Glee’s Theatrical Identities and Other Bad Romances

May 27, 2010
By | 20 Comments

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.

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20 Responses to “ Glee’s Theatrical Identities and Other Bad Romances ”

  1. Amanda Ann Klein on May 27, 2010 at 10:53 AM

    I agree that the final “Poker Face” duet was both both bizarre and totally entertaining at the same time!

    I thought it was interesting that in a show devoted to fluid identities, and containing a great speech by Kurt’s father on the inappropriateness of the “f word,” had a fairly homophobic subplot about Rachel and her mother. Perhaps I am being too critical here, but the episode seemed to imply that Rachel had a difficult childhood being raised by two men. She complains that her dads “can’t sew,” which is why her Lady Gaga costume is so poorly constructed. Later, she prances into the room in a fabulous costume, announcing “My mother made it for me.” This scene implies that the ability to sew is somehow tied to gender (what?) and that somehow something–like great costumes–has been missing in Rachel’s life because she was raised by two men. These are exactly the kinds of arguments raised by those who oppose adoptions by same sex couples. I kept waiting for Rachel to make a speech redeeming her fathers and her childhood (the bringing her water story did not cut it for me). The whole story was weirdly conservative in an episode about accepting non-traditional lifestyles.

    • Myles McNutt on May 27, 2010 at 2:23 PM

      It’s one of the problems of the show being selective in extending its character base: by not casting Rachel’s two Dads (likely because they want to wait and do so when they have the money/time to hire individuals of note), their role in the story is written out by the series, and thus by Rachel. As I one of the comments on my own review pointed out, Will talking to Shelby and not to Rachel’s parents about this situation made no sense, and their non-role is more damning in some ways than their terrible sewing skills.

      But this is no surprise: 90% of Glee stories would be infinitely better told if they were being told within Glee’s universe but on a different show where they could be the focus of an entire episode rather than one of 15 different ongoing storylines at any given time. It results in the show leaning on sentimental shortcuts (like the water story) as opposed to really digging into the ramifications of a particular event.

      • Kelly Kessler on May 27, 2010 at 5:12 PM

        Just a note. We saw a picture of Rachel’s dads in the first episode (to preface the one Jewish and one African American dad joke). They can’t throw stars in without breaking their own world.

        • Myles McNutt on May 27, 2010 at 6:22 PM

          True, but I’d say Pictures aren’t canonical (Lost has had to deal with this as well): I’m willing to bet the show casts name-actors and then photoshops them into the Pilot on the eventual Complete Series DVD release.

    • LeiLani Nishime on May 27, 2010 at 4:05 PM

      Amanda, I know what you mean about the conservatism that creeps in to the shows that seem to be making the exact opposite statement. The Madonna episode was a glaring example of this for me, with the two “good” characters Rachel and Emma remaining virgin(al)s and the slut-shaming of the “bad” cheerleaders. With nobody actually enjoying sex. Wait, maybe that is the message of Madonna after all…

    • Tausif Khan on May 27, 2010 at 4:24 PM

      This issue is also complicated by the fact that Ryan Murphy entered into scuffle about the portrayal of homosexuality on television: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/11/glee-co-creator-seeks-boycott-of-newsweek-after-article-criticizes-gay-actors/?scp=1&sq=Ryan%20Murphy%20homophobia&st=cse

      I agree and think it is important that Rachel’s fathers should have been shown before the plot line with Shelby was revealed.

    • Jonathan Gray on May 27, 2010 at 5:09 PM

      Herein lies the crux for me with Glee — its messages about acceptance and diversity often double-back on themselves. Maybe I could sit back and just enjoy it as a fun show with an at-times excellent sense of humor, and as one that can deliver occasional speeches like Kurt’s dads, but this Antenna Glee Club has me watching with critical eyes more firmly open, and every week those eyes are less and less happy. If it wasn’t the failure of two gay dads to offer Rachel what she wants/need most (a mommy who can [automatically, thanks to gender] sew) in this episode, it was Mercedes singing that everyone’s beautiful in their own way and that she doesn’t need to lose weight to be beautiful when I’m willing to bet you that if Santana, Quinn, Brit, Tina, Rachel, or Emma were 30 lbs heavier, they wouldn’t have been cast. Or any other number of moments when the show’s politics have double-backed on themselves.

      I feel as though the show is becoming like a person who tells you, no insists, that they’re not racist or sexist, and becomes their workplace’s Diversity Captain, or something like that, to prove the fact, yet who regularly makes lightweight racist and sexist comments. I expect this from the rest of prime time (sadly), but from a show that’s so proud of how accepting it is, I really want the writers to be forced to take a course on critical race, gender, and sexuality theory before they parade their Diversity Captain badges any further.

      • Kristina Busse on May 27, 2010 at 5:25 PM

        Great description Jonathan. Beyond the iffy heteronormativity cum sexism you’re pointing out and LeiLani’s well deserved complaint about Tina’s missing storyline, I’m actually most fascinated by the general reception of the Kurt/Burt/Finn scene. What I found interesting that much of the reception wants to place blame on one side or the other–as if the reception needs to adapt the often all too simplistic binaries of Glee itself. But what really started me thinking was this comment that reintroduces sexuality into Kurt’s story line. Whereas homophobia often narrows gay identity to nothing but sexuality, the show clearly moves the other way by desexualizing Kurt–as if the only way Kurt can be sympathetic is if he remains nonsexual…his sexuality after all is, indeed, generating Finn’s discomfort (and the basis for most Finn apologists, it seems).

      • Kristina Busse on May 27, 2010 at 6:08 PM

        ETA:

        I was just listening to David Bowie on my drive home and started wondering why KISS would be the ultimate ‘masculine’ theatricality. I sometimes get the feeling that KISS et al were always more popular in the US, but if I wanted to look for a male glamorous predecessor, I’d have gone for Ziggy Stardust in a heartbeat. Oh…but I guess he’s just a tad too…gay???

        • Will on June 2, 2010 at 2:41 AM

          I don’t think that was the reason — even Puck seemed familiar and comfortable with Bowie, assuming (earlier in the episode) that Lady Gaga was a man in drag, and seeming blase about the idea.

          I’d suggest that the reason for using KISS rather than Bowie is that the show needed to do something with five guys, and nobody would really want to play one of the Spiders From Mars while their classmate got the Ziggy role.

          • Will on June 2, 2010 at 2:42 AM

            Also, Bowie has adopted a pretty straight public persona for at least the last 30 years :)

      • Martyn Pedler on May 28, 2010 at 2:47 AM

        Jon, this is perfect: “I feel as though the show is becoming like a person who tells you, no insists, that they’re not racist or sexist, and becomes their workplace’s Diversity Captain, or something like that, to prove the fact, yet who regularly makes lightweight racist and sexist comments.”

        This episode, though, is the first one that’s actually made me angry. Kurt’s unthinking presentation as an ‘honorary girl’ – considering only a few weeks ago he was tearfully reminding his father than he was a boy, too; the way the show ignored that Finn’s feeling uncomfortable was reasonable, too, as it wasn’t due to Kurt gayness but due to Kurt’s creepy and somewhat predatory manipulation of the entire living situation… I worry that this stuff goes beyond lightweight sexism and into more unpleasant ideological territory.

        Okay, now I feel like a buzzkill.

        • Kelly Kessler on May 28, 2010 at 7:51 AM

          That’s because you are a buzzkill, Martyn.

          I see the points that are being made, but at times, I think we have a tendency to forget that we are in fact watching television. Don’t get me wrong. I love television. I love a teen drama. I love a musical. I love a family melodrama. I loves me a sitcom. (GLEE seems to be all of these things on and off.) That said, is GLEE doing anything more egregiously than the rest of television (re: gayness, straightness, body image, race, class, etc.)? Honestly, at times it’s those things that make TV simultaneously interesting, infuriating, and life-like. At other times, that’s just what TV does (for the good or bad of it). Have we set GLEE up as an ideal to now trash it for doing what television traditionally does?

          I agree with those who saw the treatment of Finn as problematic. Okay, he said faggy. He was kind of driven to that and acted out. (I say as a dyke.) To some extent, I feel like calls of homophobia toward the writing of Kurt begs TV writers to only write wholly sympathetic gay characters that are handled in wholly PC ways by others. That simultaneously asks for television to continue writing somewhat flat and samey gay characters. Can we truly say that a gay teen (not a character) does not at times align himself with the girls, while still wanting to be loved and respected by his dad? Kurt wanted his dad to see him as his son, and feared that his dad couldn’t do that if he was not the kind of “guy” he understood (because Kurt is in fact a guy who likes to hang out with girls and dress like Gaga). Lesbian Kelly at 17 pushed her lesbian gym coach away and made snarky comments about her in the locker room. Life is hard. No, Kurt is not the torchbearer for the perfect gay teen. Is there a perfect gay teen anyway. Write me some imperfection, please.

          Yes, I think there are ideologically problematic issues with the show, but there are ideologically problematic issues across shows and in life. I prefer not to force the show into something that makes me feel warm and fuzzy (and bored) at all times. (This does not excuse all of its sins, but some.)

          • Kristina Busse on May 28, 2010 at 8:09 AM

            Kelly, I think you’re making a really great point, except…Glee places itself (and is placed) as better, more self-aware, better at representation, etc. So when we criticize it, I don’t feel it’s quite the same as criticizing a show that has never aspired (or been read as) feminist, nonablist, queer-friendly, etc.

            I actually had fewer problems with ambiguities of the scene as I had with people’s responses to it, if that makes sense. And the extremely binary reception that simplifies these, as you importantly point out, much more life-like complicated presentations seems to me to be based in the very genre mixing that you mention. It’s generic whiplash, isn’t it? We’re just getting used to understanding the stereotypical portrayal as part of the satirical setup when we get melodramatic characterization, realist ambiguity, and then back to full-on satire. It’s hard not to read one against the other…

            Moreover, I do think that the show’s issue are much more deeply embedded than simply a poor choice of phrasing here or an ignoring of character there. It drives the narratives, the representations, the song choices,…all the while somewhat self-righteously seeing itself as post-everything and allowed to playfully mock negative audience responses as not hip enough, so to speak.

            • Jonathan Gray on May 28, 2010 at 9:24 AM

              Like Kristina, I find the self-righteousness problematic. I’m willing to accept some contradictions within the characters, because, hey, they’re not only humans, they’re the most flawed type of humans of all: high school students :-) But if the show wants to be the show that tells us not to be homophobes, then it should darn well be that show; otherwise it’s kidding itself and working as a model for a lame form of “tolerance.” Granted, Fox News is waaaay worse, but when FNC says they’re anti-sexist (in the context of defending their buddy Sarah Palin) then regularly is sexist, we complain. And though Glee is waaaay more enjoyable, is funny, has some lovely characters, etc., as scholars we can’t simply give it a pass.

        • amanda klein on May 28, 2010 at 8:09 AM

          yes Martyn I was thinking the same thing about Finn! His use of the “f word” was terrible but his anger was legitimate–Kurt was making all of the decisions about their shared room and not taking Finn’s tastes or desires into account. I thought putting the “f word” into his mouth was unfair on the part of the writers as it was pretty uncharacteristic of Finn, who has proven himself to be open midned all season. It seemed like the whole thing was set up so Kurt’s father could make a speech (good speech though it was).

          • Kelly Kessler on May 28, 2010 at 9:52 AM

            I do agree that at times the show sets itself up as uber-progressive, but interestingly it’s often at those times that it fails to be so (e.g. moments of Wheels, unfortunate scene with paralyzed guy, etc.). I don’t think the show deserves a pass for all of its ills. I am, however, enjoying the ride to see how they will negotiate these issues. As something that struggles to be (a) widely popular, (b) a genre hybrid, and (c) somewhat “progressive,” the show is going to stumble to figure out how to do all three at the same time. No, it shouldn’t be forgiven for all that it does. I’m willing to watch it stumble to see if it comes out better on the other side. (That said, I’m also not mad at Modern Family for holding off on the gay kiss. Does that mean my expectations are too low?)

            • Martyn Pedler on May 28, 2010 at 6:03 PM

              Buzzkills unite! Wet blanket powers activated!

              I absolutely take your point, Kelly – characters should be allowed to be inconsistent and imperfect, and the last thing TV needs is another Perfect Gay Supporting Character. (Okay, maybe not the *last* thing…)

              As Jon and Kristina suggested above, I think there’s two things affecting my frustrated response to the show. One is its self-righteousness as being on the ‘right side’ of these issues. If it’s going to actively preach, I think we should get to expect more from it.

              (This strikes me the same was as the show’s obsessions with ‘underdogs’ does. Just because you keep announcing something doesn’t mean it’s there!)

              And the other is its tonal whiplash – the “satirical setup” to “melodramatic characterization” to “realist ambiguity” and back again. It’s slippery enough that it can easily act as a get-out-of-ideological-jail-free-card…

              I have to give them credit for the mother / daughter duet to the pleasures of rough sex, though, which was one of the strangest things I’ve seen on TV in a long, long while.

  2. Kelly Kessler on May 27, 2010 at 11:34 AM

    Nice post, LeiLani. You know, I guess I wouldn’t argue that the show needs to step up its portrayal of racial minorities, but I had been struck by the centering of voices that were not Finn’s or Rachel’s. When “Bad Romance” started, I couldn’t figure out who in the heck was singing. It was one of the most Rachel-light group numbers of all times (except maybe ones where the point was that the song was given to someone else, like “True Colors”). (To use Sue’s terms) It seemed like “black guy” and “other Asian” had more (be it covered) face-time in the first KISS number than they usually do. True, the creators have totally failed to develop those characters at all beyond mere minstrelsy, but it was good to at least see them visually centered a bit. (On a side note, interesting that all of the women have been developed far more than those 2 men. Perhaps that is solely because Brittany and Santana are there as sexual temptation and the women have enough of that between Puck, Finn, and Jesse.)

    I also found the final duet completely bizarre (and too long). I did love the ever-present pianist. The visually static nature of the song, especially in contrast to the freakishly pimped out sets for the KISS and Gaga numbers, really made the number drag for me. Despite its high quality, that mother-daughter duet was odd like the Jenna-mom duet of “Do It to Me One More Time” or 30 Rock. Also, just two more notes. One, I found it quite interesting (but not sure if that’s good or bad) that there were NO integrated numbers in this episode. All numbers were overt performances and not really any blurring of those lines. Two, I spent the entire episode waiting for one of the Vocal Adrenaline performers to take off his Lady Gaga mask and be Jesse. Rats! That said, I think this ep kind of kicked the Madonna ep’s butt in terms of quality, narrative, and overall execution. It provides hope for successful theme nights.

  3. Lindsay H. Garrison on May 27, 2010 at 12:15 PM

    What a great take on the episode – thanks for this LeiLani. I also enjoyed the episode and its commentary on performance, particularly the moment when Kurt reminded the football players that their uniforms/letter jackets were also costumes of sorts. And the “Pokerface” duet was great – the “visually static” element (as you say, Kelly), actually worked for me as it brought my attention a little more to the lyrics and concept of mediating ourselves, whether it’s our identity as mothers, daughters, or “freaks.”