Tokens, Lampshades, and the Trouble With Deconstruction

by Dan H

Dan finds Glee “Problematic”
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There is nothing more infuriating than middle class white boys claiming that some event that mildly irritated them gives them a profound insight into the world of the disadvantaged. “I once blamed immigrants for my own failure, therefore I know what it's like to be discriminated against” that sort of thing.

With this warning, let me tell you about my recent epiphany about stereotypes.

Kyra and I bought the first series of NCIS in order to stop ourselves from having to watch the eye bleedingly awful Lie To Me (tip from the experts: if a woman says she was raped, but isn't acting scared, she's lying).

Anyway NCIS was going well, and largely avoiding the buckets of fail that saturated Lie to Me. And it had a cute goth forensics chick and a Big Machine That Does Science so yay. Then we got to episode four: The Immortals.

In this episode, a young seaman (it's a naval crime show) was found drowned in full dress uniform, with weights tied to his waist.

Amongst his personal effects they found a character charter from an online fantasy game.

The rest was a checklist of horrendous gamer stereotypes.

Gamers unable to distinguish between game and reality. Check.

Gamers made violent by video games. Check.

Gamers driven to murder and/or suicide as a result of online interactions. Check and check.

Use of phrase “taking the game to the next level” (seriously I have seen this in every TV show about video games ever) check.

I mention this because there is a small part of me which , every time I see a horrendously stereotyped character on TV, says “well that's probably quite offensive, but I suppose you have to remember that the stereotype wouldn't exist if there wasn't some truth in it.”

Watching stereotypical portrayals of groups to which I actually belong reminds me that no, actually a lot of stereotypes are just outright fucking lies.

None of this has much to do with anything, but we'll be coming back to it later.

The Magic of Knowledge

So anyway, Glee is a not-exactly-musical not-exactly-comedy about a High-School Glee Club (the clue is in the name) which goes from humble beginnings to be all that and a bag of chips.

The pilot follows the foundation-slash-resurrection of the Glee club, with the recruitment of its six initial members who are respectively:

Rachel, an overambitious girl with dreams of stardom (to the extent that every time she signs her name she puts a gold star next to it, which is a metaphor, for her being a star). We are told that Rachel is very talented.

Finn, a boy who the Dead Poets' Society-esque teacher behind the Glee club frames for drug possession and then blackmails into joining Glee, for his own good.

Kurt, a fabulous gay boy who the writers edited into the show because they were so utterly taken with the actor. He is, to be fair, adorable – although it might be worth pointing out that the character he plays was originally supposed to be Indian. It might also be worth pointing out that Glee has won awards for diversity.

Mercedes, a fat black girl. Astute readers may note that this is the point where the character descriptions get, shall we say, shorter. Mercedes declares early on that she “ain't no backup singer”. This rapidly proves to be wishful thinking.

Tina, an Asian girl. I genuinely do not know what to make of Tina. She dresses in this quirky, slightly gothy style and her audition piece is a rather nice, slightly raunchy rendition of I Kissed a Girl. But she never actually says or does anything. Ever. It's almost like the costume department put more thought into her personality than the writers.

Artie. Artie is in a wheelchair. Artie also seems to spend a good part of the first episode pulling what I can only describe as “disabled face” - leaving his mouth hanging open and twisting his head to the side like he's trying to chew his own ear. Artie is not played by a wheelchair-using actor.

As one of the many reviews that have said all of this before put it: “Mmmm, token-y”.

So yeah. Tokenistic.

But wait! It's okay because the show knows that it's being tokenistic! It is using these “tropes” to be satirical!

Years ago there was a comedy sketch show in Oxford which I didn't actually see, but one of the better exchanges in it, as reported to me by my younger brother was as follows:


“It's not racist, it's satirical!”
“What's it a satire of?”
“Black people!”


This nicely sums up the issue with the awful stereotypes in Glee. Apparently the mere fact of acknowledging them excuses them. It's not a stereotype if you know it's a stereotype, because then it's satire. You don't even have to subvert or challenge the stereotype in any way. As long as you know about it.

That's the power of knowledge.

Glee gives us a central cast consisting entirely of stereotypes, and does nothing to challenge them.

What it does challenge, however, is the idea that presenting the characters as stereotypes is in any way bad.

Apologia, Apologia, Apologia

The tokenism in Glee is irritating, but it's one of those things I can kind of let slide. It's just a fact of life: fish swim, birds fly, Peter Molyneaux writes crappy video games, and TV shows include token black characters and get given diversity awards for it.

Except.

Except, except, except.

About halfway through the first volume of the boxed set there's an episode in which Sue Sylvester (the evil cheerleading coach) decides to take a “divide and rule” approach in her private war against the Glee Club, sowing dissent amongst the ranks by spreading the completely unsubstantiated and unjustified idea that the Glee Club doesn't give equal representation to its minority members.

The whole episode (Wikipedia informs me that it was entitled Throwdown) is excruciating. Unlike some commentators, I don't have a problem with Sue Sylvester, because I think it's fairly clear we're meant to disagree with her, and that's what makes the episode so difficult. Basically they take all of the criticisms people have of the show and put them in the mouth of a raging psychopath.

So Sue Sylvester splits the glee club in two and seduces all of the minorities over to her side with honeyed words and filthy, filthy lies.

Sylvester's “false” criticisms of the Glee Club boil down to the following:


  • That the minority characters are margainalised. They are.

  • That the minority characters are made to stand at the back and act like props. They are.



Two things about this episode are particularly frustrating. The first is that real, legitimate criticisms of the show are presented as lies invented by a balls-out villain. The second is that the minority kids are kind of made to look like idiots for being taken in by the whole thing. Mercedes' unalloyed delight at being presented with Hate on Me to sing is borderline embarrassing: “all right! An R&B song!” she says, she might as well follow it up with “I like this black people music, because I am black!”

The episode ends with the black, Asian, gay and disabled students deciding that they want to go back and work with the pretty white people and that they don't want to be given “special treatment” just because they're minorities. Because apparently getting to do the things that the white kids get to do in every single episode constitutes special treatment.

This would be almost bearable except that “minorities are given special treatment” is a recurring theme in Glee. Rachel constantly uses the spectre of her “two gay dads” to threaten people with the “full force of the ACLU”, and there's an awful scene in the by no means uncontroversial episode Wheels where Finn gets a job in a hotel by rolling up to them in a wheelchair and saying “you have to give me a job because I'm disabled.” (I paraphrase, it's actually Rachel who does the talking and she honest-to-shit uses the word “handicapable”).

How the show can have the brass fucking bollocks to repeat the “minorities get unfair advantages” myth while at the same time devoting ninety percent of its screentime to straight, white, able-bodied characters I do not know. Still, it gives you a profound respect for the kid who plays Artie, I mean he managed to overcome the huge disadvantage of not having a physical disability to land a role in a major TV show. And think of the guts it must have taken for the producers to take such a risk – I mean by not casting a wheelchair user they were practically asking for a lawsuit. Hats off to you, Fox.

And to make matters worse, the episode ends with Mr Schuster reminding the kids that “really, they're all minorities, because they're all in Glee Club.” Because having an unpopular hobby is exactly the same as being part of a group which is subject to systematic discrimination, oh yes.

The defence that is consistently wheeled out for Glee being so ragingly tokenistic is the fact that it's doing it all knowingly to subvert the stereotypes. Ironically it's exactly this that I find so disturbing about the series. If it was just full of slightly embarrassing stereotypes I'd be more or less willing to let it slide, it'd be annoying but no more annoying than a large number of other TV shows. The problem is that Glee is aware its being offensive, but refuses to address it. Its like the producers are standing up and saying “hey, we put a black girl and a wheelchair kid in it, what more do you want?”

The Other Sort of Prejudice

The thing is, I can see where the producers are coming from. I think they're wrong, but this is very much an “I believe that you believe it” situation.

The guys behind Glee like the guys behind the Avatar movie, and the guys behind the Earthsea miniseries, really do believe that they cast every role in the series utterly fairly, without prejudice of any kind. If a black kid had been right for Finn, they would have cast a black guy. If an Asian girl had been right for Rachel, Rachel would have been Asian. It just happened not to work out that way. Funnily enough.

Except.

There's an interesting interview on the final disc of the first DVD box set in which series creator Ryan Murphy explained that he already knew Lea Michele, who plays Rachel, before casting her. He explains that the character of Rachel was very much written with Lea Michele in mind. He further explains that despite this fact she “had to audition like everybody else.”

Except no, she didn't audition like everybody else. She auditioned for a part that was specifically written for her in front of people she already knew and who I strongly suspect were all very much inclined to give her the job before she began. She might have auditioned, but she didn't audition “like everybody else”.

Just to be clear, I really like Lea Michele, I think she did really well in Glee, and the fact that the character was written with her in mind really does make her better suited to play the character. But this still gave her a specific, undeniable advantage over the other people who auditioned.

I freely confess that I don't work in casting, but I strongly suspect that if you're casting for a particular role in a show, you're going to have a decent idea of what you want a particular character to look like. And that basically means that people who don't fit your preconceptions aren't going to be as “good” in the role as other people. What seems like an entirely unbiased decision is actually one steeped in your own prejudices – even if it's something as natural and reasonable as prejudice in favour of the girl you wrote the part for in the first place.

The DVD special features were full of cute little anecdotes about the casting process. The actor who played Finn submitted a video audition in which he was drumming on cereal packets and the casting team were so blown away by his verve and passion that they ignored the fact that he didn't actually show whether or not he could sing. The actor cast as Kurt impressed the judges so much that they rewrote his character from the ground up, in order to fit him better. Again I absolutely believe that the producers believe that the extent to which they were impressed with these two actors was a pure product of their individual talent and personality, but the truth is that we react more strongly and more favourably to people we perceive as being similar to ourselves.

Put simply, while Chris Colfer (Kurt) is no doubt adorable, I really couldn't put my hand on my heart and say that he's stand-out more talented than Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina) or Amber Riley (Mercedes). What I can say is that if I was writing a TV show about a bunch of highschool kids singing showtunes, I'd have a much better idea what to do with a cute camp kid than a feisty black girl. With some of Mercedes' dialogue you can practically here the writers saying “quick, what are black people interested in? I know, R&B!”

What makes Glee difficult isn't the fact that the writers are so transparently more interested in their white, able bodied actors than the rest of the cast, it's the fact that they're so obsessed with denying it, and then patting themselves on the back about denying it. What makes it worse is that I really do believe that they believe their own apologia. Unfortunately part of what they seem to believe is that minorities are routinely given special treatment in the name of “political correctness” an that's a belief which is actually harmful (as well as being one which is flatly contradicted by their own casting decisions).

That said, I'll probably still watch the rest of the series because, y'know, showtunes.
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