"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.


Kaitlinb said...

I love this post, Sarah. Thank you for writing. I was deeply troubled by the Madonna episode last week and this week's rankled for other reasons.

Your criticism of Mercedes as the object of the inevitable body image plot is so apt. The focus on Mercedes allows the rest of the predominantly white class to continue on the show unchanged by "addressing" the power dynamic between Quinn and Mercedes--Mercedes is used here as an exception which reinforces the white body rather than questions it. I would add, moreover, that the black body is figured here as utopic and therefore 'natural' bringing up disturbing nature/culture assumptions. Don't get me started on the mind-numbing association of Mercedes' body with a 'home.' This just screams: reprodution! reproduction! Family! Family!1 Nation State! Also the language here insinuates we (who is we?)"inhabit" our bodies. This is Descartes all over again--still objectifying and disciplining the body...

On the other hand, Mercedes' resort to Christina Aguilera's "beautiful" is neoliberalism at its very best. The narrative of self-empowerment and self-control presented here is exactly the same narrative preached by the diet industry to entice women (and men) into its programs. "Empower yourself," "be your own person,"--the person who you really and 'truly' are. The dieting industry gets wrapped up into the all consuming fiction of neoliberalism: the unique, sovereign individual. Christ haven't we learned yet? Just because we can choose pants instead of skirts does not mean we are free. Dieting is presented here as a 'choice' in the end one which Mercedes' refuses, but it doesn't mean she's anymore liberated for it.

Re Kurt. Brilliant analysis. I would add one thing. In the "you do your thing and I do mine" and "we don't question it" attitude is an assumption of difference (or same (biologically) and yet different (lifestyle--as you said)). In 'tolerating' Kurt his father can continue on in his own way. And that's exactly what tolerance is. A slightly less violent form of othering.
Kurt, like the stereotypical "gay best friend" in many hollywood romcoms, is not 'queer' at all.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I don't watch Glee for one simple reason, it's on Fox and I refuse to watch anything on Fox. Love your blog though. I'm blogrolling you now and I apologize for not doing so sooner.