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!




  1. The show's reversal on sex is a pretty obvious casualty of the writers deciding to cater to the younger audience they had unexpectedly attracted. So you had Ryan Murphy saying in the summer of 2010 that he thought it was a good thing that Rachel wasn't going to just jump into bed with Finn, even though she had basically offered to do that in "Showmance". The show has thoroughly backpeddled on sex for any of its couples, apart from the vague allusion to Mike and Tina sleeping together in "Rumours".

  2. "Like A Virgin" is an interesting montage, it's a weird comparison: two people in an adult relationship, then four teens. Finn and Santana had sex but Finn regretted it (and in sort of a gender reversal, Santana openly mocks his body in front of everyone in "Born This Way" she does a large, insulting analysis of his nipples") but the way that sex is portrayed is interesting in those scenes. Shue/Emma were adults, clearly infatuated and loving with each other -- Jesse/Rachel were a bit more in lust mode and Finn/Santana were sort of objectionable in a way, because neither of them cared about each other.

    The Artie/Brittany sex scene is interesting too, although B is a wonderful but sometimes murky character, she kind of guides him through his first time which is an interesting role reversal too.

    I think it's more realistic to believe most people aren't comfortable with sex their first times or in their teen years. I hope Glee continues to talk about sex.

  3. I think when it comes to Wemma, the Catholic background of Ryan Murphy is relevant. Remember that Emma says Carl is filing for an *annulment* (not just divorce). That suggests that he and/or they might be Catholic.

    While I agree that the marriage with Carl did seem to make Emma happy, it also seemed to me obvious that Emma was taking Ken Tanaka's advice, that she didn't want to be Will's "rebound girl." Her involvement with Carl allowed Will to "rebound" with Holly.

    Had Emma been open to sex before marriage, there would have been no reason for her to deny sex to her husband.

    But by remaining a virgin, Emma was correct that the Church would very likely grant Carl his annulment to the unconsummated marriage.

    I'm hardly an expert, but the extensive lies Terry gave Will regarding her pregnancy *might* possibly qualify Will for an annulment on top of his divorce. In which case, Will and Emma might possibly qualify not just for marriage, but marriage within the Catholic church.

  4. Another correct analysis. Glee is just a show. Most of this is played for humor. But what makes the story unpalatable is how much this show, which influences (and indoctrinates) so many impressionable young people accurately reflects the patriarchy's tight grip on female virginity and female sexuality.

    As you noted, in the Madonna episode only Finn loses his virginity while Rachel and Emma were being "saved" for two men (like they're horses or property). It's very distressing.

    I reflect on the real life manifestation of our society's obsession with female virginity here:

    I must also mention race again. In the case of Mercedes, I can't help but wonder whether her virginity would be more "in demand" if she was white.

    Also concerning Santana, note that while Rachel, a women, must save herself for Finn, Finn is allowed to lose his virginity (sow his wild oats) with someone he doesn't really like or care about.

    Note that this woman is Santana, who before her "redemption" as Glee's female gay character, was wildly put down as a b*tch and a whore.

    It would be remiss to believe that this horrid treatment of Santana is simply due to sexism and not an intersection of sexism and Santana being stereotyped as a loose "spicy Latina."


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