Glee’s shallow stereotypes

November 18, 2009

THE RECENT review of Glee by Leela Yellesetty rightly pointed out the show's enjoyable points, but ignores some glaring problems with the writing overall. True, there are lots of fun, uplifting moments, and some aspects of teenage life (like pregnancy and sexuality) are handled smartly.

While the show appears to be interested in equal opportunity for everyone who is "different"--people of color, homosexuals, the handicapped--in reality, it sinks to the worst tokenism by keeping these characters on the margins, while all the real drama is solidly within the romances of the white, heterosexual, able-bodied roles. The show repackages stereotypes quite unapologetically even while being subtle or hilarious in other ways.

Besides the tried-and-true underdog story of a rag-tag group of misfits trying to compete in a state championship, the writing relies heavily on a very tired premise. Two love triangles frame the show, and they are very unimaginative in their obvious pairing of people who absolutely do not belong together, juxtaposed with people who are just right for them. And ridiculously, both have women who are so desperate to keep their men that they lie about pregnancies to trap them in dead-end relationships.

The two most prominent non-white characters, Asian Tina and African American Mercedes, are respectively timid and sassy. And the writers apparently thought just having Tina be docile wasn't enough--she has a speech impediment and rarely speaks at all. Mercedes, who obviously overflows with talent, is allowed to sing the hook or backup, but never has a solo or duet with one of the white male leads for a performance. As the glee club grows throughout the season, it becomes much more diverse, yet somehow, none of the Asian, Black or Latino students qualify for the lead.

Even Kurt, the gay character, who gets a lot of lines and even his own story line in one episode, is little more than that: The typical gay character. He obsesses about fashion and "product" for hair and face, has perfectly recognizable gay male diction, and absolutely no chance of a sexual relationship on the show. These characters provide some flavor for the background of the show, but the spotlight rarely falters off the stars.

When the show finally does directly confront the issue of racial disparity in the club, it's through the conniving machinations of sociopathic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, who is out to destroy Glee forever. Sue is played with brilliant viciousness by Jane Lynch (the creepy store manager from The 40-Year-Old Virgin), who by herself makes the show a joy to watch.

However, her ploy to divide and conquer Glee on racial lines by pretending to sympathize with the marginalized fails, not because the Glee coach recognizes his mistakes, but because the kids get sick of the adults' rivalry. In a particularly horrible speech, coach Will tells the reunited club, "You're all minorities. Because you're in Glee." It is an utterly disappointing piece of television.

The frustrating thing about Glee is what it pretends to be versus what it really is. This is especially true when so many shows on prime-time television either lack solid roles for people of color, or complex roles depicting LGBT folks, the disabled, etc., or simple write them out (or, in the case of Lost, kill them outright).

This isn't to say there is nothing of worth in Glee, or that it's not often fun to watch. But there's no reason to pretend along with the writers that the show actually understands or takes seriously issues that face students who are pushed to the margins by a deeply unequal society.
Amy Muldoon, New York City

Further Reading

From the archives