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Glee: It’s different for queers

9 Nov

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.

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11 Responses to “Glee: It’s different for queers”

  1. Rae Votta November 9, 2011 at 10:28 am #

    Brilliant, as always, and I look forward to reading all the further posts. It’s so hard to sit here and want *more* from Glee and knowing that what they are giving us *is* groundbreaking and maybe this TV show can’t be everything all at once. But damn I still want it to be, and they could be! Maybe somehow what sex was, to them, is going to spring back up at a later time, and maybe they really will get into passing (and use Sebastian in that storyline somehow). But if they don’t I’m working hard to accept what we do get and enjoy it.

    • Rachel Elizabeth Dillon November 9, 2011 at 11:09 am #

      @Rae Votta: I saw your comment had to reply here to say just how small an Internet it is. 🙂 Hi! (The real question may be: who _doesn’t_ read this blog?)

      • Rae Votta November 10, 2011 at 1:40 am #

        OH MY GOD. HI! How are you!? That’s simply hilarious that we virtually run into each other on Racheline’s blog. Because of course, of course. 🙂

  2. Panaili November 9, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    Personally, I thought that both the Finchel and the Klaine sex scenes were showing the “pre-sex” part of it — the foreplay, the build-up, the romance, etc. The condom was on the floor, yes, but unopened and still unused. So I wasn’t disconcerted by the clothes at all — I just assumed they would be having sex at some point that night, as was made clear by context. (I thought that for both Finchel and Klaine.)

    As for the discussion of “what is virginity” — I really wish Glee had the scope to cover that conversation, because if they did it well, it would be an outstanding discussion on primetime tv, but since it wasn’t debated, I am kind of glad that they did not attempt to make it clear who was the “man” and who was the “woman” in Kurt and Blaine’s relationship. Because yes, we didn’t get a discussion as to what Kurt and Blaine considered to be loosing their virginity (though the implication was made, given the “south of the border” comment, that virginity-loss would be at hand jobs/oral sex, I thought), but at least we didn’t get a hetero-normative template shoved at us either. It was left open for interpretation, which I found rather refreshing, for Glee.

  3. deconstructingglee November 9, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    So many feelings about this episode I can barely think right now. Also, two hours sleep is not helping either. But I have to say that on balance, I’m happy. They may not have been able to explore things in any kind of detail but they certainly did a great job of exploring intimacy and discussion for teens.

    It’s alien to me, because I didn’t have any of that, and perhaps that’s part of my perpetual headache about this topic… there were no big plans to take a big step. Everything happened by measures and gradually. But I like how they showed Kurt and Blaine being really frank about things.

    And I love how Kurt brings it up — wondering if there’s a reason his boyfriend isn’t pushing this the way that the girls’ boyfriends are. Like, if he’s not being attractive enough. Like he expects the same kind of game of chase his friends are having — except that he’s in a different kind of relationship where the rules are different and his boyfriend is blasĂ© about the ways he deals with being respectful of his boundaries. And again, we’re back to gender and how Kurt expects what his girlfriends experience to be his experience, and Blaine thinks… what? exactly?

    • Emiliz November 10, 2011 at 10:56 am #

      I think that is a very good point. I do think that Kurt was expecting Blaine to be like the other guys he knows who push to have sex. I think Blaine just goes with the flow. He is often oblivious and sometimes led astray. He loves Kurt but he needs to learn how to set boundaries with other people (I’m referring mostly to his agreeing to meet Sebastian when it was obvious that he was flirting with him…and then he dances with the guy while his boyfriend watches …yikes).

      • deconstructingglee November 10, 2011 at 11:31 am #

        It’s interesting with the whole “what Kurt expects” when you look at the car scene, because Kurt finally gets what he expects and it’s awful.

        On the other hand, he realises that Blaine does want him the way he wants to be wanted, which I think is what gives him the courage to be as direct as he is when they talk later.

  4. Tess (@CanuckleTess) November 9, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    I have a bucketload of very personal feelings about this episode, but I don’t want to write an essay here (I probably will anyway) so I’m going to home in on the normalization aspect. I think you make completely valid points about all of this. And this is a hugely important and great discussion to be having both pre- and post-episode. That said, what struck me in particular was this:

    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.

    I sympathize with your frustration, yet the point I want to make about it is target audience. And the reality of Glee is that its target audience is far more the aforementioned “straight parents” than the gay kids out there. While I believe that Glee does make an effort to speak in a way that is cognizant of the queer viewers, at the end of the day the vast majority of viewers (and Fox executives, and advertisers) are not queer and for a huge number, at least before they first watched Glee, completely ignorant of the queer experience.

    So, normalization. The “great condom debate”. Ok, so here’s the thing. It actually doesn’t matter if the condom wrapper is used or not. The quantity debate is interesting, but only anecdotally (except to those of us going in and take screen caps of some blurry silver bits on the floor to scrutinize every pixel). The intent is that the condom/s was/were used. Because that, regardless of the reality of defining what sex is for queer teens, is the narrative that the heteronormative masses can understand and easily process (for better or for worse, ironic reference to wedding vows not intended but ironically relevant due to ongoing marriage equality debate).

    Do I, as an ally, wish that they’d had an on-screen discussion about how Kurt and Blaine, as a gay couple, would actually define sex and virginity? Yes. Because gay/queer culture is not the same, and that’s really really important. But the bitch of it is that the normalization process kind of requires the “look we’re just the same!” process at first. It’s only once you’ve reached the point when pretty much everyone nods and says “ok yeah, it’s just the same” that you can then hold up your hand and say say “um, well actually… not so much”. Because if you jump ahead you end up with bullshit “separate but equal” stuff that only serves to reinforce discrimination.

    Is it realistic that Kurt and Blaine jumped from never going below the belt to penetrative sex? No. Is that keeping with the parallels with Finn and Rachel from a narrative perspective that the heteronormative masses can easily digest? Yes. Is it ideal? Definitely not.

    But as an ally who gets frustrated to the point of screaming at the ignorance and hatred and “it’s deviant/wrong/just not normal” language that feeds homophobia, I’d rather have the proverbial masses walking away thinking about the ways in which the Finn/Rachel and Kurt/Blaine narratives are the same and are simply about kids in love and deciding to take the step of bringing sex into their relationships.

    From where I’m sitting, to quote our denim-bedecked friend Dave “Baby Bear” Karofsky, it’s about “baby steps.”

    P.S. Who woulda ever thunk that I, of all people, would close out a comment quoting Karofsky!

  5. Corinne November 18, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    Stumbled across this while reading reviews of Glee and thought it was very interesting. But without disputing your assertion that queer and straight culture/relationships are different in some ways, I think that the issues you raise about this episode are not simply the result of an effort to normalize a queer relationship. I think, however, that part of the problem is a narrow and essentially misogynistic cultural attitude towards straight relationships and sex. As you say, it is difficult for most people to conceive of anything that does not involve a penis–e.g. sex between two women, female masturbation, a man performing oral sex on a woman–as “real” sex, which makes it virtually impossible to define losing one’s virginity, at least in a straight relationship, as anything other than penetration. So while I agree that the (possible?) implication that Kurt and Blaine had penetrative sex without first engaging in any other kind of sexual activity is bizarre, for me this also sheds light on how strange it is that, for so many heterosexual women, their first sexual experience outside of kissing is penetrative. Given that for most women penetration is not nearly as physically gratifying as clitoral stimulation, it strikes me as absurd that so many women (myself, regretfully, included) experience the supposedly pivotal loss of virginity in a way that is, anatomically, not the most sexually natural to them. Perhaps all of this talk of female sexuality seems out of place when discussing two boys losing their virginity together, but I do think that there is a similar problem of definition in both cases. A more egalitarian approach towards straight relationships would surely put equal weight on the female experience of sex, and would therefore not define the loss of virginity solely in terms of penetration; if they were not so weighed down by an idea of sex that really only makes sense for heterosexual men, I imagine that most women would probably choose some other activity (oral, manual, whatever) as the threshold for virginity. And I think this, by loosening up the definition of sex, could do wonders for the portrayal of queer sex and relationships.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Well, this is profoundly embarrassing (required reading) « Deconstructing Glee - November 22, 2011

    […] It’s Different for Queers (3.05 The First Time) 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. […]

  2. Well, this is profoundly embarrassing (required reading) « Deconstructing Glee - November 22, 2011

    […] It’s Different for Queers (3.05 The First Time) 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. […]

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