I recently went and saw Glee Live on stage. Yes I put down cold, hard cash to watch a bunch of actors re-enact their roles from a television show that captivates millions of teens and young adults worldwide on a stage. The concert was fun and the young actors can sing, but I had no interest in writing an article about the concert itself. In the interest of full disclosure, I am what would be considered a “Gleek,” or hardcore fan of the series and am not ashamed of it. Glee is solid, entertaining television that gets a bad rap from those who find it cool to hate on it and those who feel it’s “too controversial.” This article doesn’t seek to soapbox too much, but from a fan of the show who admits it’s not perfect, I hope to emphasize why it’s far more teen-friendly than other shows aimed at the demographic.
Upon returning home from the aforementioned Glee Live I wanted to read my local newspapers review of the concert. The review was favorable but I was surprised to read a comment from someone decrying the writer for writing a favorable review for a show that promotes “underage sex, child porn, bigotry, and hatred.” I was even more disheartened to see that anyone who opposed said commenter’s opinion was labeled “a fan of the show,” and therefore their points weren’t valid. I guess my points won’t be considered valid as I’ve mentioned I’m a fan, but I attempted to take this person’s comments as a writer and fan of quality television, and not just a fan of the series itself. So what is it that makes Glee so dangerous to America’s youth?
Let me refute each of the above points one by one. In terms of the series promoting underage sex, it’s done in a tasteful and true manner. The series dealt mostly with sex in season one focusing on the teen pregnancy of cheerleader Quinn (Dianna Agron), as well as imagined and realized sexual encounters between the shows star-crossed lovers Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Cory Monteith). In terms of the teen pregnancy, no show in the current crop of television on mainstream channels has gone truly controversial; the two main routes are keeping it and/or adoption with no show truly dealing with the big “A.” But Quinn was a character who complained about her situation, mentioning what it was doing to her life and actually discussing the consequences of raising the child. Glee was also a show that had the father taking an active role in the decision making. I don’t know about you, but I think having two teenagers talk like adults about what to do in their situation is more positive than something like MTV’s spate of “it’s cool to be pregnant and in high school” series’ like Sixteen and Pregnant and Teen Mom. I refuse to watch MTV’s glorification of teen pregnancy, but based on how many times I’ve heard about these “mothers” being involved in domestic disputes, losing their parental rights and continuing to get pregnant while making obscene amounts of money, I have to say Glee has the edge here.
The other “underage” sexual pairings had Rachel debating whether to lose her virginity before saying no and Finn actually losing his virginity before realizing it had no meaning without being in love. Both characters went through the two main routes of sexual activity and came to realize waiting is the best option, so how is that promoting teen sex? The actual sex has greatly diminished in season two; I don’t recall any couples actually having sex this season. A particular episode though did focus on gay teen Kurt (Chris Colfer) actually struggling to understand the birds and the bees as a gay teen and needing parental help, again messages I would hope parents would want their children to see. With “abstinence only” education being de rigueur in schools now and many kids looking at anyplace but their parents for information on sex, it’s surprising that Glee gets such a punch when it comes to sex. All teen shows deal with sex in high school from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Gossip Girl. In fact the CW is a great offender in detailing teens in high school hopping from bed to bed with no consequences; again see Gossip Girl and 90210, yet Glee is the one that gets picked on.
Well if it’s not about the underage sex, maybe it’s about promoting child porn. This is a true head-scratcher because unless I’ve learned differently child pornography is forcing those under 18 to commit sexual acts. This was a topic that was brought up after Lea Michele, Dianna Agron and Cory Monteith were in a “sexy” photo spread for GQ magazine. The term also cropped up after Michele did a cover shoot for Cosmopolitan magazine. The pictures in the two magazines were risqué but nothing that you can’t see in any other magazine and certainly safer than anything Lindsay Lohan or Disney starlets Vanessa Hudgens and Miley Cyrus have put out. Cyrus and Hudgens are probably worse offenders than the Glee kids, considering they’ve both had nude photos of them come out while they were under-18 that they willingly posed for and were more than happy to fall back on the child porn bandwagon when they were posted on websites. And while both are over 18 now, they were openly seen engaging in drinking and relationships with men over 21 – to little controversy. The cast of Glee take a few pictures in short shorts and bras, all of them well over 21, and they’re accused of taking part in child pornography? They were not taken unwillingly and to say its child porn is offensive to poor children who are exploited everyday and harmed through true child porn industries. It’s easy to say they’re role models sending out a negative image, but that can be said of any celebrity in the entertainment industry, they’ve all done things that would make them horrible role models for children, and so what makes Glee so rife for scorn?
It must be the “bigotry” and “hatred.” This is actually where Glee’s most positive message comes out, as they openly preach tolerance and acceptance. The most prominent members of this message are the homosexual characters Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Darren Criss). This is where Glee gets hit the most, with many religious organizations decrying the show as promoting homosexuality to America’s youth with a particular spokesperson saying the fictional high school, McKinley High, was the “gayest school on Earth.” There are actually four gay characters, the aforementioned Kurt and Blaine, as well as two characters who aren’t out and struggling to understand their sexuality, Santana (Naya Rivera) and Karofsky (Max Adler). I don’t know about you, but only four known homosexual kids in a large high school seem like a minority instead of a majority. The show preaches the acceptance of these characters and their struggles to accept themselves and others. The consequences of which were frighteningly seen in the bullying of Kurt by Karofsky culminating with Karofsky threatening to kill Kurt. All of this was done in response to the string of suicides being committed by gay teens who had been bullied and Glee has always been a proponent of promoting tolerance of all ethnicities, genders and sexual orientation. The bullying storyline was done in a serious manner with teachers and parents responding positively and by this season’s end Karofsky was still uncomfortable announcing he was gay, but genuinely felt hurt by his comments and gave a heartfelt apology to Kurt. The show does not promote hatred, by the ability to rise above it and take responsibility for one’s actions. The characters who are struggling with their sexuality genuinely struggle, specifically in Santana’s case as she not only struggles with being a lesbian but having an unrequited crush on her best friend Brittany. It’s easy to see why this makes more conservative parents uncomfortable, but in today’s high schools, where gay, lesbian, and transgender teens are more prominent faces in the crowd, Glee is topical and adult in how it handles the characters. A source of comparison is how the teens on 90210 handle homosexuality. School drama queen Adrianna (Jessica Lowndes) was a lesbian for about three episodes before discarding the concept as weird. Glee is a show that promotes acceptance and love for everyone. They are a family who love each other for who they are, and the message of making a family with those who care about you is much needed in the cutthroat world of high school.
Aside from sexual orientation Glee is a series that embraces all outcasts compared to other series where the teens look like runway models with no diversity. It’s one of the few shows I’ve watched on mainstream television that openly embraces disabled characters, and utilizes them as people and not just objects of pity. The most recognizable character in this genre is Artie (Kevin McHale), the rapper in the wheelchair. Artie holds a special place in my heart as I, too, live life in a wheelchair and while I know McHale isn’t truly disabled he knows his stuff in how to present himself in a wheelchair. I wish I could describe specifics but it’s only really noticeable if you’re in the situation. Aside from that, and to give my point more credence, he’s actually written as a person and not just a person in a wheelchair. Writers Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk write Artie as a person capable of finding love as he’s dated by Asian-American Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) and the dimwitted Brittany (Heather Morris). In other shows that utilized a wheelchair character, and I’m having trouble coming up with them, believe me, the character is either an object of hilarity or someone who is loved out of pity. With Artie he’s a strong character who can have a stable relationship where his disability isn’t brought up 85 times in an episode and is a strong symbol for those in wheelchairs. Growing up I didn’t have any idols that were like me and I have to believe Glee has given kids in wheelchairs someone to look up to.
The disabilities aren’t just limited to physical, but they are mental as well. The character Becky Jackson (Lauren Potter) is a character with Downs Syndrome who melts the heart of the cold Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch). I thought Becky would be that gimmicky character that arrives on campus and is used for sympathy. When she tried out to be on the cutthroat Cheerios cheerleading squad, kind-hearted teacher Will Shuester (Matthew Morrison) was afraid Sue would be horrible to her and was appalled when Sue treated her like every other cheerleader. Sue responded by calling Will equally wrong for assuming Becky wanted special treatment. That right there said it all, because Becky is a character just like every other student at the school, she wants to feel normal and not have people treat her like a disabled person. Since that first episode Becky has become a core part of the cast, even taking a position of power as Sue’s right hand. A recent episode had Sue losing her sister, who also had Downs Syndrome, and firing Becky to not feel grief. By episode’s end Sue realized how much she needed Becky, not just as a reminder of her sister but as a friend and person she loves.
Therein is Glee’s most powerful message: the power of love. These kids aren’t runway models like the CW’s crop of kids who all look like Abercrombie models who resemble each other. The group includes a mix of all ethnicities and body types, including two plus-sized characters in Mercedes (Amber Riley) and Lauren Zizes (Ashley Fisk). High school is the worst time to be growing up, coping with body and sexual issues and Glee has a character that anyone in the high school sector can embrace and relate to. It shouldn’t matter what the actors do in their private lives, whether it’s posing for photos and the like. It should be the message and themes of acceptance, tolerance, family and love that prevail.
In reading this people may say “obviously she’s a fan,” “she has no idea what she’s talking about,” and other more mean-spirited things but I know as a young woman, who has gone through the high school experience and sees the new generation that Glee is a positive show. The series isn’t infallible and does Mickey Mouse-ize popular songs, but the characters are people, they’re human. They aren’t stick-figures, supermodels, or gimmicks for an Emmy award, they’re characters that teens can look up to and hopefully feel they belong. Glee itself is a series about a group of outcasts finding a family and a place of belonging, and I’m proud to list it as one of the few positive shows for teens out there! Feel free to bash me as you will!
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.