GENDER AND SEX (2 of 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.
MASTER POST: THE KICKOFF
PART ONE: MASCULINITY, MCKINLEY, AND GLEE
PART TWO: POWER, VILLAINY, AND CONSEQUENCE
PART THREE: EMPOWERMENT AND NARRATIVE CHOICE
PART FOUR: FEMINISM AND PRESENCE OF CHARACTER
PART FIVE: GENDER AND SEX (1 of 2)
PART FIVE: GENDER AND SEX (2 of 2)
PART SIX: FEMALE RELATIONSHIPS
CONCLUSION: THE WRAP-UP