Through a Glee, Darkly: Biphobia, Transphobia and the LGBTQ Community
Because I’m a long-time hostage of the Murphchuck series Glee, it’s become a lens through which I view a lot of important TV issues. I’m planning a series of articles in the upcoming weeks about representation, discrimination, and the process of making a successful television show using Glee as my base point. It’s going to be great, and also drive me over the edge into blissful insanity. It’s a win all round! Let’s get cracking with this week’s instalment.
Glee’s big message is acceptance. If you’re gay, straight, white, black, Asian, Jewish, virginal, promiscuous, hot, hideous, or some unholy combination of the above, there is a place for you as a viewer. I hadn’t really questioned this before, as seeing specific sexualities and identities portrayed on TV in an often sympathetic and delicately handled way seemed rare enough that I felt I had to forgive the flaws that arose. That, and the fact that Chris Colfer, who plays the most prominent LGBTQ character, Kurt, is an insanely talented guy who I’m just happy to watch doing anything.
But it’s been brought to my attention, while catching up on series five, that the representation of the youth LGBTQ community seems to end after the LG. Let’s take a look at two quotes from the show- one from Kurt, delivered to his then-crush as said crush considers the possibility that he might be bisexual after kissing a girl, and enjoying it.
Kurt: Bisexual is a lie gay guys tell in high school to hold hands with girls in the corridor so they can feel normal for a change
Blaine: Whoa, why are you so angry?
Kurt: Because I look up to you! I admire how proud you are of who you are. I know what it’s like to be in the closet, and here you are about to tiptoe back in.
Later in the scene, Kurt is vaguely called out for this behaviour, but in the end it turns out he was basically right and Blaine announces himself “100% gay” after another kiss. I have no problem with characters exploring their sexuality, but there’s a hypocrisy here that suggests bisexuality is a cop-out, a way to avoid the ramifications of actually being sexually attracted to members of other genders. I’ve been extremely lucky in that the people I’ve come out to as bisexual couldn’t care less where I put my genitals, but even now I am told outright that I’m gay and lying or straight and lying.
The denial of bisexuality as a legitimate sexual identity in and of itself is a persistent one of television, even on shows that claim to represent the LGBTQ community (I’d like to take a minute to point out that Nip/Tuck, Ryan Murphy’s longest-running show, featured three significant bisexual characters-one an emotionally damaged victim and one-time cult member, one a serial killer and rapist, and one an accomplice to the latter). This also ties in to the furore about changing one’s sexual identity. Check out the shitstorm that ensued when Jessie J announced that she no longer identified as bisexual and instead was heterosexual, versus the applause and adulation Tom Daley received for confirming his status as, not bisexual, but gay. I’m not saying Daley didn’t deserve the support, because he did, but the concept of “betraying” LGBTQ-land by deciding that you are straight, or, in Glee’s case, bisexual – anything not gay -is a massive hypocrisy when we can so easily accept other changes in sexuality.
Then there’s this quote from season five, where lesbian character Santana attempts to gauge if her crush, Dani, (played by Demi Lovato, of all people) is also gay.
Santana: I had a girlfriend, and she was bi
Dani (pulls face): Any chance of you getting back together?
Sanrana: I love her, but it’s over.
Dani:I mean, it’s probably for the best. I think you need a 100% sapphic goddess.
Predictably, they get together, and Santana delivers the clincher of the episode “...and I finally have a girlfriend who I don’t have to worry about straying for penis”.
It’s a regularly circulated assumption that bisexual people can’t be monogamous. The ability to have sexual desire for multiple genders, apparently, will prohibit the ability to stick with one partner without running off for a dicksickle or a vaginapop. It should be noted that the girlfriend she’s referring to never cheated on her with anyone, let alone “strayed for penis”, and no-one comments on the stereotypical, nasty nature of the comment.
Sure, this character is meant to be the bitchy one, but Glee is so often wildly keen to cram the after-school-special, anti-bullying, anti-anti-LGBTQ stuff down it’s viewers throats that to live this pretty offensive comment floating in the middle of an episode seems pretty lax. The prior comment, about Santana needing a “100% sapphic goddess” is meant to be fun and flirty, but comes off as if Dani is suggesting that lesbians and bisexual woman cannot have as fulfilling a relationship as two outrightly lesbian women. TV Tropes does a great line in discussing the mountains of stereotypes that bisexual people face on TV and in movies (evil, slutty, slutty-evil, closeted, attention-seeking, lying….), and this non-sequitur with no basis in the canon of the show fits into a slew of narratives about bisexual people as unfaithful or unable to commit to one person, or simply unable to form a relationship as meaningful with people who do not share their orientation.
There is one bisexual character in the show, mentioned above, named Brittany. Though she rarely (I believe once in the show’s run) refers to herself as bisexual (generally favouring bi-curious, or bicorn), she forms meaningful romantic relationships with both men and a woman. Which is good. Not so good, however, is her portrayal – seriously, sensationally dumb, she’s established to believe leprechauns exist, that her cat is a slum lord (“None of your buildings are up to code. Those families are living in squalor”), that storks bring babies, and that kissing is just two friends “talking with their mouths really close”. The question of her actual ability to consent has been brought up by a handful of commentators due to her childlike intellect, and this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of bisexuality as an informed identity.
But wait, there’s more! There is, if you’ll notice, a T in that famous acronym. And in the last couple of seasons, Glee has addressed the transgendered community with the introduction of the excellent Alex Newell as Unique, an MTF (male-to-female) transgender teenager and the problems she faces as an out transgender high school student. This is commendable in and of itself, as the visibility of transgendered characters in pop culture is wretchedly low, and hate crime against transgendered people continues to flourish in horrible, horrible ways. In the show, phrases like “she-male” and “tranny”- which, to be clear, are pretty fucking offensive – are used without real question. Anti-gay slurs were tackled early in the series and treated in a serious way, while here Unique is told she needs to “tone it down with the whole boob thing” by Mr Schuester, set up as the great ally and crusader for these children. Introducing a serious transgender character – who isn’t there as a “trap” for a straight lead playing for laughs, or a joke, or a one-episode talking point-is a really, really good thing, but you need address the ways in which the community is being discriminated against and identify them to stop them becoming more normalised than they already are. It’s worth noting that Newell arrived on the show from spin-off reality nonsense The Glee Project, and was told in a “last-chance audition” (basically a finale where three of the kids sang a song in front of judges to retain their place in the competition) by Ryan Murphy that the creator would love to see him come out in a dress and heels.
There’s been some debate over whether Murphy was seeing dollar signs flashing in his eyes at the possibility of recruiting another “alternative” character to the series, or if he just thought Newell would fit the role. I’ll also throw in here that Nip/Tuck featured one prominent transgender character, a gay man who changed his sex in order to hook up with a straight crush, then proceeded to commit incest, trawl bars picking up high school boys and steal a baby. Again, not grand.
But it’s not just Glee who is guilty of this kind of representation. Mike and Molly was prodded angrily for featuring a transgender person who was repeatedly questioned about their genitals and referred to as a “she-male”, Two and a Half Men saw a character dump a potential new lover after discovering that he had previously been a she. Wendy Williams, high-profile talk show host, repeatedly misgendered Chaz Bono, declaring him “not as strong as a man who was born a man”. Fox News used a photo of Mrs Doubtfire in a trans-related health story. Ricky Gervais compared trans people to someone believing that they were a gerbil. Glee had a great chance to dismantle some of those deeply embedded stereotypes, but far too often stepped back and went for the easy joke, the joke that we’re comfortable with. The onus shouldn’t be on Glee alone to fix the problems with the depiction of transgender people in the media, but it still feels like they could have gone further in challenging them.
Let’s put it this way: Glee is a show that has it’s heart in the right place. It tries to represent LGBTQ characters as more than just a label, exploring their romantic and sexual relationships in an often mature and sensitive way, and a way that has helped many LGBTQ youth. That’s excellent, and I can only commend everyone involved for that. But the perpetuation of stereotypes isn’t helping anyone, especially when you only apply them to certain minority characters. It’s not enough to simply put these characters in the show, and have them face discrimination- you need to constantly question that, and draw attention to it’s invalidity. Then you can have some pride in your LGBTQ.
If you’d like to read more of my writing on sexuality, take a gander at the links below, and please consider supporting me on Patreon!
Greey, Lying, or Slutty: Straight-Passing and Bi-Erasure
TV Tropes discussing the depiction of bisexual people in the media-
Information on anti-transgender hate crime-