Since Glee’s debut in 2009, one of the major criticisms of the show has been that it’s immoral. Glee has been criticized for the racy photoshoot its stars, who play high schoolers though they’re of legal age, did for GQ, for its relatively realistic portrayal of teen sex and drinking, for its well-developed gay characters and most recently, for its sympathetic treatment of a new transgender character. Most of these criticisms say more about the people mounting them than Glee itself. But over the past two seasons, it’s become impossible to escape the conclusion that Glee is an immoral show, but not for the reason cultural conservatives believe. It’s become a show that’s not just sloppy but exploitative and manipulative of serious societal issues and human experiences. And it’s time to walk away, even for hate-watching purposes.
One of the biggest structural problems with Glee has always been its attention deficit disorder. Major life events and hugely consequential actions pop up without warning to provide drama in episodes and then vanish whether they’re resolved or not, never to be mentioned again. Most of the time, that gets dismissed as laziness, the result of a fragmented writing room, an inevitable consequence of Ryan Murphy’s style. Murphy gets a lot of credit for sensitively portraying the lives of sexual minorities in particular. But it’s time to start calling him what he is: a cynical exploiter of oppressed people who has very little actual interest in actually exploring their experiences in rich, complex, compassionate ways.
Last night’s episode of Glee was a disgustingly egregious example of this trend. In this hour, we learn that McKinley High’s football coach Shannon Beiste has been hit by her husband, a football scout whose initial appearance served mostly to escalate the rivalry between Coach Beiste and Jane Lynch’s cheerleading Coach Sylvester and has rarely been mentioned again. We know that Coach Beiste fell so hard for her husband in part because she’s often felt unlovable, but their relationship plays essentially no role in the show, and Coach Beiste is not a character whose inner life the show consistently explores. So when we found out that he was hitting her because “He had been bugging me all weekend to do the dishes, but I forgot,” and that, “As soon as it happened, right away he was so sorry, and started crying and begging me to forgive him,” after a bad, and horrendously inappropriate rendition of “Cell Block Tango,” the development came out of nowhere. Glee wouldn’t do something this bad to a character the show actually has something invested in — God forbid we explore teen partner violence, a subject that after Yeardley Love’s killing at the hands of her ex-boyfriend George Hughley at the University of Virginia might be worth discussing with these kids. No, instead Glee inflicts something dreadful on a character who’s there solely to elicit reactions from the main cast, the show beats up on the masculine woman who fears she’s unloveable.
And then, having made her a victim, the show can’t even handle it in a genuinely serious way. The plot became the B story to Kurt and Rachel’s NYADA auditions. There’s no question that those scenes are an important moment and one the show has been moving to for more than a year. And it definitely reflects teenaged myopia to privilege that event over a subject as serious as domestic violence. But there should be a distinction between the show’s priorities and its characters, a test the show failed miserably last night.When the episode was dealing with Coach Beiste’s struggle to decide if she would leave her husband, it did so in a decidedly ugly manner. Coach Sylvester offered up her home as a refuge, and when Coach Beiste didn’t show up, she slagged on her, complaining “I ruined my tent making a neck-hole in it and what am I supposed to go with the nine whole chickens in my fridge.” Then, when Coach Beiste said she’d gone to stay with her sister, Sylvester snarked “I hope whatever bridge Denise Bieste lives under is nice and cozy.” Only after these slings and arrows does Coach Sylvester have anything kind or encouraging to say. Now, there’s no question that a more deft show could be staging a scene like this to show us Coach Sylvester’s insensitivity. But Glee is too clumsily enamored of Sue Sylvester’s snark to either set it aside for a moment, or for her to suffer real consequences for her viciousness. The show did slightly better when Coach Beiste came clean to the students, telling them they may have saved her life, even as scenes intercut with their self-congratulatory cuddle pile revealed that she hadn’t left her husband at all, that like most women who are victims of domestic violence, she was giving him another chance. Yes, the scene revealed a gap between the students’ self-centeredness and reality, but why give them credit at all? Why not treat this as the serious long-arc story it deserves to be? If Glee ever revisits this conflict again, I’ll be utterly shocked.
Glee does this so frequently it’s become a joke, but it’s really worth looking at who Murphy tortures and then ignores. Naya Rivera has acted the hell out of Santana Lopez, the Latina cheerleader with a killer alto who was outed this season, and her performance makes it easy to forget how far she’s exceeded the material she’s been given. When Finn outs Santana, it’s a betrayal that’s essentially dealt with in a single slap. When her grandmother throws her out of her home, it’s never dealt with again in any substantive way, unlike Kurt and Burt Hummel’s long journey towards a reconfigured solid and loving relationship. And a few weeks ago, Santana’s girlfriend leaked a sex tape of the two of them, an act that ought to have been shattering and was potentially illegal. There was no fallout. It’s reduced to a single conversation, and the couple stays together without a blip.
Similarly, Dave Karofsky, the closeted football player who bullied Kurt before kissing him, is essentially a repository for pain that can be withdrawn when Murphy wants to stage a moving sequence. His suicide attempt was tremendously movingly framed, as was his profession of affection to Kurt, but he hasn’t been seen since that latter rejection. It’s one thing to put a character you want to flesh out fully through a lot of difficult things. It’s another to use trauma as a sparkly toy to distract and manipulate your viewers in the absence of your ability to tell a coherent story, or to give a character you are invested in an emotional experience.
What’s infuriating about the exploitation of these characters and that makes it seem intentionally manipulative is Glee’s ability to carry a through line on Kurt Hummel. But even as the show’s sensitively chronicled his coming out, his relationship with his family, his first big love, and his growth as an artist, Glee also has a frustrating reluctance to assign Kurt moral responsibility, whether he’s harassing Finn, his new step-brother, or cheating on his boyfriend Blaine. In that sense, he’s the perfect analogue for Glee, a show that claims credit for seeing clearly and portraying teenagers’ lives honestly, but that can’t acknowledge its own cruelty and manipulation of other people. It’s one thing for bringing the underexamined lives of gay teenagers, of abused women, of gay people of color into the mainstream of popular culture. But spotlighting them only to use their pain to accrue credit to yourself isn’t admirable. And it’s not entertaining.