Volume VII, Number 1, Spring 2011


"Oh Em Glee: Analyzing Gay Presence in Contemporary American Media" by James H. Harrell III

James Hilton Harrell III received his BS in Policy and Management and Hispanic Studies from Carnegie Mellon University and an MA in Bilingual and Multicultural Education from the University of Alcala-Henares. Currently, he is a Fulbright scholarship recipient in Budapest, Hungary. Email:

Introduction

American mainstream media has made concerted efforts to increase the level of disenfranchised groups in recent program content.  These concerted efforts have gone outside of the traditional ethnic differences, and have embarked in relatively new territory, including homosexuality.   While this inclusion of more diversity may superficially appear to be a good thing, one must wonder about how these representations contribute to the audience’s perception of homosexuality. Shugart (2003) argues that the representations of minorities reflect the biases of the enfranchised social groups (67).  Several scholars (Shugart 2003, Waggoner & Hallstein 2001, Dow 2001) have questioned specific representations of gay characters.  In fact, Vito Russo (1996) argues that homosexuality is defined in Hollywood by its aversion to traditional masculine norms (238).

I share similar concerns as they scholars, but value the advances made in more recent television programming, specifically those involving high school characters and their depictions of “out” young people.  Although homosexuality has gained a stronger presence with these depitctions, this presence has ultimately come at the expense of females.

Glee, stands out amongst others as the epitome of a show with an unapologetically queer high-school character, Kurt HummelKurt is a unique depiction of homosexuality in several regards; mainly that he does not follow the typical depictions of queer lead adult characters.  In this essay, I argue that Kurt’s character in Glee expands the heterosexual male privilege in two manners. First, he dominates his relationship with other female characters (as typical of  adult gay characters on television).  Second, his aversion of traditional gender norms and the subsequent embrace of these effeminate traditions by his heterosexual peers serve to normalize homosexual behavior and thusly, expand heterosexual privilege.  Unlike previous works (Shugart 2003) I do not find that homosexuality is recoded as heterosexual behavior, rather Kurt’s atypical masculine behavior serves as a catalyst for other male characters to expand the typical definition of masculinity. 

Glee: The TV Show

Glee is a composite situation musical comedy airing on the Fox network. The show centers on a group of misfit high school students who join a glee club led by a former glee club all-star and current teacher at the high school, Mr. Schuster.  In general, the glee club’s ultimate objective for season one was to win the sectional and regional tournaments.  The norms of the show are typical to the high school situation comedy genre; each show ending with a lesson learned and several songs sung.  For the purpose of my analysis, I will focus centrally on the first season and first half of the second season.

Since its inception and clever marketing, Glee has garnered relatively high ratings, becoming this season’s number one entertainment series among teenagers and a top three series among adults aged 18-49 (About the Show).  Further, as Glee is a musical comedy, it is important to note the relative ubiquity of its music in the States.  There have been over 16 million downloads of Glee songs, which yield the number one soundtrack of 2010, and currently holds the record for the most titles on the Billboard Hot 100 by a non-solo act (Ibid). This record alone should demonstrate the popularity and cultural significance of the show, as the previous record holder was the Beatles.

In addition to being a ratings behemoth, critics have given numerous accolades to the show.  Glee has garnered 19 Emmy and 11 Golden Globe nominations, winning four Emmys and one Golden Globe for its first season (Ibid).  In regards to its music, it has received two Grammy Award nominations (Ibid).  Needless to say, Glee is not just a popular show; it is rapidly becoming a facet of pop culture.

The show’s viewing audience can be seen as engaging in typically heteronormative behavior, and it is therefore exceptionally critical to note the high ratings garnered in the first and second season.  Though gay and lesbian groups have singled the show out, it cannot be assumed that gay and lesbian viewers constitute a majority of the Glee viewership (GLAAD).  In fact, the viewership of teens, those that are chastised most harshly when they venture outside of stereotypical gender norms, is especially pivotal for the significance of my research.

A central argument to my analysis is that all of the students in the glee club are considered to be “freaks.”  This not only includes those who are of traditionally disenfranchised groups; ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, but also the top of the high school social hierarchy: the head cheerleader and starting quarterback.  To document this distinction, we must only note that every character in the Glee club gets “slushied.”  This act of getting “slushied” (or having a frozen drink thrown on an individual’s face and clothing) is the hallmark feature of being a member of the Glee club and identified as a “freak.”

In regards to sexual minorities, Kurt is the only openly gay character.  Other male characters include: Finn, Puck, and Mike Chang which all identify as heterosexual.  Further, all of these heterosexual characters are beacons of masculinity, playing football for the high school team and engaging in bad boy behavior.  It should also be noted that, while all are in the glee club, nearly every male character except Kurt was coerced or tricked into joining.  In the first episode, the glee club sponsor, Mr. Schuster, planted marijuana on Finn to force him to join. 

Kurt’s hetero-dominance with females

Previously scholarly work (Schugart 2003) has focused on the relationships between gay characters and their heterosexual female best friends.  In particular, Schuster (2003) focuses on these relationships and ultimately believes that they serve to recode and renormalize homosexual behavior as heterosexual privilege.  Fundamentally, Kurt’s character on Glee follows several characteristics of this expansion of heterosexual privilege, but ultimately provides a counterexample to traditional masculinity; thus negating her claim that homosexuals on television become recoded as heterosexuals. Kurt has much closer relationships to the female members of the glee club, and exerts an asymmetric level of control and privilege in these relationships.

Speaking of this type of relationship, Jacob (1998) notes, the gay-man/hetero-gal duo has become the pop-culture relationship du juor, theÉsafe, lucrative way to package gay characters for the heartlandÉOn one hand, there’s enough gayness to grab some hipster cred and lots of Oscar Wilde-ish repartee. On the other, the straight gal keeps the scripts from drifting into Joe Six-pack-alienating Ellen territory” (15).  Jacobs writing in 1998, when Will and Grace was a brand new show, had no idea of the ubiquity of this relationship in the future.  The pairing of Kurt and his favorite gal-pal, Mercedes, follows the norms of the gay male/heterosexual female television relationship through several facets, mainly the romantic and virtually paternal aspects of their relationship.

Love is in the Air

A main component of this gay man/straight woman relationship is the seemingly constant flirtation with the idea of the two becoming a bona fide couple.  These new couples, with at-odd sexual orientations, have all appearances of the star-crossed lovers of the 21st century.  This has been evidenced in nearly all-mainstream portrayals of the relationship of network television.  Perhaps best epitomized by the characters of Will Truman and Grace Adler, Kurt and Mercedes are the modern day high school singing versions of Will and Grace.

A romantic relationship is seemingly established between Mercedes and Kurt at the onset of the show, while Kurt has not yet come out (a story pattern similar to that in Will and Grace).  When Kurt eventually refuses Mercedes’ advances, Mercedes acts like a spoiled child throwing a tantram and destroys Kurt’s vehicle singing, “I’ll bust the windows out your car” (Acafellas).

Although Mercedes is supportive of Kurt when he outs himself; the romantic subtext of their relationship persists.  In the second season, Kurt laments to Mercedes that she has substituted him for her boyfriend, a notion that Mercedes readily takes to heart (The Substitute).  The intimacy between Kurt and Mercedes is one of the duo’s central tenants and one that is crucial to Mercedes’ character development.  Her only other romantic relationship was with fellow Glee clubber, Puck. This momentarily fling was a trivial attempt to gain social status by Puck, and one that could not reach the paramount emotional significance of Kurt and Mercedes (Laryingitis).

Kurt Knows Best

Kurt exceeds an atypical amount of dominance with his female relationships, which can be seen when he faces a crisis.  The main two crises that Kurt has dealt with has been his coming out and his father’s heart attack.  In both instances, Kurt made his own decisions, relatively ignoring the advice of his female counterpoints.  More importantly, the advice that he doles out is readily adopted by Mercedes.

Kurt’s coming out to his father was by far the most poignant and important storyline for his character development.  Kurt reveals himself to Mercedes, soothing her feelings of rejection from his refusal of a relationship (Acafellas).  As soon as Kurt reveals himself, Mercedes encourages himself to tell the other members of the glee club, a notion which Kurt immediately dismisses.  Kurt comes out to his father, glee club, and football team on his terms and in his own time, ignoring the advice from his female friends.

In the second season, Kurt is faced with an emotional crisis as his father has a heart attack.  Kurt is atheist, which confounds all of the glee club members, especially Mercedes.  Mercedes takes on the role of the dual role of nagging wife and whiny child, as she consistently batters Kurt to come to her church to pray for his father (Grilled Cheesus).  Ultimately, Kurt relents to go to church with Mercedes, but remarks that it is mainly for the fancy hat that he gets to wear (Ibid).  More importantly, at the conclusion of the episode, Kurt does not change his religious opinion and does not believe that God has helped in the healing of his father.  As illustrated, when Kurt is in crisis, he makes his own decisions, often ignoring the advice of his female friends.

While Kurt has the ability of self-determination, Mercedes seems nearly dependent on Kurt for all aspects of her life.  From fashion to the general, Kurt seems dominant in all aspects of her life.  When Kurt grows tired of Mercedes clinginess to him, he sets her up with a date (Laryingitis).  As Kurt decides that their reputation isn’t “bad enough,” he comes up with a plan to give themselves a new reputation (Bad Reputation).  This plan calls for them to pull a series of boisterous pranks in the school, including disturbing a library’s study session, stealing private property from a teacher, and posting a defamatory video on the Internet (Ibid).  For Kurt, Mercedes is able to sacrifice her academic and romantic life.  Kurt certainly does not extend this same privilege to Mercedes.

Kurt’s effeminate behavior

As previously stated, marginalized groups reflect the biases and interests of the public agenda (Shugart 2003 67). In the case of Glee, heteronormativity is renormalized by repeated discussion of Kurt’s sexuality.  Unlike previous homosexual characters on television (e.g. Will from Will and Grace), there is very little question about Kurt’s sexual orientation, albeit the show does not immediately have Kurt self-identify as gay. 

Shugart (2003 70) argues that by forcing gay characters into heteronormative behavior that it ultimately serves to “enrich and strengthen specifically heteronormative social and political sensibilities,” a point well-noted regularly by other scholars (Dow 2001; Fejes & Petrich 1993; Gross 2001). What if unlike Will and Grace and other works, there is no “straight” gay character?  How then is homosexuality reflected in heteronormative behavior for the viewing audience?  Simply put, without a foil, straight characters adopt this behavior, as the male characters in Glee have done.

Kurt’s character is almost entirely consistent with the notions of gay men in American culture, which assumes that homosexuality is correlated to femininity.  Kurt loves show tunes, has a flair for fashion, speaks and sings in a high voice, and has a penchant for carrying himself as a female might legs crossed and arms primly placed in his lap.  In fact, when he comes out to his father, his father’s response is ‘I’ve known since you were three.  All you wanted for your birthday was a pair of sensible heels’ (Preggers). Not only does the proverbial shoe fit, but Kurt wears them fiercely.

There should be no misnomer; Kurt is teased heavily because of his sexual orientation at the high school.  However, this degree of teasing is met by nearly all members of the glee club, not simply Kurt. Though, unlike others, Kurt has the distinct advantage of marketing his homosexuality, allowing his heterosexual peers to adopt his behavior and gain social currency.  This adoption grants heterosexuals more social privilege, as they are able to now venture into typical feminine behaviors and avoid social castigation.  This is evidenced in two distinct manners, primarily through Kurt’s dancing and personal style.

On a relative whim, Kurt becomes the kicker for his high school football team, a position that he hopes will grant him a closer bond with his father.  Kurt is successful at this position, but only when he warms up to Beyoncé‘s song, “Single Ladies.”  This song, by its very title, is a song of female empowerment and outside of typical male norms.  Indeed, the music video for “Single Ladies,” which features three strong female dancers in leotards, high heels, and poofed hair is virtually iconic, producing dozens of parodies and cultural commentaries (Herndon).  Imaginably, the dance itself is quite feminine; with legs kicked high and butts dropped low.

Thus, when Kurt first starts to teach his ultra-macho football team the Single Ladies dance, they confront him with misgivings.  Kurt assures them that if they adopt his queer behavior and readily express it, that he will be able to perform well.  Kurt argues, ‘my body is like a rum chocolate soufflé.  If I don’t warm it up right, it doesn’t rise’ (Preggers).  His argument wins over the team, who not only learn the dance, but also performs it in front of a stunned opposing football team.  This allows Kurt to win the football game for the team, a relatively uncommon feat for this high school.  Further, it tangibly justifies the use of Kurt’s feminine behavior for the ultra-macho football team—-if these boys adopt queer behavior, they can win football games and social currency.

A second episode that clearly supports this expansion of heterosexual men into the realm of homosexual behavior is the “theatricality” or Lady Gaga episode.  Lady Gaga is a clearly established gay icon with her fashion, music, and social activism (Pilecki). Thus, when the glee club is assigned to cover one of her songs for the week’s assignments, it seems obvious that Kurt will be the only boy that is excited to do such an assignment.  In fact, the other male students complain so much, that they are given a different assignment and perform a Kiss song.      

Kurt and the other female glee club members perform a bold rendition of Lady Gaga’s song “Bad Romance,” and feel inspired to wear salacious costumes throughout the school several days following their performance.  As Kurt saunters through his high school hallways he is ridiculed and “slushied,” as too are his colleagues in Gaga-attire. As they are “slushied,” it is their clothing and membership of the glee club that is labeled as the cause, not Kurt’s gender-bending sexuality (Theatricality).

Later in the episode, fellow glee club member, Finn, attacks Kurt for his sexuality calling one of his personal decorations ‘faggy’ (Ibid).  Kurt’s father overhears this insult and questions Finn’s motivations by saying:

What, you think I didn’t use that word when I was your age? You know, some kid gets clocked in practice we tell him to stop being such a fag, shake it off. We meant it exactly the way you meant it. That being gay is wrong. That’s some kind of punishable offense. I really thought you were different, Finn. You know, I thought that being in Glee Club, and being raised by your mom, meant that you were some, you know, new generation of dude who saw things differently. Who just kinda, you know, came into the world knowing what it’s taken me years of struggling to figure out. I guess I was wrong.

This quotation and the powerful dialogue were strong revelations in the character development of Kurt and how he deals with the heterosexual world.  His father, by many tokens a Joe Six-Pack beacon of masculinity, not only validates and accepts his son as equal, but causes Finn to reevaluate his heteronormative behavior. 

Finn’s reevaluation and eventual acceptance of Kurt’s sexuality is done through a typically bold Hollywood gesture; his dressing up in costume eons outside of his heterosexual quarterback world.  In fact, with bedazzled eye make-up and high heels, he challenges the more closeted and gender-defined members of the football team to a physical confrontation.  Not only can Finn lead the football team and be a beacon of heterosexuality, but he doesn’t have to follow the strict gender norms of fashion to do so. By standing up to these football brutes, Finn is looked upon as a hero by the other members of the glee club, gaining him an even broader fan base.

With Great Power

Kurt’s character in Glee presents a unique depiction of the gay man.  In particular, his interactions with both women and men create a broader scope of male privilege.  Continuing with previous scholarly work (Schugart 2003), Kurt does indeed embrace the social dominance in his relationship with his best heterosexual friend, Mercedes.  His paternalistic dominance and toying suggestion of a relationship expand male privilege because these representations express a degree of sexual entitlement heterosexual men can no longer apply in a politically correct world.  Further, as his behavior is co-opted by heterosexuals, the world of the heterosexual male is further expanded and men are granted more privilege, as the traditional boundaries of socially appropriate behavior is expanded, and men are able to act feminine, but do so in a socially rewarding manner.

But, what does all of this expansion of privilege actually mean outside of Glee?  My conclusions are two-fold.  First, Kurt’s power over females has a negative effect on the representations of women.  Second, the adoption of behavior by heterosexual males serves to expand privilege by allowing men access to new social norms and a potential broader access to women.  Ultimately, Kurt serves to reestablish traditional gender politics by providing a patriarchal pop culture icon.

Kurt is the representation of the perfect boyfriend; with his rationality, strong-decision making and communication skills, he would surely make any girl happy.  The power that Kurt exudes over Mercedes is especially concerning, as it relies on the portrayal of women as weak, fragile, and irrational.  Surely, if Mercedes cannot understand that Kurt would never fall in love with her, she would never be able to make rational decisions on her own.  This portrayal of women is blatantly sexist, but “doesn’t count” because the gay men are the ones who perpetuate such issues.

The adoption of queer behavior by heterosexual male characters serves to recode heteronormativity and expand the behaviors of male characters on the show.  As previously stated with Mercedes, gay men have substantial power over women as the chauvinist portrayal has been legitimized through various facets.  How far before these men are not able to simply kick high and wear make-up, but exert patriarchal power over their female counterparts? How queer one must be before his behavior “no longer counts” as sexist to females?  These questions are alarming, and with the blending of female and male gender norms, it is one that will be increasingly pressing. 

 

Works Cited

  • Acafellas.” Glee. Writ. Ryan Murphy. Dir. John Scott.  Fox. Season 1, Episode 3. Original Air Date: 2009-9-16.
  • Dow, B.J. (2001). Ellen, television, and the politics of gay and lesbian visibility.  Critical Studies in Media Communication, 18, 123-140.
  • Fejes, F. & Petrich, K. 1993. Invisibility, Homophobia, and Heterosexism: Lesbians, Gays, and the Media. Critical Studies in Media Communication 10 (4): 396-422.
  • GLAAD. “Award Recipients for the 21st Annual GLAAD Media Awards Đ New York.” GLAAD. April 17, 2010. Web. Jan. 21, 2011. http://www.glaad.org/mediaawards/21/ny/recipients
  • Gross, Larry. 2001. Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and Media in America. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • “Grilled Cheesus” Glee. Writ. Brad Falchuk. Dir. Alfonso Gomez Rejon. Season 2, Episode 3. Original Air Date: 2010-10-05
  • Herndon, Jessica. “Inside Story: The Making of Beyonce’s Single Ladies.” People. 2010-01-01. http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20333961,00.html
  • Jacobs, A.J. (1998, 23 October).  When gay men happen to straight women.  Entertainment Weekly, 20-25.
  • “Laryingitis.” Glee. Writ. Ryan Murphy. Dir. Alfonso Gomez Rejon. Season 1, Episode 18.  Original Air Date: 2010- 05- 11
  • Pilecki, Matthew E. “Inside gay icons — why their appeal?” EDGE Boston. 2010-03-08. http://www.edgeboston.com/index.php?ch=entertainment&sc=celebrities&sc3=&id=103162
  • Russo, V. (1981). The celluloid closet: Homosexuality in the movies.  New York: Harper & Row.
  • Shugart, H.A., Waggoner, C.E., & Hallsteing, L.O. (2001).  Mediating third-wave feminism: Appropriation as postmodern media practice.  Critical Studies in Media Communication, 18, 194-210.
  • Shugart, H. A. (2003).  Reinventing Privilege: The New (Gay) Man in Contemporary Popular Media.  Critical Studies in Media Communitication. 20, 67-91.
  • “The Substitute.” Glee. Writ. Ian Brennan. Dir. Ryan Murphy.  Fox. Season 2, Episode 7. Original Air Date: 2010-11-16.