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Glee: boys, girls, and homosocial squeamishness

8 Dec

Despite Glee‘s strong focus on multiple queer characters, I’m increasingly noticing that the show is remarkably squeamish around issues of homosociality as it intersects with homosexuality. And, as is usually the case with Glee, I having trouble telling if this is an intra- or extradiegetic problem. Fair warning: I’ll be talking about some spoilers from future episodes to make this point.

All of this really occurred to me because of two fandom complaints that seem particularly loud right now. The first is an assertion that outside of scenes specifically about Kurt and Blaine, you can’t tell that Kurt and Blaine are together. The second is that Brittany and Santana have not kissed or explicitly been shown to be a romantic couple.

While I actually have some problems with both of those assertions for a myriad of reasons, including a feeling that they ignore issues of relationship style, history, and queer teen safety, the fact is, people are seeing something, and what the audience sees is, absolutely, one version of what’s really happening on screen.

What I suspect people are reacting to, around both couples, is Glee‘s intense discomfort around homosociality and where it intersects with homosexuality. Certainly, we saw this from within the narrative when, in season 2, Finn tells Kurt he can’t ask Sam to do a duet, because it’ll ruin the guy’s life at McKinley. But, increasingly, I suspect we’re seeing this from external sources; that is, writers being squeamish as opposed to writing characters who are squeamish.

On one hand, we have Kurt and Blaine, who are explicitly a couple. Despite multiple assertions that both confirm and muddle each of the character’s roles around gender performativity, we can also basically agree that the explicit text as presented is at least supposed to be two gay boys in love. The thing is, Glee is very cagey about showing these two boys as boys together in the context of male peers, even male peers who we are told are totally on board and supportive of them as a couple.

Blaine can dance with Kurt at the prom, once Kurt is cast as the prom queen. And in an upcoming number from Grease, Blaine’s performing with the boys and Kurt’s performing with the girls. Now, we can say that’s because Kurt prefers to be with the girls. And we can say that’s because of Kurt’s vocal range (which is a particularly weak argument when Kurt’s range is, at least, historically male-appropriate), but really, it seems to be about Glee knowing how to write gay couples as long as they aren’t socially playing for the same team.

The same issue is in play with Brittany and Santana, but it’s causing a completely different set of fan reaction problems. Brittany and Santana are positioned as on the same team — literally. They’re both highly femme cheerleaders, and they’re together, or so we’re told (and not, particularly, shown). Glee seems to have no idea how to portray this, because they haven’t been able to split them up in a performative context the way they have with Kurt and Blaine.

Additionally complicating the situation is that physical homosocial behavior among women is so culturally acceptable (before you even get to stuff like “I Kissed a Girl” hijinks), that it’s nearly impossible to tell they’re dating. Straight girls who are close friends do, do things like hold hands, hug, and kiss on the cheek, all the time. So the only reason we really know these two are together is Santana’s discomfort with her coming out process, and the snarky joke of them being in bed together that started it all back in season 1.

Glee often gets itself into trouble by playing the long game and then seeming to get distracted halfway through. It also struggles when it’s too murky around whether it’s portraying toxic situations or being toxic in how it’s portraying situations. Add to that the fact that mainstream TV really isn’t to be trusted in general on how it writes queer people, so believe me, I get the anger and suspicion.

Certainly, I have my own sets of concerns, largely related to how sexual desire between women is minimized unless its for male pleasure (something Glee has both skewered, and it seems, bought in to), and how sexual desire between men inevitably turns into some sort of discourse on perceptions of gay male promiscuity (e.g.,: Kurt and Blaine have a beautiful moment; Sebastian is a predatory creep — tell me something I couldn’t have spotted from orbit, thanks).

But I do think it’s worth looking at the homosocial conundrum the show faces when critiquing how it handles Kurt and Blaine and Brittany and Santana. At the end of the day, Glee has set itself a ridiculously huge challenge in putting these storylines as front and center as they are.

While the age groups that are the most desirable TV audiences increasingly see gay content as no big deal, the statistical minorities that are offended or uncomfortable remain very large. Additionally, even straight people who support LGBT equality, can and do (wow, the Internet is such a source for what people aren’t willing to say to you at dinner parties) sometimes get uncomfortable with queer content, or wonder why suddenly their TV is filled with stories about people who aren’t like them. Us gay folks are used to it; our allies, for better or for worse, aren’t.

It’s my suspicion, that even as Glee has written about homophobia as displayed around homosocial behavior (i.e., locker room worries, the Kurt and Sam duet, the prom), the show’s powers that be have also been cognisant of how that anxiety exists around homosocial behavior in its audience. With Kurt and Blaine that problem has largely been easy to “solve” because of how Kurt’s been written from the beginning and because of Colfer’s vocal range. With Brittany and Santana a so-called solution has remained elusive, and such, so has a great deal of clarity on that relationship and its physicality.

As much as we talk about how Glee is awesome, subversive and complex on LGBT issues, there’s still this arena on which the show strikes me as squeamish, and whether it ever decides that two guys in the T-Birds can totally be dating or that the head cheerleader can really get a sparkles and glitter girl, absolutely remains to be seen.

But as much as I want Glee to solve its extradiegetic homosocial anxiety, I also want the issue to be one that allies who are fans of these two couples consider in their own lives. The first person I ever had in my life who described themselves as an LGBT ally to me wrote an opinion piece for our university newspaper, without my permission, about how being my roommate didn’t make her gay. Talk about homosocial anxiety; she used my situation to make sure the world knew she was straight.

Ultimately, my hope is that if we’re going to spend time wondering what Glee‘s afraid of, that we’ll also spend some time wondering what the audience is afraid of, and how, sometimes, in some cases, we may be contributing to those anxieties.

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9 Responses to “Glee: boys, girls, and homosocial squeamishness”

  1. thegourmez December 8, 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    “But, increasingly, I suspect we’re seeing this from external sources; that is, writers being squeamish as opposed to writing characters who are squeamish.”

    I love your thoughts on all of Glee’s problems addressing the many layered world that is LGBT issues, but this statement, to me, is the main problem I have with many fandom critiques of what they’ve done. You suspect the writers are being squeamish, but we have absolutely no idea whether that is the case or not. We also have no idea if they are being forced to downplay the affection between the homosexual couples, but many in the fandom automatically assume that MUST be the case or they would be getting the level of affection they want. Personally, I think the problem lies in our view of Glee as being a medium that somehow must perform the impossible task of addressing what all of its very diverse viewers want to see portrayed onscreen. I don’t think there’s anything Glee could do that would placate so many different people with so many different expectations of what would be best to portray in terms of Kurt and Blaine’s and Santana and Brittany’s relationships. It’s possible–possible–that the writers just haven’t written a kiss in for Santana and Brittany yet and honestly didn’t realize it was such a big deal because of their implied physical relationship until they heard the huge backlash over the past few episodes of how many fans NEED that kiss to feel like they are getting a good representation of attraction/love/feelings from that couple. I’m only singling out the Santana/Brittany kiss as one of many issues people have with the show’s choices right now as an example.

    In other words, I think this program has inspired a hugely devoted fanbase because of its willingness to engage in these dynamics at all, but I think it’s unfair to expect that Glee’s writers can somehow address all the facets of the LGBT or straight or Black or Asian or anything world in a way that would satisfy all of us-especially not in a 60 minute show that spend approximately a third of its time on actual plot development and not song.

  2. Panaili December 8, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    I loved this article, and it’s definitely one that is causing a lot of discussion in many of the communities that I follow. I really liked your turnaround with the argument — not only is the issue about discomfort with homosocial behavior, but also about seeing stories about non-typical relationship dynamics and how a fair amount of people seem to be resistant to the idea of seeing stories on their TV about people who “aren’t like them.” (It actually speaks to why I find Glee so compelling — I can relate to the character of Kurt on so many levels, *because* of his blurred gender lines and attitude toward sex and sexual presentation, that I find his character a genuine relief after seeing so many female characters on other TV shows that I cannot relate to at all.)

    One nitpick: “Now, we can say that’s because Kurt prefers to be with the boys.” I assume you meant that he preferred to hang out with the girls, based on context.

    • RM December 8, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

      Thanks for the catch; I wrote this very fast. Corrected now. More later as I’m on a mobile!

  3. Gina R Snape December 8, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    Heya. I’m not an active fan. I don’t read the boards/comms, don’t read fanfic, so I don’t know anything about the discussions taking place. But I’ve followed the Brittana relationship with keen interest since the beginning. Especially, one time one of TPTB said Kurt was the “only gay character on the show” and it was a literal case of Lesbian/Bisexual invisibility writ large.

    So your thoughts on how do we define them as a couple kind of tugged at me. I may need to rewatch the ep (only saw each one from this season once), but wasn’t there a kind of “throw away” line where Brittany says to Santana that she promised her if she broke up with Artie that she’d be with Santana again? And then there was some handholding or other embrace that signified to the audience that they were in fact a couple. Then in the most recent episode, they briefly held hands on stage and there was a close-up of their hands. Another signifier to the audience. It’s maintext, not subtext, but it’s done in visual cues more than verbal.

    Is it as out loud and proud as Klaine? No. But I attribute that mostly to the characters themselves. Kurt and Blaine are very much out of the closet. Santana was outed by Finn, has had license to use her sexuality as she sees fit (whether for power or pleasure), but genuinely fears her family/ community knowing about her and as such is grappling with her identity and place in the world (which is, actually, quite age appropriate) and something very much understood by those of us who identify as queer).

    I also liked the interaction this week between Finn and Blaine. Finn is not self-aware enough to fully identify his inner levels of homophobia, but he was able to talk with Blaine “man-to-man” the way he would approach his peers who are straight. Their conversation focused on Finn’s perceived threats of Blaine’s challenges in ideas and talent. I felt like that was a big step for the show as for once it wasn’t about The Gay Thing when specifically focusing on a gay character.

    Will there be two guys on the show in a couple where one of them isn’t feminized or stereotyped? Who knows. But at least there is a diversity of self-expression and for once a bisexual character (Brittany) who is totally unconflicted about it (i.e. not a phase on her way to being gay). The only other bisexual character I can think of at the moment is Calliope Torres from Grey’s Anatomy and even she seemed to be somewhat backpeddling from that identity (I stopped watching the show).

  4. Batkonehat December 8, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

    I think what people are not seeing on the screen between Kurt and Blaine is also contributing to the latest round of Chris hates Darren wank going around. They seem to be maintaining some sort of boundary between themselves in public appearances as Chris and Darren (maybe purposeful or maybe not but I can certainly see very legit reasons for both of them to be on board with that sort of boundary) and since we’re mostly looking for background interaction between them to show they are together onscreen and it seems lacking people wonder if it isn’t the writers or director, but the actors’ personal feelings coming in to play. I don’t actually believe that, but I think that is why a fan recently twittered at CC asking about their friendship. I wonder how much the editors’ bias or view of the storytelling comes in here too. Having watched a behind the scenes short with the show’s editor it is clear that he has a lot of power in how the story ends up being told. For example, it would have taken almost nothing to show Kurt reaction shots to the Blaine/Sam fight. He literally had to be edited out of the shot. Anyway, I think it is a complex To figure out all the factors influencing how these relationships are shown. Clearly song choice, which group each boy sings with, and costuming are easily pinned down, but the directing, scene editing, and what the actors are choosing to do in background moments are harder to pin down and also contribute a lot to the end result we see. How much is designed and how much comes from a very complex machine telling and showing the stories of a very large ensemble?

  5. Julia December 8, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    I’d add to this that it’s not just the viewers and possibly the writers who are squeamish around homosocial contexts–it’s also, fundamentally, the Lima chorus, aka everyone else in the background of the show. The first problem with show choir, we’re told, is that it’s gay. It’s not a coincidence that the majority of insults Finn faces from the kids outside of glee club are that he’s gay or a girl, or that this informs how he tries to control (but in his mind, protect) others (and Others.)

    Someday, maybe when I’ve managed a coherent response to your email, I will finish writing about how fundamental that is to the show, how THAT is why the show choir kids are slushied instead of worshipped, and how Glee plays with questions of queerness in the theoretical sense on a basic level with almost every character, and this is why the disabled characters are so satisfying, no one gets Quinn, and Mercedes isn’t Beyonce.

  6. Tessa December 8, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    I’m introducing the Viking to Glee now. I’m interested in seeing if he catches all the subtexts.

  7. metaphase December 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    “whether it ever decides that two guys in the T-Birds can totally be dating or that the head cheerleader can really get a sparkles and glitter girl, absolutely remains to be seen.”

    While I absolutely agree that Glee has not effectively shown Brittana as a sexual-romantic relationship, I can’t see that as a sign of homosocial anxiety in the same way as heteronomalizing Klaine. Why? Because my feeling is that there is much less homosocial anxiety in large about femme-femme lesbian relationship than other lesbian pairings on the butch-femme axis. Yes, femme-femme lesbian relationships are stereotypes of sexual performance for men. But even the addition of a romantic component to this femme-femme stereotype seems less anxiety provoking, societally, than lesbian relationships involving butch or non-femme women.

    So, as far as these things go, on the surface it doesn’t seem like Brittana should give Glee much homosocial anxiety beyond the act of simply having a queer female couple.

    But all of this analysis, including mine, is based on general intuitions about how gender presentation intersects homosocial anxiety towards queer male and female relationships. I’m not sure we have firm science on that, at least I don’t.

  8. soukup December 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

    I was nodding along until your very last line. Who is “we”? Visibly queer folks? Viewers? Queer viewers? Are you saying that you feel that this “we” is contributing to the anxiety of the Glee writers, or of the socially conservative viewers, or both? And if so, how?

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