Glee: Kurt Hummel, heteroaesthetics, and feminine modesty

When Glee‘s season 3 started, one of the things we were told was that Kurt’s outfits would be less outrageous — he’s getting older, he has a boyfriend, there’s less need to shock. And for the first four episodes, this was by and large true: there were fewer inexplicable pieces and gender non-conforming choices, and Kurt largely stuck to vests, dress shirts, trousers and stylish scarves. Sure, there were some outrageous accessories, but he’s growing up, not dead….

And then there was sex and Kurt Hummel’s fashion started knowing no gender once again.

At first I thought I was just seeing things as I watched too closely for all the ways I expected a heteronormative bucket of fail to get poured all over the first time narrative in 3.05 in a desire to appease straight audiences. But after watching 3.07 last night, I’m convinced that 3.05 marks a specific and intentional turning point regarding Kurt’s clothing that actually echos back to, among other things, season 1, and is designed to amplify the passing-related plotlines of the current season.

It’s all about the knitwear, starting with Kurt’s first outfit in 3.05.

Sure, he’s wearing a tie, but he’s also wearing one of those form-fitting knee-length sweater (dresses) that he made clear his dad abhors in S1 (he promised to stop wearing them to get his car, remember). It’s a brilliant outfit choice for the scene where Blaine’s nattering on about masturbation and Kurt’s unsure of his own desirability. The male/female content of the outfit combined with the ridiculous animal print and Kurt lounging on Blaine’s bed like a girl goes a long way towards saying, “I’m not like other boys, and there’s not even a short explanation.” But Blaine blows right by that and a conversation that starts about insecurity winds up being about flirtation.

It’s later in that same episode when we see the first of the many, many capelettes and ponchos we’ve seen since (and just in case you weren’t clear these capelettes are girl clothes, Rachel wears one in this episode as well, when she arrives at the Hudson-Hummel home to sleep with Finn for the first time). It’s that scene with Sebastian in the Lima Bean, and Kurt has this severe almost nun-like look going on, what with the high white and black collar, the amorphous shape of the cape over his chest, and the prim disapproval. But it’s important to remember that Kurt never intended to see Sebastian in this scene — this supposed to be him and Blaine engaging in their private routine — and therefore a private, relationship-centered moment, even if conducted in public.

In fact, outfits that are arguably supposed to be about Kurt and Blaine time (or at least Kurt explicitly addressing Blaine with the outfit), remain resolutely feminine in influence from this point on. There’s that equestrian moment in 3.06 in which Kurt is wearing something not only feminine in nature, but in which Blaine is solicitously helping him down from a chair he was standing on (said equestrian outfit, it should be noted, echos the polo motif in Blaine’s bedroom as seen in 3.05).

There’s also that hideous outfit involving the belted shawl/poncho and the leather Sunset Boulevard turban. And then are the three feminine outfits of 3.07 — the kilt (without leggings this time), the long grey knit turtleneck poncho, and the asymmetrical knit poncho worn during “Perfect.”

These clothing pieces aren’t just feminine for all the ways they aren’t masculine. Rather, they are all deeply representative of feminine modesty. Ponchos, in particular, minimize the figure and frequently show up in modest dressing blogs with a range of cultural emphases. That we also have Kurt covering his hair with greater frequency post-3.05 (sure, he’s always been into hats, but I have to argue this is different), particularly in that ridiculous Sunset Boulevard outfit, is also notable. In fact, the only time Kurt shows skin in one of his feminine outfits is when he has some leg on view in 3.07. But, if we argue for the school girl uniform reference, there’s a primness and social modesty connotation here too — regardless of what we’re all thinking on Tumblr.

But Kurt’s clothes haven’t gone entirely this direction. Not in the least. In fact, when he has to engage in public moments — such as his student council election speech (3.06) and election day (3.07) — he’s in masculine attire. Kurt Hummel performs a lot of things — queerness and femininity, of course, but also masculinity — when it suits his needs. There’s a discipline in that, a reading of and playing to the audience that he lacked in earlier seasons. It’s a savvy he’s acquired now, one that speaks both to politics and his own goals as a performer, even as it in no way impinges upon how he chooses to present himself in his private (even if conducted in public) life.

The big aberration here, of course, are the outfits he wears on his date with Blaine to Scandals and when he tells Blaine he’s going home with him (for sex) at the end of 3.05. Those are both what should arguably be private moments, and therefore, to fit the pattern above, involve feminine attire. But they don’t. At all.

My suspicion is that the variance here comes from two things: extradiegetically, to make it very clear that Kurt and Blaine are two gay boys; and intradiegetically, because Kurt is worried in both of these situations about proving man enough — first for gay culture, and then second, for his boyfriend who so clearly wants to be wooed and seduced (see: the Sadie Hawkins dance and Blaine’s interactions with Sebastian). In fact, extradiegetically, the auditorium outfit is actively hilarious, at least if you’ve been following the hanky code discussion over on Deconstructing Glee. That hanky code queer in-joke is, however, part of what makes Kurt’s adventures with gender so utterly subversive and queer.

For folks (largely queer folks) paying attention, Glee informs us that Kurt is happy and eager to be an aesthetically feminine partner in his relationship and play act at that very role… when it’s about his relationship. But that in no way makes him a passive, submissive or traditionally feminine partner; it doesn’t even make him a girl (sidenote: I loathe all the stereotypes it’s necessary to address to untangle what’s going on with Kurt, but it’s the world he, and we, live in). It places a heteroaesthetic dynamic around Kurt and Blaine, while firmly removing any hint of a heteronormative one.

That heteroaesthetic dynamic serves to amplify queerness for the viewer interested in queerness, but also to minimize queerness, by suggesting the actually rejected heteronormativity, for the viewier not interested in, or not comfortable with, that same queerness. This is a type of relatively outrageous passing, one that offers Kurt and Blaine safety both intra- and extradiegetically, without imposing restriction on their significantly queer gender expression and sexuality.

Finally, that Kurt’s feminine aesthetic choices evoke modesty seems to play into broader issues around his experience of sexuality. Kurt has, for all his “baby penguin” denial, always been a sensualist — it’s present in his fretting about fabrics, skin care, and even food (despite the toxic, self-restrictive tendencies we’ve seen there).

Since 3.05 we have seen him project physical modesty and avoid physical contact with people who aren’t Blaine (including, but not limited to, Rachel and the awkward hug that required warning; and Brittany and the lack of hug response/cringe thing), and it is emotionally touching as well as indicative of how much work he is having to do to both segregate his desire from the rest of his life and to integrate it into a necessarily public existence. This parallels neatly with the male/female dichotomy of Kurt’s presentation and additionally with the heteroaesthetic/queerness passing game he and Blaine are, I think, knowingly playing.

23 thoughts on “Glee: Kurt Hummel, heteroaesthetics, and feminine modesty”

  1. Color me impressed by a) how quickly you pulled all this together and b) how you always manage to piece together little things I never realized could go together and turn them into coherent arguments.

    I especially liked the last two paragraphs, about the difference between heteroaesthetic and heteronormative dynamics and how they read on a queerness scale, and about Kurt’s sensualist aesthetic choices. I’ve been enjoying watching Kurt’s physical comfort level with Blaine as opposed to with other people this season, but it was definitely on further display in 3.07.

    Thanks for the thoughts, and for pointing me toward Deconstructing Glee (yay for new things to read!).

  2. I was thinking that Kurt looked like a Vicar in the Lima Bean, but you’re closer with the “nun” comment — there is more than a little Maria pre-Von-Trapp going on there. However, I’m pretty sure he did NOT intend to meet Blaine there — Blaine was there specifically on a “can we go somewhere and talk” moment with Sebastian; not even Blaine would have chosen the place where he was about to meet up with Kurt for that. I think.

    I also found it fascinating that the Glee Gods chose to have Kurt sing with the “other girls” in Constant Craving — they could just as easily given that bit to Rachel, for instance (except that they totally couldn’t) . It’s an interesting straddle the writers do with that character.

    1. I suspect Kurt was given that line in “Constant Craving” because he has had so much narrative around desire and longing. Rachel, as an example, for all her ambition, has actually has none. We never experience her want, only expect. It places her with the boys in a way that parallels the way Kurt’s desire places him with the girls. It’s very weird stuff they do with those two (and it’s why I believe Rachel won’t get into NYADA — much like Finn’s dreams were dashed, and Kurt will).

    2. Also, the knit-thingy Kurt wears for Perfect is actually extremely ambiguous — one half is a man’s sweater, the other half is a capelet… And I feel pretty certain that wardrobe made that happen, because the way it puckers slightly on the capelet-side shoulder suggests that it used to have a sleeve there… I kind of love that thing, actually!

        1. I’m impressed this exists in the real world! And that it is, indeed, menswear!

          I wonder if anyone other than Kurt Hummel has ever worn it?

  3. Since 3.05 we have seen him project physical modesty and avoid physical contact with people who aren’t Blaine (Rachel and the awkward hug that required warning, Brittany, and the unusual lack of hug), and it is both emotionally touching and indicative of how much work he is having to do to both segregate his desire from the rest of his life and to integrate it into a necessarily public existence.

    I… I think I sort of get that one. Up until now, touch had not been invested with sexuality for him, and now it really, really is. And as he IS a sensualist who did spend a lot of time repressing desire (food as well as sex, clearly, as you note above) now that he’s allowed touch to manifest sexuality, he cannot UNSEE that, and he doesn’t want to experience the feelings he has with Blaine when he’s interacting with anyone else, so he’s very deliberately Not Touching Them. It may take a long while, if it ever happens, for him to get comfortable with casual social touch again, or even find touch bearable from anyone who’s not a lover.

    (I have some sensory defensiveness issues. Negotiating them around a generally huggy fannish culture can be… interesting.)

  4. Holy crap I need a dictionary to read this 🙂

    So sooo interesting and provides me insight to help unravel what had been confusing me about Kurt this season – in particular my sense that they weren’t going the heteronormative route but still something was going on that I couldn’t quite get.

    I love this, and believe it wholeheartedly:

    “Glee informs us that Kurt is happy and eager to be the aesthetically feminine partner in his relationship and play act at that very role… when it’s about his relationship. But that in no way makes him a passive, submissive or traditionally feminine partner; it doesn’t even make him a girl”

    Go Kurt.

  5. Oh this is lovely.

    I don’t have much to add, but I want to throw a bit of additional weight behind his touch aversion right now: in IAU, Brittany hugs him at the end, and he’s startled (which I think says more about how we’re supposed to be reading her social whatever as opposed to Sugar in that episode) but he reciprocates. The contrast with the moment you highlighted in IKAG is startling.

    Beyond that, I love the nuance of Kurt and Blaine and how they negotiate and perform and embody (enough academic words already, where is my gold star) sexuality and gender. It’s delicious.

    OH and everything here and with Kurt about feminine modesty and covering up and head coverings and marriage and intimacy is making me think about things I can never forget, and if another esoteric post goes up on LJ over this, it’s your fault.

    1. Speaking of esoteric posts on LJ about these themes — I was thinking of you when I started down the feminine modesty road. Drop me an email (racheline AT gmail DOT com) if you want to converse about doing a little dialogue thingy on the spiritual marriage front here. The idea has lingered in my head, it’s just been a rough couple of weeks and I’ve been on the road a lot.

  6. Read this late last night but was way too tired to comment. It’s fascinating, and makes a lot of sense. I’m wondering now if wearing the Dalton uniform last season is part of what helped Kurt to develop that ability to select a self-presentation to suit his audience…

    Re: : Since 3.05 we have seen him project physical modesty and avoid physical contact with people who aren’t Blaine (Rachel and the awkward hug that required warning, Brittany and the lack of hug response/cringe thing),

    It makes a lot of sense to me, the change in the Kurt’s clothing, at this time; he’s learning a whole new relationship to his body and his own skin, and the clothing keeps people from intruding on that with casual touch and destabilising/changing his sense of himself and his own physical…boundaries? edges? (I’ve always felt that Kurt’s skintight clothing was, in a sense, him holding himself together). The only person we’ve seen touch him that he didn’t flinch away from or freeze up in response to was Burt’s pat on the shoulder during the ‘Constant Craving’ montage in 3.0, and even there he didn’t respond positively, just accepted being touched.

    1. Also, I just realised: of all the times Kurt has worn kilts or skirts, 3.07 is the first time he’s ever worn one without leggings to the best of my memory. But I can’t be sure about the one in ‘Britney/Brittany’.

    2. “I’ve always felt that Kurt’s skintight clothing was, in a sense, him holding himself together.” amazing how true this is. I never directly thought about it or voiced it but it really seems likely and I find myself using clothing this way too.

  7. I haven’t been watching Glee recently, but I’m very interested in how clothes are used to represent character (and how we use them everyday in the real world to project information/image).

    One note: the equestrian outfit Kurt was wearing is not a woman’s outfit. Although more women than men ride in the U.S., in particular, clothing for English riding disciplines, such as breeches, boots, and shirts, are the same for male and female riders, aside from cut. (One exception is in the hunt field, where only men are allowed to wear scarlet coats). Equestrian sports are the only Olympic sports where men and women compete against each other equally.

    1. Yeah, I ride, and I know this. I was referring particularly to the capelette in that outfit, which would otherwise not have read as female for reasons of the actual clothes. Oh Kurt, you wear so may pieces in so many strange ways, you make it very hard for us to be as specific as needed!

  8. I also noticed in the scene with Rachel and Finn after he lost the election, Rachel wanted to hug Kurt. In fact, her hands were already on his arms. Instead of letting Rachel hug him, he kind of shrug her off and immediately said, “I have to go find Blaine.”

    So yes, your paragraph about him avoiding physical contact (unless it’s Blaine) actually makes a lot of sense.

    Great article. =)

  9. I haven’t watched Glee but your review of Kurt’s masculine attire for public speaking and election stuff reminded me of a little chat on a Long Hair Community Forum. Some members were contrasting Sarah Palin’s feminine outfits and long hair with Hilliary Clinton’s clothes and short hair. Some members felt that if you wanted to be taken seriously in public speaking, it is much easier to be taken seriously if you are dressed in a man-ish fashion. (Like Hillary.)

    Not sure I have a point here. I rather like that odd half-sweater. And the guy wearing a hat to church to really get me started on why women started covering their heads in the early church so I won’t touch that. But I would cheer on any guy who wanted to wear a hat in mass.

  10. These essays are fascinating, not only in the aspect of watching Glee and seeing more in it but also in connection to everyday life, one example being my conversation with my mother when I tried to explain my angry and anxious reactions at queerphobic comments to her, that there is depth to it all, that there is more than male/female and there’s a difference between sex and gender (we don’t have separate terms in Polish which makes it like 100 times harder), generally that identity and sexuality issues are so delicate and all this is just no simple, not an on/off question, wchich only led to her asking if I have any issues with being a girl because it doesn’t seem so and as a consequence neither she nor anybody else wants to hear all this crap.
    Agh, just lots of rambling, well I meant just that such essays and comments and people actually thinking makes it a bit easier to learn more, opens some doors. I’m elated I found it.

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