Glee: Gender, violence and power

While most of what I had to say about last night’s episode of Glee remains firmly centered around “Smooth Criminal,” which was just as creepy in context as out of it, I did want to briefly mention how intensely focused the whole episode really was on gendered types of violence and gendered responses to that violence, with most of it being in the realm of the feminine, despite most of the players being men.

The slushie meant for Kurt that Blaine steps in front of contains rock salt, which heats when it comes into contact with water and ice. This implies strongly that Sebastian’s initial goal was for Kurt to experience chemical burns, and it certainly evokes a type of violence generally directed at women by men and that the media tells us transpires because those women do not obey the wishes of those men.

This is violence about damaging the one asset these women are believed to have (appeal to men) and publicly shaming them through the lasting mark of that violence, and in Glee, it hardly represents the first time that Sebastian objects to Kurt both on the basis of the charms he holds for Blaine and for the degree to which he is not straight-acting.

That Blaine’s eyesight is then damaged when he engages in a traditionally masculine act (I’m sorry, Glee is broad, and I have to use a lot of normative gender expectations to take it apart) of protecting a lover, then serves to recode Blaine as the feminine, thanks to the long history of, as an anonymous user pointed out to me on Tumblr, blindness and blinding being used as a metaphor for impotence.

From there, we witness the strongly implied violence of “Smooth Criminal” in which both Santana and Sebastian are using sexuality in their duel, but in which only one of them, Sebastian, is able to successfully imply the perpetration of acts of sexual violence through that performance.

When Sebastian slushies Santana at the end of that number, the same form of violence against women by men seen in “Bad” is again evoked, but he doesn’t even bother with the rock salt this time; Santana isn’t worth the trouble, perhaps because her lesbianism in Sebastian’s eyes already renders her of little use to men, even, or perhaps particularly, to a predatory gay one.

Responses to this violence from the New Directions team is also highly gendered. Multiple people on multiple occasions talk about how the police won’t be interested in, or believe, what was done to Blaine. This includes, most notably, Schue’s attempt to minimize it in a kids-will-be-kids way and move on, and Kurt’s privately furious catharsis which later gives way to a brave-faced comment on rising above, largely because that seems to be the only weapon he has.

Meanwhile, Santana, we later find out, wasn’t actually trying to fight Sebastian on his own terms of overt sexual aggression, so much as she was both literally and metaphorically taking one for the team in order to get him to confess on tape. A woman fights a man by appearing to yield; it gets her close enough to do real damage.

This constant metaphor of rape and response to it in the episode is even underscored by small, seemingly throwaway lines, like Brittany saying, “I don’t know how,” when told to lock the door to the choir room. This is further highlighted by the contrast of Artie, who has been constantly used to explicitly define what masculinity is and isn’t this season, blowing up at Schue for his lip-service sympathy.

But outside of the near explicit implications of Sebastian’s actions, most of the episode’s masculine violence is metaphorical and unrealized from the dancing-fighting of “Bad” to Artie’s fantasy sequence.

Lima, OH is a world where people only dream about conventional forms of power and nearly everyone must accept violation. By bringing back the slushies, Glee‘s original iconic bullying instrument, in this form, Glee tells us that all of this bullying has been serious (and sexual) business all along, and that the worst thing anyone can be in this place is feminine and feminized; the problem, however, is that nearly everyone is. There are almost no men, and remarkably few honorable ones, here; the brutality of WMHS and of Lima don’t allow there to be.

Which is really why the ridiculousness of Quinn getting into Yale feels so good. She’s the character most explicitly punished for the feminine on Glee, and so she’s the first one victoriously out. Kurt, the character next most explicitly punished for the feminine, also has his huge NYADA finalist victory moment in this episode, in a way that, unlike Rachel’s victory letter, is untainted.

Glee has always been a story about a terrible place in which to be a girl, or gay, or disabled, or different in any way. That makes people angry often, largely because the show doesn’t tell us bullying is bad, but merely shows us it is awful and exists largely without correction. But as the adult world encroaches as the stakes get bigger, at least 3.11 reminds us that the powers that be know the only way up is out.

Finally, on an almost, but not entirely, tangential note, I just want to point you to the faerie trinkets that are currently adorning Kurt’s locker. Rae Votta, who also writes stuff about Glee and other pop-culture interests, pointed them out to me last night, and I haven’t stopped thinking about them since. They seem to be references queer, magical, and feminine, as if they are the small tokens by which Kurt, who seems to always be in exile from something (a dead mother, his straight friends, his horrible high school, his gay fantasy land, a still faintly out of reach New York City), always remembers who, and what, he is.

24 thoughts on “Glee: Gender, violence and power”

  1. I foresee a “Kurt Hummel and the Faerie World” essay coming soon! And I swear, even on the days when I manage to write something I like about Glee, I read you and want to just quit. 😉

    Also why is the ad at the bottom of your blog ladies in bras?

    1. The thing is, I know like so little about faerie. I just like to keep saying it and hope other people bring the smart. It’s really fun.

      Wait, there’s an ad? Where’s an ad? And I guess bras because I used the word feminine so many times in this. Oh, if only they knew.

    1. I got chills when she said it, because it had context, not just within the ep but also linked back to her “alien invasion” line in “The First Time.”

  2. The slushie to Santana’s face is also VERY reminiscent of the money shot in porn: suddenly all the Warblers are back in the room, and the lesbian gets it right in the face — because guys have to SEE THAT PART for the whole scene to count, to know that Sebastian actually won.

    And porn, we know, is the only place in our culture where lesbianism has currency, as it is explicitly for the pleasure of men.

    1. Oh word. I was faintly thinking about that, but couldn’t find a way to hook it in (maybe that imagry wasn’t rapetastic enough for me? Sebastian _really_ creeps me out). But you are so right.

    2. I want to second this.

      The characters have talked about how humiliating the slushies are. Santana is left cold and wet. Vulnerable, humiliated, feeling exposed, and momentarily incapacitated.

      They can’t show a rape, but they can come pretty damn close.

  3. I’m interested by what I think are the only three slushies explicitly taken for someone else. Here we have Blaine for Kurt and Santana for New Directions, but back in Season 1 we also had Kurt throw a slushie in his own face, taking it, as he said, for the team, but more specifically out of the hands of Finn in order to cover for Finn’s own desire to remain cool and not be associated with the glee club. In the context of gendered violence, I wonder does Brittany now need to sacrifice herself to the slushie? Despite being the fourth corner of the Klaine-Brittana square, I suspect not. Her own sexual identity seems especially complicated (calling herself a Bicorn, for example), so ideas about femininity don’t seem to play into the gay/straight, feminine/masculine violence model in the same way.

  4. This show sounds amazing and ridiculous in equal measure at times. I really do absolutely love the way you write about this. It also reinforces to me that I really do not need to watch this show ever, because my gut reaction to this was a moment of anxiety that made my chest freeze.

    It reminded me explicitly of how I “took one for the team” by being the victim of my psychotic teacher’s abuse so that I could divert his insane predatory gaze away from the younger kids. The absolute horror of knowing that people knew something was going on, that no adults were stepping in to protect us, my parents making a deal not to talk to the police, etc.

    I suppose I’m just not far away enough from those years.

  5. I think it’s also interesting that the injury was done to Blaine’s eye, given that metaphors linking love and vision are very familiar; for instance, ‘love at first sight’, or even, ‘love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind’. I winder what they are trying to say about Blaine and Kurt’s, and also Blaine and Sebastian’s relationships here, and emotional connection versus lust…

    1. I feel like there’s a joke in here about masturbation and blindness too, especially considering the Bryan Ferry with an eye patch link between this episode and TFT when Blaine’s going on about Brian Ferry before the infamous masturbation line.

      1. God, yes; there was actually a joke going round Tumblr that Sebastian put come in the slushy, thus giving a whole new meaning to ‘slushy facial’. That would really have made the rape theme explicit…

  6. All this. Always love your commentary, but this is excellent – you articulated so much of what I found emotionally rending in this episode. I was completely creeped out by Sebastian, but this has – weirdly – made him more interesting to me as a character, even as I feel myself recoiling from him. I always had a vibe that he was actually this cold and callous underneath; with that polished veneer, I’m not at all surprised really, that he’s turned out to (most likely) be an honest sociopath.

    In addition to what you said above about the acid-burning intention towards Kurt (and that scene was _terrifying_), one of the things that stuck out to me was when Santana went to Dalton and told them about Blaine’s injuries, Sebastian’s flat response was, “Bummer about Blaine – he was pretty” – choosing an adjective used to describe women. And after Blaine ruined his plans to hurt Kurt, Sebastian just clicked right over – now that he absolutely can’t get what he wants from Blaine, Blaine is of no use or importance to him anymore.

    I have other thinky thoughts about issues Sebastian represents of power and (white) male privilege; like, New Directions may have “freed” the Warblers in their auditorium, but I really wonder if those shackles will stay unlocked once back at Dalton, back in their social structure, and facing someone with no morals and possible significant social/political power either now or in the future (I think you talked somewhere about how Blaine is more afraid of Sebastian if he says no – maybe on your tumblr? – and if that will carry over to Sebastian’s classmates as well). Sorry if this last bit should have gone somewhere else, but it seems to fit with the Warblers just leaving when Sebastian told them to leave him alone with Santana (and following him as he circled that French teacher). I don’t think S2 Warblers would have done such a thing.

    1. People talk about rape a lot in regard to Glee – Karofsky’s assaultive kiss directed at Kurt and Blaine being drunk, handsy and demanding in the back seat of the car – but the only character on the show I’ve ever seen who I am sure would rape, man or woman, is Sebastian. He freaks me out fiercely, and I agree with you, it’s upped the interesting factor significantly.

      Glee references the 80s so much and because I went to private school in the 80s, Sebastian is very much striking me as a reference to Robert Chambers and the Dorian’s Red Hand case (Google will explain all for the unfamiliar). Sebastian isn’t just sociopathic, he’s a reference to a specific type of sexual violence from the specific era that forms the basis of most of the aesthetic narrative around Kurt and Blaine (Bryan Ferry? Really?).

      And yeah, I think I was rambling about Blaine on my Tumblr (as one does). I still believe he has a history with sexual abuse and that the idea of saying no to an attacker is terrifying because he may believe such a no will get him, or someone he loves, hurt or more hurt.

      It’s why he wanted Kurt to stand up to Karofsky so badly. Blaine never felt he could take that risk in his own experiences. And that’s not just about fear, but systemic conditioning. And Glee is so much about the systemic conditioning of various types of abuse and neglect. Their environment, which is training them to roll over to and participate in their own abuse, is the dark mirror to these kids trying to, in spite of that, train themselves to perform.

      1. Hi. Longtime lurker, first-time commenter here. I love what you’ve done with the place. 😉

        I agree with much, even most, of what has been said above me. But as a gay man, I think a lot of the dialogue surrounding Sebastian has missed one very important point: for once, a gay man is the villain, and not because he is gay.

        Sebastian is a character roundly reviled in fandom, and rightly so. As has been previously pointed out, he’s a sociopath capable of extreme sexual violence, even if it is coded to appease network executives and so the show can air before the watershed. But the thing is, his sexual predation and overall violence has nothing to do with the fact that he’s gay. It has to do with the fact that he’s evil.

        Hear me out: for once, the fact that a gay character is the bad guy has nothing to do with the fact that he’s gay. On Glee, the two are mutually exclusive. In presenting gay characters on primetime network television, this is a revolutionary concept. For years, we’ve seen the concept of the predatory gay man, who is looking to abuse young boys or “convert” straight men. We’ve even seen it on Glee–everybody remembers Sandy, right?

        With Sebastian, it’s different. Sebastian is a spoiled, rich, entitled brat who uses his heteronormative white male privilege to subjugate the other characters, whether it be Kurt (the more effeminate gay lad) or Santana (the Latina lesbian). But see, there’s a catch–his privilege is knocked because he’s queer, too. So Sebastian automatically ceases being an archetype and becomes–wait for it–a human being.

        This has profound significance. In portraying a gay villain who is a villain not because he’s gay, Glee is illustrating an important, if unfortunate, fact–that not all queer people are saints. We’re not all Kurt Hummells, Kevin Walkers, Luke Snyders or Bianca Montgomerys. Some of us are cruel. In essence, Glee is doing something no other show has done outside of Queer as Folk: it is humanizing gay men, presenting the good, bad, and ugly of humanity.

        Perhaps because of the success of Kurt, and later Blaine, the writers (and Ryan Murphy in particular) felt they were able to introduce a villainous gay character (and I wouldn’t consider Santana a villain) without suffering the repercussions of GLAAD and that ilk. What Glee is doing right now is revolutionary. A gay creator has, instead of ceding to abstract pressures of political correctness and beatifying every LGBT character, shown a very human (and not so kind) side of our community.

        And by doing so, we finally see reality reflected on our televisions. Only with jaunty musical numbers and flawless skin.

        (Please forgive me for the length of this comment. Brevity has never been my strong suit. And if things aren’t coherent, well, I just finished a bottle of wine. It is Wednesday, after all.)

  7. I and my boyfriend were literally yelling at the screen over the decision to withhold Sebastian’s confession to the police. What kind of lesson is this teaching? Yes, you can be the victim of a violent and maiming assault but no, don’t report new evidence to police that would allow them to charge the perpetrator and hold them responsible for their crimes.

    No one should ever have to “rise above” assault IN FAVOR of holding the criminal responsible, and then finding a way to rise above.


    1. I absolutely agree. I was livid during this scene. It reminded me of real arguments I heard in high school when my girlfriends were the victims of sexual violence. “Why ruin his life over one mistake he made as a youngster?” It is disgusting–giving the perp a pass because he’s young, because he made a mistake, or because we’re “better” than him. In that instant, I felt like Kurt lost his agency. Perhaps years of torment have finally beaten him down, but to me, in this episode, Kurt ceded the fact that he is a perpetual victim and, in many ways, has resigned himself to the fact.

      Slightly off topic, I *loved* Santana’s response. Because she’s right. If Kurt had done what she’d done, everybody would have formed a chorus line to the police station. I also felt like it was a snarky nod that the writers see the inequality between their portrayal of Klaine and Brittana. Unfortunately, I also took it as a subtle “we don’t give a crap.”

      1. This reply sits somewhere between Skylar Baker-Jordan’s comments and those of biyuti as linked below – not sure how to square the circle.

        There is rightful anger over letting Sebastian off the hook as far as the law goes, but there is also anger over Will suggesting that ND should leave the whole thing to the establishment.

        Obviously as a teacher Will really has to appeal to public justice rather than private vengence or risk losing his job (even if he does other totally fire-worthy things like putting marijuana in Finn’s locker – that was always an act never to be discovered). So once ND decide to take things into their own hands, for which we are initially supposed to praise them, it seems they necessarily rule out going to the police later on.

        In narrative terms we are then stuck with the only option being to ‘rise above’ and let Sebastian be judged not in a formal court, but through the court of the Warblers. Remember the council and the gaval? This is what Sebastian had destroyed when he he established himself as Captain, so here he is brought to trial and the old order restablished, if only by implication. As Rachel (I think) says, all this has been done so that Sebastian’s friends can see what he’s really like, and their judgement will hit hardest in Glee terms as Sebastian will become the outcast – really the very cruelest thing they could do to anyone considering their own experiences.

        None of this really satisfies though. Blaine didn’t even get a say in what happened to his attacker, at least as far as we know. And who is Kurt to decide for his boyfriend or anyone else? Sebastian should totally go down for this.

        Comments made by paraxdisepink on Tumblr are pertinent here: “Klaine has become officially disturbing to me. Blaine was the victim of a crime (however stupid) and it’s Kurt’s decision whether or not justice is pursued? What is Blaine? Kurt’s wife in some backward medieval society? His property? I don’t care how one feels about Kurt or Blaine or Klaine, had Blaine been a girl and the decision of whether or not to seek justice against an attacker was put to the boyfriend rather than her, people rightly would have been outraged.”

        1. i think this storyline is far from over, but I think ND was making a decision about what to do on their own behalf-I think Blaine and his parents will handle the situation privately. Also I’m just gonna put this out there-there is no way Santana would have only one copy of the confession. Let’s see, a few episodes down the line they’ll resolve this properly-that’s if the writers care about their show and it’s characters, it seemed a bit too weak and as we can see there are cracks appearing in their old credo off just shrugging it off.

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