“I Don’t Give a Damn About My ‘Bad Reputation’”: Glee Talks Back

May 6, 2010
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There’s something really cool about how the last episode of Glee (“Bad Reputation”) unintentionally engaged in a call-and-response with previous Antenna posts that offered viable critiques of episodes this spring (as well as critiques from other pop culture infused TV shows: “Jeff Hates Glee,” Community 1.18.)

Figures I would end up with the one that “packed it all in” (damn you, Mary Beltran!)… Just when Glee makes you think you’re indulging yourself as a viewer lost in the joys of song and dance, it taps into a range of emotions and provokes thought—so a disclaimer that there’s no way I can cover it all in this column.  (Have at in the comments!)

There are 4 key themes that struck me the most in this episode. The first is how “Bad Reputation” offered up an insightful commentary on current YouTube culture (and also the show’s YouTube/iTunes culture). The “Glist” that propelled the narrative asked to think what it means to live in a world in which being ranked and literally counted is what matters most, regardless of the “content” of what/who is being viewed. This appears to be somewhat generational at first, as Sue is pained when her singing and dancing is made public…But the episode quickly turns something culturally and historically specific into a series of universals.

Thus theme 2: the universal pains of invisibility—including a lack of voice and being desexualized/oversexualized. The foiled attempts of the “off-Glisters” (Arty, Tina, Mercedes, Kurt, and somehow, in a screamingly funny way, Brittany) to become visible to the point of being willing to be expelled meshed beautifully with Emma’s public flogging of Will as a slut and Rachel taking advantage of “her boys” to soothe her own ego (and what a charming gender role reversal that was!). Even Sue showed vulnerability as she struggled with slow-motion laughter and how to deal with her wave of conflicting emotions.

Thus theme 3: Here we saw some genuine character development, really reminding me of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its gentle, incremental character growth. Emma’s final speech to Will about needing to come to know each other as they truly are was a much more real step than the claiming of her sexuality that occurred in the Madonna episode, as was Rachel’s “too late” awareness of her self-centeredness as being rooted in an insecurity that ultimately hurts others as well as herself. And who would’ve thought the line “You’re a really great teacher, even if everyone is saying you’re a man whore” (from Quinn to Will) could carry such weight in representing the severe pain of Quinn’s situation as a pregnant teen?  But of course, the moment I cried (oh, yes, I cried) involved Sue’s heartfelt moment with her sister Jean—the only content character in the episode, who is perhaps the most invisible in terms of societal knowledge. A simple story about two bears leading to a simple yet tremendously powerful declaration and promise of eternal sisterly love. It was, quite frankly, the kind of moment I live for on TV.

And thus theme 4. Here was the episode that dared to challenge the central appeal of the series: that there is pure pleasure to be had in the joys of music and dance. The idea of context and intention mattering ran strong through the show’s musical numbers; performers don’t always send the message they desire and audience members should from time to time think through why they love and hate what music (and TV) they do. I found Rachel’s story goal of “musical promiscuity” to be the most telling in the end. There is a “dark side,” if you will, to the arts of song and dance and TV…a tendency towards exhibitionism and aggrandizement (that even Olivia Newton John noted in regards to her “Let’s Get Physical” video). Just because something/someone is popular and fun doesn’t mean it/they are important or unproblematic. And, just because something/someone is popular and fun doesn’t mean it/they are not important or valuable. I think this is the essence of Glee’s appeal: It “mashes” together the old and the new, the shallow and the deep, and in the end asks us to appreciate that our lives are much like popular culture—sometimes bad, sometimes silly, sometimes painful, and sometimes a little ridiculousness that can lead us to something sublime.


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10 Responses to “ “I Don’t Give a Damn About My ‘Bad Reputation’”: Glee Talks Back ”

  1. Myles McNutt on May 6, 2010 at 9:19 AM

    “It “mashes” together the old and the new, the shallow and the deep, and in the end asks us to appreciate that our lives are much like popular culture…”

    I think this piece is really fantastic, and I want to use its analysis to look at the episode in a different light, but I find myself with the same problems I had when watching it. While I understand its theoretical underpinnings, I don’t think the show is adequately explaining why these characters’ lives are so much like popular culture. The message might work for the audience, who has the benefit of seeing all of the stories running concurrently and experiencing all of Ian Brennan’s less than subtle thematic reminders, but I struggle to understand why these characters are making these decisions at this point in time.

    It’s problematic to me that the “Glist” would so radically shift these characters’ behaviours, or that Emma is only able to confront Will after Sue decides to turn her into a charity project. How do we reconcile Quinn’s sage wisdom and maturity last week regarding eating disorders with her emotional turmoil surrounding her pregnancy that the “Glist” represents? The show already has issues with the songs forcing certain emotions and behaviours, but I’ll accept that within the musical tradition of songs being used to create or re-establish certain emotions. However, when the characters feel like they’re being forced into different after school specials each week without much regard to long term character development, I have to become at least a little bit frustrated.

    Right now, the show’s characters feel like they’re means to an end, conduits for theme and music that get moved around to suit the show’s needs. I would be fine with this if the show wasn’t already engaged in extended continuities and ongoing storylines, but their presence always takes me out of these constructed episodes and keeps me from truly engaging with the show on a non-critical level the way I want to be able to.

    For an example of what did work for me: Sue’s story here was pretty fantastic, and I think this episode is a pretty clear choice for Jane Lynch’s Emmy submission. Her character, however, is strong enough that she takes ownership of storylines, and the writers don’t allow her to be pushed around by thematic contrivance – the other characters are not so lucky.

  2. Mary Beltran on May 6, 2010 at 11:27 AM

    Thanks, Sharon, for such an insightful post (and I’m not just saying that because I loved being publicly damned ;)). I agree that it was a jam-packed episode with respect to multiple references to deeper issues, which you unpack impressively. For my part, I loved how the episode unpacked some of the complicated mess that is high school popularity and what it means if the school knows or think they know who’s getting action and who’s not. While I thought it veered into the fantastic in posing girls with a “bad reputation” as always the most popular, this would arguably be a more feminist world, no? And the sheer joy of “Ice, Ice Baby” and the gleesters in MC Hammer-pants really made my day.

    I also agree with Myles’ comments about how character development seems to be all over the place lately, however. Each episode is beginning to feel like a one-off that just happens to begin with the same characters and basic storyline, with Myles’ example of earth mother Quinn last week versus vindictive Glist-poster Quinn this week (and what function what the Glist actually meant to serve?). I still enjoy each episode, but I wonder if my enjoyment will begin to decrease if Rachel, Quinn, Will, and the gang keep flip-flopping from episode to episode.

  3. amanda klein on May 6, 2010 at 1:09 PM

    I will piggyback on Mary’s and Myles’ comments–it does really feel like characters change each week to fit the needs of the narrative. Does Finn love Racel or Quinn? Does Quinn love Finn or Puck? Should I even care at this point?

    For me the episode’s biggest character violation was Sue’s sister. I’m pleased to see actors with disabilities getting primetime exposure, but the presence of this character feels so calculated to me. It shouts, “See Sue IS human!” but I don’t feel it.

    Ultimately, this show keeps pulling me back in with its musical numbers. The “Ice, Ice Baby” number, complete with Kid n’ Play choreography, and the costumes in “U Can’t Touch This” were sublime.

    • Myles McNutt on May 6, 2010 at 1:57 PM

      Here’s the thing: I think Sue’s Sister works because the show has never pretended she was anything else. I thought it was manipulative in “Wheels,” but I really liked the way they handled it here, as the character was an outlet for that side of Sue’s character while she was still able to be a little bit mean-spirited outside of that environment. I was particularly happy to see the scene where Sue paints a picture of a proud and humble Sue celebrating the success of the “Physical” video to her sister and then we see her boastful, petty celebration in the Teacher’s lounge. It helped rough up the story a bit, making it less saccharine and more charmingly sweet, helping the reconcile the two sides to the character better than “Wheels” (which was so interested in the contrast as a shocking twist of sorts).

    • Kelli Marshall on May 6, 2010 at 1:58 PM

      I agree with Amanda about GLEE’s use of Sue’s sister. Sue/Lynch does an excellent job toning down her character in these scenes, but it seems contrived. If Sue weren’t such a two-dimensional character (at this point in the show), maybe those scenes would resonate more to me at least.

      But the part in this episode that felt weird/creepy/icky to me was the Olivia Newton John/Sue video. Incidentally, I had the same feeling when Lynch mimicked Madonna’s “Vogue.” Honestly, I’m not sure why. I’m guessing it’s because I’m not used to seeing Lynch objectified in that way. Or perhaps it’s because neither of those “videos” fits her character — at all. Anyone else have similar feelings, or is it just me?

  4. Derek Kompare on May 6, 2010 at 1:35 PM

    You can tell they were trying to turn things up a notch creatively with this episode as well, i.e., take some different narrative steps, and, as Sharon says, go further out on a limb musically. As always, it works best for me in moments, and I try not to think about the big picture too much. Loved the Hammer pants and the Run Joey Run video especially. Oh, and wise choice to keep Molly Shannon on the periphery; great to see her, but keep her a secondary part of the McKinley High world. She’s best at character roles like this, rather than pulling a lot of weight.

    • Derek Kompare on May 6, 2010 at 1:38 PM

      Forgot to mention, though: Total Eclipse of the Heart has to be one of the cruelest earworm-inducing songs in human history! It helps to remember the video, which softens the blow. I’m sure everyone has seen it like this:


      • Kelli Marshall on May 6, 2010 at 1:58 PM

        Glad you posted that. I was going to if you hadn’t. Sooooo funny!

      • Erin Copple Smith on May 6, 2010 at 5:12 PM

        Oh man, Derek. I had not yet seen that, but it was amazing! Thanks!

        • Myles McNutt on May 6, 2010 at 5:25 PM

          Where have you BEEN?!

          I love how you think they’re all out of material towards the end (it peters off a bit), and then “It started out as Hogwarts / now it’s Lord of the Flies” hits. So, so good.