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After a crazy semester of exam-taking, I am back, dear readers, and ready to (hopefully) enlighten you once again with my musings on politics, popular culture, and poststructuralism.

As I was reading Isabel Molina-Guzmán’s take on Ugly Betty in Dangerous Curves: Latina Bodies in the Media a while back, something resonated with my roughly contemporaneous viewing of the first season and a half of Glee. Molina has an extended discussion of the character Betty’s troubled relationship to normative fashion as a form of camp and as a sign of failed whiteness, and this struck me as quite related to Rachel’s positioning in good ol’ Glee.

It’s immediately obvious to anyone watching these two shows that neither Betty nor Rachel can quite succeed at normative femininity and fashion. Molina identifies this as a “queer performance” in the case of Betty, describing Betty’s clothing choices as an “unusual sense of fashion and style that echoes a drag queen aesthetic” (144).

There’s definitely something there to make sense of Rachel, as the insults the show’s Cheerios characters deploy to police Rachel’s fashion choices are frequently assaults on her femininity, like RuPaul or manhands (and others, though it seems, regrettably, that no one has compiled a readily available internet list).

This isn’t because Rachel’s particularly manly—she’s tiny (Google estimated actress Lea Michele’s height as 5’2” when I asked just now) and her outfits routinely leave little doubt that her body is well within shape norms for normative femininity.

No, they aren’t really accusing her of being masculine, and I’d like to suggest that what they’re policing when they police her gender is her racialized difference. (Unless, as suggested by some fans, Quinn is really trying to convince herself that Rachel is unattractive because she wants so desperately to be heterosexual. Though, if she likes men so much, why would comparing Rachel to one make her less attractive? See skywarrior108’s The Truth About Quinn Fabray for a pretty compelling version of this argument.)

This comes into focus most clearly using the complex notion of heteronormativity articulated by people like Cathy Cohen. That is, the norms of race, gender, class, and sexuality (and, depending who you ask, indigenous v. settler status and nationality) mutually reinforce each other, and failing to comply with one imperils all the others.

We can see how all of these things are working in the case of Betty or Rachel’s deviances from the norm. That is, through both are constructed as heterosexually oriented, through not living up to race, gender, and class norms they fall out of normativity.

Ugly’s Betty, Molina tells us, is “never quite white” (146). Specifically, her “performance of Latina femininity,” relatively “assimilated” though it is by comparison to that of her sister, is nevertheless “a failed performance of white, middle-class social acceptability” (136).

And you know, Rachel is never quite successful at this either, at least in part because her quasi-permanent state of fashion faux pas violates that “white, middle-class social acceptability” up one side and down the other. Her clothing frequently speaks explicitly of both sex and childhood in a way that is clearly calculated by the show’s makers to be appalling.

But then there’s the body in those clothes. A body whose skin tone is a couple shades darker than is normative for white women (men have a bit darker range, as Richard Dyer points out in White). And we need to take that divergence from the norm seriously, because it’s evident that between the clothes and the color, there’s a perplexing and ambivalent racialization of the body of one Rachel Berry.

Fans certainly don’t know what to do with it—I’m not going to call anybody out in particular, but the frequency with which fans describing Rachel speak of her “tanned” skin or have Quinn’s internal monologue marvel at her lack of “tan lines” in femslash stories suggests that they want to cram her back into whiteness but have to explain away that not-quite-white hue. It does not seem to occur to them that she just is tan, as a color, or, god forbid, (light) brown.

But the body of the actor playing that character, Lea Michele, is in fact tan/light brown, and however much this panics the desperate American desire to be colorblind, that matters. But it’s not the only thing that matters.

This is clearest when one puts Rachel alongside the other high-school-girl characters, particularly Santana and Quinn. Quinn is, as she is intended to be, the epitome of whiteness—nondenominationally Christian, light-skinned, blonde, middle-class, and normatively feminine. In every respect, this is “whiter,” according to the complex of norms that determine normativity, than Rachel.

Santana, on the other hand, though visually classifiable as nonwhite and periodically ethnic-ed up when the writers remember to break out their English-to-Spanish dictionary, is still better at normativity than Rachel. She does femininity better. She does class better. And, though her non-heterosexuality is a deviation from normativity (and indeed will probably get its own whole blog post sometime soon), her establishment as succeeding at most norms up until the recent arc weights her toward normativity overall.

So determination is partly or sometimes visual and partly or sometimes compliance with norms, but Rachel fails on both accounts. She just can’t get normative whiteness right because of the multiple ways she’s not within the narrow orbit of the normative.

And, like Betty, this is the tragedy of Rachel. Both of these characters want (sometimes desperately) to fit in and be like others—though not at the cost of who they are—but they just don’t quite fit in those boxes. And I think that explains a lot.

A major shout-out to T.J. Tallie for saving me from folly on this post in about a zillion ways. If you want to access his awesomeness, check him out on Twitter.

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  1. […] 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…, and that’s really as far as it goes for any of the […]

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