Friday, July 9, 2010

Ungleeful: Bullies and Freaks in Glee

I'll start off by saying that I think Glee is great. It is exposing the world of theatre to an enormous audience, and, along with the High School Musical franchise, it is helping to preserve the art of musicals and once again popularize them. I also enjoy that it focuses on a group of outcasts, rather than on a group of popular and beautiful kids; most high school set shows don't tend to be very realistic, with everyone fitting into a size zero and possessing perfect complexions, not a hair out of place. That's not the real world. Glee is a little closer to the real world, in terms of its character types. Sure, they're still mostly stereotypes; but the oft-ignored stereotypes, and I can appreciate that. But sometimes I'm bothered by this show as well. The writers have a very large fanbase watching their show religiously. They have the opportunity to reach an unparalleled number of young people and expose them to issues they may be facing, and then in turn educate them on these problems. This is why I've always loved the character of Kurt; he's a walking stereotype of young gay men, which can be a good thing if the writers play their cards right. It opens the floor for stories about Kurt's dad coping with his coming out (which the writers did), Kurt struggling to fit in (which they've somewhat touched upon), Kurt looking for a relationship in a place he may never find it (which has been done, but in a hurtful way with him falling in love with a straight character), and Kurt dealing with the inevitable bullying for his flamboyance. Which brings me to my argument.

The writers of Glee have pulled a fast one on us. There is an intensely beautiful moment in the episode “Theatricality,” in which Kurt’s father absolutely reams Finn for using the word “fag” around his gay son. The wonderful relationship these two characters have been building, at Kurt’s expense, is shattered with one word, and that gorgeous moment of true support between father and gay son was finally achieved. It was a groundbreaking moment for many a gay person watching: finally, a moment of true acceptance for the frequently put-down gay character! Finally, sensitivity toward the very real issues plaguing the young gay community.

But what this moment did, even in its beauty, was mask the bigger issue at work toward the young gay community: bullying. For the first time, the “dumb jocks” of the show get more than a few lines designed to make them look inferior to the intelligent leading players. They get multiple scenes of bullying the “freaks” of the glee club. We see them insulting Kurt for being gay, wanting him to keep his homosexuality to himself or else they will attack him. And it seems like they’re going to for a minute. Why? Because Kurt tells them it’s fine. “If you want to hit me, beat me up, go ahead. But I swear to you I will never change. I’m proud to be different. It’s the best thing about me. So go ahead, hit me,” he says. On some level, this is actually not so bad a thing for Kurt to say. He defies normalcy everyday, in this particular episode choosing to dress as a girl (complete with heels and a wig). But he welcomes the insults, the physical beatings. He sends a message to these bullies that what they’re doing is okay. “Go ahead, hit me.” What kind of message is this sending to the young audience watching? A character who is so strong in many aspects, defying typical gender roles and expressing his sexuality without fear or shame, is reduced to a punching bag by choice. The writers are still sending a message that the gay character is weak; he invites the beating because he can do nothing to change it. He can’t stand up for himself. Moments later, just as the bullies are about to start hitting Kurt, he is saved by a repenting Finn. He is rescued by this masculine figure, ironically also dressed in typically female clothes and makeup. So the bullying turns toward the masculine character as well, simply because he is dressed femininely. The bullies promise to return to attack all of the glee members, the “freaks.”

I guess what I’m trying to ascertain is why the glee club members are still being degraded as "freaks." So they dress outside the norm for a small-town in Ohio. They are talented kids with big personalities, and in a world which applauds freakishness so often, I don't understand why these kids are still being punished. The glee clubbers picked a great role model to demonstrate the fact they aren’t truly freakish (Lady Gaga), and they seemed to learn the lesson well that they are “all freaks together, and shouldn’t have to hide it,” but what good are they doing themselves? The bullies promise to return with more bullies, so where is all of this self-expression getting them, except into a place of torment? The problem isn’t going away, it’s being compounded. But if this strength in numbers would’ve been strength in individuality from the beginning, the problem could’ve been diminished instead.

“So go ahead, hit me.” I’m challenging you, Glee writers. Hit me. Make me wrong in my assessment. Prove that you’re doing some good here. Let these characters have individual voices. Show me that a solo can be as loud as a chorus, because I don’t think you believe in your characters individually as much as you should. You've got a few months before the new season to fix this.

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