Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Gender and Glee: Part Two


Power is actually a huge point of importance in how gender is constructed on Glee.  As mentioned, McKinley High’s power structure rewards traditional masculinity with popularity and general high school success.  So, male characters at the top of this social ladder are varied - there’s Finn, and Sam, and Mike, who have always been portrayed as generally “good,” Puck, who’s been redeemed from his original homophobia and is now wielded as generally “good,” Karofsky, who was treated as misunderstood, and Azimio, who’s generally “bad.”  It’s a wide array of characters who, with the exception of Azimio, are treated as characters who try to do the right thing, with varying levels of determination and obstacle.

However, female characters at the top of the social ladder operate primarily as villains.  The girls that have attained power are initially seen as bitches and manipulators, from Sue Sylvester to the maligned “Unholy Trinity” of Quinn, Santana, and Brittany.  For as many layers as we’ve seen of these four ladies, the writers still revert them (with the exception of Brittany, perhaps) back to their villainous ways.  Sue and Quinn still try and sabotage the glee club, and Santana still tries to sabotage her peers’ relationships.  Only Coach Beiste is portrayed as a woman who’s technically popular by association and also sympathetic - however, this comes with the representation of being completely disenfranchised and desexualized.  The boys (and Sue) take advantage of her overemotional reactions, and she is specifically wielded in storyline as an anti-sexual agent (“Never Been Kissed”).

The suggestion in this difference is that men who seize power, or are given power, can be heroes or good guys (but not always) whereas women who seize power, or are given power, are bitches (almost always).

In fact, most of Glee’s main villains are female: there’s Sue, Santana, Quinn, and sometimes Brittany, who’s an accidental villain half the time because she just doesn’t know better.  In addition, Terri is also a villain, as she teamed up to destroy the Glee Club out of jealousy.  Terri’s sister Kendra can also be included in this, convincing Terri to keep up her pregnancy lie. 

Even the majority of the male opposition on Glee is portrayed as emasculated, or feminized.  Sandy Ryerson, Jacob Ben Israel, Ken Tanaka, Dalton Rumba, and Principal Figgins are all examples of male opposition that’s mostly harmless in that they are either powerless or feminized for the sake of a joke.  You could also argue that Jesse St. James is slightly feminized in his romantic opposition to Finn and Rachel, with his perfectly-coiffed hair and his challenging Finn to a sing-off instead of a physical fight.  The only male characters that don’t quite fit the pattern are Bryan Ryan, Rod Remington, and Dustin Goolsby, and their participation and villainy is scant.  (It should also be noted that their “badness” manifests in sexualization: Rod is a philanderer, Bryan Ryan has anger sex with Sue, and Dustin Goolsby tries to seduce Holly Holliday.  More on gender and sex later.)

Of course, I would be completely remiss without mentioning Karofsky and Azimio, the two football jocks who have continuously bullied the unpopular kids since the show’s inception.  They present the only actual male villains this show has ever provided, and their participation in the narrative is primarily siphoned into the discourse on traditional masculinity and homophobia.  Beyond that, Karofsky has been metamorphosed into a character who was a villain out of fear, and he has become largely sympathetic to the audience.  This is certainly acceptable as an individual choice for a character of his kind, but putting this in larger perspective with how gender is wielded just furthers a portrait of imbalanced gender roles. 

In the end, the idea that the villains are largely female and the heroes are largely male has created a storytelling construct in which the female characters are more likely to have flaws, especially ones that manifest in the narrative to negative consequence.  In contrast, the male characters are more likely to see their flaws channeled into comedy, or left completely unaccounted for.  Traditional storytelling likes to see heroes rewarded and villains punished, and Glee has created for themselves a sticky scenario where more women are villains and more men are heroes, thereby giving more retribution to the women, on account of these negative traits. 

For example, Puck has issues with petty crime and impulsive decisions, but his stint in juvee is offscreen and hardly mentioned, and “thinking with his dick” is a joke more than anything.  Artie has historically lashed out at the women in his life when something doesn’t go his way, but these moments are usually played for sympathy - even when Artie calls Brittany stupid, we’re meant to feel just as bad for him as we do for her because Brittany’s been fooling around with Santana.  Mike and Sam don’t have any real flaws - which frankly isn’t a good thing either.

Will seems to have trouble getting his life together in the wake of his divorce with Terri, but with perhaps only the exception of his publicized drunk-dialing in “Blame It On the Alcohol,” he begets very few negative consequences.  Terri is primarily wielded as “that crazy ex-wife who ruined his life,” and the destruction of Will and Terri’s marriage is largely portrayed as Terri’s fault.  Will loved Terri, Terri lied about a baby and destroyed their marriage, completely wrecking Will’s life.  Will’s emotional connection with Emma is completely glossed over, and while it’s certainly not on the same level of lying about a pregnancy, it takes two people to work at - and undo - any relationship.  Will is not blameless in any area of his life, but the narrative (and all of the characters in the narrative) rarely see him as anything other than “the good guy.”  Episodes like “Comeback” and “Funeral” portray Will staunchly as Mr. Nice Guy, and he overtly imparts a Lesson to Sue, the Villain, in both of them, about compassion and kindness - something we’re meant to believe she knows little about.  In his relationships, he’s the Best Guy for Terri, for April Rhodes, and for Holly Holiday - he’s the Nice Guy All Girls Want.

Finn has problems dealing with peer pressure from his football teammates and standing up for the right thing.  But rarely does he experience any negative consequence for his attempts to maintain an existence in both football and glee from the glee club or the school’s popularity gods - or at least, consistency isn’t there.  He’s been pelted with paintballs and verbally ridiculed by the football team, but he also successfully manned his own kissing booth in “Silly Love Songs” with a fair share of ladies willing to pay their way for a Finn Hudson smooch.  It’s also suggested that Quinn doesn’t really have a chance at winning Prom Queen without Finn on her arm, which means that Finn still carries some level of popularity at the school.

More than that, the narrative completely excused Finn’s hypocrisy with regards to the relationships in his life.  He expressed emotional devastation over being cheated on by Rachel, especially after Quinn had cheated on him with Puck at Glee’s beginning - this is fair.  However, three episodes later, he’s convincing Quinn to cheat on her boyfriend with him, and lying about it.  While “Silly Love Songs” at least pointed out, through Quinn, that technically Finn is cheating, the narrative reaps no repercussions for him, as Santana reveals the affair and Sam dumps Quinn in the middle of the hallway at the end of the next episode.  And more than that, he rarely experiences negative repercussions from Rachel in particular when it comes to how his flaws manifest in their romance.  In fact, the narrative portrays Finn as the Best Guy for Quinn, Rachel, and even, for a few brief blips, Santana.

In all, none of the male “hero” characters are actively portrayed negatively for their flaws, nor do they often manifest in the narrative in a negative way.  On top of that, most male characters are generally well-liked in the narrative, and only experience condemnation or disgust from the villains - until the villains have something Very Heartwarming and Important to learn from the heroes, and then they sing a different tune - with overt dialogue about being “Nice Guys.”

Brittany’s lack of intelligence, which was once simply a means for kooky one-liners, causes the glee club’s set list to leak for Sectionals, puts allegations of sexual harassment on Coach Beiste, and accidentally tells the whole school Santana plays for another team.  Characters often express frustration at interacting with Brittany, and while she’s generally well-liked, she has the reputation of being unintelligent and of sleeping around.  Comparatively, though, Brittany’s treatment with regards to negative consequence is much tamer than the others’.

Santana, for example, is manipulative and smart-mouthed to the point where she is used to destroy relationships, and has historically been treated as a villain.  Her flaws are almost always used for negative in the narrative, and S2 gave us the added bonus of other characters yelling at her for being a bitch… when the writers weren’t allowing her to be anything else other than a bitch (“Silly Love Songs”).  She was not given her own point of view in the narrative until “Sexy,” and from that point forward Santana has finally been afforded a stronger place as a main character in Glee’s story.  However, I doubt her negative qualities are going anywhere (as well they shouldn’t; who doesn’t love Santana’s bitchiness?) and hopefully they can manifest more in comedy, without other characters hating on Santana for her truth-telling ways.

Quinn’s flaws mainly lie in the sphere of being too caught up in fulfilling an identity that society and her family deem appropriate for her.  She’s power-hungry and insecure, and often refuses to confront negative situations honestly out of fear.  The narrative tends to manifest those flaws with deceit and manipulation, and nearly all of Quinn’s actions are actually used with negative effect in the narrative - to Rachel, to Finn, to Sam, to Santana, to the Glee Club as a whole.  She plots, she schemes, and she’s punished by being denied the proper characterization required to forward her on her (rather compelling) arc.  For every moment of actual character development for Quinn, there seem to be at least a handful of others where she’s bitching at Rachel, trying to win Finn’s affections, backstabbing Santana, or trying to destroy the glee club again.

Sue spends nearly every episode trying to destroy the glee club, in a manifestation of her need to be the best.  Sue’s flaws exist in the narrative simply to provide opposition to the heroes, and I do appreciate every step taken to round her out as a three-dimensional character.  But even though we’ve seen her loving relationship with her sister as well as her act of mercy towards the glee kids in “Journey,” episodes as late as “Funeral” still portray Sue as someone who deserves to be punished for her actions because she’s nothing more than a bully.  Her representation as a complex villain who sometimes has the right ideas has been sacrificed for more outlandish attempts at villainy, like trying to shoot Brittany out of a cannon, or harnessing a League of Evil, or helming her own glee club, or punching the Lieutenant Governor’s Wife in the face.

But even beyond Brittany, Santana, Quinn, and Sue, there’s one notable exception that tips the scales.  Rachel Berry, even as a powerless fixture in the social structure, is still often treated as a villain, with negative flaws that manifest in the narrative.

Rachel is often confident, self-centered, and ambitious to the point where her focus makes her blind to other people’s feelings.  She experiences extreme ostracization and scolding from her peers when her flaws manifest - she’s been yelled at by Schue, reprimanded by Mike, Tina, Finn, and verbally put down and/or described negatively by Kurt, Mercedes, Santana, Brittany, Quinn, Puck, and Sue.  She is chastised for sending Sunshine to a crackhouse in “Audition,” and for cheating with Puck in “Special Education.”  Will scolds her for not being a team player in the same episode, and she herself claims she’s not kind or compassionate like Finn, in “Duets.”  Her wardrobe is derided by nearly everyone, and “Hairography,” “Britney/Brittany,” and “Comeback” specifically focus on Rachel’s lack of dress sense and others’ opinions of it.   For being the “hero” of this story, Rachel is held accountable for her flaws just as much as the “villains,” and it’s difficult to not interpret this as a manifestation of misogyny from the writers.  There is no “Nice Guy” label for Rachel to be categorized by. 

The fascinating by-product of this construct is that Quinn, Santana, Rachel, and Sue become captivating characters in that their flaws manifest frequently and damagingly, and with the varying degree that the writing does let us understand them, they actually become compelling and tragic characters by accident.  If they were wielded properly, they would probably be fantastic examples of three-dimensional, well-rounded women on TV.  But the writing does not treat them as such, and only occasionally are these girl’s strengths afforded a place in the narrative - Rachel’s more than anything by virtue of being a main character.  Their flaws, however, manifest in real ways - through storyline, or in scenarios where other characters scold them for their actions, or reprimand them, either verbally or through social ostracization or public humiliation.  And I can’t decide what’s worse for feminism - when they’re scolded by the male characters whose flaws remain incorporeal, or by the female characters who apparently are incapable of maintaining female bonds.

In the end, the message being sent is that women who seize power are villains, insinuating that women should be non-threatening and powerless in order to be “good.”  And the inadvertent result of villainizing powerful females is that villains are punished and heroes lauded, so the females of the show find their flaws threaded into the narrative with negative consequence, while the males’ flaws are either marginalized for comedy or disregarded completely in an expression of “good guy” ethos.




  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Excellent post. The way the writers portray Rachel is especially frustrating. Since the early episodes, she's had the potential to be one of the greatest girl characters in the history of television, up there with Buffy Summers and Angela Chase. But they keep undermining her.

    What's just as bad as the flaws of the "nice guys" being overlooked is that most of the males on the show are boring and one dimensional.

  3. First off, I love your blog.

    Second, THANK YOU for pointing out the glaring disparity in the way male and female characters are treated over their flaws. This has bothered me since early in Season 1 and it was abysmal for all of Season 2. Will is *not* a "Nice Guy" most of the time. He's selfish and condescending, and not even a particularly good teacher, which is 80% of the reason we're supposed to like him to begin with. And Finn is probably one of the least compelling of the boys, but the writers keep shoving him into the spotlight and trying to force us all to like him. His hypocrisy over the cheating had me tearing out my hair for a while, as did his ridiculous display of possessiveness over Rachel in the prom episode.

    In terms of the female characters, the handling of almost everything to do with Rachel has been painful to watch. Her bullying storyline is just as compelling as Kurt's (if not moreso, because it's more relatable) and yet it's played for laughs. Every time there is a glimmer of progress between her and Quinn, it gets erased for the sake of more contrived plot 'development.' And then there are Mercedes and Tina, who barely seem to exist even within the context of Glee Club itself, let alone as substantive characters outside of it. It's maddening.

    And, you know, I'd like to think that the writing is a byproduct of bad procrastination and a lack of female screenwriters, but that's still not a good excuse. Other men have written compelling, three-dimensional women for TV and film. RIB just don't seem very interested in trying.

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  5. I am tweeting your works. I doubt it will have much impact but somebody really needs to turn this show around. It's been going for three seasons like this and no one's said or done a thing - not a thing!


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