Glee: Queerness, danger, and desire

While pondering the latest entry in the decline and fall of the Warblers, which is something I don’t think I’m going to comment on until after I see what “Whistle” looks like in 4.08 and how it intersects with Hunter’s introduction as “not even a little bit bi-curious” (which may not mean what you think it means), I started thinking about danger and desire on Glee, and how that linkage isn’t universal, but instead centered on the queer characters both as givers and receivers of risk, threat, and damage.

That’s not to say that desire doesn’t have big scary consequences for everyone on Glee. Even without being anything resembling the teen morality play the show often seems to be mistaken for, heterosexual sex and desire does have some admittedly serious consequences. After all, Quinn does get pregnant, and it’s worth remembering that Will and Terri Schuester were terrifyingly toxic together; Puck has arguably experienced statutory rape; Jesse’s a creep; Bieste had that domestic violence story, and a whole lot of friendships have been upended over and over again thanks to the heterosexual musical chairs at WMHS.

But all of that — from the realistic plotlines to the ones that would earn a side-eye from a soap opera — has nothing on the rather consistent darkness that seems to come with and from desire for Glee‘s queer characters. Where the straight characters risk heartbreak and being laughed at, queer characters face injury and violation as the result of desire, including desire from queer peers. This association is present from early on in the form of “predatory gay” Sandy Ryerson.

However, the link between danger and queer desire on Glee is present around far more than one unfortunate and fairly misleading stereotype. Kurt, for example, knows that being queer makes him seem dangerous to those who feel threatened by his desire, as when he and Finn have a showdown over his crush when the Hudsons first move in with the Hummels. Kurt also receives danger through desire in his interactions with Karofsky. And, of course, Karfosky’s not just a potential danger to Kurt, but to himself.

Closeted classmates aren’t the only way in which this link between queer desire and danger is present on Glee. Blaine, for example, identifies the desire of others as a threat to Kurt if he remains uneducated about sex in his chat with Burt. Additionally, Blaine is also injured by Sebastian, who aggressively indicates his sexual interest in Blaine in the episodes that lead up that event. Blaine also links danger and desire in his own interactions with Kurt when he gets drunk and sexually pushy with him after their visit to Scandals. And, of course, there is his Sadie Hawkins backstory.

Meanwhile, queer women on Glee aren’t exempted from this desire and danger link. Certainly, it’s hard to look away from the fact that when sexual assault clearly enters the Glee narrative it is through the queer female characters. Brittany, who is bisexual, frequently references events that seem to point to a history of non-consensual sex, while Santana deals with a threat of corrective rape once she can no longer avoid being out at WMHS. Additionally, she winds up in a disturbingly sexual confrontation with Sebastian in response to Blaine’s injury.

These events are not only different from the consequences of heterosexual desire on Glee mentioned previously, but also stand in stark contrast to events, such as Sam’s work as a stripper, that could be part of a narrative on the danger of desire, but aren’t, seemingly because they involve non-queer characters. In fact, when it comes to Sam being a stripper, it’s takes one of the queer kids (Blaine) to perceive and name the at least hypothetical danger present in that situation. Similarly, Puck’s interest in casual sex and sex work is played for laughs in a way that it’s not around Blaine’s random hookup and Santana’s promiscuity prior to coming out.

That this pattern seems to exist around characters and couples (Kurt and Blaine, Brittany and Santana) that have also received criticism for the chasteness of the on-screen portrayal of their romances and desires (Kurt even gets a narrative about finding sex scary, off-putting, and at odds with romance), despite the fact that both couples are canonically known to be sexually active as fairly significant plot points, is notable. It underscores how queer desire, or at least the portrayal of it, has not thus far seemed possible in the world of Glee without the presence of danger.

This association of queer desire and danger reflects, I think, not just the reality of some of the risks many queer teens experience when they express desire or are desired (and here we should all be keeping an eye on Unique when it comes to the next installment of this type of danger on Glee), but an older queer narrative as well. The presence of this particular narrative reinforces the ongoing discussion that Glee in general, and Glee‘s queerness in particular, is targeted not at current teen audiences but at 30- and 40-somethings who of course wanted a boyfriend who loved Bryan Ferry or Vivienne Westwood or a girlfriend who was just like all those cheerleaders on the cover of Sweet Valley High books.

This older queer narrative is, of coruse, one where queerness is identified as a mode of transmitting danger and can be considered to reference both historical, non-assimilationist queer culture and the way in which that non-assimilationism was both reinforced through and broken down by the specter of AIDS. Arguably, for someone who came out in the ’80s the links between queerness, danger, and desire were not only obvious then, but remain clear now, in a highly specific and and largely unvaried mode.

For a show that’s been rich in passing-related narratives that have often, but not exclusively, been centered around queerness, this link between queer desire and danger on Glee suggests a passing story taking place out beyond the fourth wall. In a world we often like to pretend is post-AIDS, and post-Matthew Sheppard, Glee shows us beautiful, young queer couples being publicly happy through America’s most public transmission-based medium. Yet, a the same time, Glee is also unable, or unwilling, to avoid the link between queer desire and the transmission of danger that too many of us watching (and presumably creating) the show grew up on.

8 thoughts on “Glee: Queerness, danger, and desire”

  1. Wow! Great post.

    Granted it’s just subtext, but one thing that’s also been discussed in fandom right now is the lesbian subtext between Marley and Kitty and how it’s sort of like an echo of a lesbian pulp novel. Which, if I’m remembering this correctly, are usually linked to the “danger/scandal/sinful seduction” type plots where good girls meets bad lesbian.

    1. Yes! And of course, the danger here is plain, and — I believe — will be plainer in a day or two. But the Marley/Kitty thing (is it Karley or Mitty or Marty?) is hilarious. It’s like the creators looked at what happened with Faberry and said they’re going to have fun with it this time around. I mean, “the finger sisters” — that’s how Kitty makes friends with Marley. And of course, evil (but undeniably hot) cheerleader seduces sweet, kind, beautiful girl WITH HER FINGERS. It’s actually all too funny for my apparently 8 year old sense of humour. But yeah, I’m kind of loving the pulpy story they have going there.

      And as for the post, I think this is where the genius of Glee’s portrayal of queer characters lies. I mean, I look at younger queers I know, and they’ve been out since they were young enough to just be starting dating, and they have a good sense of themselves and friends who accept them, and it’s all very sweet. But they’re still afraid. They’re still afraid of not getting the job, of being fired, or of people just rejecting them in general. And yeah, they’re afraid on the street too, and in straight-dominated spaces. And some may respond by being risky, like making out in public, but they’re acting out in the face of fear. It’s not because they’re not afraid.

      And shows tend to not be able to go anyway but one way or the other, — either it’s all post-gay, or it’s all awful — whereas Glee manages to show that line — the freedom but the fear, the danger that’s still implicit in the desire, too, and it feels so real.

  2. I find this so interesting. Being the good poststructuralist that I am, everything is an interwoven connected mass of stuff, and I can’t help but think of how cheating is the one sexual thing that impacts both queer and non-queer characters. I’ve been thinking for a long time about the sheer arbitraryness of glee’s universe (perhaps the most real thing about it), and I’m new to the analytical side of the show, so bear with me if I’m covering old ground:

    Even if its spectre only rears its head 2-3 times a season, Glee is still a show about a show choir. They exist within a narrow boundary – ‘professionalism’ – and all the socially constructed things that have been built along those lines. As Britney 2.0, Special Education (I think – The one with Tina freaking out over Britt and Mike’s dance) et al show, the worst sin a show choir can do is ‘cheating’. Cheating by not singing – in the case of Britney – and cheating in a sexual / romantic sense – as in Spec. Ed. The fact that cheating comes up so often is not so much a tired trope, but a consistent acknowledgement of the arbitraryness of glee’s world. “Do these things, or else”.

    Reading queer characters in that framework, it’s not just a dangerous queerness harking back to things like legitimate pre-90s queer danger media (I’m thinking ‘The Boys In The Band’), but the fact that they are implicitly outside of that framework. When a person cannot transgress with your girlfriend, they are no longer a threat.
    There are two major strands to the show, even if identifying them is a gross oversimplification: Former Glee Club member takes the reigns of the club that shaped him, i.e. Will and Finn, set against the generic Fame-At-All-Costs storyline that is so often derided – perhaps correctly – as ‘The Rachel Berry Show’. Both of these, however, are decidedly non-queer. Blaine makes motions towards the former strand – Dark Side is a notable example – and Santana makes motions towards the latter – Her speech post-If I Can’t Have You – but neither actively enters those narratives. Blaine’s current narrative is about a distinct lack of either – he has no aspirations post-McKinley and feels no connection to it. The same goes for Kurt, whose engagement with the Fame storyline comes only after he is rejected by McKinley. He returns to McKinley literally singing about the place, rather than the people, and in doing so puts his fingers in the Will-style return narrative.

    However, Kurt gestures towards what I think can be seen as the perceived problem of queer teen chasteness (which I’d put down to Fox more than anything). Queer characters cannot engage with the major narrative strands and display their queerness, because those things have been arbitrarily defined (not by glee itself, but by the world of those who established them). Kurt himself makes this clear with his Rom-Com talk in I Am Unicorn. When Burt tells Kurt to put his own spin on things? That finally manifests in Choke, where Kurt dons one direct copy to do another. Not The Boy Next Door is, however, less well known, and he gets compared to Hugh Jackman. Not to Peter Allen, the queer figure behind the song, but to Jackman, the Holywood Leading Male, whose presence in the conversation serves to masculinise him. He ostensibly moves away from the musical theatre people recognise, and into the Hugh Jackman arena, which is undoubtedly sexual (just look at those pants) – but who is his audience? Not Blaine. Not a queer figure of any sort.

    Too many candles, too many capes – Things Kurt Hummel considers queer do not fit with the fame narrative. His return to McKinley in Glease? He’s wearing possibly the most masculine outfit this side of Pink Houses (jacket, unbuttoned shirt). He returns to his ex-boyfriend, who’s playing pretty much the only character in Grease without so much as an implied relationship. If Kurt returned to McKinley as the Gay Fashion Wunderkind that he was supposed to be, or if Santana returned to McKinley as a successful lesbian (fame or relationship-wise), they would be breaking the rules. Return is about failure and rekindling. Fame is about success within the mainstream. Queerness as it currently stands on Glee plays no part in those narratives, and thus it lends itself to the older tropes: Queer people risk danger because they have set themselves apart from the pack in a place that doesn’t want them. That’s why when Santana returns to McKinley for the first time, it’s because her relationship has failed (at least, she thinks it will). She picks it right back up with the rekindling narrative, reliving her glory days with a prominent part in the school musical. Kurt, on the other hand, has moved to the other side. He is no longer the dangerous gay. He’s the secondary gay – Let’s Have A Kiki/Turkey Lurkey Time is literally a barrage of gay gay gay that’s interrupted by full-on Rachel-Broadway. Regardless of what happens in 4×08, that’s the song. Gay fashion gay gay fashion gay, interrupted by the fame narrative, almost as a reminder that the gay can only assist fame, not overtake it. It’s why I’m hoping desperately that the spoiler about Kurt’s 4×09 song is true (I won’t say which for those staying spoiler free, but I will say that it’s a song whose original staging is literally about drowning out, coming to terms with and establishing a place within the cacophony of lives around oneself).

    Kurt’s danger narrative drives him away. Santana’s establishes McKinley as, ironically, the place she must flee to after the most innocent of transgressions (a look). Blaine’s completely untethered – it’s only the former stripper who is anchoring him, and even that’s set against the notion that he only other option is literally evil. Brittany? Her queerness completely derails her at the start of S4. Karofsky tries to kill himself. He’s offered a narrative of return by Kurt, but it’s shelved in favor of middle-of-the-road, non-famous queerness. I could keep listing, but it’s endless. Sebastian and Sandy are literal dangerous gays. Sandy represents the corruption of the return narrative. He cannot function as glee club coach because of queerness and therefore is replaced by the returning hero. Sebastian cloaks the increasingly de-sexed queer figure in a return narrative, but Blaine cannot separate himself from the break up, and therefore from queerness, and must reject it. Unique must give up fame because of safety, and is literally absent for a whole episode afterwards because she cannot be present in the Big Return Narrative Episode…

    This is far too long and should really be a post by itself. I’ve been meaning to write something about the arbitrary nature of Glee’s narrative universe for a while, and this has turned rambly. My point:
    Glee’s universe has been established by its dominant figures (Will and Rachel – whose function as such has literally been separated out in S4). Queer figures are trafficking in some old school dangerous desire narratives for sure, but what’s interesting is that those narratives fit so seamlessly alongside the Fame and Return narratives that underscore the whole thing. I’m not entirely sure what my point is yet, but it’s definitely old-school. This show is the closest thing to homonormative that there is (even The New Normal hasn’t featured a character like Brody who literally needs to establish that he’s straight without skirting-homophobic context). Yet it’s an old idea of it – the queer that fits alongside a non-queer narrative, doing its own thing, reacting to arbitrary definitions in a way that the non-queer narrative wouldn’t breach.

    I’m tempted to interpret why. My money’s on the fact that this kind of narrative work wasn’t done when it should have been.

    Anyway, I’m tired and a little drunk. Kudos if you made if this far. I’ll try to make this more coherent sometime.

    1. Awesome comment is awesome, and really makes me think about the way — even with the spectrum of queer male presentations (the show is way less good in terms of presentational diversity with its queer female characters) — the show very much equates queerness and femininity and fame and masculinity, which may just be another post in a couple of episodes (also waiting on the events of 4.9 and possibly 4.11 to go there).

      Also, I laughed out loud on your comments re: “Let’s Have a Kiki” because I think every queer person watching the show has said at some point “gay gay gay gay GAY GAY GAY” as a set of adjectives around that song. I’m very curious what the reception of that moment is going to be from the non-queer audience, because I’m not sure it will make any damn sense, no matter how much Drag Race a person watches.

      1. Just thought I’d pop by one last time to say: VINDICATED. Quinn and Santana’s talk about how they’re failure-returning + Rachel taking over the Kiki so she can simultaneously show off and flirt with her performing arts (read: fame narrative) beau?

        I keep wanting to actually start my proper analysis of this, but there’s no way it’s gonna be less than 5-6k, and I need all the facts. Sigh. Only a fortnight till Christmas.

      2. I’m very curious what the reception of that moment is going to be from the non-queer audience, because I’m not sure it will make any damn sense, no matter how much Drag Race a person watches.

        I had something of the same thought, though it’s tough for me to imagine a contemporary human that listens to the opening lines and not understand the drag references; then again, I started going to drag shows at 18 so I’m probably not the best barometer.

        But it’s not just that it taps a very specific vein of queer art-music culture–it’s also that its a very New York thing too. They wouldn’t be having a kiki in Los Angeles. They might in London, maybe in the more interesting parts of Paris or Berlin, but for America? Kiki are for New Yawkers. So it’s a double reference that an uninitiated might miss, which actually makes it sweeter that it was on Glee, now fully realized as consumption for the masses.

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