Glee: Being a girl is something that happens to you

If you follow me on Tumblr, you know I’ve had a not so secret desire to write a post here entitled “Kurt Hummel is Totally Having a Baby” ever since we were treated first to his crack about he and the girls not getting their periods until the end of the month. It was something which was only moderately funny until it was followed up in the Valentine’s Day episode with his shout of “tin roof rusted” during “Love Shack.” If you don’t hang out on Urban Dictionary, or aren’t of a certain age, I am here to inform you that, that particular non-sequitor has come to mean unexpectedly pregnant.

But what in the world could this particular bit of hilarity (which arguably started with Sue’s rejection of Kurt’s sperm during the opening salvos of her baby quest) possibly mean other than another excuse for me to argue that Glee, which is often criticized for continuity problems, has some of the best, if most peculiarly detail-oriented, continuity on television?

Odds are, probably nothing, but it did get me thinking about the ways in which ideas of obstruction and control are structured around gender on the show. Because in the world of William McKinley High School and Lima, Ohio, women — or more accurately, femininity — is punished early and often, usually by events that, rightly or wrongly, come as abrupt surprises to the affected parties. For the women, and the femininely associated of Glee, it’s tin roof rusted time all the time.

Quinn is probably the woman on the show most severely and obviously punished this way. While the possibility of pregnancy and the risks of texting while driving are arguably obvious to those of us sitting at home watching TV, they’re not necessarily obvious to a 17-year-old girl living in an environment where she’s sure the greatest thing she will ever accomplish is captaining the Cheerios while she dates, among others, a guy who thinks he got her pregnant via a hot tub.

Quinn’s pain may not really have external sources, but it seems so to her, and it certainly takes her by surprise over and over again.

Santana is another woman who gets hit hard by surprise. In her case, it’s in the form of outing, not just because Finn fights back when she starts in on him, but because what Finn says gets overheard and amplified in a way no one could predict. It’s not that it’s all over school, or all over town; it’s that it’s all over the congressional district.

Kurt, too, who is identified with and identifies with (but not, seemingly, as) the girls he socializes with, also experiences misery from unexpected sources: even when he seems used to the dumpster-related bullying of the pilot, he’s still startled when Dave slams him into lockers, knocks that cake topper from his hand, and, of course, kisses him. There’s little there, in his father’s heart attack (which positions him as an even more obvious care-taker), or in his election to the post of Junior Prom Queen, Kurt could possibly see coming (unless Kurt’s an Ugly Betty fan, in which case he should have totally had a clue).

Blaine, despite the passing narrative that surrounded him early in the season, and which I suspect we’re not done with yet, also has this femininely associated experience. Not only is there the Sadie Hawkins backstory, but the turn Sebastian’s predatory actions take is one he literally doesn’t see coming, and both sets of events clearly position Blaine as someone terrible things no one can prepare for happen to. That’s what it means on Glee to be a girl.

These sorts of events, and others (Brittany experiences “alien invasion;” Sunshine gets sent to a crack house; Beiste has her boyfriend stolen by Sue; and Rachel, even when nothing is wrong, is often convinced she is being actively obstructed by external forces she cannot effectively respond to) along with the agency feminine and femininely-associated characters are often denied on the show through circumstance, tells us something incredibly grim. But it is something that, I think, is in keeping with the idea of despair that the show has painted around the concept of Lima as a place to escape from, even as it claws at your ankles in every moment you’re busy trying to get out: to be a woman is to have things done to you and the only choices you have aren’t about changing those things, but merely about how you respond to the consequences.

And so we see Quinn beg, borrow, and engage criminally around access to her daughter. We watch Santana blackmail Dave into creating a quasi-safe closeted space for them both. And we watch Kurt bend not bow to circumstance, over and over again; often by keeping secrets and accepting, no matter how angrily, that pain is something he’s going to have to necessarily live with.

Really, it’s one more way in which Glee talks about consent issues without really talking about them, and it contrasts pretty markedly with how the pain the men on Glee experience is shown.

Because, while it certainly doesn’t make the pain less, the level of surprise when it comes to masculine pain on Glee, tends to be low (although this is not nearly as constant as the degree to which the female characters get hit with surprise!).

Puck gets sent to juvie because of his own choices; Will Schuester faces career dilemmas; Finn Hudson is in agony about a football scholarship he had to know he was never a shoo-in to get; Mike is in pain about parental disapproval that is anything but news to him.

But pain, and a lack of hope, for the guys of Lima is expected, and things only ever go really pear-shaped and get really scary when the unexpected befalls them, because its horror compounded: pain plus the suspicion and taint of stereotypical femininity — helplessness — implied by the mode of its arrival.

Certainly, we can look at what happens with Dave in “On My Way” and his response to it as particularly emblematic, not only of this dichotomy, but of the transitional and liminal spaces the show’s gay male characters often occupy in regard to these gendered modes of punishment, while the queer female characters remain firmly placed amongst the feminine, which is both an interesting comment on where women are in the privilege hierarchy and also frustrating for me as a gay woman who is not consistently femininely-identified.

As a guy who is both closeted and could pass as straight even if he weren’t, when Dave gets hit with the public, wide-spectrum discovery of his homosexuality, he loses the privileges not just of heterosexuality in the world, but masculinity in the structure of Glee. Things happen which he does not anticipate, he is beset by external forces, and his situation goes explicitly from that of someone who formerly executed his pain upon others, to someone things happen to.

The scenario is arguably as feminizing to him as the word scrawled on his locker in pink spray paint. After all, the public response to his homosexuality arguably convinces him of the thing his internalized homophobia and closely linked misogyny had probably been suggesting to him for a long time — that to be a gay man, isn’t to be a man at all (something not true, but seemingly true even to some of the most enlightened in Lima).

Dave responds to this by attempting to reclaim masculinity and control in the only way he can imagine at that moment — he dresses in a suit (reversing the change from monster to individual complex human in his revelation to Kurt, by explicitly recostuming himself, this time with masculinity) and trying to kill himself.

It’s a grim narrative, not just for Dave, but for everyone trapped in the stories Glee is telling. Those with feminine associations have come to expect that terrible things will happen to them to the point that they almost shrug many of these occurrences off; while those with masculine associations have become convinced that the worst thing in the world is to be a girl. And it’s a belief which isn’t just about misogyny in the world of Glee‘s Lima, OH, but also, seemingly, about common sense, which is what makes the cycle of belief illustrated so insidiously difficult to break.

As the senior class of 2012 at WMHS gets ready to graduate, I feel like I need a score card for who says in despair, “I knew this would happen” and who says in shock, “I don’t understand how this could have happened.”

In the second column? I’m expecting a check mark for Rachel Berry when she doesn’t get into NYADA.

16 thoughts on “Glee: Being a girl is something that happens to you”

  1. I’m wondering how you would factor Sam’s house being foreclosed into this theory. It seems like something kind of abrupt thrown at him by external forces, and it may not have been a complete surprise since he would have known when his father lost his job and didn’t find a new one quickly that foreclosure was a possibility, but then, I figure, _some_ part of it, maybe his dad’s layoff, would have come as a shock.

    1. Ah good point, and very much why my Tumblr post linking to this this was “I need 50 pages and lest jet lag,pleasr talk amongst yourselves ’cause I’m missing stuff.”

      I think two things: The first is that some of it couldn’t have been a surprise as you say. The second is that Sam is located so strangely with regard to gender I don’t even know what to do — Kurt assumes he’s gay; a lot of the insults Sam gets are gendered; people then assume Kurt is having an affair with Sam; then Sam is working as a stripper. I don’t even know what to do with him!

      1. It occured to me that perhaps all this interesting gender stuff around Sam was actually the writers playing with the viewers, since when Sam was first added to the show, we generally assumed that he was going to be Kurt’s boyfriend. There probably is still some significance to it beyond the writers playing a joke, but I kind of think that’s how it started.

  2. Very interesting indeed. I’m also anticipating that tick in List B for Rachel. What I’m looking out for with most interest is the characters who end up not having to say either…

    Finn Hudson is in agony about a football scholarship he had to know he was never a shoo-in to get

    And yet he reacts to not getting it as something unexpected* – right up to the moment Cooter finally talked to him in the locker room he was still there expecting the attention and the result. Which is interesting, because Finn’s narrative is frequently about him finding ways to assert his original, not-necessarily-accurate Alpha Male status while the world around him puts him into positions traditionally coded feminine (an early example: Finn as the ‘feminised’ object of Kurt’s crush/pursuit in Season 1, and his lashing back with homophobic language in ‘Theatricality’ as a way to reassert his higher position in the masculine hierarchy). It’s interesting that Finn talks about himself as only having the options of ‘hero’ or ‘zero’. It’s not just a typically teenage fallacy of the undistributed middle going on: he seems to construct that middle ground – the ground of compromises and hard-won small victories and shifting status – as inherently feminised territory.

    *I suspect this is at least partly because Finn only seems to pay attention to what he wants, and what he wants to see, unless forced otherwise.

    1. Also just thought of something. Of all the girls, the one who seems to be almost immune to getting hit hard by surprise punishments to date is…Tina. The last thing she got – individually at least – along those lines that I can remember is Figgins objecting to her Goth wardrobe in Season 1.

      I can’t quite figure out why this is so, but I suspect it’s because Tina positions herself somewhat as an observer, so she sees things coming more than most.

  3. I enjoyed this very much. I know you mention Bieste only briefly–since you focus primarily on the teenaged characters, but I wonder about the extent this thinking in general applies to the adult women in Lima, who essentially have not escaped this place. Sue is interesting in this regard, as she typically adopts a more masculine persona. In many ways, since the pregnancy announcement, she seems “softer,” thus weaker . . . And so we see Coach Roz really quite easily tear her down, and then we see Sue look to Quinn for advice about the pregnancy, and offer to help Will with Nationals. Maternity turns her into one who is submissive rather than commanding, who is an assistant rather than leader.

    In contrast Emma, who is much more feminine in her persona, got the surprise of tenure and accolades about the brochures (and Will sees her work on those brochures as somewhat of a joke). She, at least, seems to be entering a more secure place right now, and I am thankful that the good things that happened to her recently aren’t because of Will.

    1. Man, I started writing about Emma and then was like… oh man, Emma. I could do 50 pages on Emma — or I could if I had all the eps with me to rewatch. I’m always interested in the degree to which people constantly try to remove her agency and/or spring nasty surprises on her (Will with her parents) and the degree to which, despite everything, she rolls with it and get the upper hand, even if it’s a pained upper hand.

      Wow, and in writing that, I want her and Kurt to be besties forever now.

  4. You know, I’m not sure I actually agree that it’s different for the guys. It feels like it should be, but when I think about it…

    I don’t think Finn realized he wasn’t going to get the scholarship. Puck’s rare honest recollections of juvie center around powerlessness and fear. Sam is….well. Sam is Sam. And all three of these guys rely on the girls around them in a stark reversal of the way it usually works–Finn proposing to Rachel, Sam giving Quinn a promise ring and crying when Mercedes won’t go out with him, Puck needing Lauren in order to be a semi-functional person, etc.

    And I think this is why Finn sings girl songs and wants to Be A Man.

    I don’t think this detail invalidates what you’re talking about with all the gendered madness that happens to the girls or characters-read-as-girls–I’m in love with the phrase “being a girl is something that happens to you,” I can’t even tell you. But I do think there’s an added, and really interesting, layer.

    1. Hmm. Since that comment is all about “appearances are deceiving,” I feel like I should add a second around–and I think you talk about this in the post, too, and especially in the comments with Emma–the girls wind up with agency anyway. Emma is better than everyone, Brittany wins the presidency, Quinn gets into Yale, Mercedes decides to take a break from boys (and I swear to god the theme of S3 is “Mercedes is better than you,”) Santana comes out to her family and confronts Teen Jesus, the Trouble Tones exist, etc etc etc.

      Whereas the boys seem to end up powerless.

      It’s exactly the opposite of the stories we have every indication we should expect, and I think that means people miss it. But it’s glorious.

  5. Which speaks, I think, very strongly to just why there’s this very big crossover between Glee fans and Doctor Who fans — the heroes are the people we have spent our whole lives being told aren’t the heroes. On Doctor Who it’s shop girls and secretaries from council estates; on Glee it’s the most marginalized of the marginalized.

    I mean, in terms of what “being a man” “really” means (the whole construction makes me uncomfortable, but we have to run with it to have the conversation), the guy winning that sweepstakes on Glee is, other than Burt Hummel, Kurt.

    1. (I don’t watch Dr. Who, but I have heard that. It’s the “In all my obscenely many years of adventure, I’ve never met a person who wasn’t important” show.)

      Aaaaaand I think mary_flanner put an analysis up on Klainalysis a while ago about Kurt and masculinity and how he WINS. Have you seen it?

      Or, to simplify the whole thing considerably….Finn never breathes one word about Being A Man until directly after Kurt slushies himself.

      1. It may just be my upbringing coming through here (my dad was the one who taught me to bake, and knit…) but I think part of the reason Kurt can BE ‘one of the girls’ is that he’s completely confident in and comfortable with his own masculinity. In a way that I think Finn especially is still struggling with.

  6. Quick thought about Kurt’s “pregnancy”. After reading your thoughts, I can’t help but think it points to Karofsky. I mean, the period line was in Heart, where Kurt was all happy and in a romantic high because of his secret admirer, and even if he thought it was from Blaine, there is a “cheating” underline on this storyline. The “baby” getting out litteraly of the gorilla costume as Karofsky.
    And then Karofsky tried to kill himself and Kurt feel guilty because he didn’t answer his phone calls. It’s such a thin line Glee is wlaking on with this because the guilt-trap is like as obvious as a building. Karofsky is a character who, when he has no other option, rely on the power he has. He may be not realize the power Kurt handed him in the hospital room just yet, but it is a formidable power he has now. From this, the storyline could go very very very dark, because Kurt’s guilt is what connect him to Karofsky. Like Quinn’s guilt and self-destructive behaviour linked her to Beth.

    I’m not sure I explained myself very well ^^”

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