We all know I have serious issues with the near-vacuum of feminism Glee presents on my television every Tuesday. Recently, the brunt of the sexism has landed on Santana's shoulders, and it bounces casually around Rachel and Quinn and Brittany and Sue with enough frequency to be disconcerting. But one character that rarely gets talked about, in terms of Lady Treatment, is Emma Pillsbury, McKinley High's guidance counselor, and Glee's resident Will Schuester Love Interest.
Why is this? Well, firstly, she's an adult, and adults on this show are inherently less interesting. Where do they fit into the candy-colored universe of earnestly good-intentioned but mistake-making teenagers? They don't. And as a sensical voice of reason and mostly competent authority figure, Miss Pillsbury doesn't even stand a chance. As a side effect of this, Emma's original character arc about self-empowerment and realism has degenerated into an objectification of her actually diagnosed issues for her significant other to “fix,” and an overblown portrayal of a “fairy tale” romance. She is in the narrative only a Love Interest to Will, and when she has a problem that he, being of Noble Good Intentions, will try to Fix.
It's here where the blow to feminism comes in - in a neatly masqueraded package that takes original intent and twists it into sexism. “Yes/No,” in particular, presented the idea that Emma wanted to marry Will, which, given the torch she’s carried for him since Day 1, is not out of left field. They’re supposedly in a happy and healthy relationship now, although we hardly ever see it, and we’re expected to be totally on board with Emma pining for those wedding bells and Will coming through with a White Knight Proposal. How romantic!
But it’s completely misappropriated. Emma’s character arc is not just about learning to cope with OCD. It’s about standing up for what she wants, and becoming a self-possessed and self-assured woman. Sounds like something to do with feminism, right? Definitely! This is a character who, knowing that her Dream Guy was married, willingly hitched herself to Ken Tanaka, a man to whom she had no physical or emotional attraction whatsoever. She silenced her own wishes, and was completely okay with being miserable for the rest of her life, simply because she wasn’t sure she could do better.
Fast-forward two seasons, and it’s expected of us to see a character progression from then to now. Then, Emma was marrying a man she did not love. Now, she is marrying a man she does love. Look, progress! Right?
The problem with that is that Emma made no progress. Emma did not stand up and say, “William Schuester, I choose you!” Has she ever? Will went after her in “Sectionals.” They both decide to take a break in “Hell-O” because it’s too soon after his divorce, and when she's with Carl, Will's the one to still pursue her. Then, she doesn’t even break up with Carl! He breaks up with her, in a gross narrative manifestation of sexism, because he found out she still has feelings for Will.
Where, pray, is Emma Pillsbury’s agency? Here we are, after an onscreen reunion, and promises from Will to fix Emma and help Emma and love Emma - and Emma has still barely uttered a word. Even in her speech in “Yes/No,” she tells Will, “This is what you get.” Emma has so little sense of self, still, that when Will expresses doubts, she tells him that she’s never going to be more than what she is right now, and that has to be enough for him. In terms of her own development, she may as well still be marrying Ken Tanaka.
Sure, along the way, Emma tries to “take control,” usually of her sexuality, and flops miserably in the process. She is still disconnected from the concept of choice, and the narrative gets around the sexism of that simply by chalking it up to the Very Real Problem of her OCD, a character trait which was played lightly and/or for comedy for most of Glee’s earliest episodes. But pairing her inactive participation in her own storylines with her frequent absence from the narrative unless she's interacting with Will, and Glee has created a female character heavily restricted by the irresponsible choices made for her throughout her arc.
Now, in some respects, Emma has shown sporadic signs of being on a character arc of self-empowerment. There was a time when she started standing up to Principal Figgins (she yelled at him in his office once... although it had to do with Will and the glee kids, but I'll take it!) and we saw some measure of self-possessed qualities in her when dealing with Sue, and occasionally Will - usually through dialogue. But we don’t have that Emma Pillsbury now, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get her anytime soon. This is largely because she is primarily defined in her relationship with Will, which has also been twisted since show’s inception to be less than stellar in the feminist department.
Will and Emma were originally constructed in the White Knight/Princess category. Hell, in the first episode, Emma steps in gum, and Will cleans it off her shoe for her, on bended knee. He even calls her Cinderella. When she runs out on him in “The Power of Madonna,” she leaves behind her shoes, which he polishes and returns to her. Their dance in “Mash-Up” is nothing short of fairy tale material, and the sentiment lingers over all their early interactions.
In small doses, this is cute. Feminism is not about denying more traditional expressions of romantic love, but more about saying it's not the only way - and when it comes to storytelling, making sure that the woman has a choice and a sense of her own identity. In terms of Will and Emma's storytelling, the hints at a knight/princess dynamic add charm to the couple, and give them a little scripted hook to make them interesting and unique. However, it’s also scripted that Will and Emma need to move away from “fairy tale” in order to make their romance work. And they know that. When he came to see her at her botched wedding, it’s clear that they both wanted to be together, but she said, again a voice of reason, “You just broke up with your wife.” They separate in “Hell-O” because it's still too soon after his divorce. Every single hint at progress in Will and Emma’s relationship has been associated with deconstructing that White Knight/Princess idealism and putting stock in having a real relationship.
Tying this hand in hand with Emma’s OCD and confidence issues, we have a scenario where, in order for this relationship to work, Emma must realize that she can’t hope for a fairy tale, and that real relationships are messy, and take work. She has to speak her mind, and be 50% of the partnership. And she seemed to be on that track, honestly. Season 1 had her on the basic path, and Season 2's offscreen relationship with Carl seemed to indicate she was happy, and making progress at least on her OCD, if not her confidence. Only since the breakup with Carl have things seemed to change, possibly due to a) low visibility on handling the Will and Emma since reuniting them - as a result of avoiding the clunky storytelling legwork in making that transition authentic to the audience, and b) giving Will more weight of the relationship’s emotions onscreen anyways.
To speak about "Yes/No" specifically, the logical progression of an Emma Pillsbury on her confidence/realism arc, in a relationship with Will, would find their marriage proposal something that both parties have equal participation in. Bonus points if Emma herself proposes. (She’s not the one who has to say “yes” to marriage, after all. Will, under his mountain of Terri Issues, is the one that has to find a way to say yes being married again.) Basically, a proposal has to defy Fairy Tale and show that this couple has moved forward. If you really wanted to hearken back to their whimsical beginnings for the sake of charm, then do something small and simple, connecting Cinderella’s shoes, or have them dress up. A minor detail, and nothing that completely incapacitates Emma's power of choice.
In other words: don’t have Emma woefully singing the “Wedding Bell Blues” as a girlish fantasy sequence, and don’t have her regress when Will expresses concerns that her parents gave him. Don't have Will talk to her parents about her without her there to speak her mind. And don’t have Will Schuester apologize by proposing in an elaborate synchronized-swimming extravaganza where he wears a white silk coat and tails with a satin top hat while walking on water, completely hammering in the illusion that he is both Emma Pillsbury's White Knight and Righteous Savior. And, for the love of all things, don’t have Emma just sit there while he walks towards her, ring in hand.
It should have been better. It should have honored their origins, but stayed in keeping with their development together. And it should have involved Emma’s character arc just as much as Will’s. Instead, it was an overblown, self-indulgent orgy dedicated to making these two people the White Knight and the Princess, without any indication that they’d earned a realistic relationship of equal parts, over time. And by choosing to flatten those dimensions at the expense of Emma's character, it pancaked the entire scenario into a charmless display of sexism.
If only Emma chose to propose to Will. She could have enlisted the help of the glee kids, in a move that would be a far more charming (and less creepy) homage to Will’s devotion to his students. The episode could have ended with Emma singing “Wedding Bell Blues” as her proposal, with the glee kids providing backup. I mean, the lyrics in that song are “Marry me, Will.” How would that not be an actual proposal?
On a better show, Emma Pillsbury would be a far more realized, three-dimensional character on the screen. She would not be relegated to Princess territory simply because she has an anxiety disorder and a White Knight to rescue her. And she could be a strong female character with her own place in her relationship, and her own place in the narrative, and allowed her own character arc propelled by her own choices.
But alas. She lived happily ever after, and that’s all there is to it.