Friday, September 9, 2011

Gender and Glee: Part Four


Through the seasons, several female characters have notably displayed feminist tendencies, despite the gross mistreatment of female characters in the narrative.  Quinn cites the gender divide in salary in “The Power of Madonna” and scolds Rachel for “set[ting] back the feminist movement” by ordering a football girlfriends meeting in “Furt;” Mercedes preaches independence and standing up for herself across the episodes; and Tina embraces her individuality, and her “growing feminism” (“Theatricality” and “Born This Way,” and “The Power of Madonna”). 

This is all well and good, but there’s one key problem: these characters aren’t getting any storylines, and on the rare occasions when they are rotated into the forefront, they’re not talking feminism anymore.  The feminist declarations usually come in dialogue only, and when it comes to action, which always holds more value by creed of “show, don’t tell,” this feminism is largely unmanifested.  This construct also lends itself to the notion that the female characters are more likely to get screentime and/or a storyline when there is romantic conflict or boy trouble afoot.

Mercedes, for instance, is the one glee club member who has remained mostly single for the duration of the show - barring a brief partnership with Puck - and has touted her single status as something to be proud of, in scenes like the sleepover with Kurt and Rachel in “Silly Love Songs.”  She’s constructed as a proud and empowered character, who’s sassy and brassy - but she’s background.  Mercedes’ function in the narrative is to provide commentary, and when she does get storyline, it completely reverses her depiction as a self-confident “diva” type.  And while in most cases, I would applaud the opportunity to see another dimension to a character that defies stereotype, I am reluctant to say that the “depth” given to Mercedes is beneficial to her character, especially under the lens of gender.

In “Acafellas,” “The Substitute,” and “Prom Queen,” Mercedes is shown to be debilitatingly lonely without having a boyfriend, specifically.  That’s Episode 1x03, 2x06, and 2x20 - we’re spanning this construct across a wide swath of time without any real resolution for the character.  “The Substitute” actually goes so far as to directly indicate that Mercedes is so desperate for a boyfriend that she’s substituting friendships - and food - to fill the void.  Kurt specifically tells her:
You are substituting food for love, Mercedes. And more importantly, you’re substituting me for a boyfriend. Look at me. Two weeks ago, I thought there was no way I’d ever find someone like Blaine. And there he was. You will find somebody. But until then, you’ve just got to take care of yourself. And treat yourself with a little respect.

There are many things wrong with this.  Firstly, the underlying message suggests that having a boyfriend in high school is more important than having a platonic best friend.  Secondly, the construction of the episode means that Mercedes didn’t learn self-respect of her own accord, through her own actions.  She was told to have self-respect by a male character, thereby denying her the choices that are usually provided to a main character on their own arc.  Mercedes may have been a “main character” in that she had a storyline, but the writers deprived her of a decision until another character told her she should do something.  Remember this construction from the last installment?

Of course, it’s arguable that there are a few examples that aren't gender-specific.  An annoyingly similar scenario happened in “A Night of Neglect,” where Mercedes spent the episode delusionally channeling her problems into a ridiculous quest (in “The Substitute,” it was tots, in “A Night of Neglect,” being a high-maintenance diva) until another character (Rachel) came along and made Mercedes’ choices for her.  This is terrible storytelling, and goes all the way back to “Home,” where Mercedes crumbled under the pressure of losing weight for the Cheerios, and had to be built back up by Quinn.  In that case, however, it at least expressed a positive female dynamic, and Mercedes’ singing of “Beautiful” was her own decision; she wasn’t instructed to do so by Quinn.  Mercedes still made her own choices that resolved her own arc.

Regardless of Mercedes’ empowerment in the narrative - and how it relates to gender - it’s still general pattern that Mercedes is largely left in the background, unless she can pontificate on how she doesn’t have a boyfriend.  And, since actions speak louder than words, all her verbal expression of singledom and independence are completely undone on the rare occasions that she is brought forward. 

Let’s talk Tina.  Tina is actually an excellent feminist character.  She learned early on not to let her boyfriend try and change her but accepted his apology without a grudge (“The Power of Madonna”).  She supported Artie through his struggles but still stated her opinions when she felt it necessary (“Dream On”).  She stood up for her own individuality (“Theatricality”) and expressed a healthy attitude towards sex (“Never Been Kissed”).  She vocally opposed Rachel’s plan to get a nose job (the only female to do so) and declared herself an Asian sex symbol (“Born This Way”).  She spent an episode on the football team, and was the one female character who actually stood up and ran with the ball (“The Sue Sylvester Bowl Shuffle”).  She’s ballsy and unafraid to speak her mind, yet still sensitive and compassionate - and points more for Mike, her boyfriend, appearing to love her that way.

Basically, Tina’s a well-rounded female character, currently in a healthy relationship - but the writers hardly ever use her, or Mike.  She’s had one storyline independent of a male character in the entire series’ run (“Theatricality”) and Season 2 found her dialogue mostly on the topic of being Asian, or being infatuated with Mike.  This wouldn’t be so bad if Tina were afforded more.  But it’s simply not there - the writers didn’t even let her finish a solo onscreen in Season 2.  And when Tina is involved in storyline, of course, her representation slides: she accuses Brittany and Mike of cheating in “Special Education,” and randomly dresses up like a cheerleader to try and hold onto her boyfriend.  (This from the girl who blackmailed the principal of her school so she could keep dressing the way she wanted.  Uh, okay.)

Quinn is in a similar position as Tina.  She could easily have a place in the narrative as a well-rounded, strong female character: she insisted on soldiering through her pregnancy on her own, and refused to be in a relationship with a guy simply because she was carrying his baby.  She gave her child up for adoption, and worked to regain her status in the school.  Her two solos were expressed with all-female dance company, one of them being a gender-subverted, pregnant-girl rendition of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” that by design is rather fascinating.  Beyond that, the writers also allow her some overtly feminist dialogue, as mentioned previously. 

However, none of this has manifested in any real storyline for Quinn.  Quinn is not a main character on this show, except when she can be in direct conflict with Finn and Rachel’s romance.  In Season 2, she began with a narratively aimless relationship with Sam, until she cheated on him with Finn.  The rest of the season saw Quinn reduced to a rekindled relationship with Finn that, of course, reignited the love triangle, and also connected to a manic quest to win the title of prom queen (using Finn’s popularity).  Quinn’s need to be prom queen did tether in with her own arc, but it was half-baked in that her motivations were mostly transparent, and backpedaled her development.  The opportunity to see Quinn’s real point of view came only in “Original Song” and “Prom Queen” - when she was arguing with Rachel about her relationship with Finn.  She also had zero solos in Season 2, left to duet with Sam twice, Finn once, and Rachel once.  

The trend can probably best be summarized in full with Quinn’s actions in “Furt.”  She scolds Rachel for encouraging their football boyfriends to intimidate the bullies, disapproving of fighting violence with violence.  While it's nice that she has this opinion, it'd be nicer if she weren't technically admonishing Rachel for not sharing it.  Naturally, she does this in an all-girl environment.  However, when Sam returns from the scuffle with a black eye, she claims it’s actually kind of hot, and tends to his wounds.  To summarize: the minute the female character interacted with the male character, her characterization and feminism was forgotten, and the point of view shifted back to the male subject.  And interacting with the female characters manifested in admonishment. 

Santana has historically suffered similar treatment as Quinn - originally a supporting character and a villain, her strengths were largely shut down in favor of being an accessory in all other storylines.  Santana, like Quinn, was freqently wielded as a plot device, and wasn’t afforded an independent storyline that didn’t have to do with meddling until “Sexy,” over halfway through Season 2.  And what’s lovely about Santana’s independent storyline, other than the fact that she actually has one, is that while it connects to the idea of a romantic relationship, it’s more specifically about Santana’s identity and her struggling to accept herself. 

At this current juncture of Glee, Santana is, with very little doubt, receiving the best treatment of all the female characters.  But let me posit this question: is there any correlation between Santana’s advancement as a three-dimensional main character and its coincidence with that storyline being about Santana’s homosexuality?  Looking at gender issues becomes complicated with the show’s gay characters and their portrayal, and Santana and Kurt in particular become interesting and unique fixtures that blur the lines.  Personally, I don’t feel comfortable decreeing one way or another that the introduction of “masculinity” into Santana’s storyline has helped push her to the forefront; however, I think there is an alignment there that is certainly interesting.  Whether or not you choose to find deeper meaning there is really up to you.  Regardless, Santana’s characteristics - her bossiness, loud mouth, cursing, threatening to beat up Karofsky, etc. - all definitely code masculine in our society. 

It’s also possible Santana’s storyline is simply being forwarded because it provides positive and realistic exposure to homosexuality, full-stop, regardless of gender.  That answer works for me, and I’m not going to find reasons to complain about it.

As for Brittany, she is still largely a supporting character, and her portrayal in relation to gender norms tends to vacillate.  She is sex-positive, although the narrative and the other characters often treat that in negative.  She expressed independence in “Prom Queen,” and didn’t immediately swoon at Artie’s or Santana’s advances in the last half of Season 2.  She claimed to want to “work on [herself]” and actually seemed to keep that promise - which is more than most other characters on this show can tout.  However, Brittany is most consistently portrayed as being too stupid to understand most of what goes on at the school.  Not only that, but much of Season 2 saw Brittany infantilized as well as sexualized (particularly in “Britney/Brittany” and “A Very Glee Christmas,” although evidence is scattered throughout) which is an uncomfortable and sexist approach to any female character, especially when it’s one penned by three male writers. 

Rachel and Emma provide interesting examples when it comes to being treated as a main character.  Emma is not a main character by any means, however, it seems she’s more likely to be trotted out for Will’s purpose than for the purpose of her counseling her students.  When Emma does interact with the students, she mostly gives slightly ineffectual advice, and the main storyline rests with the kids.  Other than that, she spent the most of Season 2 in charming offscreen romances that only manifested onscreen when Will could be jealous or Emma herself could express hesitation about her life with Dr. Carl.

When Emma’s own character is allowed to stand on its own, it’s tricky.  Historically, Emma’s arc has been about overcoming her OCD.  Since “Showmance,” Will has directly played a role in that journey.  However, there’s a fine line to walk with his involvement.  Emma’s OCD needs to be portrayed as directly affecting her own life and happiness - not just the status of her romantic relationship.  But as time has worn on, the show has portrayed Emma as completely ignorant of - or least slightly deluded about - her own issues, and, much like Mercedes’ disenfranchisement, only makes decisions when prompted by a second party - almost exclusively Will Schuester. 

The show’s current status with Emma’s OCD is that she doesn’t want her OCD to stand in the way of her being who she truly is.  This is a 100% valid construction; however, there is enough evidence that Emma’s OCD has stood in the way of her having a relationship with Will specifically, and if her overcoming her issues is only directly tethered to that notion, then it’s completely weakening the character.  On the whole, it’d be nice to have Emma meaningfully connect to the show and its storylines through some tether independent of Will - whether it be through her own arc, or even through a student’s or authority figure’s.

Finally, Rachel.  Rachel, of any of the female characters, has received the most storylines and screentime.  She is the show’s main character, and as such, does receive a variety of storylines and narrative purposes.  However, her treatment as a female character, in relation to male characters is frequently vexing. 

Firstly, the majority of Rachel’s screentime, especially in Season 2, related directly to her relationship with Finn - even though they were only together for half of it.  Rachel’s insecurities, her struggle for emotional independence, and even her career aspirations involved Finn in some way or another.  She remained in his orbit for the majority of the season, and somehow nearly everything she did tethered back to her on-and-off relationship with Mr. Hudson.  

Truly, there is no reason for the writers to create a construct where Rachel has to choose between her dreams and her high school boyfriend.  It’s a prickly scenario to introduce, because it’s suggesting that Rachel can’t have both - that somehow a personal life and a career are incompatible.  The idea that a woman has to choose between her personal life and her career is a touch outdated, and whiffs of disadvantage.  Moreover, it’s also a bit silly, because these kids are teenagers, and focusing so much drama on Rachel’s choice is like making a mountain out of a (slightly sexist) molehill.  

Moreover, Rachel is historically portrayed as a fool for love, and her love for Finn often borders on obsessively devoted and too eager to please.  Most of her solos speak to being foolish in love or foolishly in love (“On My Own,” “Take A Bow,” “Crush,” “What I Did for Love,” “The Only Exception,” “Merry Christmas Darling,” “Jar of Hearts,” “My Man”) or attempting to establish emotional independence from that love (“Gives You Hell,” “Firework,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Jar of Hearts”).  That tally is twelve solos out of seventeen - 71%.  Rachel Berry’s songbook tells us that 71% of her participation in the narrative has to do specifically with Rachel Berry in love, further cementing the idea that romance drama = screentime. 

In general, the female - and male, to a certain degree - characters of McKinley High are more often included in storylines when they can be tethered to a significant other or romantic relationship.  And while it’s certainly valid to create conflict in the turbulent love lives of teenagers, Glee relies on it to the point where the execution is tired, and sends the wrong kind of idea for the use of females in the narrative in particular.  Being in the forefront means having boy problems or wanting a boyfriend, or, as previously explored, having another character make choices for them, disenfranchising them in the narrative.  Meanwhile, most positive and healthy expressions of female characters are relegated to the background, where they remain unmanifested from active storyline and character arc.



  1. How does Lauren fit into this analysis of feminism and presence of character?

    She was only a glee club member for 14 episodes and most of her story revolved around Puck, but they did actually give her two story lines that met the Bechdel test. Also she is the only glee character who refuses to be defined by others. She appears to make choices for herself rather than being told what to choose by others.

    She does seem to be depicted in a feminist light. Her parents sued to get her on the wrestling team and then she excelled at it, becoming a state champion. She gave the nod to feminism in SSBS when she scolded the boys for "not respecting women enough to realize that we're perfectly capable of playing football." Then she backed it up by being the one girl who did NOT lie down during the big football game, but played from the beginning and successfully blocked for Finn.

    Lauren has also been depicted as sexually empowered rather than either indiscriminate or prudish like most of the other girls. She knows what she wants and asks for it.

    But that's just characterization. How do you see Lauren's character being wielded in the narrative and how does that fit in with your overall analysis?

  2. Out of curiosity, you mention Quinn's two solos being backed by all female company, when in fact, she's had four - I Say A Little Prayer (backed by only Santana and Brittany), You Keep Me Hangin' On (backed by the Cheerios), Papa Don't Preach (backed by Puck), and It's A Man's Man's Man's World (backed by the unwed mothers). Given the context of her performances, the lyrics, and the artists, what kind of message do you think that sends?

  3. I've been reading through your series on gender and I agree with everything you say. However in your analysis of Tina, Mercedes and Santana I must point out the huge elephant in the room that is too often ignored - race. This series is about gender but the intersection of gender and race is important to look at too. Characters that are "double or triple minorities" end up suffering the most.

    Mercedes, Tina and Santana are all ballsy and feminist but Tina, Mercedes and Santana's positive storylines were all placed in the background not just because they are women (Quinn and Rachel are women) but because they are "token minorities" of their given races.

    Santana has since been "upgraded" because she is gay and Mercedes has been upgraded because she finally has a boyfriend (first Sam, then a black football player and next week probably once again Sam). Tina and her boyfriend Mike (both Asian Americans) still remain mostly in the background. Brittany is white but she continues to be unfairly written off as a dumb sex object.

    Keeping with your prior essay on lack of choice for women characters and the emphasis on the empowerment of male characters, it is interesting to note that with the exception of Mike (who as I've said, has been kept in the background) all the leading males - Puck, Finn, Blaine, Artie - straight or gay, are white. After the writers got rid of that one black guy in season one, there are no "good guy" leading black or Latino males. Power and choice in Glee, a "progressive" show, remains in the hands of white males.

    Now just take a look at the intersection of gender and race and see who's most disenfranchised. The most powerful token minorities - Mercedes, Santana - are both female and have for the most part seen themselves demonized or told what to do. This gives a dark racist undercurrent to Glee's obvious and pervasive sexism. Feminism? What feminism?


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