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Category Archives: media studies

I’m a little behind on watching Glee. Really, I’m perpetually behind on all TV; I don’t think there’s been a time since Star Trek: Voyager went off the air that I tuned in to watch something in a regularly scheduled time slot—not least because that was the point when I stopped having regular access to TV.

No TV, plus a number of other factors, mean that I am late to the party on discussing Glee‘s “The First Time” episode, which aired on November 8, 2011. But it annoyed me enough that I’m going to write about it anyway.

The episode has gotten some positive press because it depicts gay teens making the same virginity-losing decisions as heterosexual ones, rah-rah once again Ryan Murphy makes the world safe for people like him.

Though, in their defense, I think that the decision to be really vague about both the heterosexual and homosexual sex scene avoided the whole problem of the double standard whereby a much lower bar for what’s offensive exists for gay sex than heterosex, so yay for that.

Glee tends to do an ok job representing white gay men—Kurt is a little stereotypical, but to some extent that’s because they cast Chris Colfer and that’s how he is, so I’m ok with it—but a pretty horrendous job with everybody else.

In particular, in this episode, the character of Rachel is done a disservice–and through her, so are teen girls.

Rachel has very clear plans for herself, such as moving to New York City, attending the fictional New York Academy of the Dramatic Arts, starring on Broadway, etc. One of these plans, the series has established, is not to have sex until she’s 25. In “Grilled Cheesus” (2.02), Rachel and Finn have this exchange:

Rachel:I need to know that when I’m 25, and have won a bunch of Tonys, and I’m ready to have intercourse and babies, that those babies will be raised in a certain way.

Finn: You’re really not going to have sex until you’re 25?

The show has enough continuity that this is referenced again in “The First Time” (3.05)

Finn:Why now? The last time we talked about this you said you wanted to wait until you won a Tony.

Rachel: Or any other major award. Emmy, Golden Globe. People’s Choice would’ve gotten you to third base.

Now, I’m not claiming that this is a good plan, necessarily. It’s indicative of someone who underestimates the power of social norms on them and overestimates their own control of their life to be able to plan so far out. It is, that is, the plan of someone quite young, as Rachel is.

But Rachel, over and over in the show, is someone who sticks to her guns. She decides what she thinks is right and she goes for it wholeheartedly. And, especially if it has to do with her career, god help you if you get in her way. This person would totally believably have sex to further her acting ability, despite Brett Berk’s contention in Vanity Fair’s “Gay Guide to Glee entry that

as desperate, conniving, and monomaniacal as Rachel is about advancing her acting career, it is neither believable nor even amusing to imagine that she might be “convinced” to try out intercourse in order to better her portrayal of a character like Maria in the high-school production of West Side Story. (It is, in fact, grotesque.)

Grotesque it may be, or “supremely stupid, even considering ‘Glee’s’ tenuous tether to reality,” as Mark A. Perigard described it at BostonHerald.com, but it is actually pretty believable because it’s congruent with the Rachel who sent exchange student Sunshine Corazon to a crack house because she felt threatened by her talent.

However, for all her selfishness, Rachel can be selfless too. In 1.13, after telling Finn that Quinn had misled him to think that her pregnancy was his child (for selfish reasons), she was genuinely sorry and offered to let Quinn hit her if it made her feel better. Rachel organized interfaith prayer with one glee club member who tolerates her (Mercedes) and one who verges on hatred (Quinn) when Kurt’s dad Burt had a heart attack in 2.02.

She arranged with Finn to throw the duets competition in 2.04—unexpected from the super-competitive, rival-sabotaging Rachel—so that new member Sam could win and feel welcomed to the team. In 3.06, Rachel withdrew from the class president election in order to help Kurt’s chances at winning and thus help him get into NYADA.

This Rachel might well have been selfless enough to offer her virginity to Finn as a consolation prize for losing out on his football dreams.

But the writers shouldn’t have gone through with it. Not like that. Because, at least under our culture’s odd relationship to sex (which the show seems to share), the first time is supposed to be a special event for Rachel, but in this episode it wasn’t even about her.

And, like, I’ll admit that as a Faberry shipper (Rachel and Quinn) Finchel (Rachel and Finn) is objectionable all by itself, but I have a more specific critique of Finn here. Even in this episode when we’d imagine Finn will be set up as a good boyfriend so that he “deserves” the ending, he feeds Rachel, a vegan, actual meat. And then doesn’t confess. And then takes advantage of Rachel’s sympathy for him.

That’s pretty horrifying, and that fact has gotten missed in the discussion about the show, at times glaringly so, as when Jerome Wetzel of Examiner.comconcludes that there’s nothing more to critique after the have-sex-for-acting plot is resolved, commenting that “once Rachel and Blaine stop trying so hard and enjoy being in their respective relationships, sex does happen for each.” Blaine and Kurt do indeed “do the deed” out of enjoying being with each other, but not Rachel.

And, you know, I get it. Kids make bad decisions. I know I made some. And they make the decision to have sex for worse reasons than wanting to comfort their partner. As Vanity Fair’s Berk reminds us, “an overwhelming physical desire for Finn, or some socially motivated goal of impressing her friends” would have been more in line with “the two core incentives for teens.” And like Berk, “I appreciated that she, as the girl, was the instigator” rather than the usual storyline of “boy pressures girl.”

But if Glee is trying to do the Very Special Episode shtick, they needed to do better. Because I, too, “wish I could un-see that Endless Love remake these two created in front of the fireplace at the Hudson/Hummels, and un-hear Rachel’s creepy pledge to ‘give Finn something no one else will ever get'” (Berk).

I wish they hadn’t even filmed it. I wish they had written Finn differently so that he wouldn’t take advantage of Rachel’s moment of generosity. I wish they themselves hadn’t taken advantage of the character of Rachel. Because that just replicates in the structure of the episode that story of girls being pressured into sex for reasons that have nothing to do with them that they tried to avoid in the narrative itself.

Ordinarily, I have a “don’t read the comments” policy. People are, generally speaking, impressively hateful and cruel online because the relative anonymity means that there are few repercussions—I’m sure we’ve all been on the receiving end of this.

But with the controversy around Chaz Bono being cast in Dancing with the Stars, I’m finding myself unable to help looking at the comments—much like one can’t look away from a horrific car crash. And, even if I had not been reading the comments, when there’s this much controversy the same sort of extreme viewpoints tend to end up in the articles themselves as “telling both sides of the story.”

Predictably, it’s awful up one side and down the other. People are going around refusing to respect Bono’s self-definition and using his birth name “Chastity” and the pronoun “her” and insisting that “His/Her chromosomes haven’t changes [sic] since birth and never will” (which, as my Fausto-Sterling-savvy Gender in the Media students can now tell you, doesn’t actually mean as much as people think). And, of course, they’re hysterically screeching about the Bible. The thread at the ABC blog has all of these strategies in play.

And in relation to those people I take Bono’s side. I think it’s ludicrous to argue that casting him somehow makes DWTS not safe for children because it’ll make them turn out trans or gay or serial killers or whatever it is they’re arguing. I absolutely think they’re wrong to treat being trans as some sort of mental illness—comparing it to being an elective amputee, really?

I have to fight my knee-jerk response to think that these are bad people—or, as Chaz’s mother Cher put it, “stupid bigots”—and instead think of them as just lacking knowledge. But I still feel superior to them and their bible-thumping, same-sex-sexuality-hating ways. (That’s not me collapsing gender identity and sexual object choice; they’re the ones saying “it is CLEARLY stated in the Bible,,, [sic] men are not to lay down with other men, same for women.”)

But beyond that moment of support, things get tricky. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea that being inclined toward certain behavior or having certain feelings means your body needs to look a certain way. I think that ultimately this rigid correlation between body and behavior is something we have to resist rather than try to shape our bodies to fit into.

But of course, that behavior = body sentiment is exactly what we all hear all the time, though usually as body = behavior. “You’re a girl (body) so you should act like it (behavior).” The idea that your body is your destiny is so completely ingrained in us that we can’t think anything else. My students argued this about athletics even after reading and hearing that bodies are socially constructed.

So the arguments that Bono is going to destroy gender, or whatever, are totally off base. Transitioning, when done as a complete “I really am this other category on the inside and I need to fully move into that category” process, is actually very much about obeying and supporting gender rules. Changing the shape of one’s body requires a pretty serious commitment to playing along.

This isn’t to paint transfolk as dupes, by any means. The ways in which bodies get shaped in these processes are the product of medical institutions deciding what counted as transitioning. This matters because being able to count as transitioned is what makes you able to be able to change your state identity documents. In order to work in a mainstream, above-board kind of job, one has to have those documents, and unless you happen to have a particularly progressive employer they have to match the way you look when you walk in the door (and with the USA PATRIOT Act’s insistence that terrorists might have fake documents that don’t “match” their gender it may not matter what your boss thinks). I get that this is all very real and at times a matter of survival.

I also get that it can be a site of resistance, since transpeople routinely bend or break the rules. When the law says that in order to transition one has to have to have surgery to reassign their sex, that statute is intended to refer to genital surgery that will more or less render them both sterile and unable to experience sexual pleasure. But with a sympathetic doctor, someone can get a letter certifying that surgery to change sex has occurred without saying exactly what—that it was top surgery and not bottom surgery, say. There are ways to work the system, and people do.

Experiencing a high degree of mismatch between oneself and the social norm is a bad situation, and people like Chaz Bono are making the best of it.

But here again, like with 9/11 or with gay marriage, I see it on two levels simultaneously, and considering individual people as opposed to large-scale structures produces a dramatically different response. I almost wish I had less appreciation for subtlety and could be more dogmatic. It’d be easier.

That is, though I completely appreciate why people find it necessary to comply with the medico-legal framework to get access to the resources they need, I ultimately don’t think it’s a good idea to go appealing to the state for validation for one’s body image any more than for one’s sex life.

We all have a set of really narrow options of what bodies are supposed to look like and what it’s appropriate to do with them, options that don’t conform to the configurations people actually come in (however it is that you think we come to have a gender and a sexuality and a body that’s a particular shape).

And we all have to work and struggle and cram ourselves into boxes—some more than others, of course—to find a place that’s comfortable within that. Chaz Bono got a bad deal out of the boxes of the gender system. Or, we all get a bad deal out of the gender system, but Bono and other transfolk more than most.

These are real pressures with real consequences, but I simply cannot feel that the solution is to accept the boxes.

We have to expose the boxes as artificial, as constraining, as sometimes deadly. We have to work to dismantle the ways that the boxes hold the power they do over who gets jobs and how people get medical care and all kinds of other services and resources and opportunities.

We have to work toward some different way to configure people, such that you can feel however you want on the inside and look however you want on the outside, with no demand that those fall into a set of patterns, much less a rigid equation.

But, in the meantime, Bono’s decision to get his body surgically altered to move him into a different category than the one into which he was born doesn’t make him crazy, no matter what the fever pitch of think-of-the-children might say. Instead, the system is crazy. And even though I wouldn’t choose the same way of coping with it, trying to make it work for you is a perfectly sane thing.

So there I am, minding my own business the Sunday before last, when the Internet goes crazy. Or, rather, one of the corners of the Internet that I keep an eye on went crazy.

From D. Agron’s Tumblr at http://felldowntherabbithole.tumblr.com/post/6453072763

I’ll admit it: I have a Google alert set for Dianna Agron. It’s what I do these days when I like an actor (which others, I’ll never tell!). So when the actor in question—who’s female and heretofore evidently heterosexual (Achele shippers notwithstanding. Also, check out Urban Dictionary’s Acheleography definition; it’s hilarious!)—wore a “Likes Girls” t-shirt to perform a Glee Live show in Toronto, my inbox became a popular destination—15 news stories in the first 24 hours, then 16 more over the next 3 days (many thanks are due to threaded emails that it didn’t actually fill).

There were questions: Did Glee’s Dianna Agron come out as bisexual with a tshirt? and dry factual headlines: Glee’s Dianna Agron “Likes Girls” T Shirt in Toronto and (not-so) subtle digs at fans: Dianna Agron Wears “Likes Girls” T-Shirt, Gleeks Freak Out.

And there was squee. Oh dear God was there squee. Some of my favorites from the tumblr tag “dianna agron come out riot”:

angelsfallenknight: I AM DYING. JEEEEESUS. CAPS LOCK WON’T GO OFF. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! ‘I LIKE GIRLS’ AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

chikaru: so dianna agron likes womenin other news water is wet, pope is catholic etc

Then, about 12 hours after the first alerts had come through, the tone shifted. The second set of headlines included: Dianna Agron explains ‘likes girls’ t-shirt worn during live show and Dianna Agron Talks About Gay Issues.Basically, these stories said: “Ha ha, just kidding, she doesn’t have the gay. No worries!”

Along with this batch came Agron’s own essay, published at her tumblr, which is what the walking back of the gay speculation was drawing on—as far as I know, she hasn’t given any interviews on it yet. The piece was sort of a “gay pride month is really important because clearly it’s still not that awesome to be gay, so I’m going to stand up for gay rights” statement.

And honestly I still can’t decide how I feel about it. On one hand, it’s like, “Well, that’s easy for you to say. You get to go back to having heterosexual privilege when you take the shirt off.” But on the other hand, she is putting herself on the line in some sense, because she is choosing to stand with (and temporarily as) a category that’s socially devalued. And putting herself—her career, perhaps—“at risk” in that limited sense is certainly better than no sense at all.

But what really stood out to me about her essay was the logic by which she counted herself among those who like girls:

I love my family, my friends, my co-workers…and they all consist of girls AND boys. I do tell them that I love them. Yesterday, during our second show, Instead of wearing my usual shirt during “Born This Way” I decided to wear one that said “Likes Girls”. It should actually have read, “Loves Girls”, because I do. The women in my life give me things that the men in my life can’t. And vice-versa. No, I am not a lesbian, yet if I were, I hope that the people in my life could embrace it whole-heartedly. And let me tell you, I can easily spill (quite comfortably) what I admire, respect and think is beautiful about any of the women in my life. Piece of cake!

Last night, I wanted to do something to show my respect and love for the GLBT community. Support that people could actually see. Which is why I decided to change my shirt for the show.

Reading this, I had a total sense of déjà vu. I’d read this before:

I mean the term lesbian continuum to include a range—through each woman’s life and throughout history—of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. If we expand it to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support [ . . .].

The above quote is from Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (from the version in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, p.239), and the resemblance is sort of uncanny.

There’s the same move to relate loving and supporting women with having same-sex sex—deliberate and political on Rich’s part, not entirely elaborated on Agron’s.

At the same time, both authors also insist that they aren’t identical. Agron says “I love girls. Just not for fucking.” Rich distinguishes between the above “lesbian continuum” and “lesbian existence,” which she defines as “both the fact of the historical presence of lesbians and our continuing creation of the meaning of that existence”—meaning that this is where we get literal, actual lesbians (p. 239).

Rich, then, would argue that Agron is actually sort of a lesbian, sex-free love of women notwithstanding, since she’s on the lesbian continuum.Indeed, Rich wanted to “consider the possibility that all women [ . . . ] exist on a lesbian continuum,” because this would let us “see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not” (p. 240).

What Rich wanted to do in the essay, as the title suggests, was figure heterosexuality not as a “natural” disposition—either for all women, in which case lesbians are unnatural, or for most women, which makes lesbians natural (whatever that means) but unusual—but something that had to be imposed to make women identify with men’s interests rather than their own (which has its own set of problematic assumptions—I’ll get there).

She questioned “why species survival, the means of impregnation, and emotional/erotic relationships should ever have become so rigidly identified with each other,” contending that, however related they seem to us now, there was nothing inevitable about this outcome (p. 232).

Ultimately, through proposing this continuum, Rich wanted to help women “feel the depth and breadth of woman identification and woman bonding that has run like a continuous though stifled theme through the heterosexual experience,” with the goal being “that this would become increasingly a politically activating impulse, not simply a validation of personal lives” (p. 227).

That is, it isn’t just to get women to come together and identify as or with lesbians for a round of kumbayah, but to further feminist action. That part remains unrealized in Agron’s rendition, and that possibility is a danger Rich herself realized about the term.

Rich wrote an addendum to “Compulsory Heterosexuality” the following year–when it was to be anthologized in Powers of Desire, in order to respond to some queries from the editors of that volume–in which she addressed this issue: “My own problem with the phrase is that it can be, is, used by women who have not yet begun to examine the privileges and solipsisms of heterosexuality, as a safe way to describe their felt connections with women, without having to share in the risks and threats of lesbian existence” (249).

This definitely gets at what makes me uncomfortable about Agron’s statement.She can be edgy and wear a “Likes Girls” shirt as a way to proclaim her love for the women in her life because she has enough privilege–as heterosexual, but also as white, as normatively gendered, as meeting standards of attractiveness, as wealthy, and as a celebrity–to insulate her from what that would entail were she someone else.

Rich wanted to make it “less possible to read, write, or teach from a perspective of unexamined heterocentricity” (p. 228), but 30 years down the line being unexamined is clearly still possible. Certainly, Agron’s post did not succeed at really examining her own positionality, since the larger argument is grounded in a presumption that straight people ought to be nicer to those poor queers.

I’m sure she doesn’t realize it, but this relies on an assumption of heterosexual superiority. They are apparently in a position to tolerate us because we are the lesser objects of tolerance in the equation (see Wendy Brown’s2006 book Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire).

This isn’t to pick on Agron. These are things I think about because it’s my job. These are ways of seeing I am trained in. Her job and her training are something else. She did ok. She really did. For a young person (though, I have to remind myself, not as much younger than me as it feels like) whose fame has led to her opinion—about anything—being news, she’s doing pretty well.

But it is to temper the praise she’s getting for being SO progressive. Seriously, you’re going to ask “Is Dianna Agron more supportive of LGBT rights than the rest of the “Glee” cast?” on account of one blog post? And this blog post? She’s not some kind of new gay patron saint.

I’m also not trying to hold up Rich as the true homosaint. I will be the first to tell you that there are a number of problems with her piece—I was, literally, when we read this in my Queer Theory class a couple years ago. Rich wants to open the arms of lesbian feminism to heterosexual women and express that, though heterosexuals get more privilege, it’s the structure of the system that makes that so and not necessarily heterosexual woman going around acting to oppress, which is great.

But, like many a second-wave feminist, Rich doesn’t get that men aren’t the enemy. They benefit from the unequal distribution of power, sure, but they don’t completely control it. In fact, men can be allies to change things—just like Rich argues that heterosexual women can.

Rich seems to mistake the situation as one in which men are running the system in a smoky room somewhere, trying to trick women into heterosexually identifying with men’s interests rather than their own true female/lesbian continuum interests. This is ridiculous for a number of reasons, not least because women don’t inherently care about the same things.

Indeed, the assumption that all women share interests simply by virtue of their membership in the category demonstrates that at that point Rich did not understand her own race or class privilege all that well—I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she does now. She makes offhand references to the importance of race and class, but they aren’t a substitute for a thorough and integrated understanding of how gender and sexuality are racialized.

In the end, what’s interesting about both Agron’s essay and Rich’s is that they both want to trouble or push the boundaries of categories but end up reinforcing them instead.

Agron wore a tshirt that was meant (when it was printed) to indicate same-sex attraction to proclaim both her platonic love of the women in her life and her support for those who do have such attractions. That’s a blurring of boundaries that had a great deal of potential to make things queer–but she contains it by making an unequivocal statement that “I am not a lesbian.” Why not refuse the question altogether as irrelevant? Or, why not refuse the privilege or the position of superior tolerate-er of the tolerated?

Rich wanted to insist that lesbians and heterosexual women had something in common, breaking down the hetero/homo divide, which again had potential to reorient us away from hard binaries to something more complex. However, in recognizing only hetero and homo–and especially in holding on so tightly to male vs. female as precisely an antagonism–she stopped short of the radical intervention her piece could have made to thinking systemically about power, inequality, and change.

Putting these two pieces side-by-side, then, produces an interesting look at how far we’ve come–and how far we have yet to go.

Blog four of four in a series on Glee.

To riff on the theme of last week’s blog calling Glee’s creators out for having Gay White Man Syndrome (which, I neglected to mention, also sometimes manifests as White Feminist Syndrome), the other major lecture I do on Glee when I teach Intro to Media Studies is on disability.

And how colossally they fail at representing it.

I’m imagining that the process of checkbox character creation went something like “Hey, let’s have a kid in a wheelchair! OMG yes, that’s awesome! We’re so freaking progressive.”

And yes, having a main character who isn’t bodily normative is a good step, just like the show’s casting beyond black and white, discussed last week is a step forward.

But again, mere presence isn’t enough. Because what they do with the character now that they have him is a problem. What Artie really wants more than anything is to be “normal”—and there is no sense within the show that that word belongs in scare quotes.

That is, the character doesn’t operate with a model of “Hey, I’m different from you, and that’s ok ‘cause I’m good in my way and you’re good in yours.” Instead, he desperately wants to be a dancer—which, according to the show’s logic, can only mean dancing with legs.

So, somehow, for all the progressiveness of making Artie a main character and not the Problem of the Week, we’re right back with Poor Disabled Kid Who Can’t Achieve His Normative Dreams.

People sometimes have a hard time getting why this is a problem, so in my lecture I talk about Ari Ne’eman, the first openly autistic White House appointee in history. He was nominated in December 2009 to the National Council on Disability and confirmed in June 2010, a delay that may have had something to do with his criticism of the idea of curing autism.

In an interview with Wired, Ne’eman explains his position:

Wired.com: Though you criticize groups like Autism Speaks for focusing on a cure, if someone offered you a pill to wake up tomorrow without autism, would you take it?

Ne’eman: That’s an intensely silly question. How can I draw a line around one part of my brain and say that this is the autistic part, and the rest of me is something else? That way of looking at autism is predicated on the strange idea that there was or is a normal person somewhere inside me, hidden by autism, and struggling to get out. That’s not reality.

Hereagain it’s serendipitous simultaneity to the rescue, since I was (belatedly) watching the first season of Glee at the same time I was (belatedly) reading Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability and, I was like, “Oh my god, Robert McRuer would have a field day.”

McRuer calls our attention to the fact that (though admittedly it isn’t exactly the same) we would never ask:

“Wouldn’t you rather be white?” or

“Wouldn’t you rather be a man?” or

“Wouldn’t you rather be straight?”

But we would ask “‘In the end, wouldn’t you rather be hearing?’ and ‘In the end, wouldn’t you rather not be HIV positive?’” (McRuer, 2006, pp. 8-9). That is, though each of these things is a social hierarchy, only the first three do we identify as such. Accordingly, with race, sex/gender, or sexuality, we don’t think that just because something is normative it’s normal in an evaluative sense (except sometimes with being straight).

With disability, we don’t recognize that social privileging as social. That is, “able-bodiedness, even more than heterosexuality, still largely masquerades as a nonidentity, as the natural order of things” (McRuer, 2006, p. 1). McRuer wants to draw our attention to this and make us question the naturalness of assuming able-bodied is better and everyone’s goal.

In an example of what happens when we make strange the idea of normativity for all, the Wired article asks us to “imagine a world in which most public discussion of homosexuality was devoted to finding a cure for it, rather than on the need to address the social injustices that prevent gay people from living happier lives”

Ne’eman points out that “Dr. Ivar Lovaas, who passed away recently, said that his goal was to make autistic kids indistinguishable from their peers. That goal has more to do with increasing the comfort of non-autistic people than with what autistic people really need. Lovaas also experimented with trying to make what he called effeminate boys normal. It was a silly idea around homosexuality, and it’s a silly idea around autism.”

To counter ideas like this, there’s something that has been called the “neurodiversity movement.” Ne’eman, who belongs to this group, argues that “many of the bad things that autistic people struggle with are things that happen to us, rather than things that are bad about being autistic,”—that is, the hard part of being nonnormative is being in that subordinate position vis-à-vis the norm, not anything inherent to the bodily or mental state.

That is, there are plenty of other ways to make sense of these physiological differences between people. Lynne Roper—whose Disability in Media piece is what I actually assign to my students, McRuer being a bit hard core for a 100-level class—points out that “some religions will see epilepsy as possession by a god and therefore a gift, whereas in capitalist western societies where medicine is powerful, disability acts as evidence of the failure of medicine and is this treated negatively” (¶ 9).

The fact that we can’t see this, McRuer (2006, p. 37) argues, has a lot to do with the fact that “the vast majority of both nondisabled and disabled people have in effect consented to comprehending that binary [able-bodied/disabled] as natural.”

McRuer contends that what we need to do instead is see the able-bodied/disabled dyad “as nonnatural and hierarchical (or cultural and political) rather than self-evident and universal,” which he terms “cripping” on the model of “queering” or “ability trouble” on the model of Butler’s “gender trouble.”

Now, Glee has already caught some flak for how it does disability, notably for casting a bodily-normative actor to play Artie. And I imagine that their thought process after getting called out went something like, “Oh, that offends you? That’s cool, no problem. I’ll see your paraplegic and raise you quadriplegic. And the character will be all sympathetic and stuff and played by a Real Paralyzed Actor™.”

And maybe there is a flash of, “Woo hoo, Glee figured its shit out!” for a second.

But then that scene—in the episode entitled “Laryngitis”—goes on and it becomes clear that it’s not about the quadriplegic character at all. It’s about Rachel. The non-bodily-normative character is in the episode solely to lead Rachel (who, oddly given the episode’s title, is afflicted with tonsillitis rather than laryngitis) back to health. He shows her that possibly losing her singing voice if she has her tonsils out isn’t that bad after all because hell, she could be like him.

Are you kidding me?

Roper argues that representations of disability “are usually about the feelings of non-disabled people and their reactions to disability, rather than disability itself” (¶ 13). The way disability gets represented, she contends, is voyeuristic and lets the able-bodied feel better about themselves by comparison, and this is a textbook case.

That is, as McRuer (2006, pp. 8-9) points out, quite often the representation of non-normative embodiments “reveals more about the able-bodied culture doing the asking than about the bodies being interrogated.”

McRuer also notes that by using mobility disabilities, Hollywood can have bodily nonnormative characters that are both visibly different and still photogenic—particularly important when you cast bodily normative actors to play them, but clearly also in play here with this actor who is in fact not bodily normative but still looks pretty “normal.”

It seems like this may have been on the minds of the writers when they wrote one of the other storylines in the Laryngitis episode.

My imagination of their thought process again: “I got it. We’ll put in some characters with Down Synrdome. They will be a chance to show that Sue Sylvester has a heart, cuz you’d have to in order to be nice to people like that, right? And they look different and everything. And they’re very sympathetic characters—always unfailingly sweet. Problem solved, amirite?”

Having a character (and actor) who is cognitively nonnormative is a huge step forward. Having one with no depth whatsoever, even more so than the two-dimensionality of the other characters in the show, is not.

As one blogger put it:

“This episode especially irked me because of the sensitivity of the way Kurt’s storyline was handled. Kurt’s struggling with feeling abandoned by his father and he tries to mold himself into something he’s not and he and his dad have it out. Why do I get the feeling that Ryan Murphy, who is gay, put a lot of time, thought, and energy into that storyline? Because it shows. It was well done. It was a good scene. It spoke to experiences I’ve had of trying to pretend to be somebody else to please someone else and it resonated.”

Oh, wait, is that Gay White Man Syndrome rearing its ugly head again? You betcha.

Try again, Glee, and try to peer around your enormous self-congratulation this time.

Glee blog three of, I think, four.

Glee seems, in some ways, to be pretty invested in diversity. Certainly, the way people throw praise (accolades from GLAAD) and awards (a Diversity Award from the Multicultural Motion Picture Association) at them (and these are just the examples from the first page of Google results) suggests that his is a popular interpretation.

And indeed, the show has had, in various combinations over its run, some white-American kids, and some Jewish-American kids, and some Asian-American kids, and some African-American kids, and a Latina kid, and a kid in a wheelchair and some characters with Down syndrome, and a boatload of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning kids.

Check, check, check, check, check, check, check, check.Let’s dust off our hands, our work here is done.

That is, Glee seems to be working with a sort of smorgasbord or checkbox model of difference. They have characters who differ with respect to the categories Americans generally recognize as important, and that is about as far as it goes.

Most notably, the show has gotten accolades and award statuettes for the way it deals with sexual orientation, and I actually don’t have a whole lot to dispute there. It’s a pretty narrow subset of LGB folks (and no transfolks), but there sure are a lot of them. The show is gay central (which has not escaped the attention of the right), and because at least one of the people in charge has had those experiences, it does an ok job of it.

And it’s true that they exhibit race in more than black and white, which is a definite improvement over the American TV standard, but they stop at (East) Asian and Latina/o. No Native kids. No Arab or Muslim kids. No South Asian kids (though there was one scripted, he got replaced with Kurt because a) Chris Colfer is just that awesome and b) Ryan Murphy saw himself in him—this is one place where we have gotten into trouble).

But just having characters who fit in those categories—checking off those boxes—isn’t enough. I mentioned offhand a couple weeks ago that Santana is periodically ethnic-ed up when the writers remember to break out their English-to-Spanish dictionary, and that’s really as far as it goes for any of the characters.

Granted, I haven’t yet seen the back half of season two, but I can’t think of a single episode dealing in depth with anybody’s racial or ethnic identity. It seems like the people who make Glee think of race or ethnicity as good only for a snappy one-liner.

Or, sometimes, it’s a minor plot point—like when Quinn was pregnant and craving bacon and Puck’s Jewish mother was appalled or Artie and Tina break up because Tina wants to date fellow Asian Mike (with whom she hooked up at “Asian Camp”—seriously?).

Of course, the ways in which Glee swings at equality and misses haven’t entirely escaped attention: Margaret Hartmann over at Jezebel discusses Why Glee Still Needs To Work On Diversity. Angry Asian Man calls the show out for the way that the Caucasian cast is made so much more central in plots and promotional materials. Even Jeff Field of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil rights argues that “‘Glee’ Loathes Diversity.”

As Hartmann’s article points out, it would be less annoying that Glee fails at doing diversity if it wasn’t so busy patting itself on the back for doing diversity. And this is where it becomes clear that Glee creator Ryan Murphy has Gay White Man Syndrome, and he has it bad.

This isn’t to hate on all gay white men. Some of my best friends are gay white men, to use that horrible, privilege- or prejudice-obscuring saying with tongue firmly in cheek. But Gay White Man Syndrome is a serious problem for that subset of the population of gay white men who have it.

When people have the Syndrome, they tend to mistake their experience of discrimination on the basis of their sexuality as interchangeable with all other ways that people are disadvantaged for the social categories of inequality to which they belong.

This is sort of like saying “I understand what it’s like to be discriminated against as a woman because I’m gay” or “I can’t be racist, I’m gay!”

When you put it this way, it sounds totally ridiculous, but it’s rarely expressed this way. Instead, there’s just an assumption of commonality of the experience of being outside the privileged norm, ignoring the ways in which being white and male are still pretty good cards to have in your hand.

And that’s sort of what happens in Glee. The people making the show apparently don’t know what they don’t know, so they proceed as if what they know is enough to allow them to successfully engage with all categories of social inequality.

It’s not. Props to them for having a cast in many hues, but simple presence is not enough.