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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Part II in a series on Glee

When I teach Media Effects, one of my favorite examples is the Glee/GQ controversy. The story broke just as I was teaching that segment of Intro to Media Studies for the first time, and I’ve continued to use it. Partially, this is because it’s pretty much the only show my students and I have in common. But it’s also so utterly textbook that I can’t pass it up.

For one promotional photo shoot among the dozens that the cast has surely done by now, the appearance of Glee’s actors in GQ was sure a big deal. Even now, 6 months later, I can pull up fifteen Google News results for “glee gq,” because it gets mentioned any time they talk about how the show is a criticism magnet or how Dianna Agron is more demure than her castmates or, most importantly for this blog piece, the way that Lea Michele is often considered to be overly sexy. Any excuse will do to bring it up, really. It even made the show’s Wikipedia page! (See the third paragraph of this section.)

Here again, it was Isabel Molina-Guzmán’s take on Ugly Betty in Dangerous Curves: Latina Bodies in the Mediathat let me put my finger on what was going on. Molina says that actress America Ferrera “embodies genuine and wholesome ‘American’ values,” which “makes it easier to promote Ferrera, Betty, and the program” (131).

This is all fine and well to the extent that it holds, but when Ferrera proves to be different than Betty’s self-sacrificing femininity things get shaky. “Consequently, among fans there is a careful filtering of information about Ferrera that might work against their readings of the character and actor” (ibid).

More than just selective attention to information that complies with their desires, “fans wanting to maintain the suspension of disbelief that character and actor are one sometimes police Ferrera for actions that do not fit their assumptions” (ibid.). And that’s where Lea Michele comes in.

As the Jocelyn Noveck of the AP put it:

“You’re a couple of great-looking, talented young actresses on the hottest show on TV. You’re adults. So why NOT pose for some seriously saucy photos in GQ, a magazine for adult men? Well, it gets a little thorny when the show is “Glee,” beloved by 8- and 9-year-olds, and when you’re posing as a high-school girl in nothing but skimpy panties, spreading your legs sky-wide on a locker room bench. Or suggestively licking a lolly as you lean — in the same skimpy panties — on a high-school locker.”

What do we learn here? Michele and Agron have the right to be sexy if they’re so inclined, but they are imagined to have abused that right by making bad decisions about it. Michele is particularly often policed for this, with the complaint that her photo shoots are too sexy for children coming nearly as regularly as there are stories about pictures being taken of her (though, tragically, I can’t find them now).

The absurdity of this is perfectly captured by Agron’s retort to the outrage over the GQ shoot: “If you are hurt or these photos make you uncomfortable, it was never our intention,” she said. “And if your 8-year-old has a copy of our GQ cover in hand, again I am sorry. But I would have to ask, how on earth did it get there?”

That is, kids might love Glee, but on no planet is it really for them. Similarly, no matter how much children love the show, promotional materials appearing in disparate locations like men’s magazines aren’t for them either.

But this doesn’t stop the perpetual-outrage machine, which, oddly, is not outraged at the magazine industry or the photographer or the people who buy GQ. Instead, it’s the person in the photos who is imagined to be at fault.

No one would deny that Michele sluts it up on a regular basis (which is to use “slut” in a sex-positive way, btw). Indeed, someone (can’t remember who) quipped that she discovered that she was hot recently and is making the most of it.

However, her decisions to appear all sexed up are a) probably at the behest of photographers, though clearly she does go along with it; b) her own business because it’s her body; and c) not necessarily indicative of any propensity to have sex at the drop of a hat, which would d) not be anybody’s business anyway.

The fact is, if she wants to enjoy being young, good looking, and famous, she can, and it’s really not her fault she plays a high school character on a show kids love. People make fun of fans for their supposed tendency to collapse the actor and the character, yet here organizations like the Parents Television Council are doing that very thing in the mainstream media.

It’s totally reasonable to critique the system that has made this a standard mode of celebrating one’s own attractiveness. We can think the photographer who made the GQ shoot look like 70s faux-high-school porn is skeezy, sure.

But to accuse Michele of being the amazing corrupt-o-matic simply for appearing in some photos—which were (admittedly) ill-advised and did specifically play on the eroticization of underage girls—is so outdated and anti-woman that I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Didn’t we have a movement about this already? You know, the one that urged us to look at the structures that produced particular possibilities and outcomes for women?

It’s called feminism; look it up.

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.