifths.
me: See, I've just never thought of you as a serious cellist
and some snooty part of me is like, "JULIA, STOP DOING THAT".
If that makes sense :P
Which... I am going to admit it doesn't
me: Apparently I am invested in high art values
and think that people shouldn't be non-serious players of string instruments.
Julia: ME TOO! I am happy to hear you say that. People get angry at me for being shy/tentative or angry at being called a cellist... but I always say "HAVE YOU HEARD CELLISTS?" I do not have their discipline or technique.
me: haha
I am so relieved to hear YOU say THAT
And... must point out that we have internalized the same values :p
Julia: But I think.. in some ways for other people it is really refreshing and sounds... inventive and weird that I play cello like a guitar or percussively? But I often when coerced to play shall say I am an abomination to the art in some ways..
So -- what is this all about? If Julia were to pick up, say, a ukelele or a zither after years of playing the guitar, no doubt I'd think that was fine. If she had pictures taken of herself and a hammered dulcimer I'd probably say, "that's weird", but would have no such intense "JULIA STOP DOING THAT" reaction. And all of this, I have to admit, is because the cello is to me a "serious" instrument, one that should not be played by those who don't have proper conservatory discipline and technique. There's room for extended techniques, or pop cello, or jazz cello in this formulation -- as long as you've got the conservatory training first, and are choosing to set it aside. To be a guitarist who plays the cello "like a guitar or percussively", well, that can't be a musical activity of real value. It's an affront to an instrument with a long and storied past, and an affront to all of those conservatory cellists who spend five hours a day thickening the coffee-bean shaped callouses on their thumbs.

Or -- is it? I almost viscerally believe what I've just written. But who's to say that only those with a particular kind of training are 'authorized' to make music on a particular instrument? Would I have this kind of reaction to unschooled performance on an instrument that didn't so strongly signify the Western High Art tradition? And would I have this reaction at all if I hadn't spent the last ten years in university music departments?

I raise these questions because I think of myself, on the whole, as being quite critical of the ideologies that underlie our attitudes about music. I spend a lot of time digging through these ideologies, and I do a lot of work to distance myself from them. But apparently, my investment in the cello as a Serious Instrument cannot quite be undone by critical analysis, or even by a picture of my much-adored youngest sister looking much-adorable with a cello she plays like a guitar.

Now, the endpoint of this thinking in this case is, probably, me giving Julia a scolding for not practicing her scales or bowings (a scolding that she'd shrug off, because she is used to me being scoldy). But imagine how this could play out if I weren't her mostly benevolent, if crotchety, older sister -- if, say, I were a non-benevolent and very crotchety orchestra director, and my objection weren't to a lack of particular training, but to the absurdity of a woman playing the cello. (What kind of woman, after all, would want to play an instrument that's held between the legs?) Or -- what if my objection were to people of colour playing orchestral instruments, in general?

Well -- I'd be in really fucking esteemed company, apparently. I'd be just about set to take over the Vienna Philharmonic.

And here's the point.

If you're hung up on who is making the sounds, instead of on the sounds themselves -- and we are never hearing only the sounds themselves -- you'll probably miss some real aesthetic delights. More importantly, if you don't interrogate your ideas about who "should" be making particular sounds, you will shut entire demographics out of particular kinds of music making. That, it shouldn't need to be said, is absolutely not okay. And that, as anybody who's taken a music history survey should know, is how it's always been.

I'm shocked to realize that I have such a deeply held sense of propriety in relation to an instrument I've never played. (Especially since I've delighted in INTENTIONAL breaches of propriety on instruments I do play...) And so I make an incremental step forward, and admit that my dear sister might well be making tremendous, unorthodox noises with her cello -- even if she's not a 'cellist'. (Giv'er!)