Glee: Honor, duels, and consent

One of the things I’ve been meaning to write about here for a while is how intensely creepy the Warblers have become in Glee‘s third season, but I haven’t really had an excuse to go back to that somewhat boggling performance of “Uptown Girl” and talk about the predatoriness of these particular denizens of faerieland. (If you haven’t caught it here before, Glee actually, explicitly, frames Dalton this way, from Puck’s sending Kurt there to spy to Kurt’s amazed little query as to whether all the boys at Dalton are gay. The answer is no, but that doesn’t stop the school from being, at least, temporarily, a magical haven for him).

But today’s release of the full clip of Santana and Sebastian singing “Smooth Criminal” has made me want to revisit that earlier performance, which foreshadows this new release quite nicely.

But to get there, I have to work backwards, so first I should note that “Smooth Criminal” is one of the most menacing and interesting things I’ve seen Glee do, and it manages to evoke the consent-related themes that simmer constantly under show’s surface but are rarely explicitly addressed. Additionally, the performance is a truly masterful representation of a duel, and serves to finally clarify for us why Sebastian is anything but a trivial villain.

As a fight scene, the number is remarkably well done. Yes, both Santana and Sebastian do things that would make no sense to do in an actual fight, but that’s how fights in fiction work: some big, showy stuff that would get you killed in non-fiction life is necessary to make the duel read on-screen for the viewer. If we brush those choices aside (mainly, how often they turn their backs on each other), there’s a lot of good strategy on display.

Santana begins by conserving her energy. She lets her bigger opponent, who will tire more easily, wear himself down by showing off and providing her with data. Then, once she has the data from afar, without touch, she allows him to come in close so she can see what that is like; she let’s him touch her, and it is awful.

And then, because she’s smaller and faster, Santana gets inside his reach, and goes on the offensive; this is where she’s grabbing and shoving at him, something some people in fandom have been saying was uncalled for on her part. I think it was necessary; without it, in the duel metaphor of the performance, she wouldn’t have even lasted the whole song.

Then, after she makes contact, Santana obeys the most important rule of a duel: “When in doubt, get the hell out.” She spends most of the rest of the song keeping Sebastian as far away from her as possible, so as not to lose what ground she’s gained. The scene between these two works, because if you were to replace the song with swords, you’d barely have to change any of the physicality.

But despite this relatively good strategy from Santana (Sebastian has the advantage, but he’s cocky, and one day that’s going to bite him, hard), what I can’t stop being fascinated by in the scene is how frightened she looks.

Yes, she stands her ground, and laughs Sebastian off before the song starts when it seems like he’s challenging her to a duel (note: he challenges; she chooses the weapons, that is, the song), but she knows things with this guy aren’t necessarily going to be just some allegorical vocal duel, especially after he dismisses the Warblers from the room because he doesn’t want witnesses.

This tells us several things about Sebastian. The first is that he is concerned with modes of honor. That’s why he wants this duel, and that’s why he doesn’t want witnesses when he does something dishonorable (making a girl cry). But in a duel without actual weapons or violence, not having an audience makes no sense; if there are no witnesses to the event, without blood, how do you know who has won?

Which is exactly why Santana is nervous. Despite scoffing at the ridiculousness of the initial duel challenge, she gets the implied threat of the Warblers’ dismissal immediately. After all, this is the girl who at least fantasizes about knowing how to fight even if she doesn’t actually (never forget those supposed razor blades in her hair).

When Sebastian dismisses the Warblers, Santana realizes that whatever they are framing this battle as now, there’s a very real possibility that he’s interested in doing some sort of lingering, visible, tangible damage to her. Otherwise, a victory on his part would be intangible, and not serve his oft-highlighted status-related desires.

And it’s the role desire plays in this confrontation that is critical to understanding the intensity of the scene’s menace. Because while the chemistry between Santana and Sebastian is off-the-charts, they are also both gay. Which means that the sexuality overtly present in the scene isn’t about desire, but arguably about power, control, and violence. The fact that the song being sung is about a woman being assaulted in her bedroom, and that Santana is singing response to Sebastian’s lead until she gets to do some gloriously powerful notes at the end, further underscores that Sebastian is one more Glee character with an unhealthy perspective on sex, power, and consent.

Frankly, I find Sebastian far creepier than Dave Karofsky, because while Karofsky systematically harassed and eventually assaulted Kurt with that kiss, a lot of that at least had to do with what Karofsky wanted for himself and his anger around that. Sebastian just wants to take for the sake of having and hurt for the sake of his own amusement. For me, that feels a lot more dangerous, because it’s harder for me to understand. At a distance, Dave Karofsky has my empathy; Sebastian can’t.

Which brings us back, finally, to the Warblers in their creepy, corrupted “Uptown Girl” state from the beginning of the season. Not only does that number feature echoes back to the slow-motion of Blaine’s introduction of Kurt to Dalton in season two, but this time with Sebastian dragging Blaine into the number (the risks of faerie rings, anyone?), it also foreshadows the circling choreography that is central to the Sebastian and Santana “duel.”

In “Uptown Girl,” however, it is a female Dalton teacher circled first by one boy, then by two, then by the whole group of them as she tries to exert her authority. Eventually, she succeeds, but it seems like a near thing and one where the boys have retreated only because they’ve become bored.

By the time we get to “Smooth Criminal,” we know from other spoiler clips that the Warbler’s Council seems to be no more, replaced instead by Sebastian as captain, and if he tells those boys to leave him alone with a girl so he can fight (brutalize) her, in private, they go without question. Sebastian has rewritten their notions of honor and eliminated whatever code would have forced them to stand up to him and to say no to him, had he been present in the season two Dalton landscape.

While Sebastian’s clumsily aggressive and showy attempts to hook up with Blaine have been largely laughable, I think “Smooth Criminal” and its growth out of “Uptown Girl” shows us we may now be looking at the realest, darkest villain Glee has ever had. Watching his corruption of the Warblers is like watching fruit rot, and the sexual aggression that at first seemed interesting and seductive to both Blaine and the viewer now just seems like an explicit, ongoing threat of sexualized violence.

I’ll be surprised if Glee ever actually addresses, as opposed to just demonstrates, the consent issues many of its plot lines raise. But I’m not even sure the show actually has to do anything more than point to the existence of these situations to be effective, not when I see Santana, despite standing her ground, actually looking afraid of this boy Sebastian.

Suddenly, I feel very clear on why Blaine — nearly always presented in canon as taking a traditionally feminine role, at least in his thoughts about himself — has such a hard time saying no to Sebastian. Like everything else surrounding this situation, it’s not about desire. It’s about feeling like he’s even less safe in the face of this boy than he already is if he were to say no.

16 thoughts on “Glee: Honor, duels, and consent”

  1. “I’ll be surprised if Glee ever actually addresses, as opposed to just demonstrates, the consent issues many of its plot lines raise. But I’m not even sure the show has to do anything more than point to the existence of these situations, not when I see Santana, despite standing her ground, actually looking afraid of this boy.”

    I’ve been trying to allude to this for a while. Does the show ever need to say THIS IS NOT OKAY when we see Quinn crying and Santana terrified?

    It’s a technique they’ve used in a lot of different scenarios, and I think the images they leave behind are, if anything, more valuable, more memorable, than any associated words.

    Maybe that’s my bias.

    1. I kinda have to disagree here. Santana isn’t scared, she’s angry. And so is Sebastian. It’s that anger- and the fact that both actors are actually very straight- that makes this scene come off as sexually charged.

  2. OMG yes all of this. This is why Sebastian scares me now. He’s emerged as powerful, and he doesn’t care what damage he does – he enjoys it.

  3. One must always remember that Fae are both dark and light… and it’s very easy for one to take dominance over the other. If the King is Unseelie, the Court often follows.

    Blaine was Summer King, and thus the Warblers were reflections of him. But the Summer King is gone; he left Faerie to pursue a mortal lover, and the shadows crept in with his absence. A new King has been crowned, and he is not Summer, but Winter.

    1. I love this fandom so much right now, despite all the other explosions of the day. There are so many faerie!Kurt fics, but I wish someone would tackle the thing that actually seems to be in the canon.

  4. Just really quick, wanted to pop in and say how much I enjoyed this. I can get away(ish) with reading a few blog posts / articles at work, but I can’t watch videos, so I read this before I even saw the clip. It definitely made me see the performance through different and more nuanced eyes!

    1. Thanks! I actually have a ton more stuff to say about the dueling aspect, but there wasn’t space to get to other things. Maybe I’ll get into on Tuesday (there are threats of there being Kurt Hummel memorial cheesecake this time — gosh I need to send out an email), but there’s all this stuff about how it’s in the round (so a rapier duel, as opposed to a different weapon) and how they both very strategically maintain distance, and even the way they take their steps back. You can tell whoever choreographed it has choreographed fights.

      1. From grant’s recent interviews, apparently it was more Naya and him who made the choreography, they seemed to have very little instructions.

  5. this is brilliant-I had the same impression. Also I thought it was genius on behalf of the costume department to dress her in the tux and fedora. It allows Santana to hide behind something-which is unique because we’ve always been able to see her face-her hair is almost always clipped back or in a tight pony tail. She’s playing a very different sort of game and using an alternate part of her sexuality so that’s why she’s wearing attire that is both masculine yet shows off her killer legs, she knows she can’t dominate him sexually so her allure takes a different turn. I also think it arouses her in a way to know she’s finally met her match. These two make a killer duo and I hope they explore them again in the future.

  6. Brilliantly written as always. I’m a fan!

    I didn’t watch the Smooth Criminal clip until after I read your post and I must say it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as Santana really did look terrified in some parts. I also watched the spoiler clip at the Lima Bean where Sebastian threatens Santana with the whole my Dad’s the States Attorney etc. Cue hairs on the back of my neck again and I wondered what Sebastian’s Dad was like and whether he was the opposite of the recently elected congressman and all round awesome Dad Burt Hummel.

    Maybe he’d be more like the Peter Florrick character in The Good Wife,who,in a recent episode (3.11), intimidates and threatens the FEMALE school principal into accepting his children into her prestigious private school with numerous menancing lines including “I’m the States Attorney. You don’t say no to me”. The whole scene is frightening and super creepy.

    Is this the kind of role model Sebastian has at home and are the Glee writers setting us up for a future meeting with Mr Smythe now there are rumours of Sebastian returning in Season 4…

  7. Very interesting analysis ! I didn’t see it at all (but well, I didn’t know that the song was so creepy). I’m waiting for the episode to made my judgement about The Warblers but since the introduction of Sebastian I was very afraid to see them being corrupted (more because New Direction needs a vilain rival instead of a friendly rival) because I love them to bones.

    And then I came to the conclusion that everything went down because… Wes graduated and with him went the Holy Gavel. If I agree that Blaine the Sunny King, Wes was a very good counter-power, more traditional yes but also the guardian of Dalton’s philosophy. He was like Blaine’s prime minister, the only one in the council who wasn’t completely blinded by Blaine’s shine (unlike squealy!fanboy!Thad and grumpy!fanboy!David :p) and so he ept the balance. I think it was totally not volonteer from the Glee staff to not have Wes back (because Telly Lung went back in Broadway), but it makes more sense that Sebastian could take the lead so easily of The Warblers with Wes out of his way.

  8. Also intimidating is how, if we pay attention to the actual song, at the end Sebastian sings the ‘Annie are you okay’ and Santana is responding ‘I don’t know’. It shows just how scared Santana is and that she’s seriously concerned for her own safety.

    1. It’s really harrowing.

      You also may have just given me my idea for tonight’s piece, assuming the episode cooperates with what I am thinking.

  9. The episode aired a few days ago and my head is still trying to wrap itself around the new creepy and corrupted Warblers. And then I think that the Uptown Girl performance and this last episode could be showing us the Warblers with the googles taken off.

    Season 2 showed us Dalton and the Warblers (and even Blaine, with the one exception of when he went to the tire shop) through Kurt’s perspective, and in his eyes, it was a wonderland of sorts. The show never returned to Dalton after he transferred back to WMHS, either. In the current season, the Warblers (and Blaine) exist outside of Kurt’s frame-of-reference, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that they’re a little or a lot different than I remember.

  10. Jesus Christ, I love your brain. I didn’t think Glee had the sort of continuity of character from one episode — or scene — to another to allow this sort of deep analysis. But you’re doing it. And doing it well.

    Now if you’ll excuse me (snerk), I’mma go trawl through your archives.

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