Vision Malevolent #5: How Glee Played Against Stereotypes and Lost

Back from a completely unprofessional one week hiatus, it’s Vision Malevolent. And for the very first time, a VM that’s not about Project Runway.

 

It’s about The Fashion Show!

 

Kidding. It’s about Glee.

 

Glee’s pretty much built their reputation off undermining and inverting clichés. It’s the essence of the show. The kid in the wheelchair is less mature because of his ailment. The golden boy wunderkind teacher turns out to be a completely selfish wanker that spends 90% of the time giving less than a damn about the kids. The executive producer turns out to be a complete idiot that wouldn’t know “continuity” if it violated his face in a public square.

 

Alright, that last one’s pretty common, but the first two are true, and it’s that ethos that’s vital to the show’s success. without it, the show would be totally vacant. And even when the characters are purposeful clichés, Glee tends to imbue them with enough substance to avoid being hackneyed. For instance, Finn’s the big dim-witted star Quarterback (who apparently is some kind of idiot savant at reading defenses), but he truly loves show choir more than anything and is probably the most tolerant person on the show.

Mainly because he is too dumb to be intolerant.

 

The show is infamous for it’s lack of continuity, but for the most part it treats it’s characters with an empathetic realism. In fact, it’s crucial that the show maintain this minor bit of structural subversiveness; without it, the show becomes desperately maudlin, an emotionally cursory mess. The old criticism that Glee at it’s worse is simply an after-school special with songs isn’t far off.  But Glee has generally had an adroit sense of drama.

 

And this vital because Glee can’t simply fall onto comedy; Strangers with Candy already did the after-school special parody thing, and without even the slightest pretense of realism was able to go much further than Glee ever could for humor. And thus Glee’s best asset, even more so  the rapier dialogue, is the embrace of that realism. It has to find a way to present capable drama, because it has no other choice on a major network. And it essentially has succeeded.

 

But last week, in “Never Been Kissed,” they played that stereotype subversion game and lost. Badly. And, as it turns out, both revolved around climactic kisses. Unfortunately, it involved both the A and B plot, which basically means the show was a dramatic failure. One was a trademark in incredulous search for a WTF moment, the other short-sighted and altogether unoriginal that was appalling safe.

 

The former instance involved new football coach Shannon Beiste. The A-story of the show revolved around the Glee dudes (and Tina) using fantasies of Beiste to murder their erections whilst making out. It was pretty standard fare for a show like Glee, allowing them to use outlandish fantasy sequences they can put in promos and foment buzz about and yet still be cruel enough to have a prescriptive lesson at the end. The kids are smugly satisfied with this plan, at first. Of course, such psychological damage leads to a blow-out, then fallout, and Beiste confronts Will about it.

 

And might I just add that Will did the perfectly honorable thing in this situation. Telling Beiste what the kids were doing was an arduous and certainly painful thing to do, but it was the right thing to do, regardless. A completely principled, respectful, and empathetic decision that a person in authority has to make. A great example for the kids.

 

So why do I feel like it was completely fucking idiotic? Ah, because Will did it, and if Will did it then surely it must have been the stupidest possible decision to make at the time. That’s what Will has become: some sort of abhorrent imbecile with an instinctive tactlessness that’s sole purpose is to complicate the lives of everyone around him, sadistically bringing everyone right up to a breaking point week after week but pulling back at the last moment. And all in the name of fucking a vanilla germophobe. It’d be more humane to just let everything fly off the tracks at this point.

 

Really, he might be one of the most inherently loathsome characters on TV right now. And for the people that use the “What happened to the Will from the Pilot and/or early season 1” argument… that guy planted pot on the quarterback of the football team to blackmail him into joining the show choir because the female lead bullied him into it.

Because's he's a CREEPTURE... OF THE NIGHT

 

So Will tells Beiste the boys are using her visage to push the blood out of their erogenous zone, and this inevitably leads to a excruciatingly long scene where Will tries to console her in the school’s locker room. It’s here that we get the stereotype inversion: turns out Beiste, almost the archetype of the butch lesbian, is actually quite girly and just wants to find love. Not groundbreaking (even on the show, since Sue fits a lesbian archetype as well but happily fucks Neil Patrick Harris), but perfectly acceptable.

 

Beiste then relates to Will that she has never been kissed, even at age 40. And, in fact, the pressure from this, to do this, has only amplified with each successive year. It was a very torturous thing to admit, and certainly not something to take lightly. It’s an intensely personal and agonizing thing that she’s had to deal with for decades, and has now exploded.

 

Will’s reaction?

 

“Wow, I can see that being kissed means an awfully lot to you. Here, let me give you a completely meaningless version of that. Ok, then, problem solved!”

The moment that I truly wished for instant nuclear holocaust. Wishes never come true when you want them to...

 

I cringed. I am still, a full eight days later, frightfully disgusted by this. Not merely that this idiot decided that this condescending, vacant gesture was the right thing to do at that moment, but because he gave her such a soft fucking kiss. That’s the sort of kiss characters share when they give in to urges, like some sort of plot fulfillment romance that has been teased over seasons and has finally culminated. So I guess Glee broke another cliché there, but Pysch did it better by having Shawn and Juliet in that very situation I just described make out voraciously. In a montage no less.

 

What Will did was wrong. In every sense. Probably the worst thing he’s done in a season and a quarter of Glee. Even if it led to a pretty cool mash-up finale, it’s still one of the weirdest things done on the show, a show renowned for senseless plot turns that are instantly forgotten. I pray to Graham Coxon that they ignore this one. I do NOT want romantic tension between Beiste and Will.

 

And, of course, it plays right into PedoWill’s hands:

PedoWill: Devastatingly Accurate

 

Now, that disaster was merely an unfortunate Will moment. I mean, yes, as if there was any other kind…. But it wasn’t instantly detrimental to the show. And pretty universally acknowledged as simply creepy and stupid. The other stereotype subversion is more debatably corrosive, but I also feel more damaging due to it’s short-sightedness and, unfortunately, the safety of the choice itself. It was detrimental because they could have done more with their choice.

 

I’m talking about the decision to have student body bully (with Azimio Adams, as if you didn’t already know the black guy’s name, right?) Dave Karofsky kiss Kurt. The b-story of “Never Been Kissed” involved Kurt’s mission to spy on future rivals The Warblers at a local all-boys high school. Concurrently, the bullying from Dave, sans Azimio (which in retrospect was a clear hint at something bigger), has reached critical mass. And so while Kurt is at Dalton Academy, which is revealed to be some sort of utopia of tolerance and understanding, he questions whether he’d even want to return to McKinley High.

 

Dalton superstar Blaine takes Kurt under his wing, and Blaine really is the sort of insufferable character that has no flaws, is contently rational and measured about everything he encounters, and generally exists to lead a main character somewhere else in their development. I’d really rather they just ship the two fuckers and do something with that, but instead Blaine gives Kurt a speech about standing up to the bullies.

 

Kurt does exactly that the next time Dave’s physical bullying presents itself, following him into the locker room and…

 

Alright, wait a second. Reading this on the page, this is like the textbook gay high school locker room gay porn fantasy. Maybe Ryan Murphy really is living through Kurt. How did people not see this coming? And how did I just make that very unfortunate choice of words in that last sentence? It’s a wonder Dave and Kurt didn’t violently fuck right there, to be honest, which would have been far more sensible than what actually happened.

 

Dave kissed Kurt.

Sure, I expected Mr Shue to try this... but YOU?!

 

Kurt gave Dave a severe dressing down, so Dave realized he was in the midst of slash fanfiction and kissed him, revealing him to be a closet case. Again, it’s not wholly original, the big burly cornfed mid-western football player that’s in reality a repressed gay kid… but it’s at least something with which the Glee writers can work. The problem I have with it, however, is that it’s a safe choice. And more importantly, it’s a contextually safe choice.

 

What I mean is that right now we’re in a legitimate crisis with bullying in schools. We all know this, and if we didn’t every goddamn news outlet has told us about it relentlessly the last few months. Kids are killing themselves and, more importantly, more kids are starting to believe this is a credible choice in the face of bullying. I live in Western Massachusetts. A kid in Springfield, maybe a couple miles from where I grew up, killed himself because of bullying. He was 12. TWELVE. And the story of Phoebe Prince’s suicide, in Springfield suburb South Hadley, has been even more nationally covered.

 

But it’s the homophobic aspects of this wave of self-murder that has garnered the most fervent attention. Given that, what Glee has done with the character of Kurt has been immensely admirable. They’ve treated him with the respect the subject deserves. Kurt has not been given an easy out, something entirely unrealistic that would be totally unreplicable in our world. They’ve been pretty straightforward about how hard things will be for Kurt as an openly gay high schooler.

Like having an crush on this guy.

 

 

But I feel that they shied away from this by having his biggest tormentor be a secretly pining for him. As I said, it’s been done before, but more crucially, it’s just not realistic. Most of the homophobic bullying that goes on is by kids who are not in the slightest bit gay. They are just bullies, nothing more. Cruel, resentful, hateful kids for no other reason than kids are often innately cruel, resentful, and hateful. By having Dave kiss Kurt, they gave the bully the easy way out. “He’s not a bad guy, he’s just struggling with his sexuality!” This doesn’t exist; the real life Dave’s do it because they truly want to hurt people. It’s that simple, and I think that portraying him that way, by having Max Adler play the character by embracing this sort of motivation, could have made for a really powerful and divisive character.

 

And I think they really could have made a difference, as ridiculous and backseat-driver-pompous as it sounds. They could have seriously addressed the sincerely harrowing nature of real life bullying by having Dave’s impulse to physically manhandle Kurt not be driven of a hidden desire to physically man handle Kurt (hur hurr), but because he’s a really bad kid. It’s equally sympathetic; all kids, even the bullied ones, have that dark side. Kurt himself showed it in this week’s episode by the way he kind callously treated Mercedes. But then you go to college and you lose some of that solipsism of youth.

 

But they chose the easy route. They went for a tested storyline that will probably give them more to work with for the plot, instead of putting in the work to actually tackle the most pressing concern in schooling right now. Dave could have been made into a repulsive character, a truly detestable person. But, more importantly, interesting. Meaningful. He could have been a really memorable character. It would have been the dark edge that Glee thrives upon, especially considering that this subplot will always be the b-story in any episode it’s in, anyway. They went for the short-sighted plot twist instead of the relevant one.

 

And, of course, this isn’t even getting into the issue that they chose the white bully instead of the black one for this. Imagine if they went down that avenue.

 

As I’ve said, these were not subversions at the vanguard. And sometimes the real subversion comes in the humanization of the characters. Kurt, for instance, is pretty much the archetype flamboyantly gay kid, but it’s his characterization that makes him a more substantive version of that. It’ll be up to the writers to make this work, for both Dave Karofsky and Shannon Beiste.

 

But they could have done something brilliant with Dave, and chose to be a TV show instead. I’m J. Michael.

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