Unless you have been living under a TV rock this past year, you have no doubt heard of Fox’s hit show, Glee. Part musical, part melodrama, part satire, Glee follows the daily lives of a high school glee club and associated adults. Due to its reliance on stereotypes, Glee walks a fine line between progressivism and tired tropes, between reinforcing these stereotypes and pointing out their absurdity. While successful in some arenas (such as homophobia), this balance is particularly shaky when it comes to gender. Despite its seemingly progressive nature, Glee relies on traditional gender expectations to a dangerous extent, as evidenced by its use of romance, pregnancy, and even unacknowledged rape.
To say much of Glee revolves around romance is a bit like saying the club sings songs sometimes. Rachel is into Finn who is dating Quinn, until Finn and Quinn break up and he and Rachel date for a while until he breaks up with her and she begins dating Jesse, only she and Finn are still in love and then Jesse betrays Rachel and Rachel and Finn become an item. Will is married to Terri but has a thing with Emma who is going to marry Ken until Terri and Will split up and Will and Emma kiss, only then Will kisses another woman and Emma and Will split up and Emma starts dating a dentist and then Will kisses her again. And that’s not even getting into the side-characters’ love lives.
What is telling about these romances, however, is just how dependent they are on traditional gender roles. Take the break-up between Rachel and Finn. The initiator, Finn, is driven by very predictably “male” motivations: lust, and a dislike of actually listening to his girlfriend talk. Granted, some degree of restlessness can be expected due to his recent breakup with Quinn, and Finn does regret his decision and spends a good chunk of the first season pining after Rachel. That said, the basic story is still this: a guy leaves his clingy girl for other hot chicks, a plotline that is not only cliché but also insulting to both men and women.
The story between Will and Emma is nearly identical, only in this case, Emma all but disappears from the show after their quasi-breakup. Now that she and Will are no longer steeped in unresolved sexual tension, she has served her purpose on the show.
Intertwined with these romances are the pregnancy storylines, which range from predictable to borderline offensive. Both are based on one fundamental idea: women lie.
First there is Terri, Will’s shrew of a wife. Terri is the one with the power in their dysfunctional relationship, which of course means that she is both manipulative and emotionally abusive. When Terri believes herself to be pregnant, she is thrilled, as this means she can keep Will with her; when Terri learns this was a “hysterical pregnancy,” a false pregnancy brought upon by her own womanly emotions, she decides upon the most logical course of action: to lie to Will and fake a pregnancy for several months, going so far as to blackmail a doctor into showing her husband another woman’s ultrasound.
When Will learn of this deception, he is understandably upset. Who wouldn’t be? To the show’s credit, his pain and his love for Terri and his would-be unborn child are palpable, and the show does not shy away from allowing Will to tear up. Unfortunately, the show also does not shy away from making the scene in which Will learns of Terri’s betrayal downright offensive.
In theory, the scene of Will’s realization is a tragically honest depiction of pain, hurt, and horror for both Will and Terri. In actuality, it portrays borderline physical abuse, with Will grabbing Terri’s wrist, pushing her against a wall, and violently ripping the pregnancy pad off of her stomach.
This borderline abuse is also portrayed as justified behavior from the show’s seemingly ‘good’ and ‘admirable’ protagonist. After all, Will’s emotional reaction is understandable, is it not? And he’s merely acting out his pain. And it’s not as if he actually hits Terri, just overpowers her and scares her a little.
Considering that one in four women in the United States suffer from domestic abuse at some point in their lifetimes, according to the National Institute of Justice and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, such a message is dangerous, reinforcing the popular idea that there exists an acceptable level of abuse. Unlike Terri’s deception, which happens rarely and, to this extent, probably never, this sort of partner violence happens all the time.
And yet, the behavior condemned is not that of the man grabbing a woman’s wrist and backing her up against a wall.
Quinn’s pregnancy storyline is not much better. She, too, lies about her pregnancy—not about its existence, but about the father. The father, you see, is Puck, an irresponsible jock who does little more than bully others or sleep around. Despite his low intellect, her boyfriend Finn is at least somewhat responsible and loyal, and he is taken advantage of by Quinn again and again: for example, he takes a job to support her and the baby, and his mother even takes Quinn in after her parents kick her out.
To the show’s credit, Quinn is not simply condemned for her premarital coitus and subsequent deception; rather, she is portrayed sympathetically, shown as struggling with acceptance from her peers and even her parents. Nevertheless, the show places the responsibility for the pregnancy on Quinn, even though she was raped.
When Quinn and Puck sleep together, Quinn is drunk. When Quinn expresses hesitation, Puck’s response is, “Here, have another wine cooler.” What the show does not seem to realize, however, is that a drunk person cannot consent. By purposefully getting Quinn drunk in order to have sex with her, Puck rapes her, yet another instance of violence against women that happens all the time.
So much, in fact, that it seems to have become normalized to the point of invisibility. Glee never acknowledges this rape but plays it up as romance, and the responsibility for this sexual activity and for the pregnancy, Glee tells us, rests primarily with Quinn.
Another particularly egregious example of unacknowledged rape also involves drugging. In particular, when Sue Sylvester, the evil gym teacher, wants to blackmail Principal Figgins, she takes him out to dinner, spikes his drink, brings him back to bed, strips him, and takes incriminating pictures. Sue then blackmails the principal by saying she will show the pictures to his wife, thus making his wife think he is having an affair.
Just imagine this sequence of events with the genders switched, with a man spiking a woman’s drink and taking her to bed—it’s more than a little disgusting, isn’t it? At best, Sue merely pretends to have raped Figgins, all the while relying on the expected public perception that they were having an affair.
Instead of focusing on Sue’s actions, the show emphasizes the humor of framing a man for cheating and then plays this plotline for laughs. After all, it is not as if a man can be raped, and especially not by a woman.
As should be evident by now, Glee is not exactly the fun progressive show it makes itself out to be. Nor can it even be considered “just” satire or comedy—the scene where Will finds out the truth of Terri’s pregnancy, for instance, is certainly not played for laughs. By hiding behind humor and common tropes, by writing as if the show exists in a vacuum of character interactions even as it draws on common stereotypes, Glee does a disservice to its viewers. Even as it condemns certain behaviors such as using homosexual slurs, it normalizes gender norms and violence against women. In this way, the show reinforces such behaviors even as it makes them invisible by never acknowledging its own usage of them.
A mainstream show holds a responsibility to be aware of the messages it sends out. Unfortunately, Glee does not even seem aware of its own gendered storylines and themes.