Is GLEE Racist/Heterosexist/Ableist?

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Only three episodes have aired but I am already a huge fan of Glee. Hell, I was a huge fan 5 minutes into its premiere last spring. My enthusiasm for the program largely stems from my love of the American film musical: Glee is peppered with elaborate, often integrated, musical numbers. Even the show’s nondiegetic music is sung a capella. Sure, the musical television show has tried and failed to gain traction with American audiences, but Glee seems like it’s going to make it.

Glee's multiracial, multiethnic, multisexual cast
Glee's multiracial, multiethnic, multisexual cast

In the months following Glee‘s sneak preview/premiere back in May, however, some quiet rumblings began (also here and here). The show includes an African American female character, Mercedes (Amber Riley) who is … wait for it … overweight and sassy. The show also includes a homosexual character, Kurt (Chris Colfer), who loves Liza Minelli and obsesses over his fashion choices and a wheel-chair bound character, Artie (Kevin McHale) with thick, horn-rimmed glasses and sweater vests. Yes, these are a lot of stereotypes.

Mercedes and Kurt
Mercedes and Kurt

Of course, stereotypes are not inherently problematic, particularly when a show seems to revel in its stereotypes. For example, Glee is filled with numerous high school movie clichés, including snotty, blonde cheerleaders (Dianna Agron) and a squat, laconic football coach (Patrick Gallagher). But, the early complaints about Glee have been that its African American, Asian, homosexual, and handicapped characters have taken a backseat to the show’s white, heterosexual, able-bodied characters. Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Cory Monteith) have received far more screen time, characterization and most importantly, solos, than any of the other young characters. For example, in the premiere episode’s “big number,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”, it is Rachel and Finn who not only monopolize the juiciest bits of the performance, but also turn the song into a romantic duet. I’m not sure that Artie, the parapalegic or Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), the Asian American character, have had more than 2 lines between them yet. And yet, these characters all over Glee‘s promotional images and in its trailers. As the blogger at Alas! A Blog put it “Diversity consists of real parts, not just tokenism.”

By including (and promoting) a diverse range of characters and then not utilizing them within the narrative or the musical numbers, the show seems to be saying that tokenism is enough. It’s a simulacrum of diversity. An all white cast would not be more politically savory but it would be more honest.

Rachel and Finn
Rachel and Finn

However, there are indications that the show will start allotting more screen time to some of its other perfomers. In the most recent episode, “Acafellas,” the primary narrative revolved around Will’s (Matthew Morrison) attempt to reclaim some of his lost confidence by starting up an all male a cappella quartet that performs 1990s era hip hop. This naturally leads to an a capella rendition of Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up.” Naturally.

The Acafellas conquer New Jack Swing
The Acafellas conquer New Jack Swing

But the show’s secondary storyline finally yielded some screen time to Mercedes and her somewhat inappropriate crush on Kurt. Kurt’s rejection provides the segue for one of the episode’s main musical performances, a sultry, dare I say “window busting,” rendition of Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows.” I was happy to see Mercedes have her moment in the spotlight because Amber Riley can really sing. And she looked pretty fierce in her black jumpsuit and fringed red jacket (even if such clothing is completely inappropriate for washing cars). The episode also featured a tender moment when Kurt finally vocalizes, for the first time, that he is gay. Glee often operates at one move away from reality, but this scene was both grounded and touching.

Fierce
Fierce

This most recent episode seems to indicate that the show will shift its storylines (and its solos) to different characters from time to time. I hope this is the case because, as I mentioned, I really like musicals. And a capella versions of “Poison.”

But what do you think? Is Glee going to be the kind of program that pays diversity a lot of lip service without actually putting it into practice? Or do we need to give this show more time to grow?

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29 thoughts on “Is GLEE Racist/Heterosexist/Ableist?

    Alicia said:
    September 17, 2009 at 10:31 am

    Yeah, I hear you. I was *really* bothered by Kurt’s line about his father taking away his car after discovering his hope chest of tiaras. It seemed like a throwaway line that was simply meant to be funny, but it kind of made my stomach turn.

    However, Jane Lynch’s reaction to Puck’s solo made my night.

    Randall said:
    September 17, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    I thought Kurt was being written and played as a stereotype until his coming-out moment, which made both my wife and me get a tad misty. The show might have a strategy of throwing the usual high-school types at us and then sneaking in more distinct and more human moments.

    I also suspect that Rachel and Tina will get their own subplots in upcoming episodes.

    Will said:
    September 17, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    My thoughts are moving along the lines of Randall’s … I get the impression the show is working the teen-dramedy to gain an audience before moving into these more reflective and/or touching moments with other cast members. Perhaps will end up being more “ensemble” casting than it is currently.

    I, for one, hate this need to get rid of sissies as a “stereotype” … sure, there are other kinds of gay youth, but we sissies are just as important as the jocks and we deserve our air time! 🙂 And our high school struggles are meaningful — what I like most about this past episode is that none of the characters really seem to blink an eye at Kurt … his father’s a jack-ass who tries to buy his son’s heterosexuality with an Escalade, but Kurt’s peers don’t think much of it … certainly the evil cheerleaders *use* Kurt and Mercedes effectively by manipulating them, but that doesn’t seem to be racially or sexuality motivated so much as general maliciousness …

    I’m waiting for the dream sequence when Kurt and Finn hook up and have the horrible sex that Finn will no doubt supply anyone who mates with him … I mean, really, have you ever seen anyone with less rhythm? Wow …

    princesscowboy responded:
    September 17, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Will, I agree wholeheartedly that there is nothing inherently wrong with stereotypes, sissy and otherwise. BUT, what has troubled me a bit about this program is that so far the primary narrative arcs/performance numbers have centered on Will, Rachel and Finn, while the minority stereotypes dance behind them. This most recent episode seemed to counter this trend though, so I am optimistic.

    Randall said:
    September 17, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Will, I have less rhythm than Finn, though without dancing a mirror (which I will never do) I can’t be sure.

    Here’s another thought. (If it sticks to Amanda’s page, I’ll be surprised.)

    How could you write a season’s worth of shows and not flesh out the characters, lifting them beyond stereotypes? Well, I’m sure some shows are content with cardboard characters and types, but the necessity of creating between 12 and 25 episodes would likely move even the most white/straight/male-centered writer to become suddenly interested in the peripheral characters, no matter their race, gender, and sexuality.

    Think of the difference between the Brit version of The Office and the American. The former ended up with only six hours or so of material. The latter version’s 100+ episodes has amassed over 50 hours of material. One might say, correctly, that the American Office has had the opportunity to develop the secondary characters. That’s one way to look at it. Another way: the show has had no choice but to develop Kelly, Oscar, Kevin, Angela, Karen, etc.

    If Glee hangs around long enough, I expect that the writers will eagerly strip-mine these characters. By season two, we’ll know all of their bra sizes, SAT scores, and favorite breakfast cereals.

    angryapron said:
    September 24, 2009 at 1:06 am

    I think it’s a little upsetting that Tina has yet to have her moment. I’m still waiting for Glee to give her her moment. All the character has already had a small arc, but Artie and Tina…not so much.

    But I don’t think I should hold my breath for those moments to come. :-\

    […] 26 09 2009 Have the writers for Glee been reading this blog? No, of course they haven’t. But I was still very pleased to see that Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) […]

    Sarah said:
    October 1, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Each week makes me more and more uncomfortable with the politics of this show. Why is Glee club so desperate for Rachel when Mercedes has a great set of pipes? Why is having “mixed-race twins” part of the drunk woman’s sob story? I seriously think I am going to have to stop watching the show. It is clear to me that the writers have race issues – and equally clear that they have no clue that they have race issues. Why is nobody calling them on this?

      Eric said:
      April 25, 2010 at 10:14 pm

      I think there is an attempt at social commentary by having an angsty white star sit front and center to the equally talented minority. I don’t they they are advocating that social structure, but rather providing a window into American culture. I would argue, the plot twists and turns so far should have taught us something, its that the writers will develop this situation. And when they do, I expect it will be multi-faceted and complicated, something that keeps me watching Glee.

    princesscowboy responded:
    October 1, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I said the same thing to my husband last night. Don’t get me wrong–Rachel has an AMAZING voice. But so do almost all of the characters on the show. This was best demonstrated when Mercedes sang the final words of “Somebody to Love” in last night’s episode. Couldn’t she have sung the entire song? I suppose, though, if none of the characters cared that Rachel quit the Glee club, then that would have killed several amusing storylines.

    Sue’s Rainbow Tent of Dysfunction « The Moth Chase said:
    October 15, 2009 at 8:29 am

    […] than the rehearsal room). But it felt like this episode was trying to respond to criticism of the show’s portrayal of minority characters and instead just decided that criticism wasn’t much fun. We never really hear the perspective […]

    […] I have not always been happy with the politics of Glee, I have always been satisfied with their adoption of the conventions of the backstage […]

    Gleeful Controversy | Dis/Embody said:
    November 12, 2009 at 10:42 am

    […] has been receiving a lot of media attention – about its May premiere, its diverse (and/or stereotypical) characters, its dark humor, and of course its musical numbers. This week, however, as Glee puts […]

    Hafsa said:
    November 23, 2009 at 1:40 am

    What’s bothered me is little lines like when Terri is about to tell her friend that she’s been faking her pregnancy her friend says with horror on her face “Is the baby black?”

    Then when Will is asking April (the high school dropout) what happened to her – why had she sunken so low – she talks about her highschool sweetheart having had an affair with another man and that she herself had “a set of mixed race twins.”

    Really subtle but ugly racial comments all the same. Also, completely unnecessary. It would never have occurred to me to stick them in and don’t think they add much to the humor of the show.

    Zee said:
    November 29, 2009 at 4:30 am

    You raise some good points here, but in your introduction of stereotypes you completely forgot to mention anything bout Tina. Although I love Glee, it upset me that it fulfilled the norm of Asian Americans in media being sidelined. Asian Americans still have no more than like, 3 personalities in Media.

    kafta said:
    December 12, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    In addition to the previous examples, near the end of episode 6 Terri Schuester states outright that Ken Tanaka’s “fondue pot of nationalities” will “open [his and Emma Pillsbury’s] kids up to a host of genetic diseases”. I can’t believe that this show is going on for another season on a network television channel.

      tony said:
      December 27, 2009 at 7:19 am

      kafta, that line really bothered me, too! i can’t believe they wrote that line! i’m shocked and i won’t watch it anymore.

        Andy said:
        January 25, 2010 at 1:23 pm

        Guys, this is BLACK COMEDY, with black humor, that’s why these characters say those kind of things. An intelligent person would definitely spot that and laugh at such non-sense, because real intelligent people are not like that and condem that in real life, but this is a SHOW, entertainment, comedy for SMART people… yeah, SMART open-minded people with clear values about REAL life.

        It is sad to still see church-narrow-minded people in this country.

        PS: Im Hispanic and Im not worried or shocked at all by any lines from this show.

    Suzy said:
    January 7, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    I LOVE GLEE!!! Definitely one of the best shows on TV these days. So awesome!

    lulu123 said:
    January 27, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    stfu guys glee is amazing and i dont think its racist
    america is rasict
    get over it

    bitthaa said:
    February 1, 2010 at 11:41 am

    hey !! i love cory monteith and glee, CORY MONTEITH Y LOVE YOU IS BEATIFUL MUACKK BYEE!!

    i LOVE GLEE!!!! AND CORY MONTEITH

      shutup said:
      March 28, 2010 at 1:03 am

      Stop making multiple brain dead posts under different names you moron. If your opinion carried any weight at all it would stand all by itself.

    […] Andy Denhart, a contributor to MSNBC.com, recently reprimanded Fox’s new drama/comedy Glee, warning that while the show is “fantastic” and maintains a solid fan base, it increasingly lacks “emotional and rich moments” and refuses to develop its stereotypical characters. (For a similar reading, see Amanda Ann Klein’s “Is Glee Racist/Heterosexist/Ableist?”) […]

    grenadiangirl said:
    April 22, 2010 at 1:21 am

    Andy –
    I’m smart, I’m also a minority and I appreciate a lot of the wittiness/snappiness of Glee’s humor – the funny oddness of the characters. I just am not into the ugliness and gratuitousness of the racial comments I and other posters mentioned. It just brings up too many painful references for me, when I’m watching to laugh and be entertained – e.g. I’m not or wasn’t looking at it with my guard especially up. I am also too aware that although we may be past sitting at the back of the bus there are plenty of people who make the kinds of comments being made in Glee without much awareness of why those comments are wrong or offensive. I think the Glee writers know and that for me makes it even worse. That said, I’ve started to watch again and have noticed that they have increased the digs at everyone. A good strategy, I suppose. But it still won’t sting less if I hear comments similar to the ones mentioned above – because “go to Israel” or even “Can’t you discuss that with your Rabbi” comments (directed at Rachel) don’t even compare.

    mimi said:
    May 14, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    its supposed to be satire. its supposed to come out with crazy borderline offensive one lines. its supposed to have characters who are the ultimate stereotype of some kind of high schooler. it pokes fun at everyone and expects people will be able to have a laugh at themselves too.

    if you didnt get any of that, you’ve missed the whole point of the show. have you never seen anything of ryan murphy’s before? its not supposed to be high school musical redux. its satire. if you’re offended by it, dont watch.

    […] 4/28:  Amanda Ann Klein, “Is Glee Racist/Heterosexist/Ableist?” and Liz Ellcessor, “Glee-full […]

    MaryTodd said:
    November 17, 2010 at 12:03 am

    Why do the producers and casting directors of the hit show ‘Glee’ insist on ALWAYS presenting Black women and girls as FAT, LOUD, OBNOXIOUS, UNATTRACTIVE, IGNORANT, GHETTO, etc.?

    On tonight’s episode (‘The Substitute’), for instance, they presented “beautiful, petite, blonde” Gwyneth Paltrow getting beaten-up (in an unprovoked attack) by a FAT, UGLY, LOUD Black girl (who, of course, “had an attitude” about nothing).

    There was NO REASON for them to present this crude image of Black teen-girls (other than to reinforce the stereotype of the ugly, violent, loud Black).

    The producers, writers and casting directors of this episode should be ashamed of themselves and the Black actress who took on this moronic role should hold her head down in shame.

    This was both offensive and pathetic.

    [NOTE:
    This criticism does NOT include plus-sized actress, Amber Riley (a regular cast-member of the show) — who has managed to present herself as both an attractive and a dignified character on the episodes I have seen … unlike all of those other Black actresses who have appeared on the show in ‘guest’ roles.]

    […] Andy Denhart, a contributor to MSNBC.com, recently reprimanded Fox’s new drama/comedy Glee, warning that while the show is “fantastic” and maintains a solid fan base, it increasingly lacks “emotional and rich moments” and refuses to develop its stereotypical characters. (For a similar reading, see Amanda Ann Klein’s “Is Glee Racist/Heterosexist/Ableist?”) […]

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