Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Clarifications on "Funeral," Finn Hudson, and Asshole Storytelling

So, I've been getting a lot of feedback on my review of "Funeral."  It was indeed very sarcastic and exasperated, and most of the response has been positive, from the fans of the show who have similarly grown weary with Glee's carousel of heavy-handed storytelling flubs.  But there's been a claim, for better or worse, that my recap was "anti-Finn," and I want to clarify that statement.

I do not deny that I am frustrated with the character of Finn Hudson, and have been for most of Season 2.  However, I want to be very clear that the expression of my distaste has more to do with how Finn Hudson, as a character, is written and treated, as a construct of the narrative - and very little to do with the character himself, and although I haven't been accused of this, it still merits saying, absolutely nothing to do with Cory Monteith.

I have said, time and time before, that creativity is choice.  Storytelling is choice.  Narrative is choice.  Every single episode of scripted television - Glee, The Good Wife, Modern Family, Parenthood, everything - is a series of choices intended to take the audience on the journey.

And it's Glee's choices, concerning Finn especially, that trouble me.  I don't give a flying crap if Rachel dates Jesse, or Puck, or Finn, or Quinn or whomever.  I have no preference.  I don't care if Finn dates Rachel, or Quinn, or starts randomly making out with Jesse in an outburst of frustration and an attempt to express dominance somehow.  

I do care about irresponsible storytelling.  I do care when characters become puppets, as plotlines are recycled yet backstories ignored.  I do care when all the justification in the world is thrown behind a select few characters, as all others are left to be either reprimanded, saved, or forgiven by the Chosen.  This is not good storytelling.  This is incredibly subjective storytelling.

Here's the thing: everyone on Glee has been an asshole at some point or another.  Being an asshole is not a crime, in fiction.  In fact, when people behave poorly, there's usually a reason, and it's always fascinating to understand why.  Because characters are supposed to be three-dimensional, and have flaws, just like real human beings.  But when you put an asshole in the narrative, you have to be careful with how you treat him/her.  And really, the only two options are these: either punish your asshole, or let him/her be understood.  In a perfect world, it'd be a combination of both, mixing salty and sweet and toying with our allegiences.  You'd have a rich character who would interact with the narrative in interesting ways.

(And please, when I say "punish," I mean in a sort of cosmic storytelling way - on Glee, punishment usually comes in the form of public embarrassment, or a slushie in the face.  Or a pregnancy.  Just something bad happening to the character, whether trespassed by another character or simply fate.)

Glee more or less grasps this concept.  In a basic way, Sue has been punished, and understood.  Quinn has been punished, and understood.  Puck, Santana, Rachel, and Karofsky have all been punished, and understood.  (The jury is out on striking the correct balance between punishment and understanding, but that's another issue altogether.)  The fact of the matter is that all characters on this show have demonstrated asshole behavior, and not all of them have consistently been punished.  And not only are they not punished, they are justified.  We skip right over punish, breeze past understand, and land squarely in justify.  The asshole behavior can't just be ignored, or else the audience smells bullshit.  Asshole behavior is a valid expression of storytelling choice, but dusting it under the rug, or even rewarding it, is not.  And the absolute worst storytelling decision is when an unpunished asshole tries to punish another asshole for their behavior.  Oh, honey, no.  That is hypocritical, and never a good color on any character.  

To ground this abstract discussion in Glee, the frequently unpunished characters are Will and Finn, and the idea that they are unpunished is even more maddening when they perpetrate punishment on others - making Rachel feel badly about being an asshole, or Quinn feel badly about being an asshole, or lashing out at Sue or Jesse or Puck about being an asshole.  This is an expression of the writers justifying the Assholes, and when they are still well-liked by the other characters, this is the writers rewarding the Assholes.  And may I remind you again, that perpetrating punishment against others is indeed a choice the writers make, to use Finn or Will as a vessel to carry The Voice of Reason, or Upstanding Ethics, just because they're supposedly our Heroes and our Leaders.  It's all very, very sloppy, and really, punishment is best left up to the blameless actions of fate or karma, which is also easily written, and far more sophisticated in effect.

What makes everything worse is that more often than not, the Unpunished Asshole Construct results in a very sticky situation in how the show handles gender.  Last night, in "Funeral," Will and Finn were The Good Guys, pure of heart, champion underdogs, and they got to save the day.  Sue was nobly rescued by Will, Finn, and Kurt, because they put aside the fact that she's not a good person (she said so herself).  Rachel was swept off her feet by Jesse but is doggedly stuck on Finn and he stands to be heartbroken if she chooses "wrong."  Quinn was dumped and then reprimanded for a) trying to make it work, and b) not feeling anything about the breakup.  Ugh, I'm so tired of the boys being Heroes, and the girls being Naive, Frigid, Emotional, Vulnerable, Bitchy, or Manipulative.  Almost every gender interaction in the core characters files into these categories, and is regarded almost exclusively in reference to the male's subject.  The girls, narratively speaking, can't seem to win for losing.

So it's not Finn's character, or Will's character, but rather the way their actions are treated within the narrative - not only left unpunished, but glossed over with the sheen of sexist stereotypes and shallow good-vs-evil tropes.  Have any opinion you want about the actual content of the show, that's fine; but please, I implore you to look at the presentation of the material and question what exactly the writers are trying to communicate, and how genuine it is.  Honesty is the best policy when it comes to storytelling, and unfortunately, it is sometimes absent from Glee - for all the wrong reasons.


  1. Would love to see you write a more in-depth piece about Glee and gender. I suspect we share a lot of the same opinions on the (mostly) appalling representations of girls on the show.

  2. Word to everything you wrote. I'm growing increasingly frustrated whenever Finn is on screen these days.


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