Glee: Teen narratives and measuring up

One of the truly great things about working at home is being able to sing along really loudly with the stereo. Yes, this post is secretly about Glee. Actually, not so secretly, because aside from being in the obsession stage, I’m in the anger stage.

This is why I don’t watch shows about high school. This is why I resisted Buffy for so long. This is why I can’t watch stuff like 90210. Because this stuff makes me angry. It’s really true, you know, no one ever gets over high school. Which is why these shows work. But….

It’s hard for me to watch shows about people that would be mean to me. I almost couldn’t watch Buffy‘s first season because Cordelia made me so uncomfortable I kept wanting to get up and pace, or, better, leave the room. And I know Buffy and her friends are supposed to be misfits and all, but still, they’re good looking and have each other. There’s a reason, after all, that I tell people that maybe Andrew is my favorite character in Buffy, and it’s because he’s not even cool enough to be their friend. He’s a loser. And he does some terrible stuff. And he’s so awkward and pathetic that our nerdtastic heroes even tell him so all the time. But it works out okay for him in the end. So he feels a lot, well, safer to me than the rest of the crew. He and I could have been part of the same pathetic friends network for sure. Buffy and me? Probably not so much.

Now that I’m writing this out, I promise you, I know how ridiculous it sounds. But it’s really true for me. It may also be why I don’t really read YA. Because it either reminds me of horrible books I had to read for summer reading examinations in private school, which usually involved coming of age stories about girls confronting the 19th-century American wilderness, or of all the ways I failed at being a delightfully quirky, gorgeous, magical teen.

So, despite (or because of), staying up to 7am (I’m so serious and so full of shame) to watch all of the second season of Glee the other night, I kind of want to punch a wall. In part because all the New Directions kids are more or less horrible to each other, and when they are not being horrible to each other they back each other up like nobody’s business. Also there’s making out. And music! Mostly, I didn’t have any of that in school. Blaine’s GAP disaster is about as magical as high school ever got for me, and that was on a good day. And I never looked that good in my uniform. I suppose that’s true for most of us.

But of course, what’s really getting me, having seen the bigger Kurt arc now is, how does this show exist? Or, I suppose more accurately, gay kids today are so damn lucky, which, okay, isn’t true. It’s still really, really hard to be a gay teenager, and for a lot of people it’s fundamentally terrifying and dangerous. And I was lucky; in that I was safe and sneaky and didn’t have any reason to think I was a bad person for being queer. On the other hand, I do remember spending a lot of time looking at the one out girl at my school and how people called her ugly and wondering if this meant I would be ugly too and quietly seething about how gay boys were socially luminous and gay girls, well, weren’t.

That sort of nonsense hasn’t really changed of course, and I always have to think of it when I think about my gender stuff, which I always fear is a mere longing for privilege. But the fact is I grew up as the kid who never got to buy the personalized pencils at the stationary shop (because I had a weird name) and never saw people on TV who looked like me (because I had a weird face). I never got to watch stories about teenagers whose lives bore any resemblance to mine because I had such a weird education — I used to study the The Brady Bunch in hopes of understanding life in America, where boys fixed radios and longed for cars and there was football and homecoming. And I sure as hell never saw a first kiss on TV that bore any connection to the idea that someone like me could be chosen for something other than some boy deigning to cure me of my ugliness and awkwardness.

And in a lot of ways, Glee is, of course, more of the same. Pretty fake-nerds with the sort of American lives people in New York City don’t get to have and where the boys are always cooler than the girls. But the way Kurt is sort of strange looking and takes everything so seriously and how all these queered characters are front and center in different ways and this show is a hit? Really? Really really really? It’s sort of awesome.

Except for the part where I still feel jealous and cheated, even if a huge part of my fannish journey over the years has been about going from identifying with characters who are self-injurious and wear their wounds on the outside (e.g., Severus Snape) to identifying with characters whose circumstances are pretty screwed up, but are going to do their damnedest to do everything (e.g., Jack Harkness). I felt so guilty, the first time I identified with a fictional character that was better looking than me. It’s quite a bit funny weird.

And I’m definitely having that identification guilt thing about Blaine on Glee, because seriously? If a photo exists of me in school uniform, you’re never, ever seeing it; we’d all be disappointed. And I’m probably a bit of an ass for thinking he’s awesome largely because he goes to private school and is good at stuff and parts of fandom sort of hate him for that (because, er, parts of fandom sort of can’t stand me either for some of the same reasons). But hey, if shows about high school aren’t for addressing the too long lingering wounds of that period in our lives as reenacted in our adult existences, then I don’t really know what they are for.

When I think about this ridiculous simmering anger I feel about not having characters like Santana and Kurt and Blaine on my screen when I was sixteen, I wind up reminding myself that I never could have stood to watch this show at that point in my life. Sure, maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone. But I still wouldn’t have had cars or football or friends or kisses or known how to identify with all that luminousness.

I can’t tell you how much I hope that’s just my own brokenness. Because all my well-compartmentalized neuroses aside, it makes me sad to think that there are some stories that are just too lovely to help, because you just don’t think you can measure up.

But for me, that’s what fandom’s about in the end. Measuring up. Giving yourself permission to measure up, to say that your real life and real flesh and real everything is as good as fiction. Maybe that’s not important to everyone; maybe that’s weird. But I’m an only child, and stories were my world. They were who I had to keep up with, and I’m still learning how. In spite of how hard I find it sometimes, it sure is a lot of fun.

33 thoughts on “Glee: Teen narratives and measuring up”

  1. Something, something, Netflix queue. I am justifying this with my day job.

    I’m actually really curious to see whether I can actually watch and enjoy this, or if it kills my heart and has to be sent back to Netflix with extreme prejudice. School was hard. It’s still hard, sometimes. All of those hard things? Still hard in life at times.

    We’ll see.

    1. It’s hard. I think You’ll be really blown away by Kurt’s arc, and I’m tempted to tell you “Don’t start at the beginning!” but romp through S2 in a weird incoherent way until you get why it’s worth caring about.

  2. I totally hear you on not being able to identify with the vision of high school as it is commonly portrayed in the media. I couldn’t stand to watch “Saved by the Bell”, but felt weirdly vindicated by “Heathers”. I wasn’t cheering along the murder spree, just relived that the hostile atmosphere I experienced was finally being acknowledged, and even going as far as showing the really unpopular girl being mocked for attempting suicide in the hopes that she’d be remembered as well as the teens that got killed.

    I find it interesting that some of the really popular YA series right now are set in dystopias; “The Hunger Games” is part of a larger trend. Gee, I wonder why kids that have grown up in the post-9/11and -Columbine era are gravitating to such things?

    Anyway, I also sought refuge in books, and there really is value in finding characters that one can identify with and watch them succeed. I matched up with Meg Murray, even down to the braces, glasses and unmanageable hair. The scene where Mrs. Whatsit tells Meg, “I give you your faults” and it is her faults that save her and her family blew my mind when I read “A Wrinkle in Time” for the first time.

  3. Psst: non-New York high schoolers don’t get to have that kind of American life either, as far as I can tell (not having watched Glee at all, and that’s partly why).

    I, too, had a very hard time with Buffy for very similar reasons. It wasn’t just that Cordelia gave me the creeps, it’s that Buffy herself was on the very lip of creeping me out, too. I still have very mixed feelings about the show.

    And finally I’d just like to second the shout-out for Heathers. It’s the one high-school set piece of media that I like.I wasn’t trying to fit in like she was, but Veronica remains the closest portrayal of my H.S. experience I’ve yet found.

    And yeah, huh, I don’t read much YA either. And while in theory I think I’d be a good writer of such material (and man, I really want to find a way to work my genderbent adolescent comic book fandom experiences into a story someday), in practice I think there’s a part of me that just doesn’t want to go there, ever again.

    1. At the one point in my life I attended a school with a football team (Hewitt obviously didn’t have one, and my university didn’t either), its actual yofficial name was the Peglegs. Because Peter Stuyvesant had a wooden leg. It’s like the most terrible (and fairly offensive) punch line ever.

  4. I did grow up watching Saved by the Bell, and Buffy, but mostly with weird fascination because even the dorky kids on those shows were still cooler than me and had more friends than me and…well, stuff like what happened in their schools never went on in mine – at least not that I ever saw. Glee does touch a bit closer, as Chorus was a huge part of my high school (and early college) life. And we were picked on, and teased. One of my choirs did miraculously have a few sports jocks and a cheerleader, who said “Screw it, I want to sing, regardless!”, and I was always surprised by their continued commitment and presence. But as much as we stood together and stood strong at some times, we still had the catty infights and horribleness towards each other that Glee shows as well.

    Your last paragraph there just hits home too, because I’m an only child as well, and fandom and fiction have been my measuring rod for ages…so I don’t think it’s weird at all.

    But my point is, yes, Kurt’s arc calls to me on many levels. The show as a whole does. And yes, there are times when I get angry. When I get twitchy. When I have flashbacks to similar situations in my past that went so differently. Because no, I don’t think we ever get over high school.

  5. this is (possibly) very shallow… but I can identify with the pen thing the most (I have an odd name too – Wiebke)
    and the other thing I’m getting sure about by reading your blog: I dealt with the bad times at school (I was bullied – for being the new girl mainly, we moved a lot) by just not dealing with it and ignoring it and locking it away and moving away and just starting fresh after I finished college. Well, until I listened to John Barrowman singing “The Kid Inside” which is about being transported back to being that kid through the oddest things… at a time I was having therapy for being bullied as an adult at work

  6. You’ve just explained to me in one fell swoop why I never enjoyed shows like these much at all, and certainly not as an adult; why I fled the library’s YA section for the adult one at the earliest opportunity; why I still can’t understand people who think 17 is the best age to be. This, exactly this. I would never want to go back to that high school culture, where what counts is how many people you can convince that you are cool.

  7. I grew up as the kid who never got to buy the personalized pencils at the stationary shop (because I had a weird name) — My brother (Britton) and I welcome you to the No-Mini-License-Plates Club.

    I started high school the year 90210 debuted, and I was completely baffled by the show’s popularity.

    Oh God, and now I’m flashing back to Head of the Class.

  8. The television series that I was obsessed with and found hope in during my adolescence was Fame. I was a severely closeted queer/genderqueer kid trapped in an 80s version of a high school much like the one in Glee (only not nearly as well funded and greatly influenced by the powerful conservative religions of the town). Fame had no out queer characters but they were artists, working hard to be good at things they were passionate about (something actively discouraged in both my home and school), and they lived in a place I might even escape to in real life if I was lucky. I knew it wasn’t real, and I knew I wasn’t talented enough in the right kinds of things to make it in the parts that were, but those tiny shreds of possibility that my life could be different than those four very horrible years kept me going until I could get out and build myself something else.

    I’m not defending Glee here. The way they have handled disability makes it hard for me to be as excited as I’d like to be about the Kurt story line. But sometimes we grab onto the tiniest glimmers of ourselves in mainstream media and hang on tight even if they are terribly flawed portrayal (I have a friend who spent his high schools years re-watching episodes of M.A.N.T.I.S. for just these reasons). My hope is that someday there will be a way to make television better reflect a wide variety of the ways life really is in the world, but I’m not holding my breath (and in the mean time I’m watching Dr. Who).

    1. But sometimes we grab onto the tiniest glimmers of ourselves in mainstream media and hang on tight even if they are terribly flawed portrayal

      Ohhh, ohh, yes, this. This would be why I still listen to Tatu in spite of everything that’s happened since “All the Things She Said” was popular.

    2. OMG! M.A.N.T.I.S.! I managed to record a few episodes of that show. I’m not really into the superhero genre, but I ended up watching that one and loving it. I’ll admit that the premise was what caught my interest. A black man in a wheelchair as a superhero. *pause* The show’s storylines were good enough that I ended up watching every week. I was so disappointed when it was axed.

  9. I don’t know if this post was sort of a roundabout answer to one of my questions weeks ago, but whether it was or not, I still thank you for writing it. You’ve been mentioning a lot how you don’t like young adult fiction/content and every time you do, it always stops me in my tracks and I keep trying to read more about you to try to understand why. (This sort of thing – not understanding others’ motivations, or reasons why – is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night, because I’m obsessive like that. Don’t mind me.) So this post explains a lot to me. I think I get it.

  10. Racheline,

    Turn off the TV before it’s too late. I feel the same way you do, but rather than throw things, writhe on the floor in psycho-nostalgic fever or gouge out my eyes with the remote I hit the power button and open a book. Do it — you’ll feel a lot better.

    1. Hey, I appreciate that this is totally well-intentioned. However, I am a media analyst and pop-culture scholar. When you say things like this you imply I should not do the work I choose to do, adore, and excel at. That’s uncool.

  11. It’s interesting to think about now, but a huge part of the audience for teen-centered programming is KIDS. When I was a child, the most popular shows were Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (set in the current day but they still had that aura based on when they were published) and Happy Days and the movie everyone saw and talked about was Grease. Some wag has said that children of the 70s felt like they lived the 50s instead. 😀 (And the Brady Bunch felt so LOL!60s to us – THAT seemed more dated than the 50s fare.)

    The childhood I really wanted was that of Vicki on the Love Boat, because she was another only child and got to live on a cruise ship! And her friends were cool adults like Isaac and Gopher and Julie.

    As a teen, though, the John Hughes movies really leap out as the defining things my generation could own, and I found them reflecting back what my suburban high school was like. I don’t recall a single teen TV show from my own teen years, though, and I find the early seasons of Buffy kind of… eh, I like the college years and after much better, actually.

    I was a drama club dork and you’d think I’d be all over Glee and High School Musical, but I am totally not.

    1. Which doesn’t really address the salient points of your essay. I’m sorry. I babble a lot and you always remind me of these things.

  12. I’m actually going to argue in favor of starting at the beginning of S 1 for Kurt’s entire arc (even tho’ it is not that season’s major focus). Worth it for the father/son interactions.

    For me, the show that was wince-worthy was The OC, because I grew up in that part of Southern California and went to high school with those kids. It was like reliving high school on my TV screen and just…no. I never identified with any characters, but I sure recognized them.

    1. I’ve started in on pieces of that, and it’s amazing, but I’m trying to find the entry point that will make Christian commenting above want to look at the rest of it, as opposed to “suffer through some of this other stuff that’s unpleasant/difficult/boring/offensive, trust me.”

  13. I had a thought the other day. The Glee kids are the metaphorical children of the high schoolers in John Hughes movies. Quinn’s mom should have been Molly Ringwald from “The Breakfast Club” only all grown up. Both Glee and those movies have that same rose colored feel about high school, a place of cheerleaders and football and cliques, and stoners getting high under the bleachers.

    Just a thought.

    1. Here’s my blasphemy. I found little comfort in John Hughes movies or any of the teen films of that era growing up. In fact, one of my most vivid memories is of when Pretty and Pink had come out, and my class was on a train to Montreal for French practice, and everyone was singing “Left of Center” and I hadn’t seen the film, because I wasn’t allowed to see films for teenagers (even though I was one — eventually I was allowed to go to Sixteen Candles, with my father), because then I would do things like kiss boys and drink and stuff), but I just remember them all singing the song in are car of the train, and I was so angry, because how dare they, all perfect and blond and tan and waxed and going to salons and actually knowing boys think they were “Left of Center.”

      Maybe we’re all an exile in our own hell at twelve and thirteen, but wow, I resented those kids thinking they were any sort of other. And I still do. And I’ve always laid that betrayal, perhaps unfairly, at the feet of the teen films of that era (in which boys still save girls, in the end, even if everyone is a freak).

      1. ‘sfunny — a few years ago I rewatched Breakfast Club, and it was interesting viewing it through adult eyes.

        For one, I didn’t think Bender was so cool, but a kid who had massive problems that were going unnoticed. And I was angry at the teacher for not seeing that.

        I still identified most with Allison, but found myself angry that she got all girly at the end.

        Overall, I can’t say that movie aged well. And Sixteen Candles was cringe-inducing for me.

  14. I’m not a hardcore “gleek” but I do enjoy the show, but I’m hard put to say exactly why. I had a bleak high school experience, and wasn’t in theater or chorus (I was a goth/punk/indie kid, and never quite felt at home with that crowd or anywhere else). I don’t know whether the writers intended it, but the kids casual cruelty to each other rings true: I was seldom singled out for particular bullying but I well remember that my peers were just thoughtlessly *mean* a lot of the time. I guess I’m not traumatized by seeing it on tv, but I am sometimes bitter at how accurate that feels to me and as such I’m not huge fans of any of the characters.

    At the same time most of the characters are sympathetic at least part of the time because they’re all hurt, confused, trying to get by – which I also remember. I think the “fantasy high school” element of it is that they do find a place to be and stick up for each other when it counts, which is something I seldom experienced.

    I’d also point out that a number of the “teen” oriented shows are mostly aimed at adults remembering their teen years, for good or ill – Glee also has storylines about the lives of the adults apart from how it affects the kids, and I can’t imagine a teen audience would be very interested. The Buffy “hellmouth” strikes me as being a not-so-subtle metaphor for how many adults remember high school that I don’t think would translate for people living through it.

    1. This comment is interesting because others in this same thread peg high school shows as “aspirational” and appealing to kids and tweens, which is something I remember too. It’s like Seventeen magazine. No one reads it anymore by the time they are actually Seventeen.

      1. I can see the “aspirational” argument if the series were exclusively about the cool and beautiful kids – I just can’t imagine tweens wanting to grow up to be one of the outcasts in the fictional Glee club.

        I also think the serious issues addressed (again, for good or ill) in Glee like homophobia, teen pregnancy, etc. would be unlikely to be written for a tween or teen audience or have much appeal to them.

        I know anecdote != data, but most of the “Gleeks” I know are adults. Disclaimer: most of the *people* I know are adults, so YMMV.

        1. I totally see the aspirational, and the nostalgia both.

          I watched 90210. I didn’t watch it because these people were anything like me. I watched it because it was an interesting myth of people unlike me, older than me and much richer than me, and with luck I might be the newspaper geek who lied about her address to get into the good school.

          I never read Seventeen, but I did read a lot of YA coming of age books because they were in front of me and I read a lot. I had the explicit understanding that these were books by adults, trying to tell us things they thought we might need to understand, as a roadmap.

          I can’t enjoy Glee because the simplifications of social interaction make my teeth itch. I haven’t watched a lot of non-SF-niche TV in the last decade, so being hit by the stylized sitcom universe in the context of “Look, real kids just like you!” multiplies the fakeness painfully. But I can instantly see the appeal.

          As far as I can tell, almost no one thinks they’re popular enough. I would guess the really popular ones think they’re “just normal” and can’t even fathom the Other experience. Excluding that 2%, I’d say about half the students in my small town public high school were in band, choir, or some non-rockstar sport like wrestling. Each activity was its own little cult of shared personality and terminology, the group unity of practicing the Same. Damn. Song. for the thousandth time until it was an in-joke. Glee gets that, and it know about the awful choir uniforms. I’d have eaten it up, and still would if I could deal with TV sitcom interactions better.

          The supposed outcastness of Buffy et. al. ties into the all-but-2% thing, and there’s an interesting tie-in from other social justice discussions, especially about economics. *Everyone is struggling.* All but a few people could do with more, are working their asses off, worked hard to get here, etc etc etc. The fact that a good half of people in this country have it worse than me and have factors that make their effort go less far than mine doesn’t negate my struggle, though it doesn’t put it on the same level, either.

          I was popular and relatively well-adjusted in my own little subculture of drama geeks in high school. My partner didn’t even have that. RM didn’t even get to feel like part of the American High School narrative. But even the Buffys are living in fear because in high school, we’re all scrabbling. For the people who aren’t even in the 50%, though, the Poor Little Middle Class Blonde Girl thing has to be frustrating and excluding.

  15. I remember that, as a kid, the only time I saw anything gay on television was Degrassi Junior High and Kaitlyn thought she might be gay but WHEW thankfully she wasn’t. (which made me think — hey, I’m probably not either, and put it out of my head for a decade) Then another guy’s brother turned out to be gay. But there were no Kurts on my television. That said, I’m delighted there are now.

    But increased visibility is a double edged sword for kids now. Back when I was in school, nobody suspected anyone of being queer, so it was easy to fly under the radar. Now, the awareness is everywhere. Schoolyard bully may figure out you’re queer before you do.

    1. Really? Maybe it’s because most of my education was at a single-sex school (or in New York), but for me in the 70s and 80s, before we even knew what gay meant, we knew we were supposed to worry if we or anyone we knew was. It’s fascinating to think of a world where it’s a non-topic — even in a closeted toxic way — I’ve never had that experience.

      1. I’m not going to debate that New York was probably a bit more cosmopolitan than our little Canadian Bible-belt life. My American friends say more along the lines of what you say, that it’s always been “policed”. I don’t remember much of it. A few words here and there about our gym teacher and the only “lady” cop in town, but even then I don’t think many of us had a clue what we were implying.

      2. Some of us were also less clueful than others. I knew (and knew that I knew) lots and lots of gay adults via civic theatre, but that somehow compartmentalized, so the thought of looking for it (or hearing whether other people were looking for it) didn’t cross my little mind for years.

        Four years in high school drama and only in retrospect via their explicit self-outing can I identify 3 bisexual women from my drama club, and no queer men. I can only assume I was missing truckloads of information.

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