Glee: Building masculinity

I’ve written before about how in the world of Glee being a girl is something that happens to you, but if that’s true, being a boy must be something else entirely. 

Glee has always been preoccupied with ideas around the construction of masculinity including its multiple plot lines in which various people try to “man up” or figure out how to “be a man,” usually in response to issues driven by male authority figures who also have peer status to the parties concerned: Artie (the director in New Directions), Finn (the team captain and now stand in faculty adviser of New Directions) or Schuester (the faculty adviser and original man-child of Glee).

Recently, however, this need to create masculinity as something separate from innately feminine existence and its consequences, has been more explicitly on display than ever before, with the centerpiece being “Sadie Hawkins.”

I’ve written about Sadie Hawkins dances before and their place within Glee’s narrative and the characterization of Blaine Anderson.  Here, while that backstory only got a light and somewhat sanitized mention (Tina thinks Blaine was bullied at a Sadie Hawkins dance, not beaten), the tradition itself is used to highlight how masculine identity and ritual is constructed in the world of WMHS.

Men, with their power removed to ask girls to the dance, immediately begin to experience the idea that being a girl, or at least not being a boy, is something that happens to you. The lack of agency the straight boys feel as they wait for girls to ask them to the dance is explicitly stated. Blaine, whose gender construction on Glee remains both complex and mysterious if cast in Western dichotomies, is pursued by Tina and not given the opportunity to say no.  And, the Cheerio with the neck-brace is seen menacingly oggling, confronting, and blocking the escape routes of men she finds desirable.

Meanwhile, the girls, told to enact a masculine roll, find themselves needing to construct a visual platform from which to do so.  It’s no accident that the women of the episode are placed repeatedly in dresses that reference peacock plumage in color and detail, and that we even have a dance number in which they quite conspicuously shake their tail feathers.

Similarly, it is no accident that this is the episode in which Sam discovers not only that the Warblers have cheated, but that their violation and falsehood revolves explicitly around constructing masculinity through the use of steroids.

All of these details suggest masculinity as a product of fear and a responsiveness to wishing to avoid the consequences of being a girl which are clearly unpleasant even if mostly unfamiliar to the not often empathetic men of McKinley.

This construction of masculinity theme, however, continues beyond the episode and into “Naked.”  Here we see the boys not just trying to sell themselves as heart throbs, but working hard both physically and through illusion (from costumes to spray tans) to create that image. It is a narrative that culminates in Sam struggle not to see his body as more important than his total self, something that is resolved by Blaine who has perhaps greater insight instinctively if not intellectually into the absurdity of the masculinity game but his placement along the gender continuums at WMHS.

This focus on masculinity as constructed, and therefore false (and let’s remember, Glee is obsessed with the authentic vs. performative self, genders these concepts, and rewards and punishes them differently. Femininity is viewed authentic on Glee. Masculinity is not. Authenticity is praised, but punished, because it is audacious and confrontational to a normativity-obsessed society), seems unlikely to end any time soon.

The preview Ryan Murphy released of Beyonce’s “Diva” as performed by the women of New Directions and Blaine appears, at first, to highlight a constructed femininity.  However, this isn’t actually true.  As the song tells us, “A diva is a female version of a hustla,” and so femininity here is only constructed because of its imitation of masculinity. This suggestion that feminine artifice does not negate innate feminine authenticity is underscored by Tina’s gendered insults towards Unique and Marley calling her out on them: It doesn’t matter what Unique wears, she is still always a woman.

“Diva,” through its runway staging, also brings us yet another moment this season that highlights the constant presence of the camera lens, documentation, and exposure. This ties consistently into gender, sexuality, and safety on Glee, but I’ll save that for another post.

6 thoughts on “Glee: Building masculinity”

  1. I really like the insight into Celeste (neck-brace Cheerio), who is (and has been) a silent presence all season. She’s the Cheerio who is always in uniform but can’t actually perform any routines.

  2. Blaine has been playing different kinds of masculinity in this last couple episodes, and apparently in the upcoming one. With Tina at the Sadie Hawkins dance, he was playing the heteronormative gentleman. He didn’t seem to have any problem performing sexy masculine in “Naked,” or in a number of previous episodes. The diva!Blaine performance of a specific kind of masculinity looked very familiar to me. There are gifs of Blaine standing by a dressing table, arm waving and index finger up. I thought, “Blaine’s queening out.” That’s what I learned that those gestures signaled, and the vocabulary I have for it.

    The girls were great, and Unique was the ultimate diva of them, but Blaine didn’t come across to me as feminine. He came across as a very queer boy, much more so than he usually shows. In Glee’s version of “reality,” Blaine keeps outing himself to make it clear he’s gay, and we repeatedly talk about how he passes. In the “Diva” dream sequence, he was gloriously not passing.

  3. I’m a little confused now because in this post you say that masculinity is constructed/performative and femininity is authentic, but in the one you linked to (“Glee: Gender, performativity and neediness”) you say the exact opposite. And I’m probably most confused because I find both arguments you made logical and convincing.

    Since I argued a few days ago in my own blog post about “Naked” (4×12) that masculinity (especially the Warblers’ version of it) was indeed constructed and that failing at being a “Real Man (TM)” was actually portrayed as a good thing, I currently tend to go with the idea that the recent episodes of Glee have been about the un-naturalness of masculinity and the work it takes to construct what looks like an “authentic, natural manhood.”

    Then again, Glee has told us complex stories about femininity and its construction and deconstruction as well (e.g. Brittany’s story in “Britney 2.0”), about which I very much want to write more. So maybe what Glee is telling us about gender isn’t so much that it works in opposites (what masculinity is, femininity isn’t and can’t be, and vice versa) but that any gender is in danger of being destabilized and comes with its own set of problems (and rewards)? I think I’ll make that my next working thesis.

    1. Well, clearly, not only are we all watching different shows, I am watching different shows on alternate Tuesdays.

      Seriously, though, I suspect this is a case of a) more information b) language precision on my part, as much current feeling about the subject on Glee, especially in the current arc is that show presents masculinity as normal but artificial and rewarded and at risk and femininity as abnormal but natural and punished and creating risk. Risk is therefore present for any boy who does not consistently create a masculinity that protects them form a slide into feminine punishment. Which is me just saving myself a lot of words and also possibly contradicting myself a third time!

      1. “Well, clearly, not only are we all watching different shows, I am watching different shows on alternate Tuesdays.”

        Oh, I’m so guilty of that, too (if it is indeed something to feel guilt over)! So, is this where we agree that Glee is genius for enabling us to do this?

        I agree that boys feel the risk of not being perfectly masculine, but I’m not convinced anymore that the actual danger of it is as big as it used to be in the universe of Glee. Not when the “weakest link” in the chain of Warbler masculinity, Trent, was the one to expose the whole thing as the artificial construct it was, to the detriment of the Warblers. Or when Blaine, arguably the least masculine of all the McKinley guys in many ways, is the one to show Sam that his success in the world really hasn’t much to do with his masculinity at all. Maybe (unfinished thought!) there is a difference between what happens at WMHS and elsewhere (and not just NYC, where different rules very clearly apply)?

        (I remain undecided in my thoughts about femininity on Glee, so no more on that right now.)

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