• Tamar Lilienthal

Watching Glee in 2020

I’m probably the last person on Earth to hop onto the Glee train. In my defense, I’m from a family of Latinos and nerds, so growing up, I either watched Brazilian shows, nerdy shows like Jeopardy!, or … nerdy Brazilian shows.

But now I’m here! Catching up on the crazes that I missed out on. And as a musical theatre enthusiast, I was excited to watch a show that combined music and good ol’ high school social drama.

But what I found was a show that wasn’t about high school at all. Sure, the scenes take place in locker-lined hallways, but the actors are all clearly older than high-school age. And it feels like in every other episode, another 17-year-old couple is planning to get married! How many high school couples actually do that?

That’s not to mention the questionable behaviors of countless faculty members that, in the real world, would be immediate grounds for firing. In what world can a history teacher sing Blurred Lines with his underage students while they twerk down the hallway? And how could Coach Sylvester shove students against lockers without ever being called out for her abuse? I recognize that some of it is satire, but there were so many moments where the teachers’ behaviors got so bizarre that I could no longer suspend my disbelief and still think I was watching the happenings of a real school.

And how do we reconcile the fact that the McKinley High glee club has the fanciest costumes and most elaborate sets, and yet Mr. Shue is constantly complaining about not having a big enough budget? Or that the Warblers are sometimes in the same region as the New Directions, but sometimes they’re not? Or that characters just “disappear” when they stop being relevant, like Rory and Joe? So many details just don’t check out. As my friend likes to say, “This whole show is a plot hole.”

As an aspiring screenwriter, I also take issue with the quality of the show’s writing. There’s so much telling and not enough showing. Every episode of Glee features characters having long, winding monologues, while their scene counterparts just stand there. In real life, that’s typically not how conversations work.

As I’ve made pretty evident at this point, I have lots of things to criticize about the show. I could list more. But what I found most fascinating about Glee was the content that it covered, and how that content translated into 2020. Nothing was too sensitive or taboo for the show to discuss. As is typical of Ryan Murphy shows, there was a ton of open discussion on sexuality - major storylines like the Brittany/Santana relationship and Coach Beiste’s gender transition brought LGBT representation to the screen, and other characters were open about experimenting with their sexuality as well. The show was also open and honest in its dealing with topics like eating disorders, racism, and disability. I can imagine how progressive it must have been in the early 2010s.

But as I watched Glee now, occasionally with some of my friends, I noticed how I and others would often shout at problematic lines of dialogue. “That would never fly today!” we said. And indeed, from a 2020 perspective, we can now point out how Glee was tone-deaf on a lot of topics. One of the lines that makes me cringe the most is when Sue calls Howard “Panda Express.” And, of course, there’s the infamous line of “You’re all minorities - you’re in the glee club!”

But the actual issues discussed in Glee — the forms of discrimination, the social ostracizing — continue to exist in our world today.

The Arties of every school continue to be viewed as “different” and bullied because of their disabilities. According to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, citing outside studies, 20.8% of students with “health impairments” and 24.3% of students with “intellectual disabilities” suffer from high levels of bullying in school.

The Uniques of every school continue to be made fun of for their gender identities. According to the same PACER report, 59.1% of LGBTQ students are verbally harassed because of their gender expression, and 24.4% are physically harmed.

The Mikes and Tinas continue to be stereotyped as geniuses, causing them to suffer from a tremendous amount of academic pressure. A study published last year by Vanderbilt professor Dr. Ebony O. McGee revealed the pressures felt by Asian-American college students in STEM to uphold the stereotype of being a “model minority.” One participant in the study, so disappointed by his 89 on an exam, spent 38 hours studying for his final without eating or sleeping. After the test, he had to be hospitalized.

I don’t mean to belittle the radical social impact that Glee made when it aired on TV. Indeed, it served as an impetus for conversations about diversity and inclusion and encouraged young people to be proud of who they are. With that said, I’m saddened by the ways in which our treatment of each other continues to be far from ideal. How much progress can we really claim we’ve made if rates of bullying and mistreatment continue to be so high? We’re certainly more careful with what we say, but are we translating our sensitivities into what we do?

Watching Glee in 2020 has made me stop and consider it as more than just a show about overachieving high schoolers. It is a testament to what socially impactful television could look like. But at the end of the day, socially impactful content requires a partnership with the viewer. It can help us start conversations, but it’s up to us to translate what we learn into actions.

...And that’s how Tamar “C”’s it.

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