Gender Consciousness and the Dangers of Being a GleeK


So, the other day I sat down and watched Glee for the first time. Having read a great article at Bitch Magazine, I wanted to see the ways in which the show acted as a cultural critique of how gender consciousness is socialized in high school.

Full disclosure, I came to the show very skeptical. I worked for two years during college playing bass for one of the top high school show choirs in the nation. This is important, because it provides me the ability to juxtapose the show with the reality of high school glee clubs and show choirs.

I’ll start with the positive note. In terms of intersectionality (that is how various socially constructed categories of discrimination interact: ie how gender integrates and interacts with race, ability, sexuality and body), the show does a great job of making three dimensional characters FOR ADULTS to watch and work through similar societal issues. I especially loved the way the last show introduced the concept of ability as a segregating notion. In the Madonna episode, the “black” and “gay” tokens make explicit their consciousness of being treated as tokens. I think the show, in this way, provides an interesting counter-commentary on the entertainment industry.

In this way, the show functions like science fiction. Scifi’s power is that it can provide a powerful cultural critique by separating itself far from reality. This makes it a safe space that is not censored by mainstream media. One need only watch older episodes of Stargate to see some fantastic critique of conservative-posing-as-liberal policies. This is similar to what Keith Basso talks about in his research on Navajo jokes, where a joke is simultaneously not serious and very true. The “joking frame”, like the “scifi” frame, is a way to make dangerous commentary and critique in a space that is safely removed from the space of the topic itself.

Back to Glee. The problem with the show is that it assumes a same positionally for all of the viewers. While the social commentary, I truly believe, provides adults with an outlet to work through the social anxieties presented over intersectionality in a difference-erasing society, it DOES NOT function the same way for high schoolers watching the show. That is, the frame of the joke, or scifi frame, shifts depending on the age and experience of the viewer.

Not that this is tested or proven, but I am assuming that the Glee critique does not translate to show choir kids in high school. Many of these issues that the show deals with are real for these kids, many of whom spend upwards near $1000 a year to be part of the group. This brings us to problem #1: where is class on all of this, why is everyone upper-middle class? All of the kids on the show are declared outcasts based on what they consume, with little attention paid to those exclusions that occur because of what students don’t consume.

Problem #2, and more to the point, to what extent does the show re-enforce stereotypes for these kids? How many high school kids in show choir may look to this show as offering solutions to the social drama and cultural trauma of adolescence? Don’t fit in because your gay- if you adhere to the flamboyant style and personality of Kurt, those voyeurs of life will love you. And this goes for all of the categories- you are rendered most visible when you fit into one of these media-fabricated categories of the choir kid.

Yes, I understand that Kurt is campishly gay (and I love him for it) so as to frame cultural critique, but what happens when viewers of the performance are not socially aware enough to see beyond the first level of signification? The same goes for the Cheery-o’s and the guys. It provides some major issues in terms of how the show socially functions. It is, in this sense of being separated from reality yet closely tied to it, that the show functions as what Victor Turner would call a bipolar symbol: Glee carries within itself its own undoing. It simultaneously pulls apart stereotypes for adult audiences, while subconsciously reenforcing them for younger ones.

To return to science fiction before closing this post, I make this comparison for a reason. Science fiction is almost always a style of social critique, but one that is so far removed from society as it is that it is not in danger of looking like simply a reflection of it. This is the short coming of Glee: although it provides a great critique of social divisions based on gender, ability, body, and sex, it is INHERENTLY a reflection of society that acts in a reificatory way. Perhaps this was a risk worth taking for the producers? Perhaps the social critique itself was just an after-effect intended to be slave to great show choir arrangements and our need for the social drama and gossip that high school afforded us? Or, perhaps, it is evidence of the way cultural production in the capitalist system must recreate itself, as capitalism both generates, consumes, and packages its own critique.

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