After 13 episodes, Glee has entered its hiatus on a high note—critical adoration, more than three million singles sold on iTunes and an ever-growing legion of self-professed “Gleeks.” TV critics are embracing the freshman show’s benignly innovative concept of a musical-dramedy, most recently bestowing Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations upon it. The show treads upon well-worn tropes of high school freakdom, but its inclusion of people of color, gays and the disabled has earned it praise including a diversity award from the Multicultural Motion Picture Association.
But what does this show actually say about race?
Glee centers on Will Schuester, the Spanish teacher of his alma mater, McKinley High, who, in a fit of wide-eyed idealism, decides to restart the school’s glee club to bring back the good old times. He envisions a club where students—regardless of their creed, color or religion—can join hands and sing mashups of Top 40 hits. To pull this off, he cobbles together a group from the bottom of the high school food chain: Barbra Streisand-in-training Rachel; Mercedes, the sassy Black girl; Tina, the quiet Asian girl with a stutter; Artie, the wheelchair-bound nerd; and Kurt, the flamboyantly gay white boy who sports Alexander McQueen sweaters. Will needs though his leading man, whom he finds in his mini-me: Finn, popularity kingpin and quarterback of the football team.
Will is determined to lead his band of misfits to success and prove the haters wrong. He is our hero of liberalism. His commitment to populism is astonishing and his fervency borders on smarmy. If John Edwards were a television character, he would be Will Schuester.
While endearing at first, Will’s constant pedagogical entreaties (for example, making all of the kids use wheelchairs to understand how Artie feels) eventually devolve into inane nattering until finally there’s almost relief in Will’s antagonist, the coach of the cheerleading squad, Sue Sylvester, who is on a crusade to destroy the glee club. Sue is a velociraptor outfitted in a tracksuit; she stomps down hallways and brutalizes her victims at random. She describes her teaching style to a reporter as such: “I’m all about empowerment. I empower my Cheerios to live in a state of constant fear by creating an environment of irrational, random terror.”
What unfolds is a rivalry of the ages: the golden boy Will Schuester versus the maniacal Sue Sylvester. The struggle between them becomes an allegory for the greater conflict between liberalism and conservatism. Sue’s rabid, illogical ploys are like Glenn Beck’s own hysterical rants against Obama (Beck has even received shout outs on the show). Sue is a reincarnated Ayn Rand on steroids who has arisen from the gulag to shred Will to pieces. Her relentless attacks on Will becomes television’s teaching moment of how conservative discourse reveals cracks in liberalism.
When Sue and Will co-chair the glee club at the behest of the principal, Sue, in an attempt to split the populist coalition of the club, co-opts the language of diversity for her own scheming. In the most inappropriate roll call ever, she barks out the picks for her team: “Santana! Wheels! Gay Kid! Asian! Other Asian! Aretha! Shaft!”
The move flabbergasts Will. How could a fascist slave driver, who approves of public caning, choose the people of color? But similarly, how could George Bush Jr., who did not care about Black people, employ so many in his retinue? When liberals treat racial justice as a superficial rather than as a substantive lens, conservatives can easily lift that strategy themselves.
For all of his well-intentioned white boyishness, Will doesn’t truly embrace a systemic understanding of race. He does what liberals often do, which is to apply the same cookie-cutter oppression onto everyone. Will tells Sue: “You were right to shine the spotlight on the fact that those kids are minorities.” In a Reading Rainbow moment at the end, he even proceeds to tell his students: “You’re all minorities—you’re in the Glee Club So it doesn’t matter that Rachel is Jewish or that Finn is ” Straight, white boy Finn interjects, “unable to tell my right from my left” eliciting collective laughter from the group.
Just as Avenue Q taught us that everyone’s a lil’ bit racist, Glee moralizes that everyone’s a lil’ bit oppressed—an astounding bit of alchemy that equalizes being Black with being disabled with being a white quarterback.
Through Sue, this episode of the show exhibited a certain cheeky self-awareness of how the show has been exploiting diversity. But rather than actually renege that notion and complicate its characters of color, Glee furthered the jokes of tokenization. When pairing off students to sing ballads to one another, Will has the students select names from a hat. Tina, the Asian American girl, much to her chagrin, draws “Other Asian.” The character’s name becomes a punch line.
Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee first got his start in television as the maker of Popular, an ironically unpopular show on the defunct network the WB. It was a show, in many ways, ahead of its time, dealing with the same issues of high school alienation, with a campier and more irreverent and probing eye. He touched on issues of size and sexual harassment and had multiple transgender characters—all the while making references to Blaxploitation films. Glee is reminiscent of a cleaned up cousin of Popular, dealing with similar themes.
While it may be easy for some people to dismiss this as “just TV,” all television shows, no matter how fluffy or apolitical, represent a worldview—a sense of the way the world works, and sometimes, a belief in the way that it should work. Television is a more powerful medium than others for transmitting ideas about power and politics precisely because it requires the viewer to assume certain things to be true. Glee presents a social hierarchy where white men are relatable heroes, women are hysterical banshees and people of color teach lessons to the main white characters. Like American Idol, Glee also preaches the beautiful lie that with self-belief, passion and a powerful set of windpipes, you can sing your way to the top—even if you are the Other Asian.