Originally posted at PostBourgie on October 16, 2009.
I cut off my cable more than a year ago. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, for a few reasons. One, the times that most people watch television — in the morning before work and in the evening after work — I spent listening to music, reading, and writing. Two, because I had very, very basic cable, there was rarely anything on worth watching. Three, when I did watch, it was often mostly Sunday afternoon Hannah Montana and This Old House marathons. But about six months ago, I got Verizon Fios internet, and my world changed. I discovered Tudou and Hulu and it’s all been downhill from there. Recently, I realized that I have a roster of shows to watch regularly: Fringe, Dollhouse, The Daily Show, Gossip Girl, and Glee all made the list. The last of these, however, has caused me a little bit of consternation.
There are a lot of reasons why I should like Glee. It has musical numbers, and I am a girl who loves musicals; from Gigi to Jesus Christ Superstar, I can get behind a movie with plenty of singing and dancing. It’s in the classic high school setting, and since I grew up just as teen movies and TV shows had a resurgence in the late nineties, I have a lot of loyalty to the genre. Plus, it really is a funny show.
And when Glee premiered on Hulu in May, I thought it was pretty entertaining, all the way up until the point when a loud, large black girl announced, with no small amount of neck-rolling and hand-waving, that she ain’t no Kelly Rowland, she’s a BEYONCE. While I enjoyed the rest of the premiere, that moment left a bitter taste in my mouth. When the show came back for the full fall season, I didn’t start watching it right away, but since a few people I know were really enjoying it — particularly culture blogger and friend Alyssa Rosenberg — I gave it another shot. And I laughed. A lot. Watching unlikely characters perform some New Jack Swing is always a winning moment. But as the weeks have gone on, the jokes that were funny because they’re shocking (particularly lines delivered quite skillfully by Jane Lynch) have become both less funny and less shocking. The show writers don’t seem to be skewering stereotypes, so much as reinforcing them. But even more problematic than that, the female characters really, really bother me.
Sadie at Jez writes:
Yes, everyone’s a cardboard cliche – it’s supposed to be “playing with” stock types – but I think things get nefarious where the dames are concerned. We’ve got Shrewish, Lying Wife; Sweet Perky Neurotic; Bitchy Cheerleader; Tracy Flick-esque Nerd; Strong Black Woman. Sure, Lynch’s over-the-top psycho-coach is watchable, but only because she is, not because there’s any more nuance to her. And all of whom orbit around Main Guy, who is apparently perfect, and a saint. Also saintly: football QB. Both are being manipulated by women in their lives while worshipful Perfect Women wait in the wings to ease their burdens.
The main men, teacher Will Shuster, and Finn the quarterback are dopey but lovable. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when juxtaposed with some truly neurotic, unlikeable, and often downright evil women, it made me wonder if creator Ryan Murphy has a problem with women. And then I remembered he created Nip/Tuck, a show that has a similar vibe — two men who get themselves into trouble, but whose foibles don’t compare to those of the insane, scheming, manipulative women around them. There was a recent scene in which the married Will’s school crush, Emma, the school’s counselor with severe mysophobia (Sadie calls her “Sweet Perky Neurotic”), accepted a proposal of marriage from the football coach. And by ‘accepted,’ I mean she agreed to a “secret marriage” in which she wouldn’t change her name, wouldn’t live with him, and wouldn’t tell anyone about the marriage, all because she doesn’t want to die alone. Coach Tanaka’s gratefulness for this was palpable, and I’m not sure how sweet that is.
Alyssa counters Sadie’s analysis by noting some improvements in stereotyping from the latest episode:
Mercedes (the African-American girl) is a dentist’s daughter. Rachel (the diva) is capable of helping other people, even putting her mad storming out skills to the use of others. Sue may be impossible, but she does love teaching. Glee is smart enough to be playing a long game, even underneath the candy coating. I hope Sadie, and other haters so thoroughly demolished by Mercedes, stick around to see that game to completion.
I’ll definitely stick around to watch the show, because I do appreciate the fact that Mercedes has gotten more play, and has also stepped out of the loud black girl role a bit — she had some sweet moments recently with the Kurt, the gay kid. But I still find that Glee leans really heavily on the “inherent comedy” of stereotypes. This is thrown into sharp relief by a similarly satirical show which debuted this season on NBC: Community.
Community features a diverse cast with a twist on the high school setting — the show is set at a community college. There’s the plus-size black woman, but she isn’t loud or much of a neck-roller: she’s sweet and goodhearted with a little bite. There’s the black kid, who isn’t hood or a smartass, he’s a dumb jock, former prom king who’s adrift after leaving high school. There’s the foreign kid whose problem is less that he’s first-generation Pakistani and more that he’s just plain weird. There’s even an analogue to the Rachel character in Glee — a driven, type-A girl who’s not in a 4-year school because she had a “little problem with pills,” but she’s surprisingly not grating. There’s the silver-haired Chevy Chase, who proves to be much less annoying than memory served. Jeff, the main character, is a lovable jerk, but his life isn’t being turned around by magical characters of color who are helping him find himself — he has agency, and so do they. And then there’s Senor Chang. Oh, Senor Chang.
All of the things Community does to poke holes into stereotypes (in the first episode, Jeff, the lead, turns to a black lunch lady in the cafeteria with his romantic problems, and when he gets the side-eye, as he would in real life, he backtracks quickly, explaining that he was raised on television and it taught him that black women are comforting cosmic mother figures), are things I wish Glee would try to do. There’s a sweetness to Community underneath its tart shell, whereas Glee is the opposite.