Glee: Gender, performativity and neediness

If you’ve been following the spoilers for Glee‘s upcoming prom episode “Prom-asaurus” and spend any time on this blog at all, you can probably guess that I’m having a pretty great time with the gendered stuff that seems to be coming up around Blaine in this episode.

It’s not a plot line, probably because it’s never going to be a plot line, except for how it intersections with the history of Kurt’s bullying and the way gender is always central to status at William McKinley High School. But what may read (and be intended) as nothing more than a running joke for most audiences, not only continues to say some very interesting things about Blaine, but reinforces the criteria by which gender is determined at WMHS and its surrounding environs. Delightfully, despite my comments on Kurt’s trousers in “Choke” this tends to have almost nothing to do with what’s in your pants.

Currently, there’s a bit of a Tumblr frenzy around Kurt, Blaine and Rachel singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” While the song is likely intended to focus on Rachel’s circumstances after the events of her audition in “Choke” there’s some lovely, bittersweet content in it between Kurt and Blaine, and Tumblr has noted that according to song lyrics, last year Blaine was a little girl at prom, and this year he’s a big girl.

While Glee often doesn’t use song lyrics in ways that are necessarily plot-relevant (and Darren Criss singing too many songs not originally intended for a female vocalist would probably seem weird to long-term fans at this point), there’s been a persistent link between Blaine and songs that identify the singer as female not through an assumption based on a male object of attraction, but through explicitly female words.

In “Prom-asaurus” we also see Blaine positioned as female in another way, and not for the first time: other people feel that there’s nothing abnormal about telling him how he should look. From Brittany’s Blaine-directed hair gel ban, to Kurt’s bronzing moisturizer stunt, to Cooper’s complaint about Blaine’s outfits and Santana’s crack earlier in the season that puts Blaine off wearing bow ties for a while — people feel perfectly at ease directing Blaine’s appearance. If you’ve ever been female in public, you probably know exactly what I mean; I’m just waiting for the moment someone tells Blaine to smile.

Of course, two of those items — the stuff about Blaine’s hair and the stuff about the bronzer, also have clear racial implications, which brings us back to biyuti’s remarks that Blaine is bakla. Now that the race and gender stuff around Blaine is intersecting so vividly that a lot of discussion is going “I don’t know if this is about this or this,” the answer, increasingly the answer seems to be about and not or.

But Blaine’s feminine positioning in the show is about more than what songs he sings or about how neither he nor Kurt are quite what they seem to the untrained imaginations of WMHS. Rather, an inclination towards performativity is what positions characters as female on Glee, and Blaine is nothing if not a consummate performer.

I know, you’re saying, “But everyone on Glee sings!” And that’s true, but not everyone on Glee performs the same way. When Blaine performs, he’s playing a character; when Kurt performs, most times, he’s just playing himself. Authenticity on Glee is positioned as masculine (something we’ve explicitly seen Kurt move towards over his arc) and performativity is explicitly seen as female (which is why Kurt’s stint with Mellencamp fails, and why he regains his masculinity when it does).

This is partially why the boys of the football team freak out when they are required to join Glee and Dave Karofsky’s plotline so effectively highlights a frequently present common root in homophobia and misogyny.

Girls wear makeup, boys don’t and this dichotomy around the construction of appearance is constantly underscored in the structure and staging of of performances on Glee, and is really only subverted and complicated (and thankfully so, because the world is more nuance than the limited number of boxes presented at WMHS) thanks to Wade/Unique, wherein the authentic, feminine self is also introduced as a performative self.

The other central tool of gendering on Glee is about neediness. Narratively needy characters are feminine; self-suficient characters are masculine. This is why Blaine’s a girl in Glee‘s lexicon, but Kurt hasn’t been for a long time. This is why Rachel is “man hands” Berry; Santana is more traditionally-femininely portrayed than Brittany; and why Quinn never seems to stop being punished for her gender. It’s why Puck was fantastic with Lauren; Finn struggles constantly with ideas of leadership and being a man; Sam’s sex-work stint actually earns him the respect of the other dudes; and Artie is often the Glee club’s most clearly masculine member and Sugar Motta is its most feminine (because, what isn’t she performing?).

Ultimately, as much as Glee‘s structure and unsettling humor relies on clear gender dichotomies, accusations and misunderstandings, and as much as Glee is often about terrible people who say terrible things in a terrible place, the show is, on a subtextual level, deeply generous about gender in the degree to which it actually rejects the stereotypes that drive its setting. Glee lets us know people are complex mixtures of things, not just boys or girls, and not just combinations with stark lines drawn down their centers (as Kurt is in “Le Jazz Hot”).

But for all that subtle progressiveness, Glee is still sure of one thing: that being a girl, regardless of the gender you were assigned at birth, is a terrible thing. It will get you beat up, bullied, pregnant, uncertain about your future, and nursing a wounded heart.

People on Glee talk about becoming men, because that’s a positive goal, but never about becoming women, because that isn’t — at least not in Lima, OH.

Season 4, however, isn’t just going to be set in Lima, though. It’s also going to be set in New York, and possibly New Haven, which means Glee‘s going to have to make a critical decision about whether the world hates women, or just the small pond that originated its characters.

One choice will necessitate a radical tonal shift for the show, giving it a second act that celebrates femininity and places dread and misery around masculine identities. However, if Glee takes the other choice available, we’ll be confronted with a show that’s position on misogyny may be indistinguishable from actually being misogynist itself.

Glee has to decide whether it can get better — not just for queer kids (here, it seems to be optimistic), but for girls — and the decision it makes will largely tell us whether we’ve spent the last three years watching the beginnings of a victory march or a tragedy.

For me personally, as someone who lives in New York City and feels like I’ve seen more progress in my lifetime in terms of safety and respect as a queer person than as a woman, I’m not sure which path I want the show to follow. Because both will hurt and feel like betrayals of the realities I know. But maybe that’s always been the point of Glee: all the moments where you can’t tell if you’re laughing or crying.

After all, in fiction, that’s when we’re usually we’re most alive.

20 thoughts on “Glee: Gender, performativity and neediness”

  1. I think you’ve made rather a lot of logical leaps in the writing of this meta, and it doesn’t seem to be particularly well-supported by canon. What is the basis, exactly, for Artie being the “most masculine” character in the club? His masculinity isn’t questioned, but it’s also not constantly affirmed the way that, say, Puck’s and Finn’s are. I find it in general very difficult to respond to your meta, because it’s pretty much all based on your previous writing — much more than it’s based on the way the show’s narrative builds on itself. And obviously it makes sense that you would have long-running theories, but it often seems like you are fitting the show into your theories as opposed to trying to make the theory say something about what is actually happening onscreen. Of course, writing meta that attempts to draw parallels between repeated events before the repetition has even aired isn’t helping. Often these things play out very dfferently in context — Smooth Criminal’s a good example of that.

    1. Not only are we all watching a different show, the people who create Glee are also all arguably creating a different show. Marti Noxon’s agenda as a writer is necessarily different than Brad Falchuk’s even if their both writing in service of the same property and overall themes.

      Anyone who does any type of analysis is doing so to suit their intellectual agenda and interests. I don’t pretend otherwise, and generally dislike scholarship that does. Nobody spends time (or money or education or a career — whatever the case may be) obsessing on the finer details of stuff they don’t care about if they can help it. So while your remarks are not untrue, they are hardly a flaw I possess and others don’t in some way. Merely, you and I have incompatible lenses (see: we’re all watching a different show), which is good, because more lenses means more texture.

      As for Santana and “Smooth Criminal,” I wrote two pieces about that, and I think the second one is relevant to my arguments here. Despite the masculinity of choosing to fight, and her fedora, the way in which the sexuality of the performance ties into Glee’s issues around consent and Santana is seen to take one for the team, places her in an extremely feminine light.

      What your comments do make me want to do in regard to “Smooth Criminal” is spend some time thinking about Sebastian’s gender as the show frames it, which I haven’t really, probably because there’s not much to work with (there’s so much more with Dave Karofsky, as an example).

      I think to talk about Sebastian though, I probably have to look at the intersection with class issues that exists there (as it also does around Blaine), and while I’ve been half writing a post about Glee and class forever, it a mine field that I remain reluctant to get into and dissatisfied with my own maunderings on.

  2. I’m sorry, I really enjoy your writing and reading your blog. But this just seems so…out there, honestly. While I know you have your own background with LGBT issues, it seems that with gender identity and expression being more in the public eye that people see trans* characters and people everywhere. Even in places where they aren’t.

    I think that might be the case with Blaine. Why isn’t he allowed to be feminine while still being a man? Why does he have to be genderqueer or other gendered to do so? It also seems like you (and the others hypothesizing about this) have your own problems with what a man is and is not. I enjoy analyzing Glee and other pop culture (which is why I read this blog), but sometimes I think it’s just too far-fetched and stretching for something that isn’t actually there.

    1. I don’t actually view Blaine as trans. I view him as a character Glee seems to use to make gender-related statements around. Just as there is a gap between Kurt’s environment reading him as feminine and his self-perception, there is a gap between Blaine’s environment reading his as masculine and his self-perception. Neither of those gaps, however, makes either of those characters not men, even if they are in some ways not perceived or self-perceived as masculine.

      I am happy to have you disagree with me, here or elsewhere. More discussion, always good, and no one has to like everything or anything anyone else says. But I would prefer if in the future you refrain from placing gender-related “problems” (it’s pathologizing, it’s also intrusive and inappropriate) on me because of that disagreement. I willingly own that I am interested in and invested in reading Glee’s content with a queer and gender-related lens because of intellectual and experiential interest in such issues, and that that colors my analysis just as everyone’s personal experiences color their reception of whatever media they enjoy whether they choose to discuss it or not.

      Finally, and perhaps most actually to your point (sorry, I should have gotten here first), it seems I was ineffective in making my point to your reading. My feeling about Glee using expectations around performativity and neediness as ways of exploring and defining narrative gender means that I believe the show is arguing for the idea of gender complexity in all its characters: i.e., yes, a male character can be feminine and a man — in direct opposition to the messages in the environment of WMHS.

      1. I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to say that LGBT issues were problems or that you had issues at all. I’m a gay trans man myself, and I just couldn’t come up with a way to word what I wanted to say. I suppose a “familiarity with LGBT stuff”? I didn’t mean to offend you. 😦

        But you did clarify things for me, thank you. I liked your performativity versus authenticity views. I think my head just got wrapped around the Blaine part of it. Thanks for clearing that up and I’m sorry about the misunderstanding and the poor wording on my part.

        1. OMG, WordPress just ate two different long comments I wrote to you. (ARGH!)

          So very short version: it’s chill, thanks for explaining; yay reasoned discussion; and, oh crap, I need to leave the house!

          More sometime!

  3. “Authenticity on Glee is positioned as masculine” — Huh, I wonder if that contributes to Tina not getting more story, that they don’t know what plotlines to do with her – she’s clearly feminine, yet also clearly authentic.

    1. I had this thought as I was writing this too! I was like “Tina…. Tina…. Tina….. damn…. Tina….” which you know, is way less articulate than your thought. But certainly they’ve never know what to do with Tina, especially once she moved from what was inauthentic for her (the stuttering and the vampire thing) to her being in control of herself. That she’s also arguably the most sex-positive female character is notable in this framework as well.

      1. Sex-positive – Yes. (And emotionally healthy, from what we’ve seen. She hardly seems like a Glee character at all…;) )
        And! While she would never be voted at McKinley as most-likely-to-succeed, she’s the most likely to actually succeed. (Hm, I guess I’d need to break down for myself what I even mean by success. Every word is a loaded word, isn’t it?) In this case, independence, inner strength, not basing her own inner worth on external validation, believing in herself as opposed to the crap the world tells her. Kurt & Tina, both, can take the world by storm.

  4. As ever, coherent, insightful and persuasive! 🙂

    It’s really interesting to read this because I have pretty much been taking the opposite interpretation of the recent episodes and their preoccupation with masculinity. To my eyes, the fact that the girls do not need to ‘become’ women (they just are), but the boys are always striving to reassert and demonstrate their manliness seems to suggest that masculinity is in fact MORE about performativity than femininity. That’s how I’ve been reading it. Masculine identities in Glee are flimsy and constantly under threat and for that reason they are a bit like the superhero cape that will get you sucked into a jet engine. All the recent talk of Kurt’s masculinity has actually been making me nervous for him.

    Though, taking on board what you’re saying, this threat could indeed come from the fact that being a man is something to be desired and defended, while the girls really have nothing to lose, because their femininity is worth so much less in the first place.

    I have also been taking the opposite view of neediness. I feel as though the girls in Glee are in general less needy than the boys. The women tend to be better at managing things on their own with little support from others, while the men are the ones who are less able to cope with life’s misfortunes without help (I’m thinking Sue vs. Will, Santana vs. Karofsky, Rachel vs. Finn, Mike vs. Tina etc). That’s been my theory for a while, though I think this whole area is pretty muddy and I often find it to be actually counterproductive to try to pick out decidedly ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ patterns in Glee, particularly when I feel like the show is presenting gender as increasingly fluid, which is a good thing.

    The stuff surrounding Blaine’s appearance is veeeery interesting, though.

    I was thinking just this week about how his physical attractiveness is commented on more than most other characters. It is pointed out over and over that Blaine is “cute” and “pretty” and “handsome” and up until recently, he has been very much an ornamental sort of character. His role has been to look good and sing good (though nothing too deep) and not do much else but be a prop to Kurt. While I think this is less of a ‘girl’ thing and more of a ‘Blaine’ thing on the whole, I do agree that the show is generally edging further towards Blaine being the more feminine of the pair, which is interesting because up until recently I don’t think that dynamic has been so explicit.

    Hmm. Lots for me to ponder! 🙂 I am fascinated to see where next season takes us…

  5. “I’m just waiting for the moment someone tells Blaine to smile.”

    I really enjoyed this whole post and your continued theory on how the show positions Blaine as more feminine (Watching Blaine’s body language is practically my new Glee hobby because the way he sits always seems to echo the way girls are told to sit most of the time. All pulled in and small.) , but I have to point this part out because oh my god. I’m a woman who has been told to “Show off my pretty smile” or “Hey come on! I want to see you smile more” at work about a dozen times (By both men and women). I work in an office building, and it always leaves me feeling irritated where as a few minutes ago I wasn’t irritated. I just wasn’t smiling. I mean. WTF?

    1. It’s certainly one of the classic problems in historical studies of masculinity that it seems always to be under threat with each key social/cultural/political shift. There seem to be an infinite number of ‘crises of masculinity’, which already makes one wonder why people always seem to think masculinity needs defending in the first place, i.e. both in the period under study (among the subjects who seem to be saying it needs this) and among the historians attempting to doing the analysis.

      Masculinity is assumed to be potent yet fragile, constantly in need of defense because it must never be displaced. It is can be expanded and renogiated, but it remains the focus at the expense of what it might mean to ‘become a woman’. In that sense, Glee has been following a very well worn path in it’s story telling, even as it does most definately show that it’s characters working against those messages in its environment.

      All this just leads me to say that I hadn’t thought about how much New York will have to deliver if it is ever going to make not only Kurt’s but also Rachel’s dreams come true.

    2. Thanks, RM, for this post. The Blaine-related plots of the most recent eps have been interesting, for sure, and I love reading your insights.

      One element of Blaine’s story I find compelling right now is the extent to which his boyfriend seems unaware of, as you say, the gap between the way Blaine is perceived as masculine and how Blaine views himself. The “alpha gay” comment fits here. Even Kurt perceives Blaine as masculine. And that fits too, given Kurt’s interactions with Wade/Unique, where he had difficulty understanding another person’s self-perceptions as they related to gender. What does Kurt think about Blaine, and what does Blaine sense?

      Throughout Kurt’s narrative, Kurt speaks up for himself, often to remind others, “I’m a guy.” In other situations, we might see him actively making choices–to be with the girls, to dress a certain way. I guess I wonder what we’ll see with Blaine as his narrative unfolds. I wonder to what extent he is clued into himself. I think about his reaction to Kurt’s “alpha gay” accusation, for instance, and I’d love to hear him respond to that. Acceptance? Disappointment? Cluelessness?

  6. “I’m just waiting for the moment someone tells Blaine to smile.”

    Cooper allready did when Blaine didn’t respond the way he wanted to his audition news in Big Brother. “It wouldn’t kill you to smile. It also wouldn’t kill you to stop letting Kurt pick out your clothes.”

  7. I’d have to disagree with you about Artie. I’ve always felt that his relationships – and their subsequent problems – have developed from Artie’s need to constantly prop up his own masculinity. Hence his misogyny towards Tina in s1, his relationship with Brittany in s2 (that relationship made me uncomfortable mostly because Artie wanted Brittany because she was childlike, and strove to preserve that innocence and, I’m guessing, feel more powerful as a result. I don’t think “Isn’t She Lovely”, a song “about a baby”, was an unintentional choice). I do think Artie’s been portrayed differently in s3 – more of an actualization of masculinity, rather than the previous misguided attempts at it. But I wouldn’t say that he’s the most masculine character.

    I always find myself agreeing with your assessments of Blaine and his hidden femininity. I’d be surprised, in fact, if it wasn’t intentional on the part of RIB etc., simply because it’s so obvious to me. The way they choose to dress Blaine, for one, stands out to me – his pants are always right at the waist, which gives him this illusion of an hourglass figure, whereas Kurt’s pants are frequently below his waist, making his torso look more rectangular. Not the most convincing argument, I guess, but something I’ve noticed a lot of in recent episodes.

    1. I think Blaine also buttons his peacoat the feminine way, and that was observed in some of his earlier episodes (winter S2).

  8. I believe that one of the reasons why there are so many different and often opposing views of the characters’ gender is that we all look for it in different areas. Clothes, body language, authenticity/performativity, neediness, independence, assertiveness/shyness, being the one who desires/courts vs. the one who wants to be desired/courted, and, perhaps most of all, interaction with other people’s gender in all of those areas, over time, might or might not align in terms of masculinity and femininity. So, unless we look at the same area, it’s not surprising that we arrive at so many different conclusions about someone’s masculinity or femininity. (And even if we look at the same area, we might still judge things differently, depending on our own backgrounds and worldviews and such.)

    What’s interesting to me is the increasing impossibility to pin down anyone’s gender as sort-of fixed. So I enjoy all sorts of perspectives because they all teach me something about how else this character/scene could be viewed. And it keeps blowing my mind in a very nice way.

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