Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The RBI Report: "Mash Off"

Apparently, when it's not as simple as writing a one-word theme on the whiteboard and creating a glee assignment out of it, Will Schuester's lesson plans must broaden the eensiest bit to incorporate "friendly competition" with his students, which somehow never seems to work out all that friendly.  And of course, this usually involves falling back on Glee's favorite tradition of self-congratulation: the cross-pollination of two songs to birth a mash-up.  "Mash Off" was certainly a good example of these two things, and in all, while the episode was constructed strongly around a theme - with great mash-ups to boot - it still managed to send all the wrong messages in some messy and subjective storytelling.

"Mash Off," written by Michael Hitchcock, directed by Eric Stoltz

Competition and the concept of fairplay snaked through all of "Mash Off," and Emma Pillsbury was in the episode long enough (thirty seconds?) to stamp the message right into place: "If you win by fighting dirty, it's not really winning."  This sentiment lingered over every single conflict in "Mash Off," and turned out to be a useful barometer in determining the level of BS bogging down the pertinent interactions.

It all started with Sue, who is not running a very clean campaign against Burt Hummel in the race for Congress.  She's got one set of TV ads claiming that he has a baboon's heart, and another set alleging that he's married to a donkey.  (Poor Carole!)  Of course, she's completely intentional in her poo-flinging, and when Kurt confronts her about it, she claims that it's not personal - just politics.  Sue continues on this smear campaign tactic until it takes a turn for the worse, when a third candidate drags Santana's sexuality into the mix and uses it as a slam against Sue.  But more on that in a minute.

Will and Shelby are on the opposite side of Coach Sylvester's tack, shelving any potential animosity over coaching rival glee clubs and teaming up for a duet of "You and I" and... "YoĆ¼ and I."  (Lady Gaga, I like you, but that is an errant umlaut and if there's one thing I profess to be, it's diacritical.)  This was really the only instance in "Mash Off" where two characters actually managed to take competition and use it in a positive way.  Maybe that's what Rachel meant when she called the mashup "weirdly amazing."  Because everything else really was a lot of mudslinging, and it was in these messy dynamics where some shady - and disturbingly sexist - storytelling shone through.

Let's start with the most innocuous and work our way down, shall we?  The race for Senior Class President has been escalating between Brittany, Kurt, and Rachel, and it's introduced early on in "Mash Off" that the reason Kurt is not garnering support is because he's not fighting dirty.  He doesn't have a strong cause, and he's playing fair.  So already, by the episode's message as deemed by Emma, he's a good guy.  Brittany and Rachel, on the other hand, are not playing fair - Rachel stomped all over Kurt's friendship in her "borderline sociopathic" ascent to the top, and Brittany keeps giving empty promises and lying.  Putting these facts against Emma's decree, they are therefore excluded from the episode's messages.  Both girls fought dirty, and are hence not really winners.

To slather on an extra layer of subjective storytelling, Kurt decides to run on the platform of anti-bullying, after seeing the cruelty subjected to Rory during the dodgeball game.  (Hint: if you want more evidence of a character being a "winner" or "loser," look no further than how they treat Rory, the doe-eyed innocent from Ireland.  Rory is the ultimate Litmus Test: Finn, Kurt, and Blaine all treat him with kindness and respect.  Santana treats him like shit, and Brittany doesn't seem to remember that she was his first friend at McKinley.  Sigh!)  In the end, Kurt delivers a touching speech about refusing to be bullied, and he promises to ban dodgeball from McKinley's halls.  Rachel, being In The Wrong This Whole Time, is so inspired by Kurt's heroism and withdraws from the race, citing that Kurt deserves the presidency and she was simply being selfish.  She even goes so far to say she's now his campaign slave.  Really, writers?  Really?

It would be lovely if Rachel could be incorporated into a story where her flaws aren't constantly manifested in the plot for the other characters (and the narrative!) to shame her.  So far in Season 3, "Asian F," "The First Time," and now "Mash Off" have storylines where Rachel is lambasted for being selfish and desperate for attention - by people who are supposedly her friends!  But one of the best scenes in "Mash Off" was a one-off that defied this pattern: Rachel asking Shelby to write her a letter of recommendation, as that burned bridge is slowly being rebuilt.  But it was one scene!  We finally have Shelby back on the scene, and instead of seeing a manifested storyline slowly repairing a broken relationship between mother and daughter, we have drawn-out drivel about a woman whose adoptive daughter's birth mother is trying to send her to jail and the birth father is trying relentlessly to get into her pants.

Which leads me to the Puck/Shelby/Quinn of it all.  If you're looking for more sexism, you'll find it here too.  Hell, you don't even need to look - it smacks you in the face like a dodgeball.  "Mash Off" starts out with "Hot For Teacher," where Puck waxes poetic about his randy crush on Shelby.  This is not the first time a student has had the hots for a teacher on Glee.  But if you'll recall, the first occasion was in Season 1's "Ballad," where Rachel suddenly thinks Mr. Schue's the cutest.  In the episode, Rachel is doe-eyed, creepy, and relentless.  Schue is weirded out and tries to protect her feelings.  In the end, Rachel realizes she's setting her sights on an unavailable guy because she has low self-esteem.  It's kind of a downer, but it's handled with heartbreaking relevance for Rachel's character, because it's communicated that she's misplacing her emotions.  She gets over it, apologizes, and Schue is relieved.

But with Puck and Shelby, there's not really the same treatment there.  Puck's crush is inappropriate, sure, and it too is chockablock of misplaced emotion, but it's all coming up daddy issues and family talk.  Yeah, he thinks Shelby's hot, but he wants to be a family with her.  He gets to be a good dad to Beth, and he can be a positive part of Shelby's life too - and not only is Puck telling us (and Shelby) that, the narrative is showing us the same thing.  (Although I did like that Puck offered to put Shelby's crib together, and then later they show Puck holding the baby, while... Shelby puts the crib together.  It's a nice detail that made me laugh.)  Puck is not showing up at Shelby's house like a stalker offering to cook her dinner, like Rachel with Will - he's showing up and taking care of her kid and offering to help her.  We are basically being told that we should want for Shelby to "give in" to Puck, because he's just so damn good to her.

To boot, Puck came clean to Shelby about Quinn's dastardly plan with kitchen condiments and baby-stealing, thereby making him a Good Guy, and dragging Shelby out of her rank as Rational Adult and into the bitchy trenches with Quinn.  Gone was the calm and reasoning Shelby that knew how to handle Quinn in "I Am Unicorn," and instead we got a Shelby that just yelled at her, and cut her out from Beth's life.  I'm not saying Quinn didn't deserve reprimanding within the narrative, but wouldn't it have been nice if someone were actually able to help her instead of telling her she doesn't matter all the time?  By that point in the episode, I was trying to not shriek at my screen, "Another storyline with Rachel!  Another storyline with Rachel, please!"  (At either Shelby or Quinn, at this point.  I'm not picky.)

So, are you still keeping track of winners and losers, based on Emma's message?  So far, we have fairplay winners: Kurt and Puck.  Probably also Will and Burt, but that's mostly background.  As for losers who fought dirty, we have: Rachel, Brittany, Sue, aaaaand Quinn.  Shelby started out a winner, and slowly descended to Loserville.  Are we seeing a pattern emerging?  And we're not even to Finn and Santana yet!  Let's visit that mess now.

The episode sets up, early on, that Santana is particularly on point with her verbal abuse lately - especially towards Finn.  She strikes first, with a barb about Finn's weight, and when Rachel points out that Santana's insults are just evidence of insecurity, Santana tells her she has a mustache.  Low blow, right?  Ten minutes into the episode, and we already know exactly which category Santana shuffles into.

Finn, naturally, gets tired of being called fat all episode long, and wants to take a stand against Santana.  He claims that she's just trying to demean them so that they'll stay losers, but it's time to get inside her head and do the same thing.  Is it inappropriate to bring up the phrase "Turnabout is fair play" right now?  Because this was essentially the tack that the Glee writers used to keep Finn Hudson in the winner category and Santana Lopez in the loser.  Santana provoked Finn so much that of course he retaliates - with the worst ammunition anyone could ever volley at someone.

It's no coincidence that right before Finn outs Santana, she delivers a 48-second-long monologue against Finn, where it's clear she's crossing a line.  But there are several things wrong with the sequence of events here, that stack heavily against Santana and render the situation completely imbalanced.  Firstly, as I mentioned, it was immediately set up that Santana was the aggressor in this episode.  From her first insults cast, to the choice for the Troubletones (all girls!) to sing the lyrics "I'm gonna getcha" while the New Directions sing "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," Santana was designed to be a tyrant on the offensive.  The whole episode was Santana vs. Finn, even though Mercedes is the leader of the Troubletones, and, technically, Finn is only co-captain of New Directions.  It comes down to Santana vs. Finn in dodgeball, and she pegs him in the face before he even attempts to throw the ball.  Then - Rory Litmus Test alert! - she encourages her teammates (all girls!) to assault Rory with dodgeballs while he's defenseless.  And laughs.  Seriously, writers, seriously?

Secondly, Santana swore, immediately before Finn's confrontation, that she was going to play fairly.  She promised Brittany, and her teammates, that she'd be nice - and then two seconds later, walked up to Finn to tell him he was talentless, and destined to ride Rachel's coattails his whole life, mixed in with a cocktail of fat jokes.  So, not only does she hit below the belt, but she lies.  I repeat: seriously, writers?  Seriously? 

In the end, Santana's aggression in the episode was enough for the writers to warrant "turnabout is fair play," and they didn't even make the effort to humanize Santana until "Rumour Has It/Someone Like You."  When Finn outed her, Mr. Hudson lingered in all of the camera coverage until the last few seconds, and only then did we finally get to see Santana's face.  Do the Glee writers not understand that that was Santana's worst nightmare?  They specifically wrote that it was, in "Sexy," and then completely ignored that fact.  Because we saw Santana again, right after the commercial break, and she didn't seem to be devastated.  They seem to be telling us that Finn got away with it, because he's up on stage jauntily singing about how dreams come true.

Only until one of Sue's political rivals gets a hold of Santana's sexuality does she fly off the deep end - and rightly so.  But again, all I wanted was to see Santana's face while watching that commercial.  Because that, right there, was everything she's ever feared.  I call bullshit on Finn's assessment that Santana is scared of Brittany not loving her back.  Santana Lopez isn't a coward.  She's afraid.  And there's a difference, especially when the situation involves being publicly gay, and having to deal with the fact that society will treat you differently under that circumstance. 

The only retribution Finn received for making all of Santana's fears a reality came at the very end of the episode: with a slap across the face, for something that she assumed was whispered by Finn into Rachel's ear.  Of course, he didn't actually say something negative, he was just complimenting her!  Santana smacked him anyways.  It's too soon to tell if this consequence is actually appropriate given the gravity of what Finn's actions perpetrated on Santana's character, because of course we got a cut-to-black not seconds after.  Will Finn be held accountable for his actions?  It should have happened, much sooner in "Mash Off" than it did, and I'm dreading the notion that it may not.

So, if you're still keeping score, Finn shuffles neatly into the Fair Play category, because he was so provoked, and Santana drops cleanly into Dirty Play category, by virtue of... well, everything she did all episode.  So, for every character that had an actual storyline or character arc in "Mash Off," every male character came out a Hero and every female character came out a Villian (with the exception of Shelby, who's mainly there to support Puck being a Hero and Quinn being a Villain).  How is this okay? 

And how is it okay for a show that is supposedly supportive of gay rights and sending a positive message to young gay teens to demonstrate that a gay character who is outed somehow seemed to deserve it because she was a bitch who tears other people down and doesn't play by the rules?  It is so, so difficult to not claim that this is because aforementioned gay character is female, given the blatant sexism embedded into the construction of Glee's storylines, coupled with the saintly treatment that Kurt and Blaine receive as main gay male characters.

Unfortunately, "Mash Off" made the worst possible choice for Santana's sexuality storyline, where she is forcibly pushed out of the closet, and her sexuality used as ammunition in a political campaign on an extremely public platform.  How is that not the worst?  How does that not seem to tell young gay youths that it's possibly terrifying to come out of the closet?  I get that it's naive to think that there aren't horrible real-life examples of gay teenagers coming out into hostile environments, but if you're a television show that touts the notion that you're trying to make it better for young gay teenagers, then you need to make good on that promise.  Tell stories where Kurt and Blaine can be happy together, and their relationship can survive any obstacles!  Tell stories where Santana can come out into an environment on her own terms, so that she doesn't have to live in fear of what people might say about her!  Tell stories where gay people aren't terrified, please.  It's an important message to send.  And "Mash Off" took that message, drove a knife into its heart, and twisted it.

I do want to pay some attention to the few good things that "Mash Off" had going for it.  The mash-ups were fantastic.  Naya Rivera's acting was superb, wielding both comedy and tragedy with remarkable ease.  And I think the only character in the episode who genuinely behaved like a leader was Mercedes, who took charge of Troubletones, but still told Santana she was a valuable member of the team who needed to find a way to play fair.  Sure, there wasn't any inkling prior to this that Mercedes was blessed with such leadership skills, but I'll take it!  Troubletones for the Sectionals win!

In the end, though, "Mash Off" was marred with terrible storytelling decisions that revealed a nasty whiff of sexism as well as an irresponsibility when dealing with their "messages" about LGBQT youth.  For those reasons, it's hard not to see "Mash Off" as one of Glee's worst.

The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: A+
Dance Numbers: A+
Dialogue: A
Plot: D
Characterization: D
Episode MVP: Mercedes Jones


  1. Perfect evaluation. What is this show doing, especially when most of its viewership is female and probably straight

  2. I agree that the way the outing storyline was written is problematic (though we'll see how the next episode handles the fallout), but I'm afraid I don't see how it is inherently "the worst possible choice for Santana's sexuality storyline". It's the worst thing that could happen to Santana, definitely, but it's a great idea for a dramatic storyline (and "Glee" is basically a drama these days). The writers already said before this season started that Santana's storyline was meant to be a contrast to Kurt's, who in Murphy's view had a fairly easy time of it (the bullying thing notwithstanding). It's also pretty obviously inspired by that audience member's story in the 3D movie.

  3. These have been my thoughts ever since the episode. I keep seeing messages of distraught LGBTQ persons who have been outed, and they're hurt, outraged, and terrified. Does this make them a coward, Finnocence?

  4. While I agree wholeheartedly about the rampant sexism in this episode (actually, throughout the entire series), I'm actually glad for Santana's terrifying storyline. As Sean C. mentions above, her circumstances are meant to provide the other end of the gay teen experience, which while heartbreaking and uncomfortable, drives home the point that one of the main reasons it is so terrifying for a LGBT youth is the very real possibility that things won't end well. This is sadly the reality we live in today, ignoring this in favor of a perfect immediate "happy" ending (a la Kurt) would not only be bad storytelling, but a bit irresponsible.

    I don't think it's fair to be upset with Mash-off for not having the happy ending Santana needs - we've only hit the middle of this particular plot - it's the following episodes that need to deliver the true message behind Santana's storyline, that should shine through in the aftermath - that after all the shit she goes through, IT GETS BETTER.

    Now this is getting to be a long and ranty comment, but I have go back to the sexism, because I find that much more problematic and prevalent than Santana's storyline. The way they paint Finn the hero and try to justify his actions is horrendous, and in my opinion sends a worse message than Santana being rightfully scared all the time. Being teased, bullied, assaulted, kicked out of house and home are all realities within the gleeverse, they happened to Kurt, to Quinn; in terms of storytelling, these are challenges that the all protagonists travel through. What is unacceptable is not Santana's trial's and tribulations, but the endorsement that Finn was in the right in HIS actions. The writers called him out for using "faggy" with Kurt - he was clearly in the wrong, and nobody in gleeverse tried to justify it. In outing Santana however, they engineered it so that it looked like he was blame-free, and that it was in fact SANTANA'S fault for the whole fiasco. And I try not get ahead of myself with spoilers, but the "redeeming" of Finn Hudson next episode has me in rage. To me, the only way forward with this particular plot is to address Finn's actions the way they were addressed when he said "faggy" - that it is wrong, hateful and homophobic, and should not be allowed whatsoever, no ambiguity about it. This singing (a highly inappropriate for the occasion, by the way) song as an apology to make everything magically better? Make him a hero and completely justified in his actions? With no realization to what the consequences are? Is what truly undercuts the severity and reality of Santana's worst nightmare.

    Sorry, long post is long, but I just cannot get over the doucheness that is Finn Hudson, and the way glee seems to want to not only condone his actions, but justify and even celebrate them. FAIL ON YOU FOR THAT, GLEE.

    And I've gotten horribly off topic, but my point was that sexism aside (although it should never, ever be pushed aside), Mash-off was a perfectly fine episode. It's how the following episodes handle what was presented which should bear the brunt of criticism.

  5. I agree with the post above and Sean C. By showing the terrifying side of coming out, Glee is not sending the worst possible message for LGBT youth. In fact, if Santana's storyline is told the right way in future episodes, Glee's may be ultimately sending a good message. LGBT youth who have been outed and/or live in hostile environments need examples of how to deal with their environment. If Ryan Murphy continues to contrast her story with Kurt's, Santana will probably have a difficult journey ahead. However, if she overcomes horrifying obstacles on her journey, then Glee will ultimately send a good message: that LGBT viewers can do it too and that it will be worth it in the end. Showing the terrifying realities is not necessarily irresponsible. It depends on how the story ends. For the viewer's in Santana's shoes, it can be empowering.

    That said, I must agree that the events leading up to the outing did not send the right message. There are some viewers who thought "Santana deserved to be outed," which no one ever deserves.

  6. and if the spoilers are correct you're going to be even more pissed off next week. When Finn becomes the hero, apologizes and makes Santana feel oh so good about herself. I'm gagging right now. I still think the only reason that Santana was over the line was to lessen the impact of Finn's outing. Once again, this is a case of Glee trying to have it both ways and, according to the reviews and blogs, failing spectacularly.

  7. I can't agree that there was anyone wrong with Shelby's response to Quinn, and that she should have tried to help the girl who tried to steal her baby and get her arrested after Shelby showed concern for her and offered her a chance to be in Beth's life. I don't see why Quinn, at this point, deserves help from *anyone,* especially not Shelby or Rachel (or Puck) all of whom she's been pretty consistently awful to and blamed for all her problems, when they've been of her own making. I'm sick of people coddling Quinn and singing her songs of support when she behaves selfishly over and over and is rarely nice to anyone. She needs the kicks in the face that Shelby and Will have given her. Puck is just as messed up as Quinn right now, but because his hair isn't pink and he isn't trying to steal babies like a crazy person, no one cares.

  8. While I think you made some very valid points, I don't agree about the Santana thing. I think it was good for Glee to portray the dark side of being outed (even if the way it was done was unrealistic) and a lot of GLBT fans can relate to not being able to come out on their own terms. My real problem though is they just had to make Santana way more of a mean-spirited bitch than she usually is just to have an excuse for Finn to out her and not be the bad guy

  9. Love your blog! I look forward to your RBI reports every week.

  10. Between Mashoff and I Kissed A Girl, I picture a couple of "cut scenes." One where the Glee Clubs get filled in on what they missed, and another where Burt and Kurt come down on Finn hard to explain why what he did was so, so wrong. Enough to make him want to try and fix it in IKAG.

  11. I caught the sexism in Kurt vs. Santana's storylines as well. Race is also a factor here. In the next episode "I Kissed a Girl" Kurt claims to know what Santana is going through when all the white guys in New Directions force her out of the closet with song. And yet, Kurt for all his goodwill as a fellow gay who was once in the closet, Kurt does not know exactly what Santana is going through. He and she may both be gay, but the privilege he has as white and male cannot be ignored.

    I say as much here:

    I don't want to believe it but maybe Glee really does hate women (or is at least afraid or unable to depict strong capable women):

  12. I agree whole heartedly with everything you said regarding how Santana was handled; being outed is absolutely not the same as her insulting Finn, all things she's said before, not at all a new thing.

    Outing someone has serious consequences, Santana (who is well known for the resident Bitch)'s comments were not about to have the same type of consequence. If Rachel had said to him, that'd be different, he's in love with Rachel, on that level, her opinion matters because they are intimate.
    But they wrote it like outing her was okay, and its not; no one deserves that.

    Sora points out accurately that Finn himself calls it 'trashtalking' and Finn himself is on the same social ladder as Santana. Its not bullying... her calling him fat wasn't going to make him lose friends or family. Her comment wouldn't end his relationship with Rachel or his mom. HIm outing Santana did result in her losing her Abuelita as well as being publicly outed.....

    Seeing her Abuelita, one can see exactly why Santana acts how she does which makes her sweet moments with Brittany even more incredible.

    Another thing with the outing.... besides the storyline inconsistencies since Kurt didn't out the guy who bullied him and threatened to kill him......... Santana is Hispanic. Its hardly true that all Hispanics are homophobic, they aren't. But being gay is taboo still in Latin culture. Its gotten a lot better, and there are more and more Latinos/Latinas who are out but not as many as there are in other cultures/ethnicities particularly white culture. I'm a senior and I go to school that doesn't have tracking so I know my classmates really well and our school is pretty diverse. I have Latino classmates who today, as seniors, in this day and age, think its a choice and/or think its wrong: I have classmates who say derogatory terms without even blinking, knowing the effect because they think homosexuality is a sin/wrong/gross/unnatural. My best friend whose Latina has changed from sophomore year thinking to be gay is a choice and not right, to recognizing that 'love is love.' Culturally, there is a stigma to being gay; there are plenty of teens who are tolerant and open minded and there are twice as many who aren't. The machismos culture and to a certain degree Christianity have a huge role in that. Finn had no clue what he was doing to Santana because he's not her, not a girl and not Hispanic.

    Not only is she Hispanic, she's a girl: female sexuality is rarely explored maturely in the most liberal open minded parts of society/pop culture. Female sexuality is downplayed often in most cultures. Its not portrayed positively in Hispanic culture either. One of my best friends can't have sleepovers ever, be out past certain times, and do a lot that her brother whose a mere year older because she's a girl and really pretty at that. Her parents think that because she's gorgous, she's going to get into trouble and because she's a girl her activities probably lead to sexuality and that would be bad. Her brother adheres to some of her curfews out of solidarity with his sister but can pretty much do what he wants.

    In other words: Finn was solidly in the wrong.

    *Disclaimer: any comment I make is hardly a blanket statement. There are exceptions to every rule. I'm just saying that aspects like gender and race and context matter, especially in a situation like outing where the implications are profoundly different based on those aspects.

    I would like to address that Naya's performance of Someone Like you/Rumours Has it was freaking AMAZING!!! Best Glee Mashoff ever, and maybe one of my favorite numbers ever! So heartfelt, so perfect for the plot, it almost redeemed previous bad writing. It let Naya finally shine; damn the girl can act, when will she get her Emmy?!/due rewards for being freaking awesome.


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