Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The RBI Report: "I Am Unicorn"

Ladies and gentlemen, tonight on Glee, we saw Puck want to be a dad, Kurt learn that it's okay to be himself, Coach Sylvester scheme against the glee club, and Quinn hide behind insincere emotion and manipulation.

No, you haven't time-traveled back to 2009!  It's Season 3 and these things are all still happening!

It's not that "I Am Unicorn" was truly terrible; it just dredged up a lot of old material in order to finally give closure on Season 1's dangled arcs, and between the promising conflict in the fresher story ideas and the unpolished execution on the unfinished business, Glee's second offering of the third season felt a bit all over the place.

"I Am Unicorn," written by Ryan Murphy, directed by Brad Falchuk.

The episode's frame was given to us by Kurt and Brittany, and their partnership on Kurt's campaign for senior class presidency.  Brittany encouraged Kurt to embrace his uniqueness, calling him a unicorn, definition: someone who is magical and isn't afraid to show it.  (Another characteristic is also apparently pooping cotton candy.)  But her approach involved Kurt's face photoshopped onto unicorns with rainbows and glitter, and when Kurt realized that his feminine qualities could perhaps keep him from winning the rather butch role of Tony in "West Side Story," he freaked out and rejected Brittany's ideas.

It's not that this storyline wasn't well done, it's just... how many times is Kurt going to learn about the value of being true to himself?  I understand that it's one of this show's central tenets, but it'd be nice to see another character come to the forefront to get that treatment through storyline.  As it is, Kurt's development is being rewound and recycled so that his involvement in the show is almost entirely to bear that burden, and his reward for doing so comes in the sockless perfection of boyfriend Blaine, who's willing to audition for a lesser part so that Kurt can be the star.

Truly, the best part of the Kurt-Brittany storyline was not with Kurt (although I loved Burt's advice that if there aren't roles for Kurt to play, that he should write them!) but rather with Brittany, and the realization (through Santana!) that she, too, is a unicorn.  (And not only that, but to Santana, Brittany is the unicorn.  Well-played with the semantics, Mr. Murphy!)  So, Brittany has set herself up to run against Kurt for class president, because she wants to believe in her own magic.  How great is it that Brittany took her own advice, and wants to make a change?  It's a great little step for her character, and I can't wait to see what her campaign involves.

Actually, "I Am Unicorn" did right by characters who don't always see the spotlight - Shannon Beiste and Emma Pillsbury are co-directing "West Side Story," with the help of student director Artie, whose dream (Tina remembers!) is to direct.  Mike was given the chance to run "Booty Camp," wherein he got to help Finn, Puck, Mercedes, Kurt, and Blaine brush up on their dance skills.  (Sorry, Mercedes.  You can't just park and bark!)  Sure, it would have been nice to get some more screentime to these storylines, but I appreciate that they were there and that the characters weren't simply forgotten entirely.  And even Finn, who normally goes front and center, was sidelined but kept involved, having a mini-arc by triumphing over a tricky dance and confronting the fact that he may be content to stay in Lima.

I have a feeling I'll be able to talk more about Finn and Rachel's differences in terms of dreams after they get some more exposure with it, but I am curious to see what message RM & Co. are trying to send.  As far as I'm concerned, it's completely valid for Finn to want to stay in Lima and work with Burt, and I worry the narrative will condemn him for it because of the big dreams of characters like Kurt and Rachel.  Not everybody wants to live onstage, and while I think it's canonically accepted that Finn loves performing, it's not eat-breathe-live to him like it is to Kurt or Rachel or Mercedes or Blaine.  Finn shouldn't be excluded from happiness simply because he's not theatrical, nor should he be forced into a future with Rachel simply because she thinks he's made for Bright Lights, Big City. 

The big shake-up this episode came in the return of Shelby Corcoran, Rachel Berry's birth mother, and adopted mother to Baby Quinn-and-Puck.  Turns out Shelby was hired by Sugar Motta's father, in a continuation of Sugar's delusion that she is a fantastic singer, and therefore paid to have a new glee club created just for her.  Cue Shelby, best glee club director in the nation!  Sure, it's a bit of a clunky way to get Shelby back in the picture, but it at least connected up with Sugar's character in a way that was both comedic and made enough sense, even if slightly unbelievable.  

However, the true purpose of Shelby's return is in her interactions with Rachel, Puck, and Quinn - as the mother who denied a relationship with her daughter, and the mother who wants to see her adopted kid have an opportunity to bond with her birth parents.  There is huge potential for rewarding character development on all four corners of the square, and it's lovely to see a four-sided construct that isn't romantic conflict!  Bless it.

But at the same time, there's a great opportunity to screw up the execution of the storyline, and re-introducing Shelby is therefore a difficult minefield to manuever.  In order to see how each of these characters fared in the storyline, it's important to look at their objectives and their resulting development through their interactions.

Shelby returns to the scene with guilt over having left Rachel, and wants to make amends with Rachel as well as give Quinn and Puck the opportunity to be a part of Beth's life and avoid her mistakes.  Objective?  Strong!  The episode's best moments came when Shelby was interacting with Rachel, Puck, and Quinn - the characters she's emotionally tied to.  With Rachel in particular, I loved that the writers acknowledged the fractured relationship on both sides, and let Rachel and Shelby start to mend it a little with a breathtakingly powerful performance of "Somewhere."  Double points for heartbreaking use of the lyric "there's a place for us," with Rachel snapping against it, and triple points for Rachel sharply pointing out that she doesn't turn her back on her family - the glee club.  So, development?  We're in the early stages, but I sense its presence!  There's at least a goal for Rachel and Shelby that indicates progress.  And I hope there is a place for them - if Rachel wants a mother so badly, she shouldn't be denied it.

With Puck, he wants to be a part of Beth's life, just as Shelby wants him to.  Objective?  I hear it loud and clear!  He proves to Shelby, through a passed drug test and a plea for a chance, that he's serious about committing to Beth, and by episode's end, he's holding Beth and taking pictures with her.  Development?  Indeed!

Where the episode goes wrong is in its treatment of Quinn.  Are we surprised?  Not really.  It's no secret to anyone that I have very specific ideas about what Quinn Fabray is and isn't as a character, and that the writers rarely align their interpretation of her with mine.  And unfortunately, "I Am Unicorn" didn't really deliver for Quinn.  The first issue is that we had no idea what Quinn's objective was.  This is something the show falters on, time and again: what does Quinn Fabray want?  Either they neglect to enlighten us, or force feed us some bullshit manifestation of a Quinn who's backpedaling on her original barely-blossomed development.

The beginning of "I Am Unicorn" found Quinn still in cahoots with The Skanks, back to hardcore bullying (ouch!) and easily swayed by a scheme with Sue.  It was here where we got a glimpse into what Quinn Fabray wants, and apparently all she wants is couches under the bleachers to rest her weary, smoke-addled lungs.  Great.  Quinn accepted Sue's offer to be a poster child of how arts education ruins lives, for Sue's campaign effort.  She had a run-in with Will, where she blamed him for her problems, and he yelled at her to grow up.  (While I'm rarely on board with Will yelling at his students, Quinn has honestly sunk so far into self-loathing delusion that she may need a good shouting match to break down her armor.  But it's all moot anyways because Will yelling at her did absolutely nothing.  Sigh.)

So, Quinn was objectiveless except in villainy.  Her interactions with Shelby danced so closely to her character development that I almost thought the lack of intent for her point of view was excusable.  Shelby said all the right things to relate back to Quinn: she confessed that her mistakes have defined her, and she only wants to make them right.  She tells Quinn that the first step in growing up is to stop punishing yourself for the mistakes you made as a child.  And she tells Quinn, in an indirect way, that no one's hopeless.  This dynamic seemed to be so pitch perfect in getting Quinn on track for her character arc, and constructing an interesting parallel between the two characters.  We even had Shelby call Quinn out on her identity issues - easily grasping that Quinn's true self is neither the bitch head cheerleader nor the bad girl rebel; they're both just masks to hide a scared little girl.

But Quinn's reactions to Shelby ran as little more than delusional lashing out, and slightly out-of-character.  I confess, I've never been one to believe that Quinn's character development had to come hand-in-hand with being a mother to Beth, and honestly, it made me skeptical about tonight's episode.  Quinn's arc is about her confronting her true identity and being herself (just like Kurt just like Brittany just like Santana just like Finn just like Puck just like Tina just like Mike just like Karofsky just like everyone) and I find it painfully two-dimensional that Quinn's unhappiness is directly related to the angst of missing her child.  Quinn had identity issues because of the pregnancy and not the baby - it was the social implications of her pregnancy that made her re-evaluate her priorities... and then forget about them, in a bout of writerly ignorance.

So truly, I don't really believe Quinn when she says that she's Beth's mother and Shelby will never be.  And I don't really believe Quinn when she says she's going to try and get full custody of the baby.  This is a poorly conceived plot device that allows for conflict in the square, and completely denies Quinn any real character moments because she's still scheming and still rearranging her identity to meet the expectations of an outside force.  Objective?  A paper-thin reveal.  Development?  Nowhere in sight.  Is Quinn still a villain?  Oh yes she is.

All I really wanted from this episode was the notion that Quinn was going to confront the possibility of living genuinely, and we came so close to having it.  But in the end, it was traded in for a misguided and two-dimensional idea that Quinn would want her baby back, with the construct that she'd simply don another lying suit of armor to make it happen.  There better be a good payoff at the end of this storyline, with development for Quinn, because right now it's looking bleak.  

In the end, "I Am Unicorn" had strong moments, with consideration given to oft-sidelined characters, and a solid-if-recycled message of genuine self-expression with Kurt and Brittany.  My main beef is with the handling of Quinn Fabray.  Because yet again, she has been denied access to Glee's main message, and the show seems to be telling us that, gay metaphor notwithstanding, Quinn Fabray will never be a unicorn.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A+
Dance Numbers: A+
Dialogue: A
Plot: B
Episode MVP: Brittany S. Pierce, Unicorn.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The RBI Report: "The Purple Piano Project"

Friends!  I confess, it seems like just yesterday I was watching that Tyrannosaurus Rex eat the Jew on my TV... or was it YouTube?  I can't remember.  Regardless, this hiatus passed in the blink of an eye!  Glee hired new writers, new producers, and talked a very big (and welcome) talk about going "back to basics."  So did "The Purple Piano Project" basically deliver?  Let's find out, shall we?

"The Purple Piano Project," written by Brad Falchuk, directed by Eric Stoltz.

Season Three began as Season Two did: with a viral video update on everyone's lives, courtesy of Jacob Ben Israel and the gossip mill.  The tack always works, because it allows for some meta self-reference, and lets us have a chance to catch up with our kids - while simultaneously outlining a little character arc for them right away.  For instance, we heard about Sam (or Hobo McBieber, I guess) moving away and leaving Mercedes to find herself a new man to have cocoa babies with.  Santana has plans to be the top ho on the Cheerios.  Finn feels lost.  Tina and Artie are officially juniors; Mike is a senior and applying to colleges.  Kurt and Rachel want to go to Juilliard together.  Brittany's considering time travel.

Y'know, the usual.

But right off the bat, we know the plan: Will wants to push them to Nationals again, and everyone wants to make their senior years special.  Simple enough, right?  I'm thinking that having the built-in purpose of Senior Year will be good for developing the characters and raising the stakes this season: it's an automatic excuse to get these kids off their butts and doing things because it's their last year of high school.  Hopefully it will also set their sights past high school, and they can stop being so afraid of bad reputations and hallway cred, thereby naturally eliminating some of Glee's favorite - and tired - conflict.

There's one person we didn't hear from in the first few minutes of the episode, though: Quinn Fabray.  Turns out she let her voice go all deep and raspy, dyed her hair pink, got an ironic tattoo of Ryan Seacrest, and joined a group called The Skanks.  It seems The Skanks hang out under the bleachers and revile the smell of soap, and Quinn's decided she's never going back to her old life.  Or soap.  (Even though Artie misses her, apparently.  Uh, okay?)

We got two good Quinn scenes out of this setup: one with Santana and Brittany, and one with Rachel.  The premiere remembered that Santana and Brittany were there for Quinn in New York, and continued their concern for her, both girls wanting her to return not only to glee and the Cheerios, but also to being their friend.  It was a lovely sojourn into the dynamics of the Quinn-Santana-Brittany relationship, which hasn't historically gotten much exploration.  

The other scene involved Rachel trying to reason with Quinn to return to the club, and it was Rachel that hit the nail on the head.  She told Quinn she was sorry to see her so sad, and I hope the writers continue with the idea that Quinn is miserable, that Rachel knows it, and that Rachel wants to help her.  They even penned a sly reference to the song Rachel wrote because of Quinn - "Get it Right."  It looks like this storyline is intended to go somewhere, and I am excited for it.  I love that we didn't get any immediate resolution with Quinn in the premiere, and that can only mean one thing: either I will rage next week because it's dropped, or we will get a multiple episode arc.  And if the latter is true, I will be elated.  Elated, I say!

"The Purple Piano Project" also set up a multi-episode (or dare I say season-long?) arc with Kurt and Rachel.  It was very clear from the moment we reunited with them that they are now BFFs through and through, which in itself is darling.  Kurt really is the only one at that school who can truly relate to Rachel, and I love that the writers made them friends instead of bitchy competitors.  They frolicked, duetted, cavorted, and schemed their exits from Ohio with self-congratulating aplomb, and I loved every second of it. 

Anyways, Kurt and Rachel have Big Plans, and decided to go to Emma to talk to her about college options: preferably Juilliard.  In a welcome display of her actually counseling and counseling well, Emma advised Kurt and Rachel to check out another New York school for musical theatre.  (NYAD?  Cursory Googling leads me to believe that this does not actually exist.  Sly one, Glee writers!)  Simply bursting with confidence in their potential, Kurt and Rachel went to the local community theatre to strut their stuff, where they were met with... people who were exactly like them: drama-obsessed, driven, and talented.  (Cue The Glee Project's Lindsay Pearce, who rocked out a damn good mash-up of "Anything Goes" and "Anything You Can Do.")

The highlight of Kurt and Rachel's arc this episode was, really and truly, their scene in the car.  How wonderful was that?  Lea Michele and Chris Colfer, while certainly talented individually, really do turn in A+ performances in each other's company.  They both cried for themselves and the discouraging realization that small-town kids with big dreams and big talent are a dime a dozen.  While this is certainly relatable and heartbreaking, I was worried though that the scene would devolve Rachel and Kurt into their vulnerabilities, only letting the audience feel sorry for them and giving them nothing else.  But luckily, Kurt pulled them out of their self-acknowledged pity party, and they talked themselves back up.  This is perhaps the true appeal of Rachel and Kurt's friendship: for once, these formerly isolated and frequently crushed characters don't always have to rely on themselves to rebuild their self-esteems.  And to boot, they have a partner for gay-high-fiving!  It's a win-win, really.

Kurt also got another dose of happiness with the inevitable transfer of Blaine Anderson to McKinley High and the New Directions, because bitches can't get enough Darren Criss.  (And by "bitches," I mean Ryan Murphy.  But y'know, when Darren puts on yellow sunglasses and swivels his hips to "It's Not Unusual," "bitches" usually means me too.)  Finn called Blaine out on the differences between the Warblers and the New Directions, and hopefully Blaine will fit in nicely.  Nothing in his character seems to indicate that he'll get overbearing about solos, although it'd be interesting if he threw a little tantrum here or there.  Anything to muss up Blaine's composure a little bit.

It was an important note, though, that the writers managed to hit: Blaine had to transfer because he wanted to, not because Kurt made him.  It was great to see Kurt be so self-aware about imposing unreasonable demands on Blaine, and that Blaine's transfer was simply framed as an expression of devotion - the next step in their relationship, perhaps.  So the Dalton uniform bit the dust!  (It's a fair trade, though, in uniforming - Brittany and Santana got re-Cheerioed.)

"The Purple Piano Project" also introduced Sue Sylvester's new agenda for the year.  This wouldn't be Glee without Sue having an agenda, now, would it?  Turns out our favorite tracksuit-sporting villain is running for Congress, and has decided to turn her campaign into an attack on the arts.  I'm intrigued by this, because this is something that is 100% realistic for Sue.  While her intentions are selfish, stemming from her own drive for success and her hatred of Will Schuester, it's not uncommon to see arts programs cut in favor of core subject areas.  It's completely legitimate that Sue could get elected on that platform, and I'm interested to see what Ryan Murphy has in store for a pro-arts message.  It's something he frequently speaks about outside the show, but honestly, to me, it hasn't manifested in the show's narrative as strongly as it could.

Of course, Sue's plan directly affects Will, who decided to take General Schuester to the forefront.  (I'm 99% sure he wasn't referring to his penis, even though he and Emma were apparently having bedroom troubles.)  

Will was kind of hard to track during "The Purple Piano Project."  He wanted to get the school excited about the glee club, and encouraged the glee kids to express themselves in song every time they saw a strategically-placed purple piano in the hallways.  But (new character alert!) Sugar, she of self-diagnosed Asperger's, tried to audition, sang terribly ("Hey Big Spender" is destined to be sung horribly on this show... remember that wonderfully stern citizen of Lima auditioning for it in "Dream On?"), and Will had little choice but to turn her away.  I don't think anyone could blame Will for denying Sugar from the glee club, but I do wonder if the writers will take this to an interesting place in terms of Will's teaching philosophy.  Is the drive to win greater than being all-inclusive, or does that rule not extend to people completely deluded of their talent?  Is he becoming more like Sue, and what realizations will he have about that?

I doubt the show will go there, though.  I fear we'll just get more scenes where Will accidentally starts talking about his sex life in Figgins' office.

In all, the character stuff in "The Purple Piano Project" was strong on all fronts.  I do think that the plot that supported it wasn't as strong, which I'm not as fussed about, as long as the character interactions and development stay interesting.  My main quibble is actually in the frame of the episode: the purple pianos.  They were conceived as a motivation for the glee kids to burst into song, as well as a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor for them as outcasts who keep their beat even when someone tries to silence them.  It's a nice conceit, even if the bit with Tina directly voicing the metaphor was a bit on-the-nose.

What irked me more was the use of the purple pianos in Sue and Will's antagonism - through Santana.  Early in the episode, Sue declared that Santana was co-captain of the Cheerios, and told her to make a choice between cheerleading and glee.  Santana chose Sue, but then kept with the club for the rest of the episode.  She took no actual actions to suggest that she'd turned her back on the club - mainly because the Piano Fire construction was clunky.  I get that the Cheerios doused it in lighter fluid, but it was Quinn's errant cigarette that actually set it in flames, and all Santana seemed to do was dance around Blaine with a ridiculous amount of charm.  

For Will to kick Santana out of the club for loyalty issues, we needed to see that Santana had some sort of maligned plan.  Because as is, it plays as Santana being punished for choosing cheerleading over glee, which is not a punishable offense.  Santana's done worse than that before, and this feels like retroactive retribution for those past actions.  If Santana's going to be aligned with Sue, then she needs to actually be involved in a nefarious plot, in a clear and understandable way.  Bonus points if it interacts with her character arc!

The episode ended much like it began: setting up goals for the characters.  Santana's no longer a member of glee, Rachel wants to stage a high school production of West Side Story (and appears to be going for the same role as Mercedes) and Kurt sets his sights on Senior Class President.  This last one I'm particularly interested in, because it has the potential to pay off Kurt's accidental Prom Queen win with an actual title he strove for.  We'll have to wait and see how it plays out!

In the end, "The Purple Piano Project" did indeed seem to get back to basics: there was strong character work, with questions asked and left unanswered for the purpose of unraveling over several episodes.  Friendly character interactions were strong as well, and romantic drama took a backseat.  Mostly, it was just lovely seeing these kids be friends and working through their problems together.  I'm glad the writers are playing to this strength!  Nothing's better than seeing the glee clubbers come together - especially when it's in song.  Plot quibbles be damned, this was a good episode!

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A+
Dance Numbers: A+
Dialogue: A
Plot: B
Characterization: A
Episode MVP: Kurt Hummel and Rachel Berry.

Friday, September 16, 2011

"What Women Want" - Project Runway Recap

I'd like to make a little wager, Project Runway fans.  I'd bet a hefty sum of money that if you've watched every episode so far this season, and then only looked at the final garments, no names attached, from tonights' episode, that you could tell who designed each one.  Asymmetrical kimono?  Anya!  Solid block of color?  Bryce!  Classic standard gown?  Laura Kathleen!  Richly colored separates with a structured top and well-fit high-waisted skirt?  Kimberly!    Basic dress that's just kind of bland?  Bert!  Asymmetrical structured top in a neutral color?  Olivier!  

Yes, we're at the point in the competition where we've gotten to know everyone's aesthetics, and this year's contestants in particular seem to be specific about their design sense.  

We're also at a point in the competition where every designer has won one challenge, except for Bryce, who has won none.  Oh, Bryce!  The immediate declaration of this information meant that either Bryce was going to pull himself up by his bootstraps this episode, or he was getting the final nail hammered in on his coffin.

This week's challenge was intended to strike horror into the hearts of our Nine, as Heidi chirped her ominous "hello!" and immediately brought out... dudes.  No, not menswear!  The only menswear challenge I remember was in Season 3, and everyone did poorly.  I seem to remember Jack Mackenroth winning simply because the man was dressed and it fit.  "It" being the simple dress pant and pin-striped dress shirt.  

No, menswear is a dirty word.  But it turns out, they wouldn't be designing for men!  No, they were designing for these men's significant others, under their direction.  Cue the other PR dirty word: real womenReal women are not size 2 models who could also pass for stick insects and/or lamp posts.  Real women are hence hard to design for, and everyone knew it.  (To be fair, real men are also hard to design for: Anya picked her guy because he was the slimmest of the bunch!)

Olivier in particular had a hilariously frustrating time designing for a new body type.  More specifically, his model had an ample chest.  "Her breasts, are like, ginormous?" an innocent Olivier asked the husband.  And then Olivier spent the rest of the episode worrying about boobs - probably more than he ever had in his entire life.  "Those boobs, to me, are trouble," he fretted.  At Mood, he trepidatiously asked everyone in the store what double Ds were, and somehow only the lady at the register was able to tell him.  (Is this really not common knowledge about knockers?)  And finally, Olivier summed his experience all up in one fell swoop: "I don't like women to have boobs."  Oh, Olivier.  

Most other men in the workroom weren't agreeing with him, though - Bert's client in particular.  Anthony claimed that the first thing he noticed about his future wife was her bazoombas, and then proceeded to tell Bert and everyone in the workroom what he liked to do with them.  The self-proclaimed Boobie Monster wanted to show off his wife's impressive cleavage, and Bert, not wanting to play it safe, good-naturedly took the plunge - right to the neckline.

There were few other boobular issues though, and most everyone else designed around body type with ease.  It was eerie, too, to see how well some of these people were matched.  Laura Kathleen's model Rebecca walked in, and it was like seeing a Laura Kathleen from the future come back to have a chat with her past self - and she wanted to look like Barbie!  (Watch out, though.  I hear Laura burns those.)  Anya's model, Kaylene, was an artist who wanted something interesting and creative to wear to her gallery openings - perfect!  And Viktor was so in tune with his couple that the skirt he made, before even meeting Victoria, was exactly like the one she was sporting when she showed up.  Between that, and the fact that Viktor wore the same ensemble to judging as George, they were like a trio matched in fashion heaven!  (Insert poorly-conceived Viktor/Victoria joke here.)

Others weren't so lucky.  Josh McKinley was faced with Charlene, who liked "simple."  Apparently Joshua has two definitions of the word "simple," because after she gave some yes/no feedback to his questions, it dawned on him: "OH, you mean SIIIIIMPLE."  Complete with a hand gesture I didn't understand.  But Josh worked it out, and created a - yes, simple, yet elegant "lbd" - little black dress - that didn't bore or underwhelm.  That took a lot of talent, to make all the right design choices and dodge the obstacles of doing too much of your client's taste or too much of your own taste.  (No bedazzling!)

Anthony Ryan did the rather compassionate thing, by agreeing to make a dress for Caitlin that was reminiscent of a favorite that Bryan had lost in an airport previously.  Bryan and Caitlin were super sweet, and I appreciated that Anthony Ryan was on board with the sentimentality - even if it didn't quite pay off for him in the end.

Speaking of sentimentality, Bryce had a lovely couple in Janine and Jovan - but they were so lovely that it just made Bryce think of his boyfriend back home and get all emotional.  He, too, had to step out of his box with the color pink.  According to Bryce, pink just isn't his thing.  Which, if I recall correctly, there was a point where he said orange wasn't his thing either.  Bryce... what is your thing? 

I would be remiss as well without mentioning Olivier again, this time without all the associated boob talk.  Olivier, oh, Olivier.  Jeff and Suzanne (she of ginormous bosom) gave Olivier a lot of input, and although they always relented, encouraging him, it was still overwhelming to the dear, sweet, grandpa-sweater wearing young man.  Although, Olivier's reactions were hilarious.  Everything he said was technically kind of bitchy, but also certifiably lol-worthy when it was said with the droopy-eyed poker face that made you wonder if Olivier was also a little bit medicated during this challenge.  "The two of them together just confuse me," he said of his (very nice but) demanding clients.  "I just want some quietness sometimes."  (Other bon mots offered by Olivier in the episode: "We were left with all these fat people... and fat is fine, but not... when I'm making clothes."  Oh, Olivier!  Your sleepy brand of bitchiness is extremely amusing to me.  Keep it up!

But here's what I wonder about challenges like these: do the clients get some sort of briefing on their interactions with the designers?  Are they told to be lenient around the contestants' needs to make something for the competition, or are they told to behave as a real client would and excise creative input in a result that under other circumstances would be theirs?  Because I feel like if I were a client on Project Runway I would just say yes to everything the designer offered me as long as it looked like it would be reasonably flattering on me.  

Although I suppose if you asked the clients what their strategy was, they'd probably say something along those lines.  And honestly, most everything this weak was reasonably flattering - there were just little fit issues and design issues here and there.

Bryce created a basic little dress out of his dyed pink fabric at the last minute, and in an effort to spice it up a bit added half a dozen little details that weren't terribly necessary.  The pockets on that dress are okay in theory (I love a good dress pocket!) but Michael Kors was right, they really were perfectly shaped to carry a beer bottle.  (Or a lambchop, I guess.)  The fit on Bryce's dress was sloppy, too, which wasn't surprising considering he'd thrown it together at the last minute.

Anthony Ryan, in his attempt to revive the memory of Caitlin's beloved lost dress, completely lost the ability to style it in a way that was fresh and visually interesting.  Malin Ackerman said it was reminiscent of her high school cheerleading uniform, and I can't say I disagree.  Maybe if AR had used a different fabric - something with a subtle pattern on it, perhaps - to make it less basic?  It seemed he knew the dress wasn't up to his standard, though, wishing he'd put more of himself into it.  

And... Bert.  Oh, Bert.  Bert worked surprisingly well with his clients, and, in the end, created a cute little dress.  But... that's just it.  It was "fine," according to Malin Ackerman and Michael Kors.  Nothing terribly special about it.  The silhouette was dull, and while the fabric was a good choice, nothing was done with it in terms of construction to make it worth a second look.  Bert seems to be on borrowed time here, and unless he wows us next week, I daresay Mr. Keeter's card may be up.

Laura Kathleen, Kimberly, and Olivier skated through in the middle ground, and Olivier lived to see a week where he doesn't have to worry about boobs anymore.  Praise be!

The top this week belonged to Anya, Joshua, and Viktor, all of whom created sophisticated and interesting looks that represented the clients well, but still spoke to the individual designer's sensibilities.  

Anya was praised for doing a successful "culture clash" with her bold but classy reinterpretation of a kimono dress.  I have to say, that's one thing I love about Anya: she brings a rather global viewpoint to her sartorial aesthetic, and isn't afraid to draw influence from the traditional garb of other cultures.  It's cool, and something Project Runway is often lacking -  the only other contestant who comes to mind is Korto Momolu from Season 5.  And even though Nina Garcia hated that one sleeve, she still got behind Anya's point of view.

Actually, while we're on the subject of my favorite Ms. Garcia, I appreciated that Nina framed a lot of her critique in how the designers dealt with the women's bodies - from a positive standpoint.  She questioned why Anya covered up one of Kaylene's best traits, and complimented Josh McKinley for accentuating Charlene's "beautiful waist."  It was lovely to see Nina Garcia, a fashion maven, in touch with the wearability for an "everyday woman," and to embrace the fact that most women, unlike models, can't just wear anything - they have to wear what looks good for their individual body type.

Joshua was also in the top, redeeming himself from his emotional dervish last week.  He managed to understand simple, and yet still push Charlene out of her comfort zone a little bit.  The lace detailing on that dress was adorable yet classy, and the deep-V back managed to be both flirtatious yet understated.  And those shoes he chose!  100% amazing all around.  I'd wear that ensemble in a heartbeat, and you could tell his model felt like a million bucks.  She just lit right up, and for that, Josh really did deserve this win.

But Viktor worked magic with his design as well, even though he didn't have to overcome a difference in taste.  Because he and his clients were on the same page from the beginning, he was able to make an adorably charming outfit that was polished and put-together, head-to-toe.  Turns out his original design was long-sleeve, though, and Victoria asked for a shorter sleeve instead - prompting Michael to say that was a key decision, and a good reason to always listen to your customer.  But Michael, Suzanne wanted a poofy bell sleeve.  I think better advice is to always listen to good taste.

In the end, Josh took the win and Bryce got the boot - and we're down to a collection of designers who've all won at least one challenge.  There's no immunity from here on out though, so anybody could go home next week.  And it's another team challenge!  Oh dear.  Bert and Josh are still here, and Viktor didn't work well with Bert either, so chances are it's going to be another disaster in the making.  I can't wait!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Gender and Glee: Conclusion


While Glee’s inconsistencies preclude any exacting generalizations that define every single interaction, it’s clear through pattern and frequency that the show’s portrayal of gender dynamics is indeed damaging and inhibitive, especially in terms of the female characters. 

Through the decisions the writers make for these characters, a discernible imbalance can be identified, wherein the female characters are often wielded as objects to the male subjects. They are also frequently deprived of the writer-given ability to make a choice in the narrative, hindering their representation as developed characters.  They are often relegated to the background if there’s not boy drama to partake in.  Their relationships with other females are characterized primarily by hostility, and female friendships are either abandoned or unmanifested in storyline - even when there’s real opportunity for development.  Furthermore, girls who achieve power in the narrative are villainized, and therefore, their flaws are more likely to be manifested in storyline, where they are punished for them - by both the male characters as well as the other females.  And finally, females who have sex are also villainized - but, girls who don’t have sex are frigid and prudish.  

In all, the females on this show are frequently seen marginalized, stereotyped, or placed in accessory to the male characters, who are more likely to be given choices, independent storylines, and their own points of view in the narrative. 

For a show that goes to great lengths to alleviate the toxicity of homophobia as a     byproduct of traditional masculinity - and even redefine what masculinity means for modern teenagers - it actually pays little attention to femininity, and lets misogyny linger.  So were it not only just a damaging portrayal of women, there’s also the bitter hint of hypocrisy lingering over the choices the showrunners have made. 

The good news, in all of this, is that a new season is about to begin, and Glee has hired six new writers to round out their staff.  Two of these six new writers are women, and although that’s not a surefire sign of betterment, it bodes well for more equal representation when there actually are women represented on staff.  Even regardless of gender, these writers are six new opportunities to re-evaluate the presentation of gender dynamics on the show.  They are six new opportunities to adjust the representation towards something less inhibitive and stereotypical, shifting away from misogyny in particular and towards something more positive, inclusive, and balanced. 

So, I want to thank you all for reading this rather massive exploration, and I hope you found something in it for you to chew on.  This series has been a huge undertaking for me to work on, and I truly appreciate all the feedback to it - both positive response, and constructive criticism.  I haven’t been able to respond to all the comments, but I do read them and value them.  If you left me a question about something here, chances are I will respond to it in full in a larger post, because some of the questions you guys have left are thought-provoking, and worth discussing!  Until then - thanks very much for reading!



Monday, September 12, 2011

Gender and Glee: Part Six


Really, the most damning thing about the way women on Glee are portrayed is the clear and notable absence of positive female relationships.  It’s rare on this show that any two characters can interact without the involvement of dating or hating - but with the women in particular, healthy interactions are few and far between. 

Firstly, female friendships are largely unexplored - existing or otherwise.  This is not a good start.  And technically, many of these “friendships” shuffle into the asinine (and only female-defined, it seems) description of “frenemies” - which is even worse.  Santana and Mercedes, Santana and Quinn, Rachel and Quinn, and even Rachel and Mercedes could fall into this category.   Straight-up friendships are much harder to find in the narrative.  Tina and Mercedes are supposed to be best friends, and yet they hardly interact independent of the group - they can barely get a storyline individually, let alone together.

Santana and Brittany were originally best friends, and still are; however, the main interest of their dynamic has been rerouted into romance, which, while certainly acceptable, is still slightly different, and comes with its own separate set of angst.  Supposedly, Tina helped Santana write “Trouty Mouth,” but we never saw it.  Brittany and Tina appear to be friends through Artie and Mike, transcending the potential bitchiness a love triangle could bring, yet it’s never manifested past conversation.  

The Mercedes-Rachel relationship, on the whole, has transitioned from competition and antagonism into actual friendship, as early as “Sectionals.”  Similarly, Mercedes has struck a healthy dynamic with Quinn, as they supported one another in both “Home” and “Funk.” (I will say, however, that in the latter episode, Mercedes and Quinn were designed to relate to one another through drawing a parallel between the ostracization felt from teen pregnancy, and the ostracization felt from society’s inherent racism... an inadvisable comparison, perhaps.)  Since then, it has been completely dropped.

The problems with these relationships is that they are inconsistent - and invisible.  Female relationships in the foreground are hallmarked by hostility and bitchiness, as inevitably, they are fighting or sabotaging one another - usually over a boy.

Rachel and Mercedes are really the best the show has going for them, and that's not great.  They didn’t make any progress from Sectionals until Season 2, when Kurt’s friendship with Rachel involved Rachel being friends with Mercedes as well.  And then the show continued to threaten their friendship with competition - in both “Comeback,” and “A Night of Neglect,” the two girls found themselves at odds.  In "Comeback" particularly, it was a third bitchy female - Sue Sylvester - who pitted them against each other.  Mercedes and Rachel's friendship was completely forgotten about until the last second in both episodes, when the conflict just dissolved without any real developed resolution.  It’s poor storytelling all around - rinse, and repeat.

There are several examples of female dynamics that are almost good.  Rachel and Quinn’s relationship is notably and frustratingly hallmarked with the dichotomy between atrociously bad and remarkably good.  They are either failing the Bechdel test miserably, stuck in opposition over Finn, or they’re actually having quiet moments of breakthrough where they seem to understand one another beyond any other character on the show.  But these moments usually occur only after they seem to cross a line - they reach a peaceful mutual understanding only after Rachel rats Quinn out in “Sectionals,” or after Quinn slaps Rachel across the face in “Prom Queen.”  What’s worse, the positive repercussions of these moments never seem to stick.  Rachel wiped Quinn’s tears away at prom, and the next episode, called her a “vindictive harpy” as Quinn aimed to sabotage Rachel’s happiness… again.  Why is this necessary?  It suggests that Rachel and Quinn can’t rise above pettiness associated with sharing a love interest, which completely flattens their characterization and washes away their development.  Their point of view in the narrative is therefore trivialized for the perspective of the male they share in common - Finn Hudson.  This is awful.

But even without the presence of Finn, the writers are missing the mark on Rachel and Quinn’s dynamic.  “Born This Way” rightfully set up Rachel and Quinn as being completely dissimilar yet oddly alike - with a duet that spoke to the idea of feeling confident yet completely insecure, and a plotline that connected them by portraying Quinn as an alternate-universe Rachel Berry.  The episode suggested the parallel even stylistically - all of “I Feel Pretty/Unpretty” was directed, shot, and edited to construct heartbreaking similarities between the two characters.  And yet, they never actually had a conversation about it.  The writing didn’t support it at all, and Quinn and Rachel’s emotional resolution had nothing to do with one another, even though it should have.  Quinn’s came from Finn, her boyfriend, in validation, and Rachel’s came from a conglomeration of Puck and Kurt - both dudes.  Sigh.

Sadly, this is not unprecedented for Quinn’s lady interactions.  Quinn hardly has any healthy dynamics with the other females on the show.  Her relationship with Mercedes has completely faded away, and she rarely interacts with Brittany or Tina.  She had a solid moment of mutual respect with Lauren in “Born This Way;” however, this only came on the heels of their vicious competition for prom queen, wherein Lauren blackmailed Quinn and sabotaged her campaign.  And then they never interacted again.

Similarly, Quinn and Santana shared an excellent moment in “New York,” with Brittany, as Quinn had a minor meltdown and the writers allowed her once-sycophants to be supportive of her, finally, in friendship.  Excellent!  But… in terms of Brittany, Quinn has hardly interacted with her except to protest Brittany's decimation from being shot out of a cannon.  I guess we can muster up some friendship when the death of that person is on the line, right?  And with Santana, rewind twenty-two episodes, and Quinn was betraying Santana’s trust and Santana was slapping Quinn across the face.  Episodes in between saw them hardly interacting, with random bitchy insults slung from both sides.  And if Quinn and Santana’s renewed friendship isn’t going to stick anyways, it diminishes the impact of the events, without a doubt.

Truthfully, the majority of female-female interaction on this show are horribly misaligned.  It all starts, on a larger scale, with the Cheerios, who receive absolutely no screentime as participants in a primarily female extracurricular.  Because Sue Sylvester is Head Villain, the Cheerios are portrayed simply as bitches and backstabbers (ladies with power = villains) and any development given to the cheerleading characters comes when they are off the squad.  (Quinn’s pregnancy and I-just-want-someone-to-love-me woes?  Off the squad.  Santana dealing with her sexuality?  Off the squad.  Brittany handling her best friend’s struggles?  Off the squad.)

Hand-in-hand with that notion is the idea that the other girls, the cheerleaders in particular, treat Rachel like crap.  This starts on the most basic level of constant insults to Rachel’s face, as well as behind her back - even Mercedes and Tina have been verbally derisive towards Rachel.  But the hostility towards Rachel is also manifested in storyline.  “Comeback,” for example, puts forth a Brittany-Rachel dynamic which could have been well-executed; however, it painted a scenario where the other Glee girls joined together in accidental opposition to Rachel, and resulted in Brittany telling Rachel she was annoying.  Rachel’s emotional resolution was delivered to her via Finn, simply through dialogue - poor writing.

In “The Power of the Madonna,” Rachel goes to the other girls in earnest to ask for boy advice (don’t get me started on the fact that her question is “How do I stop a guy from getting mad at me for saying no [to sex]?”).  She is met with revulsion from Santana, Quinn, and Brittany, and Mercedes is portrayed as unable to relate.  Only Tina seems to be in a position of sympathy to Rachel, but she doesn’t actually offer any advice, nor does her storyline interact with Rachel’s in any way.

Group girl interactions, of the non-singing variety, are usually a mixed bag of hostility.  Rachel calls a “football girlfriends” meeting in “Furt,” so that the girls, rather than do anything themselves to stand up for Kurt, can beseech their athletic boyfriends to use violence as a means of defense.  Which, in and of itself, is a frustrating manifestation of damaging gender roles.  Rachel even specifically uses the phrase “We’re all lucky enough to have boyfriends on the football team.”  And when Santana tries to be a part of the meeting, she’s snapped at for the nature of her relationship with Puck, and ostracized.  Not only that, but Tina asks Brittany if she’s dating Artie, her ex, and Brittany simply replies with a “deal with it,” and it’s dropped.  In effect, the girls all got together… to talk about the boys, and how the boys can solve a problem.  It’s pretty shallow.

In general, there are few alliances between female characters, and there are several nasty associations with this.  Firstly, there is the problem that there’s plenty of examples of positive male dynamics.  The concept of the “bro” is alive and well on Glee - and even though there have been several instances of male characters fighting over a girl (Finn and Jesse, Finn and Puck, Will and Carl) there are still more male bonding dynamics on the show than male antagonistic dynamics.  Sam and Finn are allowed to be friends (even while Finn was out for Sam’s football position, and even after Finn “stole” Sam’s girlfriend).  Puck and Artie bonded, in both “Never Been Kissed” and “Prom Queen.”  Puck and Finn were actually given a scene where they re-establish their broken friendship, even after Puck made out with two of Finn’s girlfriends.  Mike and Artie are apparently good friends, even despite the fact that Tina dumped Artie for Mike, and Mike is extremely talented at dancing, Artie’s near-impossible dream.

The fact that the boys are more reliably portrayed as friendly and bonded than the girls suggests that girls are not interested in maintaining friendships with other females, which is a) absurd, and b) a terrible message to send to women.  Delving into this construction as a authorial choice suggests that the writers are not interested in maintaining female friendships onscreen, which is a) sexist, and b) a terrible message to send to women.

There’s another gender divide at work here as well.  The lack of alliance between female characters is often a result of scheming and manipulation - the girls, especially Santana, Quinn, and Rachel, are often portrayed as backstabbers, and friendships are not built because the girls are seen as untrustworthy.  The guys generally aren’t, and the underlying suggestion is that the boys are too dumb to scheme.  The girls are smart, but only to achieve their bitchy agendas, like solo-winning, boyfriend-stealing, or relationship-ruining.  The boys are just plain dumb, which is an insulting manifestation of “masculinity” as well.  The only young male characters who are not portrayed consistently as dim are Kurt, who is gay, Artie, who’s in a wheelchair, and Mike, who hardly ever speaks.  This does not reflect well on any count.

Ultimately, it’s an easy fix to write female characters as friendly and accepting - the Glee writers are just choosing not to.  Lazy conflict is almost always created from negative female interaction, and so it’s a go-to staple for high school drama.  In that the girls are largely isolated from one another in the narrative, they are therefore relegated into harmful stereotypes for the purpose of a plot device - often making them complete accessories to the male subject.  This is unfortunate, because I’d venture to say that if there were simply stronger female dynamics on the show, it’d be easier to overlook many of the other issues afflicting gender representation - largely because many of these issues would probably also be alleviated as a result.



Sunday, September 11, 2011

Gender and Glee: Part Five (2)


It’s fairly inarguable that Glee has two main whores in Santana and Brittany, the two sexually promiscuous cheerleaders who have the most casual attitude about sex.  Santana trades it for a status upgrade in “The Power of Madonna,” and Brittany holds her “perfect record” with pride, attempting to date Kurt one she thought he was an option, in “Laryngitis.”  Both girls advise Rachel to go through with having sex with Jesse, claiming it not to be a big deal, and Santana thinks all the football players’ girlfriends should just “put out” so they can have a winning team.

Santana, for instance, is sexualized as a character, claiming to have had a sex dream about a shrub, and operates frequently in sexual blackmail.  She herself claims she needs to have a warm body beneath her to digest her food.  She is also described as having sex without feelings, and turns innocuous pieces of dialogue into innuendo with a delighted smirk.  Santana falls easily into the category of “whore,” with little question.

Brittany is sexualized just as much, with the added bonus of being unaware that it’s also the babymaking process.  Or is she?  Evidence in “The Power of the Madonna” contradicts “Sexy” completely.  But Brittany turns into a stripper when drunk, gets solos like “Slave 4 U” and “Tik Tok,” claims she wants to touch Coach Beiste’s boobs, and has purportedly slept with every guy in school.  It’s difficult to argue that she’s a sexual character; Brittany is perhaps the personification of sex.

(Of course, Brittany and Santana are two characters who not only have little issue with sex, but who also have little issue with sex with each other.  Naturally, this bit of information was kept largely peripheral, and early statements about the visibility of a legitimate Brittany-Santana romance indicated that Glee was a “family show” and therefore probably not going to cross that line.  In this case, does “family show” mean a show that subscribes to inhibiting gender norms that decree that a woman shouldn’t enjoy sex - especially not with another woman?  Luckily, the writers have reversed this decision, and Brittany and Santana are getting a major storyline - with minimal onscreen physicality, sure, but the attention is at least there.)

It’s certifiably okay for Santana and Brittany to have casual attitudes about sex, just as it’s 100% valid for Rachel and Quinn not to want to have sex.  But Santana and Brittany are women of power, and therefore villains, and the extension of that is that they are generally punished for wanting sex - and Santana in particular shames other characters who don’t have sex, showing disdain for Finn, Quinn, Emma, and Rachel’s naiveté or otherwise “virgin” behavior.  But this concept is demonstrated through analyzing Santana and Brittany’s role as whores and villains in the participation they have in two of the three onscreen examples of virginity-loss. 

Finn lost his virginity to Santana, Artie to Brittany, and Quinn to Puck.  All three scenarios are portrayed, to a certain degree, as comprising one somewhat reluctant participant - which isn’t a good start.  If Glee’s trying to scare their young viewers away from having sex for the first time, it might be working.  As Burt says, it’s a great gift to yourself when you’re thirty!

But there are a few layers of sexism in the way these situations played out.  Let’s examine, shall we?

In “The Power of Madonna,” Santana offers to have sex with Finn, telling him that it’s “high time [he] lost the Big V.”  She claims that having sex with Finn will be great for her image, and that the benefit for him is simply that he gets to have sex (and make Rachel jealous).  Finn hesitates, then accepts, and goes through with the deed, both having completely consented ahead of time.  Afterwards, neither party feels much of anything, because it meant nothing to either of them.  It’s a pretty lackluster first time for Finn, but aside from the fact that it was designed for Santana to “prey” on him during the scene (Ryan Murphy’s direction to Naya Rivera was to behave like a “lioness prowler”), it at least squeaks by with consent intact - even if Santana was villainized.

In “Duets,” Brittany offers to help Artie feel better and get over Tina.  He loses his virginity to her, and then, upon realizing that Brittany has sex with every guy in school, accuses her of “walking all over” (really, writers?) the miracle of his ability to have sex in the first place.

This story thread is handled pretty poorly.  There is a consent issue with Brittany and Artie’s first time, in that she boldly declares they’re going to have sex, picks Artie up out of his chair and basically mounts him.  Yes, he’s aware that he’s going to lose his virginity, but doesn’t actually say anything about wanting to or not - his relationship with Brittany at this point is paper-thin.  And even with Artie’s inability to walk, logic implies that he could still push Brittany off of him, or say something to indicate his stance on the issue.  But the writers chose not to clear that up, and instead kept Artie silent and submissive - is it assumed that just because he’s a dude he automatically wants to have sex with one of the hottest girls in school?  Is this the logic we’re supposed to be collectively operating on?

As it is, Brittany was portrayed as stealing Artie’s virginity, and his speech to her at episode’s end speaks strongly to that notion.  He basically gives her a guilt trip for her actions, and Brittany is made to feel badly for having the attitude towards sex that she does.  Basically, all of these byproducts hit slightly left of center.  The situation would be much less awful if Artie was written to give consent and have as much regret as he wants, but ultimately be unjustified in shaming Brittany for having a sex-positive worldview.  In the end, these two end up dating, which on paper seems like a terrible idea given their beginnings, but the writers largely treated it as a “do-over” of sorts.

In this vein, both Santana and Brittany are on the flip side of Rachel and Emma’s issues with virginity.  Where Emma and Rachel are good girls who are waiting to give it away, Santana and Brittany have are the ones who aggressively take it away - and it’s presented, onscreen, as such.  Few good things happen to them in the narrative because of this - most other characters generally treat Brittany and Santana’s sexual promiscuity in negative.  But even in those specific instances, Santana gets Rachel’s ire over having meaningless sex with Finn, and it goes so far that Rachel snaps to Santana that the only job she’ll have is working on a pole.  Brittany got chastised by the guy she actually had sex with, but was ultimately allowed the usual Brittany Pierce wiggle room with villainy: she just didn’t understand the situation, and actually cared about Artie - so once he forgave her, they dated anyways. 

Beyond this basic written disadvantage Brittany and Santana have in terms of their interactions with Artie and Finn, there’s a second layer of sexism when the two instances are compared with the third onscreen loss of virginity: Quinn’s, to Puck.

Puck and Quinn both began the show as villains.  Quinn’s villainy was written as all the female villainy is - Machiavellian girls who have assumed power and wield it aggressively and bitchily.  Puck was a villain in the “masculine” way, in that he was a bully, and a homophobe.  Through forty-four episodes, Quinn has been kept in her sphere of scheming and villainy, whereas Puck has been mostly absolved of his original villainy.  He’s no longer homophobic, although he occasionally feels his own masculinity threatened, and he’s never actively tried to harm the glee club or any of its members.  In fact, Puck’s arc is specifically about him stepping up and being a good guy, and even with deviations like “Never Been Kissed” along the way, the idea is that Puck’s bark is worse than his bite.  He hasn’t been a villain since before “Mash-Up.”

But Puck’s original participation in Glee’s storyline universe was that he knocked up Quinn Fabray, President of the Celibacy Club.  He was a man whore, a guy who apparently had no qualms sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend, while he was also assumedly dating (in whatever definition) Santana.

As for Quinn’s first time, we heard the story before we saw it: that Puck got Quinn drunk off wine coolers and she was feeling fat that day.  In “Journey,” we witness this to be essentially true, with the added information that Puck lied about protection.  But in the same episode, Puck confesses to having loved Quinn both at Season 1’s start as well as its end, and was even specifically given the piece of dialogue, “This is not just another hookup for me,” which had been previously unincorporated in the story.  Quinn didn’t appear to be terribly drunk, either, although Puck offered her another wine cooler when she expressed hesitation, so she had to have had at least one, and he clearly thought that her having another would maybe swing her decision in his favor.

To me, there’s some iffy consent going on there as well.  It’s not as ignored as Brittany and Artie’s, in that Quinn does actually say okay in the flashback - there’s some sort of agreement.  The jury is out on how inhibited Quinn’s ability to make a decision was.  Viewer interpretation.  But at the very least, Quinn said yes, so the original consent issue was basically cleared up through flashback.  However, the writers chose to add one extra little thing into the equation that changes everything: Puck confessed to having had feelings for Quinn.  “This is not another hookup for me,” he says in flashback.  “Did you love me?” she asks in the hospital.  “Yes.  Especially now,” he replies.  Beth was born the exact same episode.

The main difference between Quinn’s first sexual experience and Artie’s and Finn’s is that Quinn’s produced a baby, and was retroactively decreed, through flashback, that feelings were involved.  Finn and Santana didn’t appear to have any feelings for one another, and regardless of Brittany and Artie eventually dating, she didn’t show any consideration for his feelings when they first had sex - which was acknowledged through storyline.  Santana and Brittany approached the situations as “hookups,” but it turns out Puck didn’t.

Since “Journey,” Puck’s feelings for Quinn have never paid off in any real storyline, and so the choice for Puck to have been in love with Quinn reads mostly as a way to get around the iffy consensual issues of Quinn’s first time, and validate the result of their tryst - a baby.  We are meant to sympathize with Artie and Finn because they got their virginities taken by careless girls, but ultimately we are meant to also sympathize with Puck - or at least view the situation as borderline romantic - because he was revealed to have had feelings for Quinn, which changes things.  While his actions towards Quinn in the F13 certainly allude to wanting to be a family with her and the baby, Quinn rejected this in “Sectionals,” and as a pair they were relegated to the background of the Back 9, seeming to express little romantic interest in each other - Puck even dates Mercedes without Quinn batting an eye.  Moreover, we never received any clue as to what Quinn and Puck’s relationship was like before they had sex - were they friendly?  Cordial?  Flirty?  It was unclear.  So for the finale to give us a Puck who claims having been in love with Quinn the whole time - and that didn’t continue in storyline past that - seems mostly in effort to whitewash their situation as teenage parents with a baby borne of a drunken hookup with consent issues, especially considering said baby was going to be born that same episode.

And why, exactly?  To keep Puck from being a villain, and a whore?  Or simply because Quinn and Puck made a baby together?  I appreciate Puck receiving character development, but the fact of the matter is that in the wake of his tryst with Quinn, he has been completely devillainized, and is now just as much of a “good guy” as Finn or Will or Artie or Kurt, the original “good guys.”  Quinn, however, is still a villain.  As is Santana, and as is Brittany.  Puck got a free pass out of villainy, and it's hard not to wonder if gender has anything to do with it.

(I will commend the writers, however, for not throwing Quinn immediately into a relationship with Puck after having the baby, simply because he told her he loved her.  It’d be nice if were explained and not simply dropped, but it’s difficult to deny that their dynamic began with a less-than-healthy portrayal of teen sex, with ten episodes where Quinn didn’t appear to want to be with Puck.  If Quinn were to simply fall into Puck’s arms after Beth’s birth and confession of love, the partisanship would have been hammered completely.)

In the end, while Burt may deliver a touching speech to Kurt about first times and teen sex (“Sexy”), there are still three examples in the narrative of negative first experiences.  But guess what?  Burt’s speech is blatantly engendered, making sweeping generalizations about guys and sex - and how it means less to them than it does to women. 
Burt: Now for most guys sex is just this thing we always want to do. Y’know, it’s fun, feels great, but we're not really thinking too much about how it makes us feel on the inside, or how the other person feels about it.

Kurt: Women are different?

Burt: Only because they get that its about something more than just the physical. Y’know, when you're intimate with somebody, in that way, you're exposing yourself, you're never gonna be more vulnerable, and that scares the hell out of a lot of guys. Believe me, I can't tell you how many buddies I've got who have gotten way too deep with a girl who said she was cool with just hooking up.

Well, Burt, Glee seems to have shown us, through example, that sex only means nothing to the “bad guys,” because Finn, Puck, and Artie all cared a lot about the sex they had with the women who at the end of the day couldn’t give a damn - all cheerleaders, and all villains.  The message here is that sex without romantic feelings is bad, and girls who want sex without romantic feelings are also bad.  (The only male character to usually want sex without romantic feelings [Puck] was shown to actually have had romantic feelings.  Oh.)  The generalization is not appreciated on either side of the gender line.  Really, the best part about Burt’s speech is this line: “Don't throw yourself around, like you don't matter. 'Cause you matter.”  That applies to everyone, across both genders and all sexualities, without bullshit stereotypes and society’s gender expectations in place.

It bears stating, of course, that there is one female character who does seem to have a healthy relationship with sex, and that is Tina Cohen-Chang.  Her participation in “Never Been Kissed” identifies her as a girl who wants sex and is unashamed by it.  Hell, she and Mike nearly throw down on the floor in “Born This Way” in front of the entire glee club.  The only issue here is that Tina is hardly present in any narrative.  It’s wonderful that she’s a strong representation of a female character, but she’s completely marginalized in the storylines, and her inclusion in most episodes is minimal.  It becomes even more damaging, then, that the one healthy portrayal of a female character’s relationship with sex is sidelined from almost any meaningful involvement in the plot.  

Holly Holliday is also worth mentioning.  She’s ditzy but not dumb, straightforward yet compassionate, and happens to have the usually-male trait of commit-ophobia.  She has a healthy relationship with sex in that she’s unashamed of it, but this also seemed to be channeled into judgment of Rachel and Quinn’s abstinence in “Sexy,” calling them both “naive” and “possibly frigid.”  And occasionally, Holly’s romance with Will still somehow managed to reveal little bits of sexism - like when she claims to be bad news for “nice guys like [Will]” and when Will purported that he loved being with Holly because he was used to clingy girls who wanted to spend all their time with him.  Holly is almost specifically wielded in contrast, as an expression of “Oh, you’re not like all the other girls!  So cool!  So like a dude!”  Holly may be a fairly healthy female representation on this show, but the way the narrative handles her borders on sexist because it treats her as an exception.

At the end of the day, it’s understandable that a television show geared towards teenagers and portraying teenagers would want to be careful about the message they’re sending about sex to the teens watching.  The original message involved about education, realism, and contraception.  It has since been translated effectively into Blaine encouraging Burt to talk to Kurt about sex because sex education for gay teenagers is scant.  Other than that, Glee’s communicating all the wrong ideas - especially about women.

The show talks a big talk about male characters always wanting sex, but, in an embodiment of the redefinition of traditional masculinity, has historically wielded the male characters as romanticizing sex and wanting feelings to be involved.  On the flip side of this, the female characters simply file into stereotypes as an accessory to the males - virgins, and whores, good girls, and villains.  And it’s telling that the only original male villain and “whore” has been completely developed out of his villainy - with his main sexual relationships actually involving feelings, one of them specifically identified as love.

The underlying message in how Glee handles its female characters and sex is that there’s no right place to be.  If you’re abstinent, like Rachel or Quinn, you’ll be called frigid by the coolest teacher in school, and your boyfriends will be put upon with sexual frustration.  If you’re frequently sexually active, like Santana or Brittany, you’re a bitch who steals virginities without blinking an eye.  If you’re Tina, who has a healthy, unabashed, and unreprimanded relationship with sex, well… no one will pay attention to you.  This is a lose-lose-lose message the writers are sending to females watching the show.  There’s no right place to be, as a woman.  Society will find some way to marginalize you, or worse, shame you for it.



Saturday, September 10, 2011

Gender and Glee: Part Five (1)


“You want to know a dirty little secret that none of them want you to know? Girls want sex just as much as guys do.” - Rachel Berry.  [1x02 “Showmance”]

There was a lot of promise in Glee’s original handling of sex, as evidenced by this quote from “Showmance.”  Rachel had temporarily joined the school’s Celibacy Club, and realized that their techniques to prevent teenage sexual activity were mostly deluded - and sexist.  It seemed the show’s early stance on sex was a positive one, acknowledging that both teenage girls and boys want sex, and that the best way to deal with that is not a death grip on abstinence, but rather with education about contraception.  In that Quinn Fabray, the president of the Celibacy Club, found herself a pregnant teenager, Glee seemed to be telling us that celibacy was perhaps not a foolproof option for horny teenagers.  It was a fresh, honest portrayal that felt genuine and progressive. 

Unfortunately, in the episodes since, much of this attitude has been reversed, and through storyline and character choice, Glee actually presents a gender-biased and unhealthy representation of teens and sex - especially when it comes to its female characters. 

This reversal is encapsulated in Rachel’s complete and unexplained 180 from “Showmance” to “Grilled Cheesus” - almost exactly one season apart.  Rachel’s initial stance on sex is that girls want it just as much as guys do, and other than her hesitations to sleep with Jesse in “The Power of Madonna” (which are valid, through storyline) we don’t get any idea that anything would have changed in the interim.  However, in “Grilled Cheesus,” Rachel tells Finn that she doesn’t want to have sex until she’s 25 - and it’s played completely for comedy.  There’s no explanation as to why she’s changed; in fact, the scene isn’t even hers - that statement plays directly into Finn’s perspective of wanting to touch Rachel’s boobs, and being blessed by the miracle of Rachel actually letting him - despite her no-sex statement. 

It’s completely valid for Rachel not to want to have sex until she’s 25.  But it’d be nice to understand what made her change her mind - and for the show to actually acknowledge that she did change her mind.  It’d also be nice if she were allowed to have her belief without being called “frigid” by Holly Holliday in “Sexy.”

It’s this dichotomy that overshadows all of the female sexuality presented on Glee, and creates a no-win situation that condemns female sexuality in general.  Each girl, in the longstanding tradition of the male’s stereotypical perspective on female sexuality, shuffles into two main categories: the virgin and the whore, and there’s no winning in either label. 

Rachel, Quinn, Emma, Shannon Beiste, and Mercedes fall into the category of “the virgin.”  The virgins are primarily the “good girls,” and Rachel, Emma, and Mercedes are wielded as such.  They are not villains.  Technically, the only villain in the bunch is Quinn, who, it should be noted, is also technically not a virgin.  Funny how that worked out.  What’s worse, Quinn is wielded as a virgin who has fallen from grace because she had sex.  The writers made it less overt because that interpretation fit into Quinn’s designated worldview (Celibacy Club president, “good Christian girl”) - but the fact remains that Quinn’s entire existence was upended because she had sex with Puck.  She had physical evidence - a pregnant belly - that she was no longer a virgin, and she paid the price for that: a complete loss of status and respect, as well as the loss of a functional home and familial acceptance.

As a result, Quinn’s relationship with sex is without a doubt the most unhealthy on the show.  She is wielded as a virgin, but she is not one, and therefore cannot be a “good girl.”  She is a girl who had sex with a boy she wasn’t dating, and was punished - and continues to be punished for it, narratively speaking.  She remains a villain who is desperately trying to get her status back.  And, Quinn’s born-again virginity is as strong as ever - in the Pilot, she is shown stopping a makeout to pray, and over a year later in “Never Been Kissed,” the exact moment is replicated, this time with Sam and the added fear of getting pregnant again.  

As an offshoot of virgin comes the stereotype of “prude.”  Quinn and Rachel both file into this category.  Finn even calls Rachel a prude in “Furt,” and both are described as “frigid and possibly naive” by Holly Holliday in “Sexy.”  In “Never Been Kissed,” they are described as girls who don’t “put out,” and to make matters worse, neither girl is provided a point of view in that episode.  They are simply there to instigate Finn and Sam needing a “cool down.”  Rachel and Quinn are literally only in the episode to be kissed.  This is not good.

Mercedes, in this category, is a simple inclusion: she simply has not had sex, because, as she states in “The Power of Madonna,” “I can’t wait to get a guy mad at me for saying ‘no.’”  Mercedes’ relationship with female sexuality is basic, but no less sexist: she wants to have sex, but no one seems to want to have sex with her, presumably because of her physical appearance and lack of accurate gaydar.  This does little more than make Mercedes a pity case, however relatable. 

Coach Beiste is also similarly constructed, a virgin who has never even been kissed until Will Schuester stepped up to fulfill that action in the aptly named “Never Been Kissed.”  Like Mercedes, this aspect of Coach Beiste is sympathy-inducing, and relatable to many, but the very same episode finds Coach Beiste portrayed specifically as an anti-sexual agent.  Her image is used by Sam, Finn, and Tina as a vision to simmer down their libidos.  So Shannon Beiste is basically an embodiment of everything not sexual, and it’s left at that. 

Emma’s status as a virgin is slightly more complicated, largely because she is presented as a character with obsessive-compulsive disorder, who finds sex to be a trigger for anxiety.  Even just doing cursory research about OCD finds a lot of holes in Glee’s presentation of the disorder, but for the sake of the narrative, and the fact that perhaps Emma has a more mild case, I’ll give the construct the benefit of the doubt.  As is, the idea that Emma is in fact a virgin is refreshing, and a good example of Glee’s fearlessness of being unorthodox in basic character construction.

My issue with Emma’s virginity lies more with the fact that the writers seem to be preserving it for Will.  Emma has been in two relationships on this show, besides Will, and while Ken Tanaka was apparently more gravy than man, Emma was married to Dr. Carl, and had expressed that her symptoms of OCD were getting better.  They went to a Rocky Horror show and she didn’t bring any cleaning supplies!  Emma was married to a man who, as written in the show, seemed to help alleviate her symptoms with little negative consequence, and who seemed to make her happy.  The fact that she didn’t have sex with him leans towards the absurd, with the only reason against it being the fact that Will Schuester exists.  (This reason is manifested completely in “Sexy,” with Carl and Emma coming to see Holly Holliday for sex counseling.  Holly specifically alludes to Emma still being hung up on Will, and Carl’s realization of the same fact that Emma can’t seem to deny.  He moves out, and they break up.)

The whole thing suggests, by design, that Will is somehow entitled to Emma’s virginity, and I find that souring.  Of course, this construct is mirrored to similar effect with Rachel and Finn.  Rachel has dated Puck and Jesse while waiting around for Finn, and seems to have had a healthy relationship with sex.  In fact, her romantic relationship with Puck is almost exclusively portrayed as physical.  But she’s holding out for Mr. Hudson. 

It’s fine for Emma and Rachel to want their first times to be special, and with the right guy.  It’s fine for those right guys to even be Will and Finn, respectively.  However, it’s not fine for that sentiment to seep into the construction of the narrative.  If Emma’s happiness with Carl weren’t used to make Will jealous, or if we were allowed a chance to understand Emma’s point of view, it would perhaps help.  But as it is, Emma’s relationship with Carl was used as poorly plotted drama for the subject of Will Schuester in particular.  Everything with Emma and Carl happened offscreen, and they only ever returned to the narrative to make Will jealous.  They weren’t channeled into any real storyline or conflict; they were simply there to make us upset on Will’s behalf, in a half-assed attempt for us to root for Will and Emma’s reunion.  But the writers forget: it’s hard to root against Emma’s happiness.  And she was happy with Carl.  Carl just wasn’t Will.  It’s the most basic, assumptive, and poorly-conceived conflict - and it makes Emma an accessory to Will’s subject, another damaging manifestation of sexism.

In “The Power of Madonna,” Emma wanted to take control of her sexuality and basically threw herself at Will.  I’m not so much worried about this.  While it seemed a little out-of-character, it’s a mostly valid storytelling choice.  Of course, this led to the “Like a Virgin” sequence, wherein three virgins are on the precipice of losing the big V: Emma, Rachel, and Finn.  And it’s a choice for the writers to decide who goes through with it - even when all three expressed some level of reservation.

You’ll notice, that of these three virgins, one is a dude and two are ladies.  And when the sequence ended, there were only two virgins: both ladies.  

It’s tricky.  It’s difficult to begrudge Emma and Rachel’s decisions, based on the presentation that for Rachel, it was the “wrong guy” and for Emma, it was the wrong time.  But for Finn, the situation was basically the same.  Really, the only difference between the three of them is their gender.  And it’s irksome to see a choice made wherein the male character loses his virginity and the female characters hold tightly onto it.  It only reinforces the stereotype that teenage boys must have sex to assert their masculinity, but that teenage girls who have sex are sluts.  At the end of “Like a Virgin,” Finn had asserted his masculinity, and the girls’ virginities were preserved.

There have been three characters who have lost their virginities onscreen, Finn included, but it’s important to first examine “whores,” before synthesizing the interactions between the two.  It also bears stating that the show does not always present them as “whores,” but rather as female characters who are comfortable with sex and therefore villainized and/or punished.  

Let’s start with Terri.  Terri has been a villain since the Pilot, and in conjunction with that notion, has a healthy (if mostly background) relationship with sex.  However, in “The Substitute,” Terri returns to the narrative for the first time since “Britney/Brittany,” and only the second time in Season 2.  Terri comes to Will’s aid while he’s sick, and under the guise of a Vapo-Rub massage, ends up having sex with her ex-husband.  Will’s protests only come with the pretense of not wanting to get her sick, and he goes through with it.

Naturally, the consequence of this is Terri getting reprimanded for showing up in Will’s life again.  She even backs down, and offers to leave, upon which Will tells her not to come back.  Because Terri is a villain and “not right” for Will, she is banished from any positive interaction with him wherein the writers could ever possibly pen their situation fairly.  Will will always have the upper hand in the manifestation of his dynamic with Terri, in some bizarre and neverending punishment for lying to Will about their (lack of) baby. 

As for Sue, she’s largely desexualized as a character and as a villain - except for a few instances.  She pursues Rod Remington in Season 1, only to discover that he’s something of a philanderer, and has anger sex with Bryan Ryan in “Dream On” - reportedly having a secret room upstairs specifically for that purpose.  She cites “anger sex” as the only kind she knows, which is hardly healthy.  And she shuns Emma for her lack of sexual experience, comparing her to a panda who refuses to mate at the zoo.

April Rhodes is perhaps the only “whore” who is not a villain, and she’s mostly wielded as perpetually drunk and/or sexually inappropriate, for comedy.  There are also male “whores” that are villainized through sex: Rod Remington, Bryan Ryan, and Dustin Goolsby are all sexually promiscuous and/or philandering, and are treated as villains in the narrative.  Puck, as a “man whore,” started out in opposition to the Glee Club, but has been mostly developed out of both his villainy and his “whorish” ways - now he’s just portrayed as a romantic dude who loves sex.  Not a villain, not a whore.

The show’s main “whores” are, in fact, Santana, and Brittany… who we’ll talk about tomorrow.  Gender and sex needs two days!


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