In Defense of Glee18 July 2016
Glee – don’t stop believing in it
I can feel everyone who knew me when I was twelve rolling their eyes already. I was, for lack of a better term, a Gleek. I was that annoying kid who had ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ playing on repeat on their iPod and continued to sing it through the corridors whilst passionately discussing the latest episode with my friends.
Glee began during my first year of high school and was my first step into the realm of television beyond Disney and Nickelodeon. It explored real issues like teen pregnancy, sexuality and relationships, celebrated everyone’s differences and produced catchy renditions of songs. The “regionals version” of ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ was nominated for a Grammy Award and Darren Criss’ cover of ‘Teenage Dream’ became a no. 1 single on the Billboard Digital Songs Chart. But it wasn’t until I sat watching the final episode just after finishing high school that I realised just how great of an influence this show had on my life.
Glee was a cringey show at times, I get that. Characters randomly burst into song and Mr Schuester was frankly really creepy and rapped way too much. I’m still trying to erase the time he sang Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ from my mind. Glee’s image was probably not helped by all the overzealous tweens and theatre geeks running around fangirling over the latest episode (I take full responsibility for my actions).But it is important to recognise that Glee was a groundbreaking show that represented all types of people. And as cringey as it is, Glee’s message that everyone should be proud of the things that make them different was incredibly important.
Say what you want about the show but Glee was extremely significant in its representation of race, sexuality, mental illness and other important issues on mainstream television.
Seeing a diverse range of characters who represented a number of minority groups portrayed as three dimensional, human characters is significant in that it actually reflects what a real American public high school, and society in general, looks like.
Kurt Hummel, played by Chris Colfer, was particularly vital in the show’s successful illumination of marginalised groups. Kurt came out as gay early in the first season and continued to become a fan favourite. In season two, Blaine came into the picture and the two soon started dating to the joy of fangirls everywhere. But more importantly, it meant that there was an openly gay couple being portrayed on mainstream television in a completely normal way.
This came at a time when the perception of LGBT+ people was slowly beginning to change. In 2008, the year before Glee premiered, Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi were married after laws banning same-sex marriage were overturned in California. It was a time when the perception of the LGBT+ community was beginning to shift. There had been gay and lesbian characters on popular TV shows such as Buffy, Will & Grace and Friends but the representation of gay characters in high school was significant as it shed light on the struggles that they endure in an often judgmental and closed off environment.
Glee portrays Blaine and Kurt’s relationship with a sense of normalcy by exploring it as any of the other relationships in the show are explored. Unlike in shows like Friends, where characters like Ross’s ex-wife who is a lesbian are often the bud of a joke, Glee makes an effort to explore the way that negative language affects the LGBT+ characters on the show.
Similarly Santana’s struggle with her sexuality was another topic that became a focus point at around season three. After being outed by Finn the show explores how Santana struggles to accept herself, which is especially evident in this scene where she comes out to her grandmother and says “I’ve tried so hard to push this feeling away”.
Glee really depicts the internal struggle that Santana endures as she comes to terms with the fact that she is a lesbian, falls in love with Britney and is forced to come out before she’s ready. Throughout the series it becomes evident that Britney is bi-sexual. Bi-sexuality is often erased in television shows, movies and life in general and is often depicted as straight people just experimenting or a stage on the way to coming out as gay. It’s important that Glee never erases Britney’s bi-sexuality in this way.
Emma, the school guidance councilor who later marries Mr Schuester, struggles with OCD throughout the series. Glee shows how her OCD fits within her daily routine and the way that it consumes her life as well as the struggle she has in overcoming this illness. When mental illness is so often brushed under the rug in everyday life, it is significant that Glee openly portrays a character who has OCD and the realities of her difficulty in overcoming it.
Artie’s struggles by being wheelchair-bound is another topic brought up through the series. There are scenes when he wishes he could dance like the other students in the Glee Club and struggles with daily exercises like getting up the stairs to the auditorium. Viewers are given the chance to see how simple acts like walking up the stairs are taken for granted in a society that so often forgets about those who struggle with these things. Becky, a character with Down syndrome, is incorporated into the series in a way that shows that she is on equal footing with the other characters. She is a member of the cheerleading squad, wants to go to college and is just as sassy and conniving as Sue. I always found her relationship with Sue to be one of the most heartwarming aspects of the series. Glee never ignores Becky’s Down syndrome or Artie’s disability, but they are never defined by these characteristics. We see Artie’s ambition to become a filmmaker and Becky’s growth under Sue’s mentorship as well as the way they fumble through high school like all of the other characters. There are moments when each of them is likeable and unlikeable, and the relationships that are formed between all of the characters prove that a character’s disability is not the defining feature of their personality or story.
A Parody of Itself
A lot of people criticise Glee for being too ridiculous in the later seasons, and that the constant singing became too much. But since the beginning, Glee was always a parody of itself. Remember that weird ‘Run, Joey Run’ sequence in the first season? I try not to either, but it was an instance where Glee was aware of its own absurdity. Similarly, other characters constantly poked fun at Mr Schuester’s affinity for rapping in an effort to recognise the ridiculous nature of the show.
Because how could a TV series where characters randomly break into song and apparently never go to class not be ridiculous? The combination of realism, absurdity and musical was what made Glee different and what made it great. It never took itself too seriously, but knew how to incorporate important messages and characters for viewers to identify with.
This kind of self-awareness continued throughout the series and became particularly evident when Jane Lynch’s character Sue embodied fans in her unhealthy obsession with Kurt and Blaine’s relationship. She literally had a secret shed dedicated to “Klaine” and locked them in an elevator in an effort to get them back together when they had broken up. This entire storyline was parodying the fandom that surrounded Glee and Kurt and Blaine’s relationship.
Glee was the kind of show that made you proud of the things that made you different and it made other people aware that difference is important. I know that it’s a bit cliché and the whole corny tagline of the series but it’s actually true. Maybe it’s just because Glee spanned from the beginning to the end of my high school experience or because I was a nerdy theatre kid. Maybe I’m just way too nostalgic for someone my age, but I can’t help but feel that Glee has an important presence within the world of television and pop-culture in its ability to simultaneously represent and entertain viewers through the unique combination of drama, comedy, song and dance.