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The Sixth Year: American Sigh Story

Tag: glee

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 the opposite sex. 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 indentity. Check out the shitstorm that ensued when Jessie J announced that she no longer identified as bisexual and instead was hetereosexual, versus the applause and adulation Tom Daley recieved 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) 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 two separate sexes, 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-sequiter 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) transgendered teenager and the problems she faces as an out transgendered 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 transgendered 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 transgendered 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 her “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 imbedded 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 transgendered 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.

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Further Reading

TV Tropes discussing the depiction of bisexual people in the media-

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DepravedBisexual

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ButNotTooBi

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/IfItsYouItsOkay

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ExperimentedInCollege

Information on anti-transgender hate crime-

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/20/islan-nettles_n_4311344.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/05/hate-violence-report-2012_n_3390090.html

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Ryan Murphy: Defended

Ryan Murphy, eh? What’s the deal with the evil genius behind Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story, and (of all things) Glee? I’ve recently been re-watching Nip/tuck, the soap opera on acid that takes places in a plastic surgery clinic to better follow the lives of it’s two surgeon protagonists, Christian Troy and Sean McNamara. Now, this all sounds pretty par for the course so far, but this is a Ryan Murphy show, so I can guarantee that it’s probably going to smack you round the face with a big block of unlikely stories before running away and singing some show tunes on his other show.

One of the hallmarks of Murphy show (and, I suppose, a Murphy/Falchuck creation, because dear old Brad has had so much to do with the conception of both American Horror Story and Glee) is the completely hectic pace at which they rattle through plotlines; a kind of ADHD storytelling that works pretty convincingly if, like me, you tend to get bored with shows that linger over one plot strand too long. There’s also the sheer outrageousness of the plots to contend with, too; American Horror Story pretty much excepted, because, c’mon, it’s a horror show. But looking at Glee or Nip/Tuck or even Popular, shows which are allegedly set in the real world (even a violently technicolour version of it) are filled with stonkingly unbelievable plots.
For example, one character in one particular show (which I won’t name for spoiler’s sake) dates a closeted lesbian, tries to cut his own foreskin off, gets involved in a three-way relationship with her and her new girlfriend, dates a transsexual, dates a bigoted racist chick, beats the crap out of an unrelated transsexual, marries his father’s ex (who’s also a porn star), has a baby, gets into gay porn, becomes a meth addict, gets caught in a meth explosion, falls in love with his burns counsellor, decides to go to college to become a doctor, becomes a mime instead, goes on a robbery spree dressed as a mime, ends up somebody’s bitch in prison, strangles him with some lingerie before getting released early and running off with aforementioned baby and aforementioned transsexual to start a new life. After that, you’d want one. It’s mental. It’s ridiculous. And the worst part is I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that happens to this character.

And that’s the hallmark of Murphy (and, later, Murphchuck shows): they are unbelievably silly. Yeah, occasionally Glee glanced over some after-school-special territory with bullying and homophobia and teenage pregnancy and what have you, but for the most part they revel in hysterical histrionics. Nonsense is what they do best, and I don’t think there’s anything outrightly wrong with that- in fact, I think it’s what makes them some of my favourite TV-brainboxes working right now. Never ones to rely on what they already know to sell a programme, they’ve constantly bounced between genres because, presumably, they get bored dealing with just one-and, surprisingly enough, they often create shows that are actually kind of excellent.

I will hold up my right to watch, read, and listen to trash as long as I enjoy it on some level, and Murphchuck have consistently created just the right balance of trash and moderate innovation for me to continue watching. Gourmet crap, if you will.

The Glee Project: Nope.

So, as some of you know, I’m in an abusive relationship with Glee. I want to leave- dear God, after the school shooting episode followed shortly by the molestation special I want to leave more than I want to have already finished flat-hunting. And since last season, we’ve had regular croppings-up of the wheat harvested from the hours of chaff that make up The Glee Project.

The premise is piss-simple- twelve talented youngsters compete for a guest-star role on Glee, taking part in singing, dancing and music video challenges, whearapon a group of judges, including series co-creator Ryan Murphy, eliminate one human. Thing is, that there are only about two or three actual personalities for each series- and they are, without exception, bastards. Of course, we had the “personalities”-the sort of people who could be summed up by a single, medium-volume klaxon noise.”EEEEEEEEEEEHHHHH”.  Often, this translates into “OMG I’M SO QUIRKY/FLIRTY/CRAY-CRAY” (delete as appropriate) but is no less irritating, generic or shite.

But the only people who stand out in my mind are the people who were genuinely awful. I understand that editing makes villains of us all, but some are truly indefensible. Take Lindsay Pierce-unbelievably beautiful, voice like a filthy angel, the sheer charisma and draw that consistently drags my eye back to her- who certainly did herself no favours, ever, at any point. Yet what pisses me off about the whole affair is that the winners have consistently been the least offensive participant-yeah, Damian Mcthingy, Samuel Boredom and Blake Jenner-ally-nobody-cares are all supremely talented and I don’t begrudge them winning at all, but they were also the contestants who made nil impression apart from both seeming like really sound blokes. Glee is about huge personalities and dramatic personae, but this isn’t reflected in The Glee Projected Growth of Income. Personally, I felt the really fantastic performers were made out to be dicks and chucked out come round six or so. Grumble, grumble.

Can I interrupt myself to point out the only person from The Glee Project who didn’t feel like an unsubtle bolstering of the show was Ali Stroker, who had a single cameo in one episode? All the other characters have been ruined. RUINED. Dragged back and forth through the shit-heap of romantic couplings, unlikely backstories and scattergun sexuality, it’s no wonder I came to the show with a big thumbs-down over the actors that they were helpless to prevent.

You see Ryan Murphy? Don’t like him. I mean, let’s not get me wrong here- I LOVE his television. American Horror Story, Nip/Tuck, a lot of Glee-it works for me. But as a human being, he really pisses me off, and I don’t know why. I want to like him, want him to be a reflection of his brilliant, wry television, but he comes across as a humourless, actively dislikeable borderline-bastard. Nul Points. I like to think that when the show began he was a charming casanova, but Glee has driven him to this hypercritical, beaten-down souleater that we see before us. I know that’s what it’s done to me.

The Meta Movie Pain of Matt Damon

I watched Eurotrip last week (it wasn’t until I was rereading this till I realised I’d misspelt it as Erotrip, which sounds like the most sensual bus journey of all time). My thoughts on it are essentially irrelevant (as is most of the putrid movie), apart from the identification of an ever-more relevant on-screen phenomenon: Meta Movie Pain. I’ve accidentally named it to be a collection of words so hipster that I can’t talk about it without flinching and therefore can only postulate my theory in writing. Here goes.

The symptons can be seen in the “Scotty Doesn’t Know” scene, where Matt Damon plays a rambunctious cock who stoats his way through a song about banging a girl who’s cheating on her boyfriend with him. If you look really closely, you can see a glimmer of all his other roles- Tom Ripley, Will Hunting, even bloody Jason Bourne-trapped in the this Guantanamo Bay of acting. It’s the look in an actor’s eyes as they realize to want extent they are pissing on their credibility, and is specific to actors who were once good. Or at least not Keira Shitely. Some actors don’t seem to be afflicted by this: James Spader in Secretary, for example, seems perfectly able to quell this inner turmoil when presented with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s naked derriere. That said, even his more thinky roles involved him screwing Rosanna Arquette’s leg wound and, in a far more disturbing scene, making love to Andie McDowell, so his ability to feel any sort of remorse is clearly already in question.

It can be seen on television, on occasion: every cast member of How I Met Your Mother has moved onto or already done good things, and you can see the thundering, crushing embaressment behind their eyes from Season 7 onwards. Weep for them. Weep for Glee’s Jane Lynch too, a brilliant comic actress trapped in the biggest American disaster since the sinking of the Lusitania.

So I’ve decided to set up a charity to help these emotionally impoverished stars and coincidentally not to pay to get the vodka stains removed from my favourite jacket: Cheering Up for the Nominally Talented. Give generously.

Glee. GLEE.

I’m going to get this right out there right now, in the first sentence, so there is no equivocation about my feelings later on- I really liked Glee for a while. Though it is slightly more socially acceptable to wear a Klan hood to a dinner party than admit to being a Gleek (a term which, to this day, makes the bile rise in my throat), it was quite good fun for a few seasons and even produced some more than serviceable covers once in a while.

It’s a fair way into the fourth series now. This is notable (if you like noting this kind of thing) because it was the first series to focus on characters who weren’t in the original series; the old bunch of students graduated and moved on to college, stage school or…oh, wait, the writers don’t even make the pretence of caring about any of the other characters. This left a hole back at William McKinley High School, a hole that surely had to be filled with another ragtag bunch of hopefuls with a dream and the ability to make a Ke$ha song worse than it already was.

Instead, the writers crammed this void with characters of almost every race, gender, sexuality and tenuous connection to characters that were actually popular as a desperate grab at their old audience. “Stereotype” isn’t a strong enough word for what Glee does to characters; they joyously took every single archetype known to mankind and amped them up by a factor of Showgirls. And it worked. It was so shamelessly fun and silly that the occasional slightly batty powerhouse ballad or unlikely mashup slid under the radar most of the time, even seemed quite novel by comparison. But the new series- with it’s bizarre collection of old supporting characters and brand-new knockoffs- has the endearing underdogs become the sort of people I wouldn’t tire of hitting with a spade if I wasn’t certain it would go straight through their complete lack of characterization. Even the spectacular Jane Lynch has been shoved aside to make way for yet another smaller-than-life caricature bleating along to a torturously asinine cover of Call Me Maybe. Even the stories following the original characters have been filtered of almost all their wit and charm, but thankfully this is made up for by a wonderful performance by Sarah Jessica-Parker as a benevolent fashion maven. Oh, hang on, she’s rubbish. Although the adult cast were never the best part of Glee, they were at least solid in earlier seasons, but here they are either ineffectual or grating. Kate Hudson has a reasonable turn as the dance teacher from hell. My opinion here might be informed by her first dance number which featured much writhing around and gyrating; I’m not sure, busy as I am retrieving my jaw from the centre of the earth.

It’s always disappointing to watch a once-enjoyable show plunging so dramatically from grace, but it also only feels right: Glee never did anything by halves, whether it be covering Jim Steinman or throwing in a life-changing proposal as an afterthought. Like an embittered child starlet throwing up in the gutter , Glee will not drop out of notoriety without a fight, though it will manage to do it without a shred of dignity.