Sunday, December 13, 2009

I call foul

It is 3 AM in New York, and I am wide awake. As usual. So, to fill the endless hours of not-sleeping goodness, I decided to catch up on my Glee, which was 3 weeks behind. If you are not caught up, you might want to stop reading now. I'll leave a nice big space so you have time to avert your eyes.

OK, all good? Here's the thing. I have had problems with the show in the past, particularly with its treatment of disability. But I was willing to overlook them because of the good things it was doing, like casting actually disabled actors to play disabled people. No, not Artie. I mean Becky, the cheerleader with Downs, and Sue's sister with Downs; both actresses actually do have Downs Syndrome. Kudos to Ryan Murphy for that.

But the last few episodes got into heavily misogynist territory that I suppose was foreshadowed by the total lack of positive portrayals of adult women, and I'm just not sure I can go back to it. I mean, of course I will--I study musicals for a living--but with more reservations than I had and with far less enthusiasm. Let me give a brief rundown for those who missed it:

1. Terri Schuester was featured prominently. Never a good thing, as she is a one-dimensional character who consists solely of all of the negative stereotypes about well-off white women rolled into one unbelievable irritant. The existence of characters like Terri in popular media (at least two of my students wrote about Glee on their final exams) is what leads directly to several of my female students asserting confidently that one characteristic of being a woman is being manipulative and "deceiving."

2. Sue Sylvester got suspended from work. Not really a bad thing, as the character is a horrendous influence on her students, but the way in which it happened involved Principal Figgins smirking at the camera, having finally gotten the better of her. The scene made it crystal clear that he had felt "emasculated" by her authority and had now "put her in her place." Ugh.

3. Britney the cheerleader finally had some lines. At least she's maybe a lesbian; that would make her marginally interesting. The rest of her character is patently useless and reminiscent of that stupid Barbie that said math was hard. Toss in some offensive lines about seizures and you have a particularly poisonous cocktail.

4. Emma Pillsbury tries to make life decisions on her own. Clearly they are fatally flawed decisions until she lets a man make them for her. I don't even want to begin to explore this one.

5. The most troubling for last. The scene in which Will finds out that Terri isn't pregnant was horrifying. Flat out terrifying. It drew upon countless scenes (both filmed and, presumably, real) of husbands confronting their wives with evidence of "misbehavior" of some kind, scenes that usually end with acts of horrendous violence against women. This one didn't, but for me it triggered almost the same feelings in anticipation. When he demanded that she lift up her shirt, ostensibly to reveal her pregnancy pad, it was with enough anger and venom in his voice that it could have been the prelude to a rape scene. Especially since they had already introduced the "Will wants to have sex but Terri won't let him see her naked" theme earlier. Watching him demand his marital right to see Terri's body, and physically grabbing her wrist to do it, was nauseating, off-putting, and just completely beyond the pale.

Compare the episode in question to this post on Shakesville featuring Patrick Stewart campaigning in a gut-wrenchingly personal way to end violence against women. Clearly, powerful white men in "the industry" have no compelling need to be misogynist assholes. It's a deliberate choice, and an indefensible one. I will be writing a letter to the producers to let them know, as soon as I can figure out how/where.


Claudia said...

This is going to be long. Very long.

I have enjoyed the show although I have also (obviously) had a lot of problems with it. I can forgive a good bit because...although the disability stuff is often treated poorly, it IS treated. Which is more than I can say for most other shows. And I do give credit for that. But to respond to your points...

1. I can't even tell you how many college-age women I know who consistently talk about how "they can't stand girls and that's why all their closest friends are guys" and it drives me absolutely crazy.

2. I agree with you on the treatment of this, but really, aside from our hero, Will Shuester, all the adults are chronically awful. Figgins is spineless, Emma is crazy, the coach (blanking on his name) is gross, Sue is mean, Terri is a liar.

3. I watched the episode long enough ago to not remember this well.

4. Another part I don't remember well, but I find Emma to be an incredibly annoying character in general. I think that she bothers me possibly more than Sue or Terri because she really is so...powerless. And clearly Will is the golden boy and all, so it's obvious why she's in love with him...but why he's in love with her seems to be largely because she's in love with him. I don't know what to make of that.

5. I did find this scene very troubling because they did go to great lengths to show that although Will was THAT ANGRY he is far too Good and would never really hurt his wife. And she clearly deserved that sort of anger. I felt like we were supposed to see not beating his wife as some sort of heroic act. Like anyone else would have in that situation but he is all Goodness and Light.

However, I wasn't really troubled by the "Will wants to have sex but Terri doesn't". Maybe I am too forgiving of it, but I felt like as soon as Terri said she didn't want to Will backed away immediately, apologized and...asked her about her day maybe? I don't remember exactly what happened next, but I did read that scene as fairly positive. And maybe that's venturing a little bit too much into the What A Hero He Is For Not Raping Her territory, but I was ok with it.

I think perhaps the most troubling theme to this whole show is the fact that Will and Finn are such heros, such martyrs, done wrong by their women. Most of the other characters are flawed to varying degrees, and I'm having trouble parsing out who is intended to be a Positive character, a Negative character, and so on.

I told you it would be long. We should discuss at greater length (because clearly this wasn't long enough) when I am home in a week.

The Mirrorball Man said...

I see all your points, and I'm not disagreeing with some of the negative portrayals of women in the show. But there are also plenty of examples of both negative portrayals of men, as well as positive portrayals of women.

For example, although Sue is manipulative, she is also a self-made, successful woman who is charitable to those with disabilities. I think Figgins's smirk wasn't about putting a woman into place, but rather about having someone who has always bested him get put into his or her place. Figgins has had that look often, and it never struck me as being misogynistic.

It is true that Emma has made bad decisions on her own; but so have all the characters. The whole show is riddled with people making bad decisions. But if anything, she was the only one able to stand up and say "I've sent in my resignation." It wasn't until that point that Will said "I've just left my wife" and admitted that his marriage was over. In a way, it took a strong woman to get an (arguably) strong man to make a decision.

I was a little struck by the confrontation too; I did think it really bordered on violence when he seized her and tore her dress. That was, perhaps, too far and I acknowledge that. But I never thought of it as him demanding a "marital right," but rather him trying desperately to keep together the relationship. It is the same as the lengths she has gone to keep it together as well.

I agree that there are certainly many situations in the show where women have been portrayed negatively, and sometimes the treatment of people with disabilities has been hit or miss. But I think it's very easy to pick out those situations because they are so pervasive in society. When you look at the men:

Will may be the golden boy, but he appears oblivious at times, makes plenty of his own bad decisions (like when he started that singing group and left Glee), and displays a pervasive lack of confidence (like when he wanted to try Hairography).

Figgins is perpetually bested by other people, is very money focused, and appears very gullible.

Ken is oblivious, disgusting, and downright manipulative to get his way at times (like proposing to Emma simply so he wouldn't lose her), then dumping her at the altar.

Puck is a lying, cheating scumbag who "sexts" with other people while proclaiming to like Quinn.

Finn is downright stupid at times, makes some really bad life decisions, and quite frankly, is not a good singer.

I think many of these highlight male stereotypes, or at least portray men in negative lights as well. They aren't as "bad" as negative portrayals of women, because men still have a distinctive advantage in today's society, and women are still victims of domestic violence, still receive lower wages, and still face discrimination.

But I think it's important sometimes to reflect on the fact that it's hard to do a show that portrays women only positively, and places the character flaws only in the women. I think at times, perhaps the character flaws in women in the show do show up too close on the borderline, but I think they have their fair share of making ALL characters have flaws.

Just my two cents. :-)

The Mirrorball Man said...


"But I think it's important sometimes to reflect on the fact that it's hard to do a show that portrays women only positively, and places the character flaws only in the men*."