racism in American television
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?