Perpetuation and Critiques of Familiar Representations in GLEE

FOX’s Glee features a cast rich in diversity in terms of race, sexuality, ability, and personality. The show’s message is that it is good to be different. Glee follows the drama centered on the quirky members of a high school glee club. In the show and in reality, glee club is a place for weird kids. This feature highlights the differences of Glee’s characters, which perpetuate stereotypes about those differences, yet Glee creators want to show that differences are worth celebrating and to critique familiar representations of difference. I am interested in how the representations of difference in the Glee characters perpetuate or critique familiar stereotypes of differences in race, ability, and sexuality. How does Glee represent these differences in narrative, character development, or setting? It is also worth investigating if these representations have changed from the pilot episode to the current season.

Since Glee is a new television show, there have not been similar studies done on Glee specifically; however, many scholars have studied minority portrayals in television in the past. With that said, one article about Glee discusses the differences that mark the members of the glee club in Glee and compares the television show to high school movies. Although Glee has all the features of a traditional high school movie or television show with jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, overachievers, and an encouraging teacher, Glee centers on the relationships among a group of likeable misfits who sing a lot (Bullock 27).

Multiracial interactions in television have been studied for as long as television has been a medium. For example, Weigel’s research may be older than most of Glee’s actors, but it demonstrates that multiracial media promote interracial friendliness, mutual respect, and prejudice reduction when there is equal status among races in the context that allows for cooperative interaction, pursuit for common goals, and positive outcomes (885). Gates also studied biracial friendships portrayed in the media, which he claims has typically been done in a detective setting. While black detectives were regular prevalent characters by the 1990s, their appearances did not address the racism problems in American society because such films and shows simplified issues and resolved them within one narrative (Gates 20-22). The drama of Glee derives mostly from interactions among the characters, but most conflicts do not resolve themselves within one narrative contrasting Gates’ observation.

Glascock compares representations of racial minorities in the media in newer channels to those in established channels. He found that “programming attempting to appeal to a younger and more diverse audience would reflect current social mores in which women and racial minorities are treated more equally” (Glascock 91). Gray’s study found that subtle segregation among minorities in terms of social positions exists even in media produced by minorities because they strive for commercial success (191). Television’s traditional strategies of storytelling through its logics of scheduling, narration, character development, serialization, and flow continue familiar representations of difference (Gray 194). Mastro argues that overt stereotypes have diminished in the media, but subtler raced-based representations and responses are replacing old ones (2). Subtle racial stereotypes are negative because media “that allow viewers to conceal their reactions as race irrelevant are most likely to promote prejudicial responses” (Mastro 5).

A textual analysis of “Asian F,” a recent episode of Glee, and of “Pilot,” the first Glee episode, will indicate how Glee’s representations of differences of race, ability, and sexuality have changed over time. Glee portrays Mercedes as an angry black woman, Santana as an overly sexual Latina, Mike as an overachieving young Asian American, and Kurt as a flamboyant gay male. Glee’s representations of these differences are familiar to audiences. While it is positive that Glee characters represent society’s diversity, depicting familiar representations of difference may be more problematic than helpful in celebrating difference. Though Glee seeks to celebrate difference, the show marks differences in race, ability, and sexuality stereotypically. Familiar representations of these differences both perpetuate and critique such stereotypes by marking these differences in the character development and narrative of the episodes; however, more recent episodes of Glee critique familiar representations more so than early episodes.

Glee’s characters cannot stand alone as a character without their difference marked whether it is their race, ability, or sexuality. For example, Mercedes’s difference is her minority race as an African American woman. She is a diva with a sassy attitude and funky style but struggles with body image (Bullock 29). Mercedes always sings gospel or R&B songs and is often characterized by her loud voice and laziness in contrast to Rachel Barry, New Directions’ star white performer who is an ambitious overachiever (Bullock 29). “Asian F” depicts many familiar representations of Mercedes’ African American race in the episode’s narrative and character development, thus perpetuating stereotypes about her difference. For example, in this episode, Mercedes likens herself to Effie White, the African American diva of Dreamgirls. In a scene at practice, Mr. Schuester pushes Mercedes past her limit, and she dramatically quits New Directions. She accuses the New Directions director of favoring Rachel over her who is equally talented. This scene turns into a reenactment of the Dreamgirls scene when Effie quits the band adding drama to Mercedes’ exit. This is an R&B song from a musical set in 1960s Motown, which is the same genre Mercedes always sings. “It’s All Over” in Dreamgirls blames Effie’s laziness for her exit, so the reproduction of this scene in Glee accuses Mercedes of being lazy as well. The other glee club members also accuse Mercedes of being lazy. Blaming Mercedes’ laziness for her not succeeding in glee club parallels society accusing impoverished African Americans of being lazy, which is a problematic representation.

The character development of Santana in “Asian F” perpetuates stereotypes regarding Latino Americans as verbally aggressive. During the scene when Mercedes quits, for example, Santana demands, “Why are you babying her? She’s gonna throw up because she ate a Quiznos before she came here.” It is significant that Santana made this comment rather than ambitious Rachel or aggressive Puck, two white characters who could have said this line with equal narrative effect. Being verbally aggressive is one familiar trait of Latinos portrayed in the media along with limited intelligence, inarticulate speech, and laziness (Mastro 2). While Santana does not possess these other characteristics, it is important to note that her verbal aggression perpetuates Latino stereotypes in the media.

Mike and Tina are the Asian American characters in Glee and the final minority race represented. Tina is quiet and sometimes passive; meanwhile, Mike is Harvard-bound to study medicine but also likes playing football and dancing. In “Asian F” both characters perpetuate the familiar representation of Asian Americans as smart, overachievers when they are concerned with Mike’s A- grade in chemistry. They refer to the grade as an “Asian F” and worry about disappointing Mike’s parents. This is most evident for Mike in this episode with Tina encouraging him to follow his dreams and his struggle to please his father. Another familiar representation of young Asian Americans like Mike and Tina is their high stress level, and Glee perpetuates this when Mike explains why he considers not auditioning for the musical, “I’m not auditioning. I’m overwhelmed and losing focus football, glee club, bootycamp so we’re ready for sectionals.” This statement is not critical of the Asian Americans as overachievers stereotype because Mike does not say it is wrong that he is overwhelmed; he accepts the feeling as natural. The discourse of young Asian Americans to go to Ivy League universities and become doctors is natural to Mike. In this scene, Mike realizes that his dream of dancing is not realistic. Using these characters in the “Asian F” narrative perpetuate familiar representations of minority races.

The narrative of “Asian F” perpetuates the feminine flamboyant representation of gay male characters with Kurt. He dresses in designer clothes and puts on a confident front hiding his inner fear of bullying (Bullock 29). Kurt is flamboyant in appearance and feminine in demeanor and often sings feminine roles. The Effie White scene in “Asian F” significantly perpetuates this representation of gay male characters. During the scene, the female characters wear pink sequin dresses while the boys wear plain black tuxedos. Kurt bridges the two genders by wearing a tuxedo made of pink sequins. Kurt is neither boy nor girl in this scene, further perpetuating his difference as a gay male because gay men are often depicted as a distinct gender, neither fully male nor female. Kurt also sings a brief solo that was originally sung by a woman in Dreamgirls. This further demonstrates Kurt’s femininity and further distances him from the other males of the group. Because Kurt is the familiar feminine and flamboyant representation of gay male characters, “Asian F” perpetuates the stereotype instead of critiquing it because neither the narrative, character development, nor setting allow Kurt’s character to go beyond this feminine and flamboyant depiction. The narrative, character development, and setting of scenes in “Asian F” further perpetuate familiar images of the differences represented by Glee characters.

Ability is another difference represented in Glee that marks certain characters. Wheelchair-bound Artie is one image of ability. Even though his wheelchair limits his ability in many aspects, he can still participate in glee club in both singing and dancing, though his wheelchair marks his dancing ability. Brittany is the classic dumb blonde cheerleader who is “always coming out with nonsensical comments” (Bullock 29), yet her innocence often makes New Directions members reevaluate their actions and beliefs. It is significant that Artie and Brittany do nothing spectacular in “Asian F” to perpetuate stereotypes of the physically handicapped or dumb blondes. In fact, “Asian F” critiques the dumb blonde representation with Brittany speaking intelligently about politics and feminism. She follows Santana’s tirade about male presidents’ lack of influence with her thoughts, “And where has that patriarchy gotten us? Double digit inflation, economic free-fall, oil spills, war in Afghanistan.” It surprises the other characters and the audience alike that Brittany knows those vocabulary words and concepts. It may appear that Glee used this moment as one of comic-relief; however, it critiques the familiar dumb blonde representation. It shows that Brittany may be naïve about many things, but she knows politics. Even though “Asian F” perpetuates some familiar representations of difference, there are several examples of this recent Glee episode critiquing such representations.

Another example of “Asian F” critiquing familiar representations of difference in the narrative and character development is Mercedes exchanging her funky street style for a more glamorous look during an audition to look “like a leading lady.” This change works because she receives a callback for the lead role, demonstrating that anyone, including African American women, can be a lead. Later in the episode, however, Mercedes and Rachel are offered to share the lead female role. Mercedes feels that Rachel unfairly receives all major solos and roles in New Directions, so she quits this glee club to join a new one. While this is an example of Mercedes’s sassy attitude, it also critiques the common portrayal of whites as lead characters to black supporting roles. In Gates’ article about biracial friendships in the media, he says that the majority of black detectives played sidekicks to the white heroes (22). This is exactly how Mercedes feels about her relationships with Rachel, and she has had enough; she wants to be the star. Mercedes’ defiance is an example of character development critiquing familiar representations of the racial social order.

The plot and character development of Mike and Tina in “Asian F” also critique stereotypes regarding Asian Americans when Mike decides to pursue his dream of dancing. He struggles with the decision to follow his dream or please his parents by going to Harvard and becoming a doctor throughout “Asian F.” His father plays the tough parent who strongly encourages Mike to focus on academics; however, Mrs. Chang plays the opposite of the familiar tiger mom representation. Instead of pushing her son toward Harvard, she encourages Mike to pursue his dream after Mike pleas, “I don’t want to be a surgeon or a lawyer, Mom. I want to be an artist, special. The only time I feel special is when I [dance].”  With Mike choosing art over academics and his mother supporting his decision, Glee critiques the familiar representation of Asian Americans as overachievers in scientific professions. The show’s narrative demonstrates the importance of everyone following their dreams, embracing their differences.

Although Kurt continues to be feminized in “Asian F,” Glee also critiques this representation by featuring other characters and marking his masculinity in this episode. Glee introduced Kurt’s love-interest, Blaine, in season two, but he becomes increasingly prominent. In contrast to Kurt, Blaine is less flamboyant in his personal style, sings more male parts, and is more logical than Kurt’s emotional, feminine personality. Blaine is Glee’s attempt at critiquing the familiar flamboyant gay characters represented in many other media examples. He shows that gay characters do not need their difference marked at all times. “Asian F” also critiques Kurt’s flamboyant representation in the interaction among Kurt, Santana, and Brittany regarding the class president campaign. Santana, being verbally aggressive, states, “Did you know that in the past six years at this school, we’ve only had male student council presidents? And while Kurt may look like Jimmy Fallon’s butch daughter, a vote for him would only empower another frank and beans.” While this comment was intended to be hurtful, it actually illuminates the fact that Kurt is, in fact, male despite his sexuality. This scene marks Kurt’s difference positively in “Asian F,” which critiques the familiar feminine representation of gay male characters.

This analysis focuses primarily on the representations of difference in “Asian F;” however, the analysis would be incomplete without a comparison to “Pilot,” the first Glee episode to see how the representations have continued or changed. Bullock argues, “TV characters need to change and develop as a series progresses, and compelling drama always features its characters facing a series of challenges and obstacles” (30). Glee is no different; its characters have developed from “Pilot” to “Asian F.” For example, Kurt’s masculinity is recognized. In contrast, in “Pilot” Kurt insists on removing his Marc Jacobs jacket and manbag before the football team throws him in a dumpster. The emphasis on his designer clothes and accessory feminize Kurt, marking his difference as a gay character. Also, by allowing the football team to throw him in the dumpster rather than fighting back, Kurt is being passive. This is often a feminine trait in media examples, while being actively aggressive would be more masculine. While there is still a great emphasis on Kurt’s clothes in “Asian F,” other characters acknowledge his masculinity more than in “Pilot;” thus, Kurt’s difference is not as marked, which critiques the familiar representation of flamboyant gay male characters.

Glee’s representation of African American Mercedes has also changed since “Pilot” in narrative and setting. For example, in “Pilot” her New Directions audition is a powerful gospel performance. While this scene showcases Mercedes’ talent, it also contributes to the black entertainer representation familiar in the media. This would not have been a prevalent image of African American women if Mercedes had been featured in more diverse situations. The majority of her screen time is when she is singing; otherwise, she is silent in the background. By “Asian F” Mercedes defends herself more and has more screen time in various situations. The confrontation between Rachel and Mercedes for the lead in the musical is a critique of the familiar representation of black characters playing sidekick to the white hero as described in Gates’ article.

Glee’s representation of Asian Americans has also changed since “Pilot.” For example, Mike was not a character in “Pilot,” but he is a prominent character in “Asian F” as he debates whether to follow his dream or please his parents. The point in the narrative when Mike follows his dream with Tina supporting him critiques the familiar representation of Asian Americans as overachieving subordinate parent-pleasers. Defying his father also defies the stereotype his father symbolizes about Asian Americans. Tina has also changed since “Pilot.” In the past, she has been a stuttering, subordinate character. “Asian F” features Mike and Tina prominently in a narrative without the addition of the prominent characters from “Pilot.”

Brittany, Santana, and Artie, though less significant in “Pilot” or “Asian F,” have also changed in their representation since “Pilot.” For example, Brittany was a silent character in “Pilot.” Because she did not speak, Glee did not represent her as a dumb blonde but not as intelligent either. With her speech about politics in “Asian F,” Brittany’s development is a critique of the dumb blonde familiar representation. Santana was also not a prominent character in “Pilot,” but she has gained prominence by “Asian F” though her actions perpetuate the familiar representation of Latinos. While it is positive that Latino Americans have gained representation in Glee, the representation of Latino Americans through Santana’s character is negative and perpetuates familiar representations of her race. Glee’s representation of disabled people also changes from “Pilot” to “Asian F” in its representation of Artie. His handicap is not mentioned in “Asian F,” which is significant because this lack of marking his difference allows Artie to stand alone as a character without his disability defining him. In contrast, the narrative marks his difference frequently in “Pilot.” One example is when Artie is given the solo during the first New Directions rehearsal; Rachel is upset because Artie cannot dance in his wheelchair. She insists that the soloist must be able to dance, but Mr. Schuester points out that no one can control Artie’s paraplegia and it would not be fair to discriminate against Artie’s handicap. Soon after, Artie demonstrates his wheelchair-dancing skills. This is an early example of Glee critiquing familiar representations of disability and difference.

By presenting familiar representations of difference, Glee both perpetuates and critiques familiar representations of difference. The characters who are marked by the differences continue to be marked; however, there is more critique of familiar representations in “Asian F” than in “Pilot.” This is possibly because Glee hoped to hook audiences with familiar representations, and now that Glee has an established audience, they can take more risks by critiquing the representations they depicted in earlier episodes. Glee is about celebrating differences, so marking differences is inevitable yet critiquing representations of difference is more effective in celebration than perpetuating representations. “Asian F” does a better job of critiquing familiar representations of difference; however, Glee has room to grow as a television show critiquing common stereotypes of race, ability, and sexuality.

Works Cited

Bullock, T. (2011). The Music in Me. Screen Education, (61), 26-35.

Gates, P. (2004). Always a Partner in Crime. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 32(1), 20-29. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Glascock, J. (2003). Gender, Race, and Aggression in Newer TV Network’ Primetime Programming. Communication Quarterly, 51(1), 90-100. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Gray, H. (1993). The Endless Slide of Difference: Critical Television Studies, Television and the Question of Race. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 10(2), 190-197. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Mastro, D. E., Behm-Morawitz, E., & Kopacz, M. A. (2008). Exposure to Television Portrayals of Latinos: The Implications of Aversive Racism and Social Identity Theory. Human Communication Research, 34(1), 1-27. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2958.2007.00311.x

Weigel, R. H., Loomis, J. W., & Soja, M. J. (1980). Race Relations on Prime Time Television. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 39(5), 884-893. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.