Thursday, September 8, 2011

Gender and Glee: Part Three


Storytelling is a series of choices, on two levels.  Creative choices are made by the storytellers, in order to communicate an intended emotion, reaction, or point of plot.  Beyond this, choices extend from narrative construction and into the narrative itself.  Characters within the narrative must make choices.  In order for us to understand a character’s wants, needs, and values, we must see them make choices.  A character making choices means that they are the lead in their own story - they may not make the right choices, but they need to choose.

These two points of fact are crucially important in working through this particular exploration.  Because, when synthesized, they indicate that a character must be allowed to make choices.  Giving a character decisions is, in fact, a decision the author makes.  Writers choose to endow their characters with choices, and when they do, it empowers the character within the narrative, making them an active fixture with which the audience can relate.  Characters who choose are subjects, at the helm of their own stories.  Disenfranchising a character is almost always an oversight because it empties out their role in the story and makes them an accessory to someone else’s choice, someone else’s story - and that other person is the subject.  When this happens in pattern, it can reveal much larger truths about the the choices the author is making for their characters and how they’re treating them. 

In the case of Glee, this pattern uncovers a significant divide in gender.  There are a few different arenas where this divide is manifested, but perhaps the most basic to understand is in the breakdown of several of the main male-female dynamics. 

Finn has had two main female relationships since the series’ inception: with Quinn, and with Rachel.  Finn was originally the lynchpin in this dynamic, and the construct is frequently reduced to a choice for him: he must choose between Quinn, a manifestation of his popular-but-unfulfilling identity and Rachel, an embodiment of what makes his true self happy.  In its most basic incarnation, this construction works.  However, making Finn the lynchpin in this concept has also resulted in Finn being used as a lynchpin in both relationships, and both romances therefore betray a misogyny in how the writers choose to wield the characters in the narrative.

From the beginning, Finn and Rachel’s dynamic has characterized strongly as “Rachel is desperately in love with Finn and Finn sometimes feels kinda similar.”  This is not a good start.  Because even though Rachel declares her independence every other episode, one lopsided grin from Mr. Hudson sends her ultimately back into his arms, no matter the hesitations along the way. 

Historically, Finn has held the control over their relationship.  He resisted Rachel’s rather forward early advances because he was with Quinn.  After dumping Quinn and apparently beginning a relationship with Rachel in “Hell-O,” he freaked out and broke it off with her to date Brittany/Santana.  After realizing his mistake, Rachel rejected him because she had met Jesse - in what is perhaps the only decision Rachel has made about her relationship with Finn.  Finn pursued Rachel for the duration of the Back 9, and she finally fell into his arms again after Jesse cleared out. 

Finn and Rachel began S2 happily together, until Rachel discovered Finn had had sex with Santana, and she promptly freaked out.  Rachel’s insecurities over her looks and unpopularity resulted in anger, even though technically Finn didn’t cheat on her because they weren’t together at the time of the transgression.  If the writers’ goal was to break up Finn and Rachel, this is a pretty interesting conflict - technically Finn’s not in the wrong, but his past actions (and refusal to apologize for them) inadvertently revealed real issues with his and Rachel’s relationship.  The couple could have easily broken up on these grounds, because everyone could identify with Rachel’s pain, but see that technically she wasn’t cheated on.  It’s a fairly neutral space, and presents an obstacle for the couple to later overcome: Rachel’s insecurities, and how they specifically play out in their relationship.

However, the Secret of Santana did not actually break up the couple.  The writers instead chose for Rachel to cheat on Finn with Puck, in an act of comeuppance, which had no consequence... other than to break up Finn and Rachel.  It begs the question: why didn’t the reveal of Finn having had sex with Santana and lying about it cause the break-up?  Because it very easily could have, with reason and relatability given to both haves of the pair. 

But instead, the writers flopped the fault away from Finn (and it wasn’t even really his fault to begin with) and bounced it back on Rachel.  Finn didn’t cheat; Rachel did.  If Rachel’s makeout session paid off in any other way than giving Finn a reason to yell at her, or if we had actually seen her make the choice to seek out Puck, I would be more okay with that decision.  But as is, it was just a) a cheap reveal, and b) a diversion from the actual issue, which was that Rachel has trust issues with Finn and pretty, popular girls.  Ultimately, it gives Finn the choice.  And not only that, but the choice for Rachel and Puck to stop making out was Puck’s - not Rachel’s - in an effort to be honorable towards his “bro.”  Puck had the choice, not Rachel, and she was punished for her actions, with Finn telling her, “I thought you’d never make me feel like this.”  Finn and Puck made choices; Rachel made a mistake. 

After the breakup, Rachel continued to pine for Finn, trying to get close to him, whereupon he would tell her to back off.  This happened in “Silly Love Songs” as well as “Blame It On the Alcohol.”  After a sufficient amount of time had passed, however, Finn rekindled the relationship in New York, although Rachel expressed hesitation.  That didn’t last long, though, as Rachel gave in and once again Finn was given complete control over their relationship status.  With the exception of Rachel refusing Finn in “Hell-O,” Finn has historically been given the reins of the “Finchel” romance, completely depriving Rachel of any choice whatsoever in their narrative, and more or less dragging her along on the back bumper.  The narrative keeps Rachel simply as a devotee of Mr. Hudson, her love for him constant, and denies her any validation of emotions by giving Finn the choice, or the upper hand.

Peppered in with the “Finchel” relationship is “Fuinn” - Finn’s romance with the popular cheerleader, Quinn.  Finn and Quinn have dated twice on the show, and neither time has the writing worked in Quinn’s favor.  While Rachel and Quinn are designed to be polar opposites when in accessory to Finn, the dynamics of their relationships aren’t terribly different in how they are portrayed. 

In the front 13, Quinn held the cards in their relationship, and Finn was at her mercy - until the truth about the baby’s paternity was revealed.  Then Finn was finally allowed some power, and he ended it.  It’s not really this I’m concerned about; the balance is there.  Finn may have kissed Rachel twice while he was still with Quinn, but ultimately he was trying to be a good boyfriend to her, and father to their unborn child - and more than that, she was holding up a rather serious and damaging lie.  In the storytelling world, this balances out.  It’s a sticky situation, and both parties are given fair treatment by the end of “Sectionals.”

However, the Season 2 incarnation of Finn-and-Quinn wasn’t nearly so equitable.  Their reunion happened on the heels of Finn convincing Quinn (and Santana and Brittany) to quit the Cheerios (depriving all thee of them of their choices) and was followed by Finn convincing Quinn to cheat on Sam with him.  They dated quietly for several episodes, and then Finn broke up with Quinn to pursue Rachel.  Round 2 of Finn and Quinn’s romance was completely dictated by Finn, with the assumption that Quinn simply wanted Finn on her arm to win prom king and queen. 

What concerns me most about the Finn/Quinn dynamic is that while Finn has generally made the decisions for the pair, Quinn is the one to be portrayed as “wearing the pants” in their relationship.  To be honest, this also is true with Rachel - Finn describes her as a “controllist,” and it’s indicated that both Rachel and Quinn are high-maintenance girlfriends.  Quinn bullies Finn, and Rachel keeps him on a short leash.  And it’s here where the gender imbalance truly shines through: Quinn and Rachel are portrayed to be ballbusters, but when it comes to their interactions with Finn, he is the one in control of their relationship status.  Rachel and Quinn, as girlfriends, display all the classic characteristics of the “shrew,” yet they don’t actually have any power over their relationship.  They try and exert power over their boyfriend, making them at times extremely unlikeable, and yet they cannot exert power of their actual relationship. 

This is, in short, not cool.  It’d be a less damaging gender dynamic if Quinn and Rachel weren’t portrayed as ballbusters, or if they had a little more control over their relationship status - or better yet, a little of both!  But, as is, they are rendered two-dimensional in their portrayals as high-maintenance girlfriends, and, as characters, are robbed of choice when it comes to their relationships.  They are reduced to fixtures that Finn has to “deal with,” either by demanding something of him, berating him, or simply by loving him and existing for him to choose between.  These bitches be crazy!

What’s interesting, however, is to examine Rachel and Quinn’s interactions with Finn against their interactions with Puck.  With Finn, Rachel and Quinn are bossy and demanding, yet at Finn’s mercy when it comes to their relationships.  However, both Rachel and Quinn seem to be at the reins with their relationships with Puck.  Rachel randomly seeks Puck out for their trysts, or for a duet assignment, but has not expressed any desire to date Puck in serious, since “Mash-Up.”  With Quinn, Puck was the pursuant for the majority of the Front 13, but she pushed him away and refused a relationship. 

However, in terms of Puck, Quinn and Rachel, as well as Santana and Lauren, are still portrayed as “ballbusters,” and Puck is given the task of meeting their high demands.  Puck’s dynamic with these girls is not terribly different across the board, giving the suggestion that all high school girls are high maintenance and uncompromising.  It’s even in Puck’s original narration from “Acafellas” - “Young girls shut you down and make you feel terrible about yourself.”  Even though this snippet was originally used to describe Puck’s attraction to older women, the sentiment has lingered eerily over his subsequent high school relationships.  Of course, this is also the character that explained to Artie in “Never Been Kissed” that the way to attract girls is to treat them like crap and be generally rude - which he puts to use on Santana and Brittany, with great effect.  And while this could be all be a hallmark of Puck’s character, potentially explored as part of his arc, it’s instead left completely superficial and reflects a stereotype in the girls he interacts with and the ways in which he treats them.

In “Comeback,” Quinn finally makes a choice between Finn, the guy she’s fooling around with, and Sam, the guy she’s supposedly dating.  It’s a terribly scripted choice, though, in that it is not made from any internal character moment.  She didn’t interact with the storyline in any way that made her reach her own conclusion meaningfully.  No, Sam sang Justin Bieber and Quinn thought it was sexy.  She told Finn she chose Sam.  Meanwhile, Santana told Sam Quinn was cheating on her (which, frankly, he should have figured out already, even if both Finn and Quinn were lying to him) and he broke up with her.  Somehow, in this scenario, Quinn managed to be deprived a meaningful character choice, and was shamed at the end of the episode, standing in her Rachel Berry outfit, alone in a crowded hall.  Quinn should be punished for cheating (again, sigh).  But, so should Finn.  And Finn’s punishment was nowhere - in fact, he was this episode’s “cool guy,” the cat who got Quinn’s canary, denounced Bieber’s cool factor, and was the one to call Rachel a “trendsetter” - fulfilling Rachel’s emotional arc for her.  (Are we sensing a pattern?)

“Comeback” also presents a divide as well in terms of song motivation and gender.  The boys on Glee frequently serenade the female characters in an effort to “win them over.”  It’s even specifically constructed in “Comeback” that the ladies are in a post-Valentine slump, and the boys need to do something to keep their girlfriends happy.  Barring this gross generalization that portrays teenage girls as shrewish and difficult to please, it also creates a situation, yet again, in which the boys take action, and the girls are merely subjected to it.  The boys gather up and sing Justin Bieber, and the final nail in the sexist coffin is that it works.  Every girl who bore witness to the group performance of “Somebody to Love” was shown to be flailing in enjoyment, which just suggests that such an action works on all girls, no matter their individual characteristics.

As early as Noah Puckerman’s “Sweet Caroline,” the Glee guys have serenaded a lady with maximum effect.  Puck is particularly adept at it, in keeping with his portrayal as a young buck trying to win over feminine affections - he serenades Rachel in “Mash-Up,” Quinn in “Theatricality,” Mercedes in “Laryngitis,” and Lauren in “Silly Love Songs.”  Sam serenades Quinn with “Baby,” and Artie serenades Brittany with “P.Y.T.” and “Isn’t She Lovely.”  Finn serenades Quinn with “You’re Having My Baby,” his unborn baby with “I’ll Stand By You,” and Rachel with “Just the Way You Are.”  Even “Stop! In the Name of Love/Free Your Mind,” the boys’ group number in “Never Been Kissed” is sung to Coach Beiste with specific intent.

On the flip side of this, girls generally don’t sing to the boys unless it’s in some group number that is meant to be an expression of girl performance when the guys don’t want to be seen as feminine (“Express Yourself,” “Bad Romance”) - which in itself is pretty sexist.  However, even on an individual basis, there are very few instances of lady serenading.  Rachel sings at Finn mostly as an expression of her devotion to him, and/or the resulting heartbreak (“Take a Bow,” “Gives You Hell,” “The Only Exception,” “Jar of Hearts”) and rarely to win him over.  In fact, the closest thing to Rachel actually serenading Finn is “The Only Exception,” which she dedicates to him by saying “You were right; I shouldn’t try to control you.”  So really, the song is an apology for suffocating Finn with her high-maintenance girlfriend ways.

Rachel also serenades Burt with a rendition of “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” which is mostly a transparent excuse for Lea Michele to sing more Barbra Streisand songs, and is also not an expression of romantic love.  Tina sings “My Funny Valentine” in appreciation of Mike, but breaks down crying in the middle of it and everyone thinks she’s crazy.  Santana sings “Trouty Mouth” to Sam, and that too is played for comedy.  Plus, Sam was not enjoying it and that puts a damper on a successful serenade.

Truthfully, the strongest example of female serenading, for the purpose of the person listening is Santana singing “Songbird” to Brittany.  It is an interesting point of fact that the only time a female has been allowed to serenade a love interest for the purpose of that love interest comes in the show’s female-female relationship from the show’s one lesbian character.  There’s no guy to be in control of the romancing.

The idea that the girls are frequently “sung to” by the guys is a manifestation not only of inhibiting stereotypes for both boys and girls, but also of the girls being denied their own subject in the narrative.  They are accessories, objects for the boys to win over, and once again, this places the empowerment with the gentlemen. 

Even “The Power of Madonna,” an episode specifically wielded as the “feminism” episode, reveals a damaging limitation on the girls’ access to choice.  The conceit is that Will realizes the girls aren’t being treated with respect, and he goes about making amends for that.  This is problematic for two reasons: firstly, it drags the boys through the mud to meet the episode’s purpose.  Artie’s character in particular completely took a turn for the asshole when he expressed blunt distaste for Tina’s personal style.  This was simply to prove a point, because in fact, Artie had seemed to previously appreciate Tina’s nonconformity. 

Secondly, the episode’s construction empowered the male characters and not the females.  While the ladies sang Madonna and expressed themselves, sharpening their “righteous blades of equality”… it was actually the dudes who made all the lasting choices in the narrative.  Rachel and Emma both attempted to have sex, but didn’t go through with it.  Finn chose to have sex with Santana.  Will forced the boys to think about what it feels like for a girl, and Artie and Finn chose to apologize to Tina and Rachel, respectively.  Will supported Emma’s decision to run out on him, and chose to instate a no-dating policy for their interactions.  Finn shelved his aggression with Jesse and decided to incorporate him into the club. 

A truly feminist episode would have seen Rachel’s and Tina’s storylines interact, and wouldn’t have had an all-girls conversation at the beginning that saw Rachel ridiculed and unsupported.  In a truly feminist episode, either one of the female characters would have gone through with sex, instead of just the male character.  The guys wouldn’t have to be made to look like inconsiderate assholes simply to prove a point, and then the episode’s narrative direction wouldn’t be reliant on them making the choice to apologize and brush up their behavior.

Somehow, the girls were still objects to the male subject in the feminist episode.

The only female character that was truly empowered in the narrative was Sue Sylvester, and she instigated Madonna-palooza in the first place - but she chose to exclude Emma from the fun, and shamed her.  Technically, you could argue that Santana was empowered as well, except she was villainized for her participation in Finn and Rachel’s storyline.  You could also argue that Mercedes was empowered through her choice to join the Cheerios with Kurt - but it doesn’t really interact with the main theme, and she’s scolded by Will for her decision.

It’s difficult to make generic statements about forty-four episodes of television, but there is enough evidence to suggest a certain level of sexism in the way the female characters are frequently disenfranchised in the narrative.  The power of choice is more frequently bestowed to the male characters, and the women are left to be subjected to the points of view of their counterparts.  When the girls are left to their own storylines, they often make poor choices that reflect their flaws, as previously delineated.  But when the girls are in their storylines with the boys, they hardly make any choices at all - and that is a choice the writers make.




  1. Loved your post and think you made some very valid and insightful. I just wanted to comment specifically on this statement: was actually the dudes who made all the lasting choices in the narrative. Rachel and Emma both attempted to have sex, but didn’t go through with it. Finn chose to have sex with Santana.

    I actually think that Rachel was empowered made a choice in this episode--she chose not to allow herself to be pressured into something that she was not ready for. This showed strength of character and was an important message for young women today (no 15 year-old is truly emotionally ready for sex IMO). Most young girls in her position would not have the courage to make the choice she did and I am glad that Glee went that route. Emma on the other hand is a totally different story...

  2. @Anon - I don't disagree! I think the way the episode was framed made it very hard to want Rachel and Emma to go through with the sex because they were both portrayed to not be ready, and that's hard to argue with. I totally respect that. I remember watching the episode and wanting none of them to go through with it. I just think it's telling that out of the three, only one did, and it was the one dude. I talk a little bit more about this in the Gender & Sex piece - I hope you stick around for it! :)


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