Glee: Eroticism and instruction

Glee has always, necessarily and unavoidably, offered us a clear link between desire and instruction. It’s there in Rachel’s early crush on Will Schuester and Kurt’s fascination with David Martinez and Cooper Anderson. It’s also present, whether we like it or not, because Sandy Ryerson and April Rhodes both exist.

Meanwhile, Quinn’s affair with her teacher at Yale; Cassandra’s relationship with Brody; Brody’s relationship with Rachel; as well as the high probability that a WMHS student in the crush-focused episode 4.11 (“Sadie Hawkins”) will have a thing for Finn while Kurt also grapples with interest from and in an older man, makes it clear that this dynamic is currently the subject of particular narrative focus.

This eroticization of instruction, however, is not exclusively about sex acts or the desire for them. This is particularly evident around Kurt, despite his long and overt history with the theme even beyond the examples cited above (Blaine, of course, enters Kurt’s life as a mentor character and while they’re still friends, offers, to not great effect, to teach him about being sexy).

While it’s, of course, impossible to listen to Chris Colfer’s remarkable interpretation of “Being Alive” from Company (it’s all over Tumblr and I’ll post an official link as soon as I have one), which Kurt will be singing in this week’s episode (4.9, “Swan Song”) without thinking of the current negotiations and difficulties between Kurt and Blaine, the song serves another purpose, not just as Kurt’s re-audition for NYADA, but as a narrative about erotics that is not necessarily directly connected to sexual desire or Kurt’s romantic entanglements.

This blog speaks often about Kurt’s relationship with Death, and as such, it is impossible to listen to “Being Alive” and not be particularly struck by the part of the song that is a plea from the singer to “make me alive.” This, after Kurt’s voice has been mostly silent this season, as he’s first been depressed about not getting into NYADA and then talked about feeling like he’s dying in the wake of Blaine’s betrayal, is startling.

But things have also not been all bad for Kurt. He has, for the first time, adults giving him advice that is shaping. Cassandra sends him back to Ohio to make him look at Blaine and what he did, while Isabelle who is, like Kurt, also marked with death symbols (mostly in the form of skull- and phoenix- related jewelery) tells him to take control of that relationship, even if it is ending and then embraces him after a song in which Kurt’s main line is “mother” (largely because “Let’s Have a Kiki” was cleaned up for TV).

These events are unique in Kurt’s experience because nearly everyone who has ever tried to offer him instruction or discuss the matter with him prior in the series has failed. But these women who have a darkness to them, mirroring the idea of Kurt’s dead mother, finally, start to fill this long missing function of meaningful instruction for him.

Will never knew what to do with Kurt. April Rhodes got him drunk. Blaine offered terrible and hurtful advice more than once (ultimately they learn together, but instruction from Blaine has always failed). Rachel, Brittany, and Finn all do Kurt harm through poor advice and advocacy on his behalf as well. Even Burt Hummel, who is definitely father of the year, tells Kurt he’ll have to go it alone creatively, and often throws his hands up and tells Kurt he’ll just have to wait various indignities out.

But Kurt, who still wants to go to NYADA, rejects this idea of having to remake the world by himself just so that he can fit in it. Yes, he’s a magician, but he’s been bumbling about in the dark with his power. It’s dangerous and confusing to him. It’s overlooked and frightening to others. And he needs.

In that context “Being Alive” is not just Kurt taking the emotions he has experienced over Blaine and transmuting them into a performance that makes Carmen Tibideaux rethink her annoyance with the song as an audition piece and let Kurt into NYADA. Rather it is Kurt begging for instruction in the tradition of a certain Internet story some of you may be familiar with regarding a tea cup begging to be put in the kiln.

Huge swathes of “Being Alive” can speak powerfully to an erotic understanding of instruction. In fact, for someone seeking instruction for a career in that which we call the creative arts, but should also be referred to as the emotional arts, most of the song can be read to speak to the way we often romanticize (and can benefit from) certain brutalities and perhaps excessive intimacies of instruction:

Somebody, need me too much,
Somebody, know me too well,
Somebody, pull me up short
And put me through hell
And give me support
For being alive,
Make me alive.

Make me confused,
Mock me with praise,
Let me be used,
Vary my days.
But alone is alone, not alive.

Somebody, crowd me with love,
Somebody, force me to care,
Somebody, make me come through,
I’ll always be there,
As frightened as you,
To help us survive
Being alive

This feels particularly truthful regarding Kurt, not only for the walls he puts up, but because the people that he has started to acquire in actually useful instructive roles are as vulnerable as he is, hence the singing of “as frightened as you.” The desire to have loyalty to an instructor as their subject and their product doesn’t come from nowhere. The affection he shows Isabelle from the moment he meets her as she worries about being a fraud and losing her job, and even towards Cassandra when they finally meet over her drama with Rachel, is clear.

While many people who are exposed to college-age actors often cruelly joke about where they’re going to find any stakes for their scene work, saying “‘My roommate drank my milk again’ only goes so far,” Kurt demonstrates in “Being Alive” that he has both emotional experience and the skill to convey that experience.

Yet, as much as “Being Alive” is a song of realization and maturity, it is also a song of begging. And in Kurt’s case, what he’s begging for is the ballet teacher who slaps your thigh with a ruler until you stop shaking and your leg goes higher. He’s begging for the instructor who says Again, again and again. He’s begging for the instructor from which he must learn that each criticism is an act of love and that he must have faith to hear it and see it and feel it.

Kurt is begging not to be the diamond (as Rachel always does) — not yet — but the carbon. He’s begging to be the teacup.

And this is one of the reasons, surely, that this episode is titled “Swan Song,” because this is the song of the ugly duckling becoming a swan. It’s not that Kurt achieves his full beauty in this moment, but rather, that he has somehow shaken off the useless and devastating brutality he’s endured (that helped make him a magician) to beg for the brutality of the instruction he’s finally willing and able to accept that he needs. And desires.

It’s a powerful, moving, and almost frightening naming of desire for the character and for the audiences (Doylist and Watsonian) watching him. It also speaks to the maturity and eroticism we’ve seen many characters try to claim in desire towards instructional figures. Yet, it’s only “a touch of the fingertips is as sexy as it gets” Kurt Hummel who gets the metaphor for what it is and takes it on for what it can really be worth.

8 thoughts on “Glee: Eroticism and instruction”

  1. I find it interesting that Isabella is a varient of the name Elizabeth, which is widely considered by fannon to be the name of Kurt’s mother. (Has it ever been established as cannon? Can we consider a tweet from RM enough to establish it as Kurt’s actual middle name and not a joking reference to “The Producers”?)

    I have felt that Isabella has been filling the mother role for Kurt now that he exist in a world removed from his father’s support. She has been nurturing and comforting Kurt in a way no other female in his life has. If Carole has ever filled this role for Kurt, we have not seen it on screen.

    Kurt, like Peter and the other lost boys, yearns for a mother.

    1. I find it fascinating that the only mother figure Kurt had while he was in Lima was a Terrible Mother. Which was exactly what he needed there, of course – Sue could give him tools to survive that nobody else could, not even Burt. But once he gets to NY, he finds a nurturing, comforting, artistically aligned mother figure, which really does underline the ‘coming home’ aspect of this part of Kurt’s story for me.

  2. I had only considered the title “Swan Song” for its classical meaning as a final performance of a person’s career, and it makes me wonder (worry) whether Kurt will perform this song and decide that he doesn’t want NYADA after all. That his dream has changed, as Isabelle suggested it might.

  3. I had only considered the title “Swan Song” for its classical meaning as a final performance of a person’s career, and it makes me wonder (worry) whether Kurt will perform this song and decide that he doesn’t want NYADA after all. That his dream has changed, as Isabelle suggested it might.

  4. I had vaguely been thinking about this post and comparing it to whatever Rachel was doing in All That Jazz. Even more so now that I finally saw the ep.

    Because at the same time this is happening, Cassandra and Rachel are engaged in this sort of vicious, bitter rivalry that comes out in an extremely sexualized song. (Well, all of Cassie’s viciousness is sexualized.) But it’s during the class and styled, at least, as instruction. “Nothing in here is random” and “this is teaching” — although whether or not that’s true might be up for debate — and she’s literally striding through her students holding what looks like a riding crop.

    I loved Rachel in this episode, her performances were amazing, and I’m glad she’s triumphing. I’m also glad she was speaking her ambition and power even more fiercely than she ever did in Lima. And I love that she and Kurt could both win for once because Hummelberry is my friendship OTP. But I worry that while Kurt is going to learn how to become a diamond, Rachel is already convinced that she’s flawless just because she glitters. (And she did glitter, in that white dress.)

    Given her character arc, and what happened at the showcase, this might actually work out for her; as someone in the real world, it is making me wince at this 18-year-old who thinks she’s literally unbeatable, doesn’t have anything to learn from her teachers (maybe because she doesn’t have any good teachers, but still), and is “learning” to stick with her strengths rather than take risks.

    1. Cassandra is holding a cane, which is common of some dance teachers who like to beat out the rhythm of an exercise on the floor. Sometimes it’s a ruler. Often it is also used to show line, and where the body fails at holding a line. Sometimes it is used, instead of touching the body in a way that may be awkward, to move a leg higher.

      Cassandra is an irresponsible and vicious teacher, but she is irresponsible and vicious very much in the mode of Severus Snape. She does want to keep her students safe (often from themselves) and for them to succeed, and she resents having to humor their expectations to do so. She never wanted to be a teacher, but she’s damn well going to turn out artists if she has to be one.

      Rachel’s narrative pattern is doubt-doubt-doubt-success.
      Kurt’s narrative pattern is no-then-yes.

      It happens re their careers and their relationships. It’s rare, because of this, they sync up, but it’s lovely when they do.

      When it comes to instruction Kurt has, as terrible as it is, learned how to listen to brutality, at least sometimes. Rachel hasn’t. And that’s still clearly a problem. I can’t see Cassandra as a villain.

      1. Cane makes sense. (I figured it was actually something like that, or something else reasonable, that I missed while gawping at the suggestions I was getting from it. Lack of training on my part.)

        Yeah — so — I believe Cassie almost entirely whenever she’s like “FOR FUCK’S SAKE I AM TRYING TO *TEACH* YOU SOMETHING” but I am getting increasingly doubtful that I’m “intended” to, inasmuch as anyone is intended to do anything with narratives.

        There are people who absolutely crack and become useless under Cassies, which might be why I’ve run across far more Isabelles than Cassies (even at an extremely pedigreed liberal arts college where people think they’re being viciously trained for greatness.) People talk about that quite a lot and not as much about the converse.

        Or about how standing up *to* brutality in a very simplified believe-in-yourself-no-matter-what way isn’t the same thing as standing up *under* brutality.

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