Glee: When want is wrong

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the reference to lesbian bed death in Glee’s Whitney episode last night was that it didn’t fill me with rage.  In fact, it was actually pretty funny, served an interesting function regarding gender in the narrative, hinted at a number of off-screen details, and was something of another shout-out to fan concerns about how much time Kurt and Blaine don’t spend sucking face on our screens compared to the ongoing car crash of PDA in Finn and Rachel’s relationship.

In case anyone reading this first heard of lesbian bed death from Kurt Hummel (an idea so hilarious to me, that I beg you to confess in comments if this is the case), let’s talk about that dreaded phrase, which does get used both within and outside of the lesbian community, even though Kurt does get the definition more or less right. 

The idea is that sex leaves relationships between women and that the blame there sits with presence only of women in those relationships.  More specifically, lesbian bed death as a phrase is a symptom of people not necessarily believing that what women do in bed with each other is sex. How, many people wonder, can desire be maintained with out male sexual assertiveness, or, to be really direct, the presence of a penis?

This is absurd, mostly (and we’ll get to that mostly in a minute — it’s important regarding Kurt and Blaine). For one thing, the presence of sex ebbs and flows in all relationships for all sorts of reasons; anyone who’s been in a long term relationship knows this. 

And it’s hardly surprising that Kurt and Blaine haven’t had a lot of time for making out or anything else when Blaine’s been injured; the situation with Dave Karofsky happened; Kurt’s preoccupied with NYADA; the Finchel marriage drama has exhausted everyone; Quinn was seriously injured; and Blaine’s been super emo about a ton of things, including the stress of having his brother around. So really, Kurt and Blaine are experiencing a normal adult couple thing like the teenagers they still are. 

That Kurt is worried enough about the situation to apparently Google around to find the phrase lesbian bed death is hilarious though, and really shows one of the ways he’s been growing up about sex and relationships.  And yes, I firmly believe Kurt found this one on the Internet. 

Because Kurt explaining it to Rachel means she wasn’t the source; and if Santana were the source (the only other source that makes sense), that would have been all over the school long before Kurt and Rachel have their little chat. Who else at WMHS would have likely shared that phrase with Kurt?

But as absurd and offensive as the lesbian bed death idea is, one thing that can actually be hard about relationships between women, at least in my own experience, is that a lot of us receive significant training to never, ever be sexually assertive.  Certainly many of my female friends who are attracted to women lament situations in which no one is willing to make the first move before the relationship starts, and no one feels fully confident initiating sexuality once it does.  Obviously, this isn’t just a lesbian problem, but it is a real thing we do talk about.

Which brings us to Kurt and Blaine, gender, and that fandom favorite of “who’s the top?”  While that who’s the top conversation has always been a mess — confusing terminology about sexual positions and terminology about BDSM activities with ideas about sexual assertiveness (the whole thing is just a morass) — that conversation happens for a reason: among other things, people want to know who takes the sexual lead between these two boys who are both private and shy about their sex life, even, it seems, with each other.

Because Kurt is associated by others with the feminine so often, people have generally, stereotypically, expected him to want his partner to take the lead.  When Blaine showed up in season 2, that suspicion seemed confirmed, until Blaine started talking about never being anyone’s boyfriend and Sadie Hawkins and then demonstrated his desire not just for approval, but to be courted.  And once that happened, things got murky.

The murkiness, frankly, has been good, because relationships are complex and as a random Tumblr meme says, asking who’s the boy (or girl) in a gay relationship is like asking which chopstick is the fork. It’s not really a question that makes sense, unless a particular couple wants it to because of dynamics they enjoy.

But the murkiness has also suggested the possibility that neither Kurt and Blaine seem to feel particularly comfortable initiating sexuality between them.  Other than the first time Kurt and Blaine kiss, most of Blaine’s attempts at being sexually assertive end in disaster (Jeremiah) or involve alcohol (Rachel, Kurt at Scandals).  When Kurt tries to discuss whether Blaine wants him in “The First Time,” he’s utterly uncomfortable once that hilarious discussion of masturbation begins.

But none of this is really surprising. 

Just as women are often trained not to express their sexual desires or make the first move, gay teens (and especially gay boys who don’t have the advantages of the level of platonic touch that is socially acceptable between women) are also trained not to show desire.  It’s not safe, polite, or well-received. It is an insult to want.

How many times has Kurt been scolded for having a crush or pursuing so much as a conversation with another boy because of how it will reflect on that boy?  And Blaine arguably had the actual desire to make the first move beaten out of him with what happened at the Sadie Hawkins dance.

That Kurt and Blaine are experiencing anxieties around sexual activity as generally discussed in the context of women makes perfect sense, and shouldn’t actually be feminizing at all.  Yet, because of the way gender comes into play around both characters so often (especially considering the evolution in Blaine’s choices regarding female empowerment songs — first he’s having kept woman fantasies (“Bills, Bills, Bills”) and now he’s telling Kurt he can pay his own way (“It’s Not Right, but It’s Okay”)) a perfectly reasonable problem they’re encountering for a number of not unexpected reasons becomes once again about Glee‘s ongoing examination of how queer men are, and sometimes are not, perceived as men by both themselves and the world around them.

Ultimately, what’s hard about this for me as a queer viewer with a female body and a female partner, isn’t actually that dread reference to lesbian bed death.  What’s hard is that lesbian sexuality is used so often not as a subject unto itself, but a side note to explicate the sexualities of others. 

I joke a lot about how I connect so much with the Kurt and Blaine storyline in part because Patty is so the Kurt to my Blaine (go on, ask me about the time she went to eight stores looking for a limited edition McQueen-inspired nail polish that was sold out everywhere). But I also connect to their storyline because of their chemistry (which I’m only really starting to see between Brittany and Santana) and because their anxieties are often mine.

The lesbian bed death comment underscored that, because it underscored the doubts Kurt and Blaine have both been trained to have on how acceptable their desire is.  Those doubts are what made Sebastian interesting to Blaine earlier in the season, and Chandler interesting to Kurt now.  Open expression of want is hard to look away from when you’ve been told you’ll never hear it and that you shouldn’t engage in it yourself.

Homophobia has a lot of costs — many of them big, public, frightening and violent.  But “Whitney” also shows us one of the small costs of bullying, violence, homophobia, and misogyny in its treatment of Kurt and Blaine by showing us just how hard it is to carry on a relationship when you’re still learning that it’s okay to love and it’s okay to want and it’s okay to have.

It’s remarkably deft.  Now if Glee would just acknowledge that lots of girls of every stripe — cis, trans, and metaphorical — like and have sex too, we’d be golden.  But that can probably really only happen once characters graduate and start escaping Lima; at WMHS femininity (which is generally defined as performativity) is always punished, early and often. 

Just ask Quinn Fabray who has to put her gender on every day. Or Rachel “man hands” Berry who is punished for not being enough of a girl precisely because she is a girl. And how about Mercedes Jones who gets called lazy for being the size and shape typical of far more American women than not? Or Blaine who so often seems almost guilty over how he constructs and is rewarded for a masculinity he doesn’t seem to feel? And what about Kurt Hummel, who never asked for grace and sorrow and a kingdom of dead things he didn’t choose to pull him from the world of men.

Looking at it that way, lesbian bed death, even as it sort of explains it all, is really the least of the reasons no one at WMHS really enjoys being a girl.

25 thoughts on “Glee: When want is wrong”

  1. Do you remember in — was it Showmance? When Rachel inflitrated the Celibacy Club then told all the boys that girls want sex just as much as the boys do? Jacob was all “Is this accurate?”

    So Rachel has kind of been there all along, except she only said it once, and we never see it from her. Santana appears to want lots of sex, until it turns out she was doing it for reasons other than desire?

    I guess there’s Brittany.

    Quinn wanted to feel less fat.

    Tina enjoys it. (Tike are the most ridiculously healthy couple).

    Sue seems to have no qualms.

    1. Yup, and it was awesome, but when we compare content between the boys and girls on sex its vastly uneven.

      And we still don’t really get the sense Santana and Brittany have and enjoy sex, even though we know that from canon. The women in the show frequently judge others or themselves for feeling desire or spend lots of energy squashing their own senses of desire. Unique is mocked for wanting to be herself. Sebastian makes it clear that Blaine should be having sex with him instead of Kurt because Kurt is too girly to be satisfying. Wemma and Santana constantly have their agency removed around sex.

      As much as Glee has had a few awesome moments on this front, it’s firmly rooted in girls don’t do, but have done too. This is realistic to WMHS as is all the other toxicity and misogyny, but now that we’ve raised the spectre of lesbian bed death getting in the way of Kurt and Blaine being boys who should be wanting sex, this would be a timely moment for Glee to at least mention in passing that girls like to screw too.

      1. Oh, and for the record, when I was first asked to blog for a proper well-read blogsite, I was all “This is awesome”. And because I tend to freak out and say “no” to things I should really give a chance to, I vowed to myself I’d write anything anyone asked me to.

        First topic I was given? Lesbian Bed Death.

    2. Interesting that there is a series of sidenotes to explicate Kurt and Blaine’s situation. LBD means women become ‘like sisters’, but K + B don’t then become like brothers, they are an ‘old married couple’, but a fabulous (heterosexual) one. Not totally sure where else to go with this in terms of sexuality more generally, but for gendering in the story line Paul Newman is the one who has the affair so Blaine is Joanne Woodward at least for this episode.

      1. Blaine will always be Joanne Woodward to me.

        Mostly I’m just saying that because it’s a fun thing to say (I love whatever is going on with Blaine and gender so much). But that said, I feel like there’s a whole separate post to be made about Kurt’s “alpha gay” remark and what he meant vs. what that phrase probably should have meant vs. the way it probably hit Blaine.

        1. Yes, and that “alpha gay” remark comes immediately after Blaine tells Kurt that he changed schools for him—that he “changed his whole life,” and doesn’t that “make you feel loved?” To me Kurt’s comments make me think, on the one hand, that West Side Story is still on his mind, and on the other, that Blaine’s transfer has changed his life too, in ways that he’s no especially pleased with (remember how he used to call Blaine’s solos “breathtaking,” whereas now he’s miffed about “sitting on a stool” and watching him.

          But how does it hit Blaine? He definitely looks down to the ground after that comment. And I wonder, is he disappointed that Kurt still doesn’t get him? Because between the alpha gay comment and the comments about wanting to be complemented, Kurt’s making his expectations clear about how he sees Blaine’s role, but I think Blaine doesn’t want that role.

          1. I believe that Kurt is speaking about *being desired* (by Chandle, and not by Blaine), then Blaine replies about *loving* him (which I don’t think Kurt is doubting in any way)…

          1. Thanks, Julia. I blew my whole office hour reading this! And it was awesome–I like that author very much. There’s a lot of truth to the piece, too . . . although in some ways I think that the students’ reactions to Blaine aren’t always about “alpha gay” as they are Blaine’s personality. He’s friendly and conforming. Kurt isn’t as approachable, he’s more of a skeptic and non-conforming. But I loved seeing those differences play out, especially regarding the bullying and Glee treatment. Thanks again!

    3. Vaguely related- I first heard of Lesbian Bed Death from Queer As Folk. It was maybe a year or two ago.

  2. Kurt actually says, “Have you heard about Lesbian Bed Death? I read about it on line.” It’s about 12 minutes into the episode.

    And, technically, I first heard of LBD from you, but it was in regards to this episode, so there’s another notch for your laughing post. 😉

    1. I’m mostly getting relief that this doesn’t seem to be a phrase as widely in the general culture as I thought.

      I do love the idea of Kurt Hummel, former baby penguin, educating America on sex things though.

  3. I had heard of the concept of lesbian bed death twenty years ago, but I was in a university GLB group (the T was added later) at the time and reading a lot of GLBT non-fiction. There are quite a number of phrases and concepts I learned then and have learned since that weren’t exactly mainstream. Glee is introducing so many of those concepts into the mainstream. I either forget how many people haven’t heard of the things I know or marvel at how much is getting introduced by the show.

  4. I heard of the concept of lesbian bed death twenty years ago, but I was in a university GLB (the T was added later) group at the time, and reading a lot of GLBT non-fiction. I learned quite a number of concepts and phrases then (and have learned many since) that weren’t exactly mainstream. Sometimes when I watch Glee I forget that not everyone is as familiar with the concepts and terms around sexual orientation as I am and sometimes I marvel at how much is being introduced to the mainstream by the show.

  5. I’ve heard of lesbian bed death but I couldn’t tell you where – it may have been in the context of f/f fandom, or possibly, like a few others, Queer As Folk – I have the impression it may have been in the British one too, which I saw first, but I’m really not sure. I just know it was somehow media related and fandom-ish but that could easily be from personal research.

    Anyway, I know it was somewhere not mainstream (unless QAF counts.

    I do read your blog entries but don’t always have something to say – I hope to now we are getting Glee just a day after you are for the foreseeable future.

    I’d also like to thank you for often being a voice of reason when it comes to the polarising character of Karofsky.

  6. When Kurt asked Rachel if Finn is constantly trying to get into her pants, implying that he believes Blaine ought to be trying to get into *his* pants, I was surprised because I assumed that by now Kurt realized that Blaine prefers for someone else to make the first move (and we see Kurt stepping up to take care of Blaine in other ways, so I figured he would here, too). But thinking back, I realized that “The First Time” was a lot about each waiting for the other to make the first move. I had not really realized it was because they have *both* been socialized against being sexually assertive, but that makes so much sense. But with Blaine being as needy as he is, should this make me wonder whether Kurt is up to meeting his needs?

  7. I learned about lesbian bed death in my teens, during my “read all the books about being queer so I can figure shit out in this cultural desert oh halp” phase. It made me nervous about dating women, mostly because part of the point of a romantic relationship for me has always seemed to be the possibility of physical intimacy.

    Ironically, the only relationships I’ve had that suffered bed deaths were with men (one who identified as straight the whole time, the second who identified himself as bi/bi-curious initially and apparently rounded himself up to straight when I turned out to a guy halfway through the tenure of our relationship).

    Moral of the story: Lesbian bed death is probably some story some dude made up in a fit of projection. FFS.

  8. I think it’s kind of cool that we got (what read to me as) a believable storyline about a gay male teenage couple’s sexual desire fading; I’m so used to seeing gay men portrayed as either hypersexual or completely desexualized from the start. (Yes, Kurt was arguably desexualized in the very beginning, and there were definitely some moments that made my “predatory gay” stereotype sensors cringe — Don’t sing a duet with Sam, that would be SEXUAL and INAPPROPRIATE! — but I think we moved past that a while ago.)

    (I don’t mean to imply that you disagree, if it sounded like that; these are just things I felt like saying.)

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