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.