Last night, in what was essentially a successful attempt to make it very clear that gay stories are just like straight stories, Glee became the very passing narrative it’s been attempting to elucidate since the start of season 3 around Kurt and Blaine’s disparate gender and sexuality presentations. And, just as that narrative has not mentioned that for someone like Blaine passing can hurt as much as not passing does for Kurt, “The First Time” was, for this queer viewer, uncomfortably silent on all the ways that gay stories aren’t like straight ones.
This isn’t a political judgement. It’s not really any sort of judgement at all. I thought, frankly, that the episode was gorgeous (always, always let editors direct, because nearly every shot and transition will be visually astounding), and despite the tone of a lot of the advance marketing (“a very special episode” indeed), not actually an after school special.
I also thought it got a lot of things right about virginity: how you can’t ever really know what ready means and how terrifying it all is, sometimes, even moreso, when it is right, because you just want to do right by the other person. I also thought it gave us some great character moments and a bucket of interesting when it comes to your favorite preoccupation and mine — Dalton as faerieland (that’ll be a separate post).
But what the episode didn’t give us was the idea that virginity is, actually, not a cut and dried issue, especially for queer teens who, until last night on Glee don’t, for better or for worse, particularly have pop-culture narratives that tell them what their virginity is. And, despite the lovely, “The First Time” didn’t really do anything to solve that problem.
This is where I could tell you about the Great Condom Wrapper Debate on Tumblr (Is it, or is it not empty? Are there one or are there two?). Or the fact that not even the actors can apparently place the scenes cut in with the performance of “One Hand, One Heart” in time (before, after or during sex? Chris Colfer gave a big “I don’t know!” in at least one interview).
I could also mention that it strains my credulity that two boys who had, for a year, refused to touch each other below the waist, decided that their first time was going to be all about penetration, managed said act, and then got dressed for the post-coital snuggles (although the Internet is working hard to make that make sense, and will probably succeed by the end of the day. The Glee writers should thank us all).
But the fact remains that no matter how inappropriate and unfair I think it is, even for straight people, penis-in-vagina or as close as you can get to same, remains the standard for virginity loss in American culture and pop media. This is generally without discussion or challenge unless we’re talking about good girls staying “virgins” by having anal sex on some mediocre b-level cable network movie of the week. And, in making absolutely sure the Kurt/Blaine and Rachel/Finn narratives ran in tight parallel, this is where “The First Time” went, even without explicitly saying so (or, you know, actually making a lot of sense).
This erasure of a part of queer experience (“What is my rite of passage?”) in an effort to show that the two couples are equally as beautiful, in love, and facing the same challenges, is a case of a queer narrative passing as if the world is not different for us, just as Blaine experiences passing because of the style of his performance of masculinity; no matter what people take him to be, the world is still different for him than for a straight boy.
Here, the Glee narrative is able to pass because it’s 8pm on Fox, where we don’t look too closely at certain things on US TV, and where the powers that be worked hard to make sure they would submit nothing in the final cut of the episode that would force later cuts that might un-equalize the focus on the two couples.
But the fact is Rachel wearing a slip to bed to lose her penetrative virginity is just plain logistically different than boys in their trousers. And Rachel deciding that penis-in-vagina sex is what her virginity is about is also logistically different than Kurt and Blaine deciding that their virginities are also about penetration; Rachel probably came to her conclusion in under an hour, possibly in under five minutes. Did Kurt and Blaine?
This what-is-virginity? gap is also mirrored by the fact that we know Brittany and Santana have sex, but yet, this just gets blurred away in the show’s long-term narrative, not, I don’t think because they are still a b-plot or because their virginities are long gone, but because Glee doesn’t know how to say, “these two girls are fucking” without the penetrative assumption, and you really can’t talk about the nitty-gritty of lesbian sex (which is perhaps, sadly, the biggest mystery of all to the American mind) on Fox at 8pm. You can’t particularly de-essentialize the penis. People just don’t get it.
Back when we first found out “The First Time” was coming, I made a lot of dismayed noises about the prurient “Who tops?” conversation around Kurt and Blaine. In fact, I was probably kind of an asshole about it. And, while I remain chagrined by the casual and snarky nature of a lot of that conversation by people outside of the queer experience, I have to sort of eat my words here and apologize.
Because a huge piece of the analysis I want to do about this episode involves Kurt and Blaine’s gender positioning — Kurt, for the first time in this season, is back in his “fashion has no gender” and “I’ve never met a sweater dress I didn’t like” attire; while Blaine gets serenaded by Sebastian as the naive “Uptown Girl.”
This, combined with the Rachel/Finn parallels, and the degree to which teen gay sex became about Glee trying to make a queer experience pass for a straight one, makes who topped (again, if penetration happened, see: the Tumblr condom debate) a somewhat salient question if we’re trying to figure out what Glee’s agenda is around masculinity, femininity and queerness. But because we’re in this cultural moment of normalizing gay, often aggressively, I’m left with what feels like a lot of peculiar and specific road signs pointing, well, nowhere.
This is, perhaps, as it should be. Maybe, we all just need to make up our own minds, and tell the stories we need to have told. But I find myself a little frustrated for gay teens and for passing gay teens, that this narrative was so aggressively about normalization and spoke so little to queer experience, even if it was kind of a great thing to show our straight parents.
On the other hand, when Patty went to bed last night, she said the episode had made me mushy. “But I’m always like this,” I said, brushing my nose against hers. And it’s true, we always are. So I suppose this is one of those things I’m just going have to let go, because this is what fiction always is for each of us, stories that are, and aren’t, our own.
That said, don’t worry, that gender/sexuality positioning post is totally coming, even if it’s going to drive off into a vortex of passing vagueness thanks to the construction of this episode. Like whatever is next for Kurt and Blaine and Finn and Rachel, I think it’s safe to assume: Detours Ahead.