Glee’s mixed messages

Two episodes back, Glee’s dear and wonderfully snarky Sue Sylvester decided to make suicide a joke. Her feigned suicide was meant to be comical, over the top; we were meant to laugh at her sardonic voice-over and accompanying note – “Goodbye cruel world … Yes, losers, I’m committing Sue-icide.”

I overheard a conversation in Paresky about Williams students “going whack” or “wigging out” or some such (semi)offensive colloquialisms. “Do you know what he did, the happiest kid around? You’ll never guess!” It was like a game, a non-consequential story told in an incredulous yet relatively chipper voice. A gesture was made, a faux slashing of the wrist. “Not enough across, not like something for attention, no, up and down, like for real. That takes balls!”

We never know who’s been affected by suicide or self-harm, so let’s not belittle the hurt, the inner conflict or the very real danger of suicide. We like to mask serious, scary things with a controlled voice, an “It-sucks-but-I’m-not-going-to-let-it-get-to-me” voice. Hell, we may even laugh. “Sue-icide,” I mean, that’s funny, right?
In the most recent episode, “Blame it on the Alcohol,” Rachel got it into her head that she had to “live” to be the proper song-writing diva she always wanted to be. And by “live,” she meant “drink.” And Finn’s response to Rachel’s admittance that she had never had a drink before? “Wait, seriously? That’s why I never got to second base.”

This highlights the absolute incredulousness of the idea that one can make it through high school without drinking. Such a message has the danger of telling kids that drinking is something they “ought” to do and “ought” to enjoy. Finn’s comment also implies that drinking and sexual intimacy need go hand in hand – that you will only let down your guard after a few (or a few too many) drinks. Sobriety does not need to be regarded as a cock-block and drinking should not be viewed as the only vehicle for fun or gratification.

And this isn’t unique to TV. The general attitude here on campus is that drinking is a necessary precursor to “hooking up.” It’s considered “uncool” to hook up with a drunk person while sober – it’s like you’re taking advantage of them. What’s more, I’ve heard women here counting the number of times they’ve blacked out as if it’s a contest – the more, the better. The more blackout, the more “ridiculous” or “hardcore” you are – or, to use Glee’s terminology – the more you’re living.

Principal Figgins points out, ”Pop music now glorifies binge drinking,” painfully yet adorably citing “Key-DollarSign-Ha’s” music in just another example of a “serious message” accompanied by a joke. This exposes, yet again, our need to capture serious, real-life issues with clever puns, pop references or no-big-deal attitudes.
According to Finn, “Guys and girls fall into certain archetypes when they get drunk” – the weepy, hysterical drunk, the angry girl drunk, the girl who turns into a stripper drunk, the happy girl drunk and the needy girl drunk. Only one out of five drunk girl categories could be interpreted as “good” or “fun” – the rest, well, you’d be better off just staying away from them. Glee, by having all its girls fit successfully into those one-dimensional categories, essentially proves Finn’s statement and reinforces the categorization and objectification of drunk or drinking women.

Finally, Kurt – Kurt, the reason why Glee can claim to be an LGBTQ-friendly show – is embarrassingly close-minded to bisexuality. To him, “Bisexual is a term that gay guys in high school use when they want to hold hands with girls and feel like a normal person for a change.” He simply cannot accept that someone “clearly” gay would be interested in a girl. He thus represents prejudices within the gay community against bisexuals. But someone can be bisexual without being a guy “tiptoeing back into the closet,” a straight girl “experimenting” or any other such degrading stereotype. It’s tragically ironic that Kurt would represent so well society’s tendency (and society includes us) to view sexuality as a harsh dichotomy between straight and gay and to box people into one singular sexual identity.

You might say, “It’s just a show, it’s just a song, it’s just a joke.” But all these issues might be – and indeed are – very real for some people. You never know someone’s just barely keeping herself from committing suicide, when someone’s father is an alcoholic or when someone’s identity has been degraded time and time again by the same sort of thing you’re laughing at. No one wants to be “that kid” who stops in the middle of a dance party to explain the gender politics of a hit song, but to shrug these problems off is to accept them. It’s saying the message isn’t what’s important – just the laughs, the songs, the beat. It’s saying words, and their meanings, don’t matter.