This episode of Glee was upsetting, on so many levels. It's bad enough that the main characters of "Choke" were subject to struggle, disappointment, and failure. But on top of that, the episode was constructed on a disturbing foundation of misogyny that seeped into any sensitivity about domestic abuse and sent a disconcerting message about women, men, and the relationships they have amongst one another.
"Choke," written by Marti Noxon, and directed by Michael Uppendahl
Truthfully, we haven't had such an overtly misogynistic episode of Glee since the back-to-back crapfests of "Mash-Off" and "I Kissed a Girl." And where "Choke" becomes even more distasteful is with the notion that it was designed to be an episode dealing with the hugely triggering topic of domestic abuse - against women specifically. What are we supposed to think about an episode highlighting violence against women when the women in the episode were in turns mean, offensive, preached to, scolded, unempowered, victimized, and devastated by failure? Meanwhile, over in Boyville, nary a word was whispered about domestic abuse - despite the fact that the episode specifically addressed all perpetrators of violence as men - as they banded together in their Noble Masculine Qualities of Courage and Camaraderie in an effort to help their fellow Man achieve his manly potential even despite his absent father.
Individually, the storylines for Rachel and Puck are not terribly problematic in terms of storytelling decisions. Sure, they're sad. But they both provided obstacles for the characters to overcome, which is a valid storytelling construct - and even though I saw Rachel's failure from six Tuesdays ago, Puck's failure was a great storytelling misdirect. Beyond that, it makes a considerable amount of sense that Rachel could put too much pressure on herself and blow her audition. It also makes sense that Puck wouldn't put any stock in his education until he sees his own deadbeat father as a cautionary tale. (Although, in the first case, it'd be perhaps easier to swallow if the audition screw-up weren't "Don't Rain on My Parade," which Rachel performed on a minute's notice to complete perfection two years ago. And in the second case, I kind of thought Puck already had ambitions with the specific construct that it was in direct and purposeful contrast to his abandoning father. But whatever.)
Where the episode goes catastrophically wrong is in the execution of the stories individually, and in their marriage with the third: Shannon Beiste's inclusion as a women who is in the first romantic relationship of her entire life, and being physically abused. With this incredibly grave story as the emotional weight of the episode, the choices for the rest of "Choke" become hugely important, and not unlike Rachel Berry and Noah Puckerman: the writers blew it.
In order to get their Very Special Episode about domestic violence, which for some reason was 100% necessary four episodes before graduation, it became equally as necessary, apparently, to drag five female characters through the mud. Upon seeing Coach Beiste sporting a black eye, Santana mouthed off about her husband hitting her, and Sugar, Tina, Mercedes, and Brittany all snickered at the remark. Sue and Roz overheard the joke, and immediately scolded the girls for their insensitivity. And while I certainly don't disagree with the idea that domestic violence is nothing to be joked about, I question why this became a teaching moment for the young girls only, and why it was necessary to show them to be so callous and flippant about abuse. While it's great that Sue and Roz put aside their differences to stand up for a common cause, and had all the right reactions to Shannon's scenario, the thrust of the storyline was built on the idea that the teenage girls just Didn't Get It. They had to be sat down and Taught a Lesson. And when the assignment was to sing a song of empowerment, they went straight to "Cell Block Tango" without any discussion, and got scolded for their continued poor choices. Not only that, but Santana got saddled with another instance of Unfortunate Plot Device, wherein the writers use her however they please in others' storylines, regardless of established characterization, to make sure they get their point across.
Why was it that only these five girls were subjected to this week's lesson? Why were the boys excluded from this when "Choke" communicated very singularly that women are subjected to abuse by their male significant others? Y'know, it's fine for the girls to be naive about Shannon's situation, especially since they're supposed to be 18 and they probably don't pay that close attention to their teachers' home lives. But it's not fine for them to be rude and then scolded, in conjunction with the boys being excused from the message completely because the writers chose not to give them any nasty dialogue. And I'm not saying that the teenage boys needed to be held accountable for another man's actions - but they needed to be a part of the conversation. How many young men are aware of the fear that most women carry with them every day - the fear of being physically or sexually harmed by a man? Usually this applies more to violence from strangers than loved ones, but the point still stands.
But instead of a gender-inclusive discussion of domestic abuse, the education was doled out to the girls only, as if this is solely a "girl problem." Sorry ladies, but this is something you might have to deal with! It could happen to you! And while that is sadly true, it's still not okay to leave the boys uneducated about the power dynamics between men and women, especially when the episode communicates that it's the boys who can become violent. Wouldn't it have been better to use the scenario to highlight the internalized misogyny that snakes through both the infliction of domestic violence as well as how society chooses to educate about it? Instead of assuming that all transgressors of abuse are men, why not acknowledge that domestic violence is not unilaterally defined by a male harming his female significant other? For instance, where do Brittany and Santana, and Kurt and Blaine fit into this lesson, as same-sex couples? And, in communicating the important information that yes, women are more likely to be physically harmed by a significant other than a man, why not ask the question of both sexes: why? The answer paints a disturbing portrait of power, aggression, and misogyny that is crucial to understanding how society imparts its own damaging lessons about gender norms and equality. But instead of exploring these areas, "Choke" just offered up another nasty example of its own internalized misogyny, and focused only on the insensitivity of the potential victims of it. And if the response here is that the preferred explorations are "too serious" for Glee, then frankly that means that the topic of domestic violence is likewise too serious for this show.
It's bad enough that the men of the hour weren't involved in any discourse on domestic violence. What makes it even worse is that the supplanting storyline was built entirely around a "bro-vention," wherein Finn and the guys rallied around Puck to help him pass a test. This storyline, while sound for Puck conceptually, was riddled with example after example of expressions of masculinity that become offensive when paired with tonight's other fare. For instance, it's communicated (twice!) that the guys have to help Puck because "no man gets left behind," an adoption of the noble attitude of male soldiers at war. When they stand by him and help him study, he's grateful for their assistance, and tells them that each and every one of them have taught him how to be a man. And of course, this discourse on masculinity happens, as it does on Glee, against the backdrop of an absent father figure. Puck changes his mind when he's approached by his deadbeat dad begging him for money - it's enough to light the fire under his ass and get him focused on graduating and not being a loser. And the writers even had the audacity to give Mr. Puckerman this line: "The hardest thing for a man to do is to ask for help." Really? Really? Tell that to fucking Shannon Beiste two storylines over, who, as a woman, is not asking for help and remains, as a result, in a physically harmful relationship.
I'm not saying Puck's dad isn't allowed hardships, or pride. But to attribute his difficulty asking for help as a strictly masculine problem and ignoring the fact that a woman on the show is struggling with a parallel difficulty in the exact same episode? Party foul. This incites the same kind of rage in me as the carousel of "what it means to be a man" storylines that Glee has had us on with four different male characters, while the only repeated message about its female characters seems to be that their relationships are one-dimensional or absent entirely. It's also the same rage I have when Finn & Bro-Co. are portrayed as noble and well-intentioned, but Santana & Girl-Co. act like bitches in the first five minutes. It's the same rage I have when every male character with an absent father also has, as a result, a working single mother who assumedly experienced no lack of struggle in raising their kids, and yet Glee shines no light on the role she had on her childrens' lives. We don't see Puck's mom. Carole hasn't been an active force in Finn's life since she started dating Burt. And even Will's mom, in the one episode we saw her, is not taken seriously. The message is that women can't teach boys about being "men" - only other men can do that, even if they're 17-year-olds.
Even with the episode's disconcerting structure, a few problems could be eradicated if there were simply no offensive joke from Santana right off the bat. Surely there's another way to introduce the episode's "theme" without dragging a character through the mud so they can be yelled at? The problem would be assuaged further with a redirection of "Cell Block Tango." That musical number is legendary, and the fact that Glee repurposed it to be taken seriously, without any of its original context and tone, completely ruined it. What should have been done instead is the idea that the glee ladies performed "Cell Block Tango" as a form of misguided encouragement for Shannon. Roz even expressed the question: why not just fight back? But it's easier said than done, and it makes sense that teenagers would give well-intentioned but ultimately off-the-mark advice that amounts to "if you hit him back, he had it coming." This way, "Cell Block Tango" could still be used in the same basic construct, but with considerable less offense concerning the intent of the girls performing it. With their naiveté played as the result of well-intentioned youth, the result would feel less like shaming young women about their ignorance of domestic violence and more like young women trying to be supportive in whatever way they know how. It would also feel less like Sue Sylvester getting preachy about the topic when she's shoved a lady down a flight of stairs, onscreen, and has habitually pushed around students in the hallway. (I prefer to count those moments as times when the writers did wrong by Sue Sylvester's characterization, though.)
I could go on and on about gender issues. I could talk about how the boys rallied around Puck, but the girls didn't rally around Rachel. I could talk about how the only people at Rachel's audition were Will, Kurt, Finn, and Blaine. I could talk about how Puck's attempts to seduce a female teacher nearly worked (again!) because said teacher is "excruciatingly lonely" and so of course an older woman would shelve all logic and morals to have a chance with a student who got a girl pregnant his sophomore year. I could talk about this moment in contrast with Shannon's, where she admits that she thinks no one else could love her except the man who's abusing her. I could talk about how the writers gave Puck a song from My Fair Lady and reappropriated him to be a growl-rock version of Eliza Doolittle.
But I'm tired of talking about all of Glee's gender issues. It's upsetting that a show with such widespread popularity and self-purported "good messages" offers up such a flattened, insulting, and imbalanced portrayal of men and women. Because I am a masochist, I have a post-it on my desk listing the show's most sexist episodes. There are twelve titles written on it.
It's unfortunate, because there were several decisions in "Choke" that, when divorced from gender politics, were compelling under the basic lens of narrative interest. When Puck received his "F," despite his attitude change and studying regime, it was enough to make me sit up and pay attention. Really? No reward for his hard work? The choice felt almost like older Glee fare: an unexpected tragic outcome that resonates emotionally despite its simplicity. This show was built on the idea that little things, to teenagers in Middle America, can feel like they carry the weight of the world. With the right emotional circumstances and larger consequences, Glee was originally able to make theatrics and exaggerations incredibly significant - when they were scaled down to have meaning in the small, specific reality of a character's worldview. Since then, theatrics have been rendered two-dimensional, and Glee has devolved into an orgy of melodrama, self-indulgence, and over-hype with fewer reflections below the surface. But Puck's failure resonated with some of the show's original tone, made even more poignant with the idea that none of us were expecting it.
Rachel's failure, however, was far more predictable. She spent the episode gearing herself up for her NYADA audition, armed with her heretofore flaw-free rendition of "Don't Rain on my Parade," and the confidence that it's now her time to shine. This was Rachel Berry in classic form, as her dreams finally resurfaced in the narrative in their original incarnation, and not as mere plans she might give up should her high school romance demand it. We even got original Rachel Berry monologues, and the classic construct of Rachel staring herself down in the mirror - negotiating her identity with her future at stake. What could go wrong? She's been preparing for this moment her whole life. But "Choke" presented a conflict of ideology in Rachel and Kurt. Is it better to take a risk, or play it safe? Rachel insisted that this was not the time for risk-taking, while Kurt wants to break out of the box. But with Rachel's pressure, he sticks with his more typical rendition of "Music of the Night," instead of his apparently wild idea to perform "Not the Boy Next Door." That is, of course, until he's on stage and sees Carmen Thibedeaux's tight-lipped reaction to his song selection. So, naturally, it's breakaway Phantom clothes, standby gold pants, and back-up back-up in Brittany, Tina, and Mercedes. (It's nice to see they're recycling their Regionals outfits from two years ago!)
Kurt, of course, is rewarded for his risk, and receives high praise for his somewhat impromptu performance. But Rachel sticks to her guns, and royally screws up. She somehow flubs "Don't Rain on my Parade" not once but twice, and is shut down completely by Carmen. Cue the most heartbreaking thing to witness: Rachel Berry begging, with tears in her eyes, for another chance. Of course, she doesn't get it, and for the first time in her life, it seems like her future hopes are completely dashed. Now, I don't mind in theory the idea that Rachel would experience some sort of failure on her journey to Broadway. It's realistic, and provides her with something to triumph over. However, I find the message here interesting. She goes with her gut, and fails. This, of course, plays in contrast to Kurt, who goes with his gut, and succeeds. I almost wonder if it would have been better for Rachel to switch songs as Kurt did, before ultimately tripping up - thereby reinforcing the notion that Rachel's success is also contingent upon her instincts. Because how many times has Rachel Berry been rejected for being exactly who she is? I'm not fussed about Rachel failing; I'm fussed about Rachel receiving the message that she's not enough, or that her core traits are not valued, no matter how many times she recites mantras in the mirror. But if Rachel had switched songs, it would have been more indication of her character devolution through the seasons, and I can't decide which is a worse: a classic and unchanging Rachel Berry that is tragically stuck in the same conflict, or a new-and-improved Rachel Berry who gives up her identity for what she thinks others want from her.
In the end, it wasn't so much that Puck and Rachel failed, or that Shannon chose to give Cooter another chance despite having told everyone that she had moved in with her sister. These individual choices, while tragic and upsetting, can be made valid by storytelling construction - and to a certain degree, were. All three were tragic heroes at the helm of their own stories, and the cross-cutting in "Shake it Out" and "Cry" with the reveals about Puck and Shannon were incredibly powerful and emotionally resonant. However, when combining these storylines, the Glee writers somehow came up with "Choke": an episode intended to deal with domestic violence, but instead revealed the misogyny inherent in their own structure, all wrapped up with a title that's either a nauseating attempt to be clever, or a disturbing piece of insight as to how little these writers think about their choices.
The RBI Report Card...
Musical Numbers: B+
Musical Numbers: B+
Dance Numbers: B+
Episode MVP: Shannon Beiste