Glee: Authenticity, Play and Adulthood

No matter how low the expectations or interest level many of us had for the promise of Glee doing disco, the fact is what seem like the biggest throwaways on Glee are often the episodes that matter the most. Some of this is because these episode are often the knitting — closing up plots and setting others in motion — but a lot of it is actually because Glee is a better show when it’s sneaky, and this ridiculous episode is mostly very, very sneaky.

Because at its heart, “Saturday Night Gleever” is about authenticity and arguing about authenticity.  It has to be, because it’s about disco, and that’s what disco makes us do. Because while Will Schuester can talk, relatively correctly, about Saturday Night Fever being the story of a working class guy finding himself, that argument ignores the degree to which disco was, and continues to be, criticized for being more contrived and less inherently meaningful and authentic than the musical and social periods its sandwiched between. 

By encouraging the kids to explore disco, Schuester is providing another not-getting-it teaching moment even if the kids don’t really have the conscious reference points to even know why they’re saying, “disco sucks.”

But no one on Glee has ever had to actually know what’s going on for the show to tell its story (remember, Blaine has no idea what he’s doing… and neither does anyone else), and so it’s absolutely a story about authenticity we get. Most obviously, that shows up in the Wade/Unique plotline which gives America some vague introduction to trans or genderqueer issues without actually using those words and just hinting, somehow, that this is something other than drag.  (I am, as an aside, desperately curious as to how that read to an America that knows about drag but otherwise hasn’t gone beyond binary at all.  Can anyone help me? because I have no idea).

Kurt’s mystified and uncomfortable, but that’s honest too — he didn’t handle bisexuality well either and queer identities outside of his own have always been difficult for him, which makes all the lovely, playful cuts to him and Blaine dancing together during key lines of “More than a Woman” immediately following the discussion about Wade’s/Unique’s identification particularly interesting.

In fact, Kurt’s reaction to Wade and Unique’s performance is also fantastic in how it recalls us to Kurt’s initial reaction to Rory’s falsetto (he was annoyed, because Rory was playing at what Kurt can’t avoid). It also helps explicate some of Kurt’s probably likely feelings behind his own part in the “disco sucks” moment.  After all, it’s a genre which Unique finds a way to own without it being play but something more fundamental, while Kurt is probably stuck feeling irritated, at least if New Directions is as clueless on the difference between falsetto and a countertenor as much of fandom seems to be.

But as Kurt grapples with authenticity around identity and voice (which is a bit shocking since he’s always been our beacon of authenticity), let’s remember that authenticity is also on display for Santana, who wants what she wants at any price; Finn, who wants to stop being told what he wants because he doesn’t want to pay the price of adulthood; Brittany, who isn’t actually playing a game at all (she’s really the way she is, and she can show us the MRI if we don’t believe her); Rachel, who really only wants Finn to find his dream so it can confirm hers; Mercedes, who just wants to be done with WMHS; Schue who who really is a bit like a grown up Jesse St. James because he can’t hear anyone talking over the sound of his own issues (as he demonstrates himself to be an authentically bad ally to Santana and all the WMHS queer kids); and, of course, Blaine who just really, really wants to be liked as much as he likes everything around him.

But while the glee club is on a quest to find itself, most of what we’re witnessing is play, with numbers segueing in and out of heightened realities, dream sequences, and random fantasy moments. Very little of it is real, but that’s hardly surprising, because the kids are mostly still kids, and aren’t out in the wider world yet. 

But the things the kids are playing at with all sincerity — Santana’s devotion to Brittany; Blaine’s ridiculous heart-eyed trust for Kurt in particular — are there not just to make us coo with delight (it was an often adorable episode), but to set us up for all the grown-up stuff that’s about to come crashing in on them in a way that shares at least some similarities with the Finchel storyline.

Grownup relationships in the grownup world are hard. And while the Finchel problem comes from wanting to be too grownup too soon without doing the grownup work of communication and knowing the self (which is to say the Finchel relationship may be showing us a real thing that happens but remains internally inauthentic), the Klaine and Brittania problems are going to come from that “no one can touch us” thing both couples think they’ve got going on. 

Freedom, distance from Ohio, and other people like them — pretty much everything that the gay kids pin their It Gets Better dreams on — are all also about come with their own headaches, betrayals and questions about the self. I suspect those issues, which will also help set up some of the season four themes, will be on full display in the next two episodes. 

From here on out, odds are nothing is funny, and the characters who know themselves will continue to school those who don’t, much as Wade/Unique does to Kurt. Authenticity will win the day (we’re looking at you, NYADA auditions), but some people will graduate still not realizing just how much they’re lying to themselves (hey there, Finn) while others will increasingly be shown to have it even less figured out than already revealed (oh Blaine, if only Cooper was your biggest demon).

Mostly though, for an episode with lots of delicious detail and micro-continuity glory that will probably matter more to the arc in retrospect once the season ends than we realize now, this episode was just painfully, painfully fun and has fandom asking all the best questions — like just what (or who) was Kurt thinking of when he eyed those sparkly platforms Sue wanted sent to Wade/Unique?

But all long-legged fantasies aside, fandom’s right, of course, that those platforms matter. Look at the composition of the shot, with the cheerleading trophy showing a female figure with wings (evoking faerie, again) in front of the glittery shoes.

Because let’s remember, the ruby slippers only became such for the film, and that Kurt’s always enraptured with his possible idendities in Oz. If home isn’t a place (and there’s no place like it), as Rachel tells Finn, but a person, isn’t the most fundamental home oneself? There’s that authenticity question again, this time sparked by Kurt’s sense of play even about serious things, that reminds the audience in a small, graceful and almost kind way that the people we pretend to be matter too.

(p.s., I use Wade/Unique throughout this piece because the character presents us with two identities and is dealt with throughout the script as such. It may be that we should be using Unique and female pronouns at all times; it may be that Wade/Unique is bi- or other gendered in a way where that might not be the best answer either, and I don’t feel comfortable making that decision when it’s intentionally unclear in the script, and I suspect the character and the related identity questions will be back soon, possibly with more clarification.  And yes, as usual, I have a theory).

3 thoughts on “Glee: Authenticity, Play and Adulthood”

  1. Did Kurt really want those shoes? I think he said ‘wait, where did you get those?’ which gave me a feeling that he thought Sue knew someone fabulous enough to wear them and he was interested to find out who, maybe rather than wear them himself. I’m remembering how Kurt flatly refused to be Frankenfurter in Rocky Horror. Worried about what people would think about the whole production he pointed out that a school in Texas couldn’t even do Rent. Will then assumes he will make a good Frankenfurter and we get this echange:

    Kurt: ‘No, there’s no way I’m playing a transvestite in high heels and fishnets, and wearing lipstick’
    Santana: ‘Why, because that look was last season’

    There’s then just a turn of the head from Kurt, an almost of bite of the lip, and no further comment. Kurt doesn’t like that people would assume he’d go for this.

  2. I’m hoping that Glee returns to the question of Wade/Unique’s identity. I couldn’t tell if it was unclear because the writers wanted it to be unclear or if it was unclear because the writers don’t really understand what they are going for. Sometimes I worry about Glee’s handling of certain issues. Probably because sometimes they do things like used the paralyzed kid to teach the lesson of the week. And then sometimes they get the tough stuff right. And I can’t tell if they are going to do something good here or if they are going to botch it spectacularly. But I’m worried it is going to be the latter due to Ryan Murphy’s track record with trans issues.

    I did feel like, if the show had been clearer, there might not have been as much vaguely (and accidentally, although that doesn’t make it okay) transphobic commentary from my friends.

  3. But as Kurt grapples with authenticity around identity and voice (which is a bit shocking since he’s always been our beacon of authenticity)

    Reading this after your post on Kurt and Death, and I thought immediately of Waugh’s The Loved One. Death certainly is the ultimate reality, but the denial of and prettying-up of death is a cultural attitude that would fit Lima. Kurt’s struggle could be the result of the culture clash, Mythological Mediator Meets Forest Lawn.

    Love your speculation (unless it’s confirmed spoiler, in which case, LALALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU) about the hard questions and realities coming for the various kids. I’m aching for all those kids in different ways.

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