The Lessons of “Glee”

the cast of GleeI like the TV show “Glee.”

But I’m not sure if I totally agree that it teaches the valuable lessons it’s trying so hard to convey.

On the surface, you have a collection of kids that would heart-warm any hard-core member of the Liberal Diversity Police – they’ve got it covered, with the gay kid, the kid in the wheelchair, the Asian chick, the big black girl, the “ugly” but talented girl with two dads, and the “beautiful” cheerleader who gets knocked up.

And somehow, they’re talented performers learning the valuable lessons that despite their shortcomings and differences, they CAN have friends, they CAN earn success, and they CAN – yes, they can! – find love and acceptance!

You can tell I’m being sarcastic, can’t you?

So, yes; the kids overcome their challenging flaws.

But the show’s argument, “valuable lesson,” still rests upon, agrees with, the founding assumption that being anything less than blonde, svelte, abled, white, and “pretty” indeed is a challenge and a flaw.

This is a problem. And it’s an outdated one. I don’t know what reality the show’s high school is based upon, but I went to two high schools, one in California and one in Virginia, and neither of them looked at all like Glee’s.

Yes, there were cliques, and distinctions about popularity and beauty, but they weren’t this cookie-cutter, this cut and dry and black and white.

One of the most popular girls at my magnet school in LA had a large port-wine birthmark on her face – yet she was a dominating queen of the social sphere, barely talking to me.

And in California, the most popular girls were the most tan, and that made the darker skinned girls – of various Asian and African-American ethnicities – reside securely at the top of the heap.

At my high school in Virginia, where the student population was more starkly black and white, it wasn’t so much beauty as past relationships and histories dating back to kindergarten that created hierarchies of power and exclusion. Really ugly girls with pimples and braces could sneer at gorgeous ones, because the former were known and the latter had just transferred from out of state.

Glee’s ideas of who is in and who is out seems more based on simplistic cliches promoted by advertising – and the whole thing is very slick, shot in that clear, colorful glow of a commercial – instead of reflecting the complexities of how things truly work.

I just really have a problem that the black and Asian girls are considered outsiders by virtue of their race – there’s no real question of this initial line of thinking. Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of places in this country where that kind of discrimination exists – but the show presents this without any cultural context, or without calling it racial discrimination. It’s just assumed that that’s how things are.

So instead of really questioning and undermining our ideas of beauty and acceptance, the show reinforces stereotypes – including the stereotype that blonde cheerleaders are mean and thoughtless snobs. I was a redheaded cheerleader, and I can tell you that plenty of my teammates were just like that – but not all of them conformed. My blonde friend Jennifer was a sweetie pie.

The main lesson I’m learning from “Glee” is that television shows have an easier time finding their popularity by staying on the surface of our cultural cliches –  and we apparently are so starved for any kind of diversity in our media, we’ll take it. Which is kind of pathetic.


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