A future where Glee is cool

October 29, 2009

Leela Yellesetty explains why the TV show Glee's new take on being different in high school makes it worth watching.

LATELY I'VE been thinking a lot about high school. Perhaps it's because here in Washington state, we're fighting another battle against the anti-gay bigots to uphold the state's domestic partnership law by approving Referendum 71.

The reason this reminds me of high school is because nine years ago, I helped start our school's first Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) and our first campaign was against Oregon's Measure 9.

Misnamed the "Student Protection Act," this ballot initiative would have made it illegal for teachers and counselors to talk to kids about homosexuality unless they said it was wrong. It also required that libraries remove materials with homosexual characters or authors. Our school librarian, one of the GSA's advisors, made a beautiful display of the wealth of literature included in those categories.

Just like today, Measure 9 supporters were counting on a low turnout of disproportionately older, more conservative voters as well as general confusion over what the measure actually meant. Luckily, our group and many other activists helped send the measure down to a narrow defeat. The active campaigning of enthusiastic young activists was critical to our success.

Glee club performs at McKinley High
Glee club performs at McKinley High

It occurs to me that high school represents a sort of ground zero for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trangender (LGBT) rights movement. On the one hand, high school students today are part of the most-progressive generation in decades. They've grown up in a period when gays and lesbians have been increasingly more visible and accepted in society. The tens of thousands of young people who mobilized for the National Equality March were a vivid example of this.

On the other hand, high school continues to be a completely alienating experience for countless kids, a place where gender and sexual norms are vigorously policed. Not just those who identify as LGBT, but anyone who doesn't quite fit the mold, can face ridicule, harassment or worse.

This contradiction is taken on brilliantly in the new Fox musical-comedy-drama Glee. The show offers a refreshing take on the oft-treaded theme of being different in high school, with enough biting satire to balance the stickier heartwarming moments.

ONE OF the strengths of the show is that it starts with characters that seem like walking high school stereotypes and gradually reveals them to be more complex, and capable of changing and re-examining their own assumptions. The show revolves around Finn, the captain of the football team who decides to join the Glee Club and must cope with the resulting social fallout.

Review: Television

Glee, starring Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Matthew Morrison and Chris Colfer, airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern time on Fox.

Although a show about teens that sing may seem a bit tired at this point, a blogger on Feministing.com suggests, "Glee really might be the anti-High School Musical. While that series of movies models abstinence and heterosexual gender norms, Glee is actually engaging with issues in an intelligent way."

One of the best scenes involves a visit to the high school Celibacy Club, which is presided over by a cheerleader who we soon find out is pregnant. Fed up by the misinformation being presented, one of the main characters erupts in the following exchange:

Rachel: Did you know that most studies have demonstrated that celibacy doesn't work in high schools? Our hormones are driving us too crazy to abstain. The second we start telling ourselves that there's no room for compromise, we act out. The only way to deal with teen sexuality is to be prepared. That's what contraception is for.

Quinn: Don't you dare mention the "C" word.

Rachel: You want to know a dirty little secret that none of them want you to know? Girls want sex just as much as guys do.

Male student: Is that accurate?

Another particularly entertaining episode revolves around Finn convincing the football team to learn to dance to improve their performance, which in turn helps empower a fellow Glee Club member to come out to his father.

The show does have its weaknesses. Certain characters, particularly the Glee advisor's wife, come off as completely one-dimensional, which hopefully will be rectified in later episodes. Some of the scenes veer toward the silly or sappy, which perhaps can be expected with a show about high school.

It's still well worth watching, not the least of which for its reflection of a new generation of young people who are both deeply critical of repressive social norms, yet optimistic that things can change. As Finn explains in one episode:

Leaders are supposed to see things that other guys don't, right? Like they can imagine a future where things are better. Like Thomas Jefferson or that kid from the Terminator movies. I see a future where it's cool to be in Glee club. Where you can play football and sing and dance, and nobody gets down on you for it. Where the more different you are the better.

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