Guest Blogger

An unrequited love letter to Glee

Filed By Guest Blogger | April 20, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Entertainment, Marriage Equality
Tags: Glee, NYAC, she-male, Sue Sylvester

Editors' Note: Guest blogger jb beeson is deputy executive director for the National Youth Advocacy Coalition.

Dear Glee,jb-headshot.jpg

Let's get this out of the way - I'm a gleek. When I heard about you, I was more than excited - a show about choral singing, musicals, queer folks, outsiders, and teenage angst?  I squealed with my gay posse, once or twice.

But, throughout, your first season, there was this thing that started picking at me. It had to do with the off-hand comments about the principal's ethnicity. Or the way in which the issue of Artie's disability is handled amongst the characters. Or the fact that one character's name is simply, "Other Asian."

I found myself wincing every time I tuned in. And believe me, this isn't a new conflict for me - I grew up watching musicals, which, many of us know, glorify colonialist fantasies, slump in heteronormative ideals, avoid unequal racial and class dynamics, ride out mysogynist fairy tales, and exoticize people of color identities and culture (read: Miss Saigon, Avenue Q, The Music Man, Flower Drum Song, South Pacific, Hairspray. . . ) So, yes, maybe I should not be so surprised that these narratives are playing out in my new favorite showtune television show.

On Tuesday, April 13th, the opening scene in which Coach Sue Sylvester is shown cutting the ponytail off a student, calling that person a "shemale," then recommending that the student use the hair to "donate to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, they can use it to plug the holes in their trailers." Really, Glee, really? Something snapped for me and I had to draw a line - that is not OK. It's not funny. You tempt me to watch you, then, you commit an aural act of violence against me - you slap my gender nonconforming identity, then you belittle people's struggles in one of the worst US natural disasters in my memory. Whoa. This might surprise you, but, somehow my queer outsider friends and I find ways to have fun and make jokes WITHOUT saying things that demonize or marginalize other people.

It's been one time too many that I have been made to turn off my political consciousness and tendency towards radical critique for me to let it slide one more time. As a queer youth of color, I have grown up consuming culture, pop culture specifically, that required me to check one or more of my identities. Watching you, Glee, has meant that I had to quiet my anger over your ablism and racism, in order to celebrate my love for the very gay culture of musicals and choral singing. I can even accept the tongue-in-cheek tokenism and the interesting way that you approach gag-worthy "rainbow coalition" diversity ideals.

What if I was a closeted youth in the a rural area and all I had to educate myself to "gay" culture was Tuesday nights with Glee? Would you be teaching me that I need to adhere to a gender normative binary and not worry myself with considering social injustice and unequal power dynamics? Would this be part of constructing a "gay" agenda, culture, and lifestyle that churns out a privileged, narcissistc gay community that seeks hetero ideals of marriage and gentrifies whole neighborhoods without notice?

I thought we were friends, Glee, you dazzled me with flashy numbers, flamboyant characters, dramatic twists, and the Broadway hero guest appearances. Is it your dad, Fox, that is making you act this way?

Even as I write this love/hate letter to you, I'm listening to the "Hello, Goodbye," song from that incriminating episode. If you do not start playing nice soon, I might have to say "goodbye," soon.


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JB, Sue Sylvester is a hateful character. She treats everybody in the same hateful manner. She even mistreated her own cheerleaders. She is an equal opportunity hater. If she was only picking on Kurt or Artie, and leaving everybody else alone I would be offended too. But she is not.

This seems to be a trend on Bilerico now: Pick a cultural production that offends you, and write about it. You're guaranteed a minimum of a 100 comments and thousands of hits. Meanwhile, the level of discourse in these discussions drops to a dismal level and everybody's happy to have engaged in the usual finger-wagging.

First, let me be clear: I don't have tv and don't watch Glee. But I did go to

http://gleewiki.fox.com/page/Sue+Sylvester

Elsewhere, Sylvester is described as "diabolical."

and it seems patently obvious that Coach Sylvester is not a sympathetic character. Something like the "shemale" comment and "donate to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, they can use it to plug the holes in their trailers" is truly hideous, but this is a tv show, is it not? At what point do we decide that every word uttered by even the most noxious characters is to be thoroughly vetted by a board presumably dominated by GLAAD and representatives from every possible minority community? Do we now decide that even the most nauseating characters must couch their sentiments in speech that has first been vetted - without in any way reflecting the very real and, yes, crappy politics of real life people.

As for closeted youth in rural areas, please, stop being so condescending and give them more credit and understand that not everyone is so credulous as to believe that a tv show will reflect the reality of their lives. Some of our finest and best and most biting and satirical queer talent came from those areas.

As for: "Would this be part of constructing a "gay" agenda, culture, and lifestyle that churns out a privileged, narcissistc gay community that seeks hetero ideals of marriage and gentrifies whole neighborhoods without notice?" I'm not sure I get the connection - and I'm someone who has been consistent in her critique of this gay agenda. Since I don't watch the show, I'm happy to be enlightened: Does Glee, in your view, actually encourage this gay agenda? Isn't that a bit too much sophistication to ascribe to a tv show? Could you tease out the connection between this statement and your larger piece? If anything, it seems to me that the rather easy form of critique you've handed us here is actually part of the gay agenda, an agenda which seeks easy solutions by blaming representations but cares not a whit about systemic and systematic exploitation and degradation.

And lastly, why are we all so bent on criticising tv shows and other, ahem, fictitious creations when there are far more damaging "representations" of real-life people on hand, which create, in my opinion, far more lasting damage to individuals whose very privacy and dignity are stripped away from them in mug shots series and reality shows about spotting the "real women"?

http://www.bilerico.com/2010/03/wtf_nbcs_dude_looks_like_a_lady_edition_of_mug_sho.php

Could it be because it's much easier to hammer away at a tv show than it it is to stand up for the rights and dignity of sex workers? And to then take on the larger issues like the way the prison industrial complex neatly dovetails with such stigmatising? And that the larger LGBT population is overly fond of the PIC which generates the kind of hatred towards real people who don't fit and who aren't the perfectly coiffed transgender people we want to valourise and so on? And that the GLAAD-led LGBT community would much rather forget that there are actually *real* people who go through life stigmatised as "she-males" or "dudes in women's clothing?"

I know that someone will inevitably rise up here to say that one can do both - criticise cultural productions and real-life mug shot series/tv shows - and perhaps you too will now let us know that you do indeed work with sex workers and so on. Here's the problem - I don't see anyone taking on the latter in a sustained fashion and I see them as far, far more harmful.

But, as I said, I'm apparently in a minority for not having seen Glee, and will no doubt be assailed for daring to question what seems to have become a habit around here: Pick a show or movie and write about how it offends you.

Enjoy the commentary and the ride.

Yasmin,

I'm somewhat surprised to see you taking such a strong position when you haven't seen the show so soon after hammering myself and others for daring to criticize something we hadn't seen in it's entirety. I also feel I should mention to you that I've noticed about half or more of your comments I've seen in the past several months have been you telling trans and genderqueer people that their concerns about transphobia are not valid/important enough/etc.

I acknowledge you tend to have valid motivations for it, but as an overall pattern it's disconcerting. Perhaps complaining over the use of derogatory slurs in television shows isn't the most productive thing to do. But I certainly see the validity in the frustrations that certain slurs would not be okay to air on television (even when said by a villain), yet slurs about trans people are common and tend to go unchallenged -- except for the occasional trans/genderqueer person who quickly gets shouted down for being oversensitive.

I appreciate your advocating other important issues, such as sex workers. If you want to see some examples of sustained work on that topic, I'd suggest $pread magazine, the SF sex workers writing workshop, SWOP, and others. There are whole blogs dedicated to the topic. You should also be aware that many of us do work offline, locally, in performance, and other settings. I'm sure you could find quite a lot more with a little more effort.

In comparison with sex worker advocacy, spending 600 words on a post criticizing a television show does seem less significant. However, I'd suggest you hold yourself to that same standard. Out of all the things you could be doing with your writing, is spending 700 words (on this comment alone) telling trans/genderqueer activists that their concerns are invalid/unimportant really the most effective use of your energy? Because you are giving the impression that you believe trans/genderqueer activists calling out transphobia in the media are guilty of something more significant and worthy of criticism than the media they are calling out.

Tobi,

As for: "I'm somewhat surprised to see you taking such a strong position when you haven't seen the show so soon after hammering myself and others for daring to criticize something we hadn't seen in it's entirety."

First, the issue with Ticked Off Trannies was not that no one had seen it and was still criticising it - the issue was that none of those who wanted to censor it outright the first time around had even seen it. And as I made clear over and over - I wouldn't be in favour of censoring the film even after I'd seen it. Anyone who wants to rehash the old arguments can check the bilerico blogs on the film.

Secondly, I made larger and general points which you've ignored. I was careful to point out that I haven't seen it; I could have easily lied or simply obfuscated by simply defending the show without letting on that I haven't seen it.

But more importantly, it should be clear that I have no interest in defending or critiquing Glee - I'm simply struck by a recent repetitious impulse around here to criticise cultural productions for not adhering to certain norms (all of my points have been been repeated by others here). It's also clear to anyone who has actually read all 700 of my words (thanks for the count) that I'm critiquing what seems to be a trend in taking on cultural productions in general and that I'm also asking some pretty general questions. I seem to recall Jillian Weiss taking on Glee as well - I had nothing to say about that post, and the discussion went on without me interjecting. Would you now like to excoriate me for NOT participating in that discussion? There was also a post on an episode of SNL with Tina Fey. I had nothing to say about that as well. That's a good number of posts about not liking certain cultural representations in the space of a few weeks. I have a right to comment about that.

I asked some general questions: For instance: "Do we now decide that even the most nauseating characters must couch their sentiments in speech that has first been vetted - without in any way reflecting the very real and, yes, crappy politics of real life people." There were also other issues I raised, such as the reference to the gay agenda, which still remains mysterious to me but which you artlessly ignore. You'll also note that there was a reference to a Katrina comment as well - this post isn't entirely about trans subjects on television. And yet, nothing from you on that.

You seem to have honed in on me for reasons I don't even want to guess at. But it is interesting that even as you point fingers at me for supposedly "telling trans and genderqueer people that their concerns about transphobia are not valid/important enough/etc." you have nothing (so far) to say about the several comments around mine that say pretty much the same thing. I do take on trans issues pretty seriously - and thank you for the references to Spread, etc. by the way - and I intend to go on taking them pretty seriously.

Whether or not self-appointed watchdogs like you approve of my doing so is not my concern, and it's not going to stop me from pointing out the disparities I see here. This is not Spread or any of the other sex worker positive blogs, at least in the comments, as you're well aware. And I also don't think this blog is too affirming of trans identities that fall outside the norm. You may not agree with me on that, but I still have a right to express my opinions on those issues.

Last words of advice: It's best not to assume that only trans-identified or genderqueer people can speak for the same - and that should go for all kinds of movements. It's also best not to assume that you know who all the trans-identified or genderqueer people in the room might be.

Overall, I'll say this: First, you don't have a say in what I can or can't comment about. Second, I'm struck by the what appears to be a somewhat territorial shade to your words. Sorry, but you can't limit who says what on what posts simply on the grounds that they're making too many similar ideological points (the gist of your argument). If that were the case, a lot of commenters here would have been kicked off a long time ago. This is, the last time I checked, an open blog.

Now, instead of spending time counting my words and trying to put me in my place, let's turn back to the original blog, shall we?

I'm simply struck by a recent repetitious impulse around here to criticise cultural productions for not adhering to certain norms

Yeah, it was a waste of time to protest CNN's decision to air ex-gay views about the possibility of a "cure" for homosexuality.

Wait, what?

Tobi honed in on you for exactly the reasons she said:

* You criticized trans women for responding to the promotional TOTWK materials but not having seen the film

* You have not seen Glee, but are now criticizing jb's post because apparently, Sue is supposed to be the diabolical villain.

These are not consistent with each other in one way (whether you need to see something to talk about it), but are consistent another way, in that you're yet again telling trans people what we should prioritize and whether we should find something problematic.

a) You don't seem to want to read. "First, the issue with Ticked Off Trannies was not that no one had seen it and was still criticising it - the issue was that none of those who wanted to censor it outright the first time around had even seen it. And as I made clear over and over - I wouldn't be in favour of censoring the film even after I'd seen it. Anyone who wants to rehash the old arguments can check the bilerico blogs on the film."

b) Why is this still about TOTWK again?

c) Yes, Lisa - *I* am the problem. Let's just stick with that, okay? Follow me around and swat at me in these *comments sections* - and all phobia will come to an end. Done.

a) You didn't restrict your criticisms to those who wanted to censor it.

b) This is about TOTWK only so far as you were attacking trans women for not having seen it before objecting to it, and now you are objecting to trans people criticizing Glee without having seen Glee yourself. The censorship argument is a straw man, and it's still kind of sad that you refuse to distinguish between protest and censorship, at least when it comes to trans people.

c) I'm not following you anywhere. I happen to read Bilerico too, and you seem to like telling trans people to stop complaining in trans-related posts.

You're not the problem. It just seems rather convenient that whatever the topic happens to be, you're opposing trans people and telling us why we don't have a real complaint.

I did read your comments.

Okay, this is where the Train of Good Intentions completely jumps the track and tumbles down the cliff into the Valley of Political Correctness Run Amok.

Nearly every offense that "jb" ascribes to GLEE in the essay above is attributed to one character: Sue Sylvester. Sue is the VILLAIN of the piece (brilliantly portrayed by Jane Lynch), and while her one-liners do garner their share of laughs, her views are clearly not the worldview of the program as a whole.

So, perhaps some audience members cannot get their heads around this - is the answer therefore to dumb it down to the lowest common denominator? That's a recipe for boring television. And it would do other damage as well.

Because like it or not, GLEE needs a Sue in order to be a true voice for the queer and the different. Perhaps it would be lovely to present a show where being gay, black, fat, Jewish, Asian, differently abled, or otherwise sidelined was simply not noticed. But that show isn't GLEE. GLEE celebrates the outcasts, but in order to do so, it has to first show the pain of the outsider - and more often than not, that pain is communicated by the faces of those on the other end of one of Sue's cutting remarks. Get rid of Sue, and the show is no longer about a bunch of outcasts, and it has no edge.

I'm a faithful viewer of GLEE. Not only does it bring me joy, but I think it's important television. Furthermore, I think Sue Sylvester is an important character. She's a mirror for all the intolerant folks the show takes aim at. Yes, she gets laughs - but nobody who watches GLEE wants to be like Sue. I suspect not even Sue wants to be Sue.

Square quotes around the OP's name? Are you serious?

While you want to defend Sue's actions as necessary for a villain, I should point out that there's no counter to her bigotry. Also, several of the problems mentioned are not Sue - naming one of the characters "other Asian," the way Glee deals with disability. Maybe you should reread the OP to catch what you missed the first time.

I'll also point out that the FCC tends to consider many slurs inappropriate for broadcast television during the hours of the day children are most likely to be watching, and yet anti-trans slurs are not given the same regard. Why is that?

I was bothered by the hair-cutting scene too, but I chalked it up to Sue being a horrible person whom we are supposed to hate. I may have to reconsider though, and I certainly will be watching more carefully now.

Hmmm...I don't agree. While I understand your point, and just so you know I also would find the comments offensive in real life, it seems to me that Glee is satire. It doesn't take itself seriously and neither should we. It's not a show that is in any way intending to educate the populace on proper behavior toward minorities or gay rights issues, teen pregnancy or drug use. It's a Joke. A fun, fanciful, unrealistic, over-the-top, biting, snarky, joke. It skewers everything in its path. I look at Glee in the same way that I consider South Park. It is an exposure of the most utterly ridiculous, a comedy of reductio ad absurdum. I mean, even think of the context in which the comments about the "shemale" were made. This is Sue Sylvester we're talking about here! Do you realize she is the embodiment of all things evil? She can't exist in the real world. None of them can. If you are looking for a serious, contemplative, well-meaning, politically correct, non-insulting, informative program look elsewhere. Glee is just ridiculous. Offending me and everyone else is half the fun. What would Glee be without "other asian"? What would South Park be without "Token"?

jb, (Notice how I'm able to your name without quotation marks, thereby minimizing your entire existence?)

YOU. ROCK.

Don't listen to these folks who use the same old tired argument, "It's satire, get over it." "Sue is supposed to be mean, it's a tv show, get over it." I'm sorry, y'all, but I don't see this as being a legitimate excuse.

This kind of humor is supposedly funny, because c'mon, WHO would actually say stuff like that? Sue is so out of line, but she's hilarious, because no one is like her. Well, sorry, but people do think like her. People do use the words "shemale" and they tokenize minorities.... so, it's not really funny.

For more discussion on this topic, I would visit FWD(feminists with disabilities)/Forward at http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/12/18/glee-the-halfway-point-the-introduction/

Keep up the good work, jb!

Thank you. Nor is Sue really a villain as such on the show. She's just another oblivious adult (who are all clueless). And the "shemale" remark was put in her mouth not to show how awful or bigoted she is, but because the writer/producers thought it was FUNNY. It has nothing to do with character development, and everything to do with what they thought would be "entertaining."

Hey, teens and tweens love catchphrases... now shemale can be the new catchphrase. Notice she didn't say "fag" because Ryan Murphy would hate that kind of speech to become more entrenched in schools so, instead, he turns to his preferred entertainment target (as it was on his show Nip/Tuck and his project "Pretty/Handsome"... trans people.) And this creep gets a GLAAD award?

jb you do rock.
and tobi too!

Judas Peckerwood | April 20, 2010 6:44 PM

Yes, satire and irony are terrible, terrible things indeed. Why won't the world accept the fact that I have no sense of humor and stop making with teh funneez?

My biggest disappointment with Glee has been more about how they make a big deal about showcasing diversity, etc with all the different ethnicities, abilities, family backgrounds, etc - but all the main characters with in depth storylines are white.

Yeah, Glee's like a smorgasboard of disappointment. The show's whiteness was a pretty big criticism late last year, not even considering the disability fail and other issues that have come up.

Bil, Ryan Murphy is all about the "freak show" window dressing. If he were really a ground-breaking producer, he would have made Chris Colfer's character the star. As it is, that character gets more and more marginalized with every episode (but they drag him out for the GLAAD awards). Kind of how they brought Rebecca Romijn to the GLAAD awards (who played, granted, a rather phoney/bs trans character on Ugly Betty), even as the character was rapidly vanishing with every episode and was off the show a few months later.

Without Archie Bunker's character, Norman Lear could not have brought to American television what is still one of the best and most socially conscious shows ever. Archie said some of the most vile things ever....I still wince on reruns (thank you God for Canadian TV reception here)....but it was required to tell the kinds of stories they were telling.

I just saw my first episode tonight - HOLY COW what fun, esp. for Madonna fans - but I quickly saw how Sue Sylvester is the devil incarnate. I mean, her initials are S.S.** I doubt that's a coincidence..

** a unit of Nazis created to serve as bodyguard to Hitler and later expanded to take charge of intelligence, central security, policing action, and the mass extermination of those they considered inferior or undesirable.

(C)1996 Zane Publishing, Inc. and Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. All rights reserved

People keep comparing Coach Sue to Archie Bunker, but the comparison falls on its face:

When Archie Bunker was racist, he had to deal with black people. When he was anti-Semitic, he had to deal with Jewish people. When he was homophobic, he had to deal with gay people.

Archie Bunker worked because Norman Lear did not use Archie to implicitly or explicitly endorse racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, or anything else Archie did. He used Archie's bigoted views to show how they were flawed and wrong.

Glee doesn't do this, at least not as effectively.

I disagree.

Glee knows its audience, and knows that they are much more sophisticated than audiences were in the 1970's. Glee's audience already know that Sue is flawed and wrong, and it's OK to love to hate her. Considering this particular show's format and style, having every one of Sue's actions examined would slow down the pace and feel of the show. I see "Mr. Burns" of the Simpsons in a similar category.

But of course discussing this further would just turn into a shallow ego-wrestle for both of us, and I can't afford the room. We just disagree on art; big whoop.

Who said anything about having every one of Sue's actions examined?

Why so much apologism for transphobia around here? While Sue's a villain, so many commenters seem to think that how her bigotry is presented is not important at all, which strikes me as passing strange. Or perhaps a complete lack of emotional investment in what's getting slurred, you know?

Maybe if it doesn't matter to you that transphobic slurs get tossed around on primetime television like they were nothing, you're wasting your time commenting on this stuff at all.

MsFeasance | April 22, 2010 8:22 PM

I know it's infrequently mentioned, but "Other Asian" actually does have a name: Mike Chang. They mention it in the episode where he's introduced, and I believe Finn and Mr. Shue address him by name in various episodes. It's easy to miss, though, and that's not really acceptable. Mike and Matt need more lines.

Heidi Stink | October 14, 2010 2:50 PM

As a trans woman i have never watched Glee because it has the same producers as Nip/tuck which had possibly the most trans-misogynistic plot lines in the history of television