Glee’s Theatrical Identities and Other Bad Romances
Theatricality was the title, theme, and just about every other word used in this week’s Glee, and who better to convey that concept than Lady Gaga – except maybe Madonna, but that’s another episode. Even better, the show managed to pair up the Lady Gaga numbers (performed by the girls plus Kurt) with Kiss songs (all performed by the boys) to remind us that theatricality is not a new invention nor does it somehow escape the limits of gender. The show, despite some confusing diversions, managed to both present and critique the notion that identities are fluid performances, offer up some excellent one-liners, and end with one of the weirdest and, in my opinion, best duets of the series.
As others have argued, the themed episodes often bury narrative and character development, but this week saw a powerful blending of Lady Gaga’s music and persona and the storyline. Her promotion of both over-the-top performance and being a “freak” allowed the show to return to one of its favorite themes and to deepen its representation. All the glee club members are the school’s freaks, but while the show has depicted their social ostracism before, it often leavens it with satire or humor. The social policing in the school hallways was confined to a face full of slushie or getting thrown in the dumpster which were presented as mildly humiliating or inconvenient. In this episode, however, Kurt, Tina, and Finn are all threatened with beatings for their overt theatricality and for their deviation from high school norms. In the most moving scene of the show, Finn, dogged by rumors that he is gay, fights with Kurt and calls his room “faggy.” He is confronted by Kurt’s father Burt, and we see the emotional toll of the homophobic slurs on Kurt. The now common-place celebration of a flexible identity, a kind of free-market philosophy of identity formation is tempered by the reminder of the costs of choosing a non-normative identity. In fact, the show questions how much “choice” is involved in the face of constant coercion.
The best moments in the show happen when we are reminded that while all the identities are performances, only some are targeted and punished while others are normed. When Kurt and Tina are threatened for wearing their Lady Gaga outfits to school, Kurt tells the bullies that when they wear their football uniforms to school, they’re also using their clothes to express their identity. The last musical number is a duet between Rachel and her newly discovered mother, Shelby. In a bizarre move, they sing an acoustic version of “Poker Face” including the lines “Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin’.” Yet, the strange juxtaposition works because 1) the singing is gorgeous and 2) the audience is constantly made aware of the, yes, theatricality of moment. The song begins with Rachel calling for the piano player, Brad, saying “He’s always just around” and reminding us of the way that musicals constantly defy logic. The chorus of the song itself tells us that we all wear a poker face that may or may not be the real thing but that always mediates between ourselves and others.
On a different note, I think Mary Beltrán asked me to write this blog entry because it was supposed to be about Tina’s identity crisis. Except for the one great line (“I feel like an Asian Branch Davidian”) Tina was pushed to the sidelines. It’s been said before but needs to be said again. Glee really needs to step it up with its portrayal of racial minorities on the show.