The Land of Stories: When the fourth wall is a doorway

In many ways, I am the worst possible person to review Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories. Not only am I not a middle grade reader, I often loathed books appropriate for my age group even as a child because I felt they were too overt in the lessons they were trying to impart and the narrative tricks they were engaging in to do so.

“Oh look, another book about some girl who communes with wolves that will teach me about the importance of self-reliance, algebra, and offering loving respect to my parents,” I would start monologuing each May when faced with my annual the summer reading list requirements. That stuff made me bitter.

I can’t tell you that Colfer’s book necessarily avoids content that stirs that reaction in me, but I also can’t tell you it should. After all, not only was I cantankerous about these sorts of books as a child, I am certainly not a middle grade reader now, nor am I the parent of one.

But, aside from the necessary content and structural oddities of book designed for this age group, there’s a ridiculous amount of interest in The Land of Stories. Some of it, such as the sure to be endlessly quoted “unicorns don’t have rabies” discussion, is mostly just hilarious, even if I can’t help but link the discussion of one-horned magical creatures and disease to the use of “unicorn” as a way of discussing Kurt Hummel’s queerness on Glee and finding a witty, and unfortunately necessary, indignance in the remark.

Much of it, however, is overtly poignant not only in the context of the book, but unavoidably unsettling in the context of its authorship. One of the first, and most crystalline examples of this comes in the protagonists’ meeting with Queen Cinderella:

“What was it like?” Alex asked Cinderella. “What was it like to go from being a servant to being a queen? What was it like to be saved from a horrible situation? Your life is literally… well… a Cinderella story.”

A sadness came to Cinderella’s face.

“I never thought my life would change so drastically, so I always made the most of what I had,” Cinderella said.

“… living a public life is a difficult thing to do, and even now I still find it a bit overwhelming. No matter what you do, you can never please everyone. And that was the hardest lesson to learn. In fact, I am still learning it.”

The actual passage is several times the length of what is quoted above, and is not necessarily even the book’s most startling moment. In fact, each interaction with the queens of the storybook world can arguably be read on two levels, one of which is fixed outside of the narrative of the novel. In case you’re curious, the kings Charming (they’re brothers) fare less well as attractive and largely interchangeable cardboard cutouts.

The Evil Queen’s remarks on ambition are perhaps the other, most precise moment of double vision the book provides:

“Every driven person comes from a mountain of pain they wish to keep hidden,” the Evil Queen said.

Certainly there is something sly and uncomfortable about the queens of a series of storybook kingdoms serving as the clearest representation of the authorial voice, when that author is the one in question. If this is intentional on Colfer’s part, it’s a delightful and pointed play on expectation and underscores the allegorical queerness in a book that isn’t really queer at all (except perhaps when Conner tells us he really, really can’t let the guys at school find out about his newly discovered ancestry). And, if it is unintentional on Colfer’s part, the reader response to it makes for a no less compelling conversation.

It’s statements like Evil Queen’s on ambition, however, that also make the book interesting regardless of authorship. Among other things, I wonder what it would be like to read that sentence as an eight-year-old. What does that sentiment — which rings very true to me — impart to a person of that age? It doesn’t seem like all those boring lessons about wolves and algebra and loving my mother at all.

Where The Land of Stories excels as literature is in the voices and dilemmas of its adults. Colfer’s ability to juggle multiple narrative voices is interesting, and I probably shouldn’t be surprised that as an actor he clearly has the most fun with the parts of the narration that come to us in the first person.

Much like Struck by Lightning, Colfer’s freshman film effort that I believe will be in general release soon, the adult stories which we see in passing through the eyes of children with bigger concerns linger because Colfer suffuses the adult relationships with loss and longing, knowing that in his fairytale book the ending everyone craves — happily ever after — is innately boring.

Ultimately, while I am reasonably sure that The Land of Stories is a clever, competent, and viciously funny middle grade book that will be deeply pleasing particularly to children who feel peculiar because of how their intelligence manifests, The Land of Stories impressed me for the way in which it emphasizes and exemplifies the infinite nature of story telling: A young man who is living what some would call a fairytale writes a novel about two children who fall into a fairytale and then navigate that world through the journals and stories of others, while the reader, upon noticing these layers of narrative, unavoidably also extends the story in ways that were, if not surely unintended then are, at least, intentionally unacknowledged.

If nothing else The Land of Stories is a unique entry in the annals of transformative work as the narrative performs multiple functions and extends multiple stories for several, often disparate audiences, simultaneously.

The Hunger Games: Deathmatch – American Idol vs. Upfronts

Yesterday, I asked Patty if the reason YA is interesting to people is a desire for more mythic texts and more texts that are about myth-making. My argument, such as it was (I don’t read or what enough YA material to call it an argument comfortably), was this: because YA is arguably “simpler,” the stories it tells are unavoidably more mythic and iconic.

Patty is pretty sure I was wrong (and since she is super smart and really into YA, is probably herself correct), and said that YA is popular because it’s a genre that’s allowed to be experimental and therefore offers high returns for lower time investment, and my mythic argument is a result of self-selection and the lens I read everything I like through.

Because it’s not just Brave that is a story about how stories get made. The Land of Stories (which I have a copy of again and so a review is imminent) is also very much about the construction of myth. As is The Hunger Games, which was what we were waiting to see at the time of the convo.

I’d seen it before, actually, but hadn’t found the energy to write about it in what has been a busy and chaotic 2012. Patty hadn’t managed to catch it in Delhi though, and I was excited to take a look at it without comparing it to the book or feeling like I would have to write about it because it’s so focused on the construction of fame.

It’s really a ridiculously good movie for what it is. The craft is exceptional, the adaptation is interesting, and it expands on parts of the world meaningfully in recompense for where it had to excise material for time and clarity. It also owes some of its most effective moments to the DNA of some of my absolutely favorite films, and it’s that slyness — and the fact that the film doesn’t exist in a vacuum of a hot thing of the moment money grab — that makes it such a pleasure to watch.

The largest influence is arguably The Truman Show. While reality TV existed when it was released, it still showed up in movie theaters two years before Survivor was first on US screens. What it indicted and asked us to collude in was something that we were neither deluged with nor asked to be responsive to in 1998. It was, more conspicuously than most films that get dammed with this faint praise, very much ahead of its time.

But it’s all over The Hunger Games in the attention the film adaptation pays to Seneca Crane and the arena’s game team, which operates with a sterility and dispassion reminiscent of what films insist are true about things like operating theaters and NASA control rooms.

Particularly, the way The Hunger Games shows us the segment where Katniss is directed away from the edge of the arena, feels like the scramble in the control room in The Truman Show when Truman’s determination to get to the edge of the world becomes clear. I imagine this similarity will only become more visible in Catching Fire considering that the Tributes do actually succeed in breaking the arena open and escaping it.

But another big piece of film DNA in The Hunger Games comes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The scenes of rioting in Rue’s district (the only part of the film to make me cry both times), the images of Katniss’s father in the mine shaft elevator, and even the positioning of Katniss as both innocent and temptress, are all things that reference Metropolis both visually and conceptually.

Both these sets of references are ridiculously satisfying. They root the world of The Hunger Games into a story we’ve been told before, but instead of making it seem repetitive, it helps makes it mythic (beyond the already excellent job Collins did with epithets in the original book that helped make the narrative sound so much like oral history at given points: the girl who was on fire and the boy with the bread — these are not characters who need names, for they are not people, but ideas). It also helps to underscore that in any future we imagine — at any time — we are always tempted, it seems, by the same mistakes of idolatry, imprisonment, and violence.

One thing that I’ve heard The Hunger Games likened to again and again is American Idol or other reality competition shows where fame is an explicit prize as opposed to an implicit one. But that’s not what I saw in Haymitch’s quest for sponsors, and Ceasar Flickerman’s odd mix of absurdity and gravitas (seriously, who is Ceasar Flickerman when he’s alone? That’s my fanfiction question of the day). I kept seeing upfronts.

Upfronts are a funny thing, because they’re about advertising dollars — sponsors — and they are something the broader audience never used to be aware of (and in all fairness, I had to explain them to a friend just a few weeks ago). Yet, there are adverts about them on the buses in New York now, and fan cultures have been paying attention to the events, parties, and performances related to them for at least a few years now.

Because while the Hunger Games are meant to instill fear and loyalty and submission in the districts, they are really just for the Capital, the sponsors, the stylists, and the creators, and while they are arguably about celebrating the tributes, they’re really about examining the goods and making the most lucrative bets that can be made.

While TV isn’t going to kill anyone, no matter what The Hunger Games, The Truman Show, and, while we’re at it, Max Headroom (remember blipverts?) say, the disconnect between what upfronts are and what they pretend to be even though everyone knows better is hard to miss, at least if you know enough people in the business. “It’s all very checking horses’ teeth,” a friend who’s been a part of the upfronts game has said to me more than once, and it’s one of those things I can’t ever seem to forget.

Ultimately, while The Hunger Games is busy being a cautionary tale (you don’t want fame — you don’t want to be Haymitch or Katniss or Glimmer or, for that matter, Seneca Crane), it’s also one that tells us that a lot of the stuff we often like to say is the end of the world as we know it — e.g., American Idol — isn’t actually that bad. The really creepy stuff in the industry actually huddles in other corners.

At least for now. Because the other thing The Hunger Games has in common with the films it gets so much of its DNA from is that it’s all about convergence. When the mechanism is also the entertainment, that’s when things get really messy. At least that’s what I can’t stop thinking every time another over-packaged behind-the-scenes video gets released from a movie or TV show I love, or there’s another ad about upfronts that makes absolutely no sense to 95% of the people who see it on NYC public transit.

Like The Truman Show and Metropolis, The Hunger Games is likely to age strangely and seem, at a given point, quaint. And that’s probably exactly when we should really worry.

Brave: Threatdown – Bears!

Last night Patty took me to see Brave, and this review actually has nothing to do with the significant bear content, but as a regular watcher of The Colbert Show I couldn’t resist the title.

At any rate, as I think I have mentioned in these pages before, I don’t really see animated features as my thing, but she’s judicious about the ones she takes me to, and I’m nostalgic enough that Pixar’s insistence on placing a short before the main feature really charms me.

While Brave‘s animation is surely a technical achievement (the hair!), what’s particularly interesting is how the structure of the script makes its format — that of an animated feature — a necessary part of the storytelling mechanism. Because while Brave is about a girl and her mother overcoming the pitched war that often goes on between mothers and daughters at some point in their lives, Brave is also, thanks in part to a very judicious use of a voiceover, about the creation of legend.

And, because Merida’s voiceover in the film suggests, when combined with her father’s recounting of his battle with a bear that everyone has heard so many times they can tell it along with him, that what we are witnessing is her story as it has come to be told as opposed to the events as they happened, Brave provides an access point for people who distrust or just don’t have the receptor sites for animated features. Because if we’re being told a legend — a broad tale meant to teach us a lesson — its not being live-action is, in its way, more honest.

It’s a fabulous trick in a film that gives repeated shout-outs to stories and story-telling: there are the troublesome triplets that turn into the three bears; Merida, like Robbin Hood, splits an arrow already occupying the bullseye location on a target; the witch’s head in the caldron evokes the The Wizard of Oz; and the importance of storytelling technologies, from oral tradition to woven tapestry is plot central.

Prior to seeing Brave, I had been warned that it’s slight, but I really don’t think it is. Rather, the film has three things happening at once — comedy; structure about storytelling; and a narrative about freedom and duty. While, as audiences, we are deeply used to films about masculine honor and duty (see: Gladiator as perhaps the most obvious example of hundreds if not thousands of films), we’re not used to, I don’t think, films about feminine honor and duty where obligations are both questioned and ultimately met through change. This, combined with the lack of romantic resolution in the film could, I suppose, make it easy to miss the amount that happens and changes in the course of it.

Also contributing to the idea that the film is slight, may be the degree to which Merida and her disinterest in marriage is something of a cypher. Is she supposed to be echoing forward to some idea of Queen Elizabeth with her red hair and statement that only she is worthy of her own hand? Is she asexual? Is she lesbian? Is she just far too young to be interested in marriage? The film never tells us, but this is less a failing and more another structural nod to the construction of legends: Merida is whatever we need her to be. It’s an awfully dutiful role for a character that just wants her freedom.

The Newsroom: Symbolism – 0; Mythology – 3

Unfortunately, you’re going to have to wait a little bit longer for my review of The Land of Stories (although the giveaway on my Tumblr continues apace), because my personal, non-giveaway copy got nabbed along with my bag and my wallet at Pride today. Luckily, a friend is lending me their copy, and I should be able to get that in by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, tonight was the first episode of The Newsroom on HBO. In many ways, it’s not the type of show I’m inclined to write about, because it doesn’t particularly trade in symbolism. No one is secretly Death’s beloved servant, and we’re probably not going to be able to predict episode structures based on what colors people are wearing.

But I do like Sorkin, a lot. I like the hyper-verbal quality of his stuff and the degree to which he’s good at making it clear how much certain types of intelligence can be really agonizing to functioning in the world. When our main character Macavoy recounts, in detail, what happened at a baseball game he went to with his ex’s father years ago, this doesn’t just tell us about the lingering feelings he has for her, it tells us about how he retains information, holds grudges, and develops wounds unable to heal. It’s vastly informative about the character, and for some people, unpleasantly realistic.

What’s super interesting about Sorkin though, isn’t the incredibly dense language and racing pacing (although I thought the first episode of The Newsroom got severely bogged down during some of Mackenzie’s speeches), it’s his ability to amplify, beyond reality, the importance of things that are already pretty important.

The evening news, for example, is pretty damn important, even in this age of cable and the Internet. It sets the media agenda through trickle-down into other mediums and broadcasts; even if it doesn’t reach an audience directly in the same way it used to, it absolutely reaches an audience indirectly with remarkably similar power. The linkages between TV broadcast tonality on the economy and the Consumer Confidence Index, for example is marked, and news tonality in fact usually leads the CCI by a couple of weeks. When the news tells people it’s bad out there, people decide it’s bad.

Yet, despite this, Sorkin’s romanticism makes the news somehow even more important in his world. Some of that is a result of the breaking news pacing, but a lot of that, in the case of this show, is in the initial set up. As Patty said to me tonight so succinctly after I made her watch Macavoy’s initial statistical tirade, “Does America really care what happens at some random J-school forum?”

Well, no. But… but it could! Right?!?!? Sorkin convinces us his world could be, and perhaps even should be, true, even as we all know better. His fantasies remind us that we know better.

The West Wing, in some ways, is an even better example of this exaggeration of importance. What could be more important to Americans than the US presidency? Well, a lot, actually, and I don’t even have to make a catty remark about American Idol for that to be true. The American presidency is not nearly as central to the thoughts of most people most days as The West Wing makes its viewers feel, and that’s one hell of writing trick, creating a show in which the only sensible response is to say it’s blowing the US presidency out of proportionate significance.

So, despite many very rough edges both in execution and content, I think I am totally on board for The Newsroom. I may or may not write about it much here, as it’s not a particularly symbolic world, and we know how I love that, but I’m interested in its existence, both because it shares so much in common with many of the other things I write about here and because my original degree is in journalism.

The Newsroom is a backstage story. It’s about performance, competition, awkward people, and the fiercely, unpleasantly ambitious. It’s about romance. And, even without symbolism, it is about mythology — American mythology: newsmen, politics, and baseball.

It’s about the business of the truth, but it’s also about our lies. Like Glee, I suspect it will require us to do as much work, if not more, than its creators to make it work in the contexts we want — or even need — it to work in. But, like Glee, I suspect that work may be a lot of fun, at least for me.

Did anyone else out there tune in?

Glee: Love is not a victory march

Love is not a victory march.

Neither is ambition. Or fame.

And, for that matter, neither is blogging about random TV shows.

While Glee adhered to my rules in its finale (the Ferryman took a toll from Rachel and from Finn, and wouldn’t let Kurt leave), I was gobsmacked when Kurt didn’t get into NYADA. Although with Kurt’s lovely moments with both his father and Blaine as the season’s end drew closer, what else could have happened really? I should have seen it, and I had too many hearts in my eyes to notice.

I’ve spent a lot of time tonight being amazed at how much a post I tossed up on Tumblr about the nature of highly selective programs is getting reblogged, but the reason there seems pretty clear too.

It’s clear in the sad, frustrated, resigned feeling I had at the end of tonight’s episode: Rachel wins the day for the simplest of structural reasons; someone like Rachel is, innately, an avatar for more people than someone like Kurt.

Rachel is, and has always been, the center of the show, despite the kindnesses delivered to people who see themselves in Kurt Hummel. She has to get the victory story, because, as hard as it is to comprehend when you’re not someone who sees themselves in Rachel, more underdogs are hurt if it’s Kurt and not her.

I get it. I really do. Not even as the queer kid, but as the weird kid. My problem wasn’t that I was an ugly duckling or overbearing (although I have been and can be both), my problem is that I was just other — sad, powerful, never the right age, and generally poor at acting on my halfway decent political instincts.

Stories are never really about people like that. I know that; Tumblr knows that; Glee knows that; and Kurt Hummel definitely knows that.

But once I got past that and thought about some of the things I keep saying about Glee — the toll of the ferryman, and Kurt’s death work in particular (did you see him, with that giant beetle pinned to his graduation robe? I’ll have to do a whole post about his brooches during hiatus) — I hit a point of peace with it.

Kurt hasn’t paid his price yet, and hasn’t done any of his work as chief mourner on his own behalf. I imagine he’s frustrated that his assets make it harder for him to achieve; and boggled that he suddenly seems so much older than Blaine (and he really, really did in this episode).

I think about all the metaphors and symbolism we’ve played with and tried to decode this season — faerie foods and mystical pregnancies — and I wonder if every time Kurt kisses Blaine it’s like another pomegranate seed that keeps him in this Underworld that is Lima.

However, at the end of the season, without knowing where we’re going next, that’s rather besides the point. It’s not the metaphor or the symbolism that matters, so much as the reason we seek it (other than it’s fun).

For a lot of us, I think that reason, oddly, goes back to one of the first things I ever said about Glee: which is that it’s really hard for me to watch shows supposedly about outcasts when I know that if we shared a world, I still wouldn’t be cool enough for them.

This is why it hurts when Kurt Hummel fails, because unlike most of the “outcast” teens on TV — including Rachel and Finn (and oh, is is hard to watch everyone have so much damn gratitude for them) — it’s easy to get the sense that Kurt might be nice to us, or, you know, at least willing to sit at our table during lunch, even if he’s totally judging our choices in footwear.

But Kurt is older and wiser than Rachel. He doesn’t need NYADA to shape him, so much as he needs something to spin him around and point him in the right direction. That’s coming, and it won’t be easy, or nice or kind for any of us, but it will be necessary.

In the meantime, maybe we should take some time to feel pretty awesome about his victories. Kurt Hummel changed his life, his dad’s life, Blaine’s life, Dave Karofsky’s life, Rachel’s life; and he changed, just a little bit, that hellhole of a school. I can’t be the only who cried at the shot of the tadpole gays; are those two boys best friends just waiting to discover they’re in love? Do they dream of one day being as cool as Kurt and Blaine?

Let’s face it, whether he’s salved wounds new or old, real or imagined, Kurt Hummel’s changed our lives too, even if just for an hour every Tuesday night.

So yes, there was a lot of to be frustrated with in that season finale structurally and thematically, but some things remain true: Kurt’s always been better than Lima, and arguably Glee, but why it hurts is because we never thought Kurt was better than us, and we were sure were all going to get out of this place together.

But don’t worry. Take a deep breath. It’ll happen. This is all normal. I promise.

Because you know what else isn’t a victory march?

Loving stories.

It’s the lack of control, you see. That’s what makes it sweet when it all finally turns out exactly the way we want. Until them, like Kurt, we have to hold on tight, smile at the margins, and write our own stories.

And you know what? They’re going to be amazing.

Glee: The magic is gone

Despite the title, and some of the rage viewing that went on while I watched the two episodes that aired last night, this isn’t actually a post about how I’m over Glee. Rather, this is a post about the ways in which magic was absent from last night’s narratives and what that may tell us about what type of show Glee thinks it is.

Because, even with Tina’s weird body swap fantasy head injury — in which everyone is more themselves than when they are actually themselves and the world is a nice enough place that Kurt and Blaine can cuddle everywhere — magic was noticeably absent.

As graduation approaches, Glee‘s all about the real world now. Even songs that segue out of the choir room into what I think we’ve come to understand as a fantasy sequence on the show, do so onto an empty stage with limited effects. Everything is stark; everything is a future that can’t be imagined. Sometimes, everything is a future that you don’t even want to imagine (see: Beiste and Puck, considering knives).

For me, frankly, the de-magicing of these two episodes of Glee was frustrating, but Glee, while explicitly set up to ultimately be a victory story for all its characters, really only knows how to show us victory in relatively naturalistic terms. We can understand Will getting an award, Finn getting the girl, New Directions winning the prize, Quinn getting her dream school.

But when it comes to transformational stories, about being seen and heard (Tina getting a song, Kurt getting a yes), Glee tends to falter, as if if doesn’t know how to use its style to explicate victories that are, even in front of an audience, innately more private.

That so much of the Nationals-related issues in these episodes center early on around Kurt performing in drag was a narrative device with multiple purposes and potentials, including giving Kurt an opportunity to define the type of queer person he is to a WMHS that might actually be listening for a change. It is, of course also framed as an opportunity for him to be a hero (as boys are), while also taking one for the team (as girls do), emphasizing the way that characters that are perceived as inhabiting liminal spaces at WMHS are always framed both as magical and as suffering burdens of those unasked for and supposed gifts.

That Kurt wants nothing to the drag number is spot on and connects with the ways Glee tends to link authenticity and gendered positioning of its characters. But in the fall-out from Kurt’s disinterest, so many narrative opportunities aren’t just lost, but alluded to in a way that makes their absence even more frustrating.

Puck’s appearance in a dress and fight by the dumpsters with Rick the Stick, for example, represents a gorgeous transformation from the kid who once threw Kurt into dumpsters for not being a certain type of man, yet Puck’s speech about the dress missed the point — in ways Puck actually usually doesn’t.

Kurt, too had an opportunity, to be contrasted with Rachel. They’re both characters who have expressed at times a desire to do anything for fame (and in a way this was underscored by Kurt and Blaine’s reality TV obsession and Halloween costumes), but Kurt has a line regarding his own truth that Rachel has not personally encountered her own version of yet. But he is willing to be a spy (again), indicating a willingness to perhaps compromise his honor his Self. In a set of episodes about the intensity, nature and appropriateness of Rachel’s ambitions, where was an examination of the motivations of the constant moon to her sun?

And of course, there was everyone being offensive about Unique. And I get it, WMHS and Lima are offensive places, where people don’t know how to deal with folks who aren’t cisgendered, and while I’m a big fan of asking audiences to understand that the things that come out of the mouths of characters on Glee are offensive all by themselves, this is one where large swathes of America just don’t have the tools. Even a line where someone asks about what _is_ appropriate, or a well-meaning but painfully awkward PSA from Blaine (he’s good at that, and I felt like the script crept there once and then didn’t deliver) would go a long way.

But that doesn’t happen, and in the end, Unique’s threat to New Directions is more Rachel Berry (powerhouse voice and star power) than Kurt Hummel (liminal magics). I, frankly, love this as a choice, as last night’s script framed Unique more as her true self, than as a performative identity of Wade (which is what we got in the character’s introduction), since Glee’s always run a little bit of a risk around the idea of magical queers (it’s not why Kurt is magical, but as last night’s episode shows, it’s exactly the mistake everyone around WMHS tends to make).

For me, so much of last night’s episode felt like the people with magical roles on the show had checked out or had their own distractions, and it was, to say the least, frustrating. But often, when I write these things, I find my own answers.

Just as Rachel tells us Tina has no idea what it’s like to be her (even as the audience is supposed to identify with her every step of the way), we really have no idea what it’s like to be Kurt who tends death, makes people love him with a song, and is constantly expected to make everything better by becoming — for good or for ill — something other than the mass of shifting colors he often is.

While the New Directions victory is huge for all the characters, and for us as viewers who surely had to have expected this moment, most of the characters are actually more worried about other battles right now, and are waiting — as in all the numbers that took to the WMHS stage in this pair of episodes — in the dark.

This shift to other battles even as the obligatory one dragged on, means that the real question left for the finale is whether graduation means an end to the magical world of Glee and the otherness and liminality that often drives it, as practical, logistical concerns take over for those who depart, or whether our magicians are about to face even greater magics then their own — after all, it looks like Rachel and Kurt are off to meet the wizard (and we’ll talk about the danger of that during hiatus, I think), or at least, see Oz.

But while the New York setting of Glee‘s next season remains one type of magical question mark, so does the situation back at WMHS, especially for Blaine and Tina, both of whose narratives increasingly seem to be about the consequences of being rendered powerless.

Glee: Queen bees, missing kings, and the faerie court

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about Glee and its faerie courts. Faerie mythos is completely not my department of expertise, so I’m mostly throwing this out there for you all to continue to be excellent in comments, but there was some truly fantastic stuff going on regarding Puck, Kurt, the prom crownings and gender in last night’s episode.

Because one of the things that came out of the series of crownings that took place, and how they took place, is that kings mean less than queens. Not only has the prom queen title always been more important to the girls of WMHS than the prom king title has been to the boys — as evidenced by the way women have consistently pitched strategies for winning the times to the boys, but not the other way around — but the prom queen title has always come with a lot more power, whether to wound or to elevate.

Certainly, it’s the prom queens and queen bees who confer that power in “Prom-asaurus.” Santana and Quinn, in a strange, and incredibly messy, plot overrule the will of the people (let’s face it, their people, even if they’ve both significantly fallen from grace over the last three seasons) to declare Rachel the victor. Not only does it not remove any of their true power (they are acting as regents here), it makes them more powerful, not only by declaring Rachel queen, but having a secret they could always choose to use against her later.

Meanwhile, with Dave Karofsky (who was only ever prom king because of Santana’s machinations) is missing from the scene, and Kurt is left to crown both Finn and Rachel, passing on his own power (because the shame of what was done to Kurt went both ways; he shamed that audience that tried to mock him in recognizing his power when he accepted that crown last year) to his brother and his closest friend for a single night in merely symbolic form.

Rachel and Finn still don’t really learn anything from the events of the prom, but Kurt’s blessing of magic will be enough to get them to New York, one imagines. Certainly, Rachel hopes so as she grabs her tiara (not a full crown like Kurt had, she is a lesser power) from Kurt to fasten it on her head herself. But Kurt still retains control of their power, taking their scepters for safe keeping as the dance begins.

Interwoven with this, we have Puck, who opened the door for Kurt’s entrance into faerieland (Dalton) in S2, and has been struggling with his own powerlessness this season, crowning himself so that he can crown Becky queen of the anti-prom. It gives them the power to attend the prom proper and to be part of the broader WMHS world that Puck has felt increasingly marginalized from and that Becky, while a central figure of (and a queen bee like Santana and Quinn herself), has always existed in with her power overlooked, misunderstood or condescended to by too many of her subjects (something which, by the way, brings up some narrative parallels for Kurt and Becky, which I should totally tackle another time). Of course, granted her power, Becky then pulls of the thing Puck’s never been able to do: spiking the prom punch, and we all know the power of libations and food in faerie.

All this talk about crowning of course, raises the question that Deconstructing Glee raised earlier today: is Kurt still pregnant? I’m not sure, but the answer may depend on whether Finn and Rachel are ready to go out into the world on their own under his aegis.

And finally, of course, there’s Blaine, and who’s always been faerie and onion and changeling, showing this time what is, we think, his true form. But whether that means he’ll rule at prom next year or never rule again remains to be seen. It depends on what Glee ultimately decides to do with its arguments about authenticity vs. performativity and how those things intersect with power and gender.

Glee: Eating some hats

While there were a lot of amazing details in “Prom-asaurus,” — the predatory theme of the prom; Brittany’s run for king; the Faberry fan-service; the references to both Medusa and Icarus (we’ll definitely be coming back to Medusa and the snakes in the toilet here at this blog); some important stuff regarding Kurt and Puck and the faerie court (which we’ll also be spending some time with soon); the heavily foreshadowed implosion of Tina and Mike; and pretty much everything involving Becky and Puck — because of one tiny little thing, this episode has me eating my hat (or, probably actually Brittany’s and Kurt’s) about something.

Kind of.

One of the big debates around Glee is whether the lack of physical affection shown by the gay couples is a concession to the realities of Lima, WMHS, and personal history, or a concession to a squeamish network. For me, historically, the distances have worked consistently and plausibly on an intradiegetic level, especially considering Kurt and Blaine’s experiences with violence, and I’ve got a pretty decent track record of pissing people off for defending what I’ve seen on screen because it makes sense to me.

Plus, Glee usually reserves physical and sexual affection for couples about to be broken apart or who are busy being publicly dysfunctional while trying to derive status from theie relationship. It’s generally a narrative tool (with the exception of Mike and Tina, who, in exchange, don’t really get a narrative), and in the face of smooth and steady Klaine, there hasn’t been much cause to use it.

Last night’s episode was largely consistent in this for me. The boys continued not to touch, even in a relatively safe-space of the anti-prom. Considering the overall social awkwardness of that room, I actually still on board with the state of things, in part because there was such a comfort and tug between them even in that distance.

But then there was the prom itself.

Or, more specifically, the closing montage of prom, where each couple got their little closeness moment and the closing prom photo. And Kurt and Blaine just had less time. That’s all. And I can’t do anything with that intradiegetically, because it’s an editing choice; and I can’t do anything with that structurally, because it actually runs counter to the law of prom episode structure on Glee, and yeah, it just didn’t feel right.

Now, this is where the “sort of” comes in on eating my hat. It doesn’t matter.

Why?

Because in one scenario I was just having an on-point emotional night last night (which I was, thanks to the passage of an anti-gay amendment into North Carolina’s constitution — North Carolina has a long history of breaking my political heart), and the problem I feel was there in terms of visibility and affection wasn’t.

In that case, the intradiegetic truths I’ve always highlighted remain, that Kurt and Blaine have to be so conscious of their safety so constantly, that they can’t even stand to be closer than two feet from each other in a hotel room with a small group of people they at least know won’t physically hurt them, lest they get out of the habit of constant vigilance.

But in the other scenario, Fox has a hit TV show it hates filled with gay content and involving many gay people in the creation process and at every single moment the show’s powers that be are having to bargain with the network’s powers that be for what we see.

Both of those scenarios suck.

No matter how much what I’ve viewed as consistency and plausibility within the narrative has allowed me to side-step the question of network drama about all of this (because it’s so much more than the shows I grew up with — although with everything I have to say about Kurt and magic, maybe Kurt and Blaine just like Buffy‘s Willow and Tara and also perform magic instead of actually having sex), last night just felt like I really, really couldn’t, even if, I believe that given free-reign by the network, the content the show would give us between those characters would remain almost identical to what we’re getting now.

But either way you slice it, Glee remains what it’s always been: a show about terrible people in a terrible place, that somehow suggests we all deserve a little bit better than we’re getting.

Sadly, that includes the audience too.

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.

Glee: Somewhere there’s an A-plot, but it’s not, apparently, here

I’d like to say that this week’s Glee update is so far behind because I just didn’t want to write about this episode, but, while that’s not untrue, I was actually just really, really busy. But no amount of scheduling chaos in my life (that included getting to go to World Jazz Day at the UN and seeing a documentary about the history of jazz in India), will make “Choke” go away, so here I am, trying to come up with something.

“Choke” however may say more in what it didn’t do, than it what it did. Despite having three plot lines about which we should really, really care — Rachel and Kurt audition for NYADA; Puck may or may not graduate; and Shannon Beiste deals with domestic violence — the episode struggled to hold my attention, in part because it couldn’t decide on its A-plot.

On some level, this lack of an actual A-plot serves some of the concepts Glee’s been pushing as we get closer to graduation. Everyone’s a star in their own story, and things — some of them terrible — will keep happening to you and everyone around you, no matter how hard you plan and no matter how many milestones you pass. However, while this may work as a philosophical message, it’s hard to make it work as good TV.

Of course, the episode had other problems. The controveries about the domestic violence content in the episode seem endless, and my general sense of most comment on it is that said comment is more nuanced than the money quotes going around the Internet. That said, like the (structurally much more deft) episode in which Dave Karofsky attempts suicide, this is an episode about which its perfectly reasonable for lots of people to have wildly different opinions; remember, none of us are watching the same show.

But, even while that discussion rages (and I’m leaving it to other people because my voice won’t really bring anything new to it), there were still a few tidbits in “Choke” that were relevant to the things I am somewhat useful in talking about.

Glee, of course, has always been about identity: who you are and how that’s defined — by your self and by others. And “Choke” was (or at least attempted to be), about who people really are.

This was, perhaps, most obvious, regarding Kurt, who removes not only the mask of the Phantom but forgoes singing a song about love obsessive and controlling, in order to declare himself “Not the Boy Next Door.” In this number Kurt not only rejects his past loneliness and identification as threatening Other, he takes control of the idea of being different and uses it as his selling point. The remove of the tuxedo into the most ridiculously tight pair of pants ever was also on point — fandom may be joking about it, and I may have been embarrassed to watch that episode with my mother, but the fact remains, Kurt told us pretty convincingly he’s not a girl, not only through the song’s lyrics, but through that costume choice.

What defines Rachel was also on display. The idea of her and her fathers sitting shiva after she bombs her audition could imply mourning for a lost opportunity. But, if the ritual is looked at more literally, it implies Rachel’s death — is she nothing without her future potential stardom? Not to Kurt, because Kurt sees things others don’t (and also, when has death ever scared him off?); and not to Finn, who loves her and hasn’t always known how her ambition impacts him, but to everyone else and Rachel herself? It remains to be seen.

And if Rachel does get into NYADA in the end by being awesome at Nationals is generally suspected? It should be noted that the question will remain critically unanswered and a source of potential drama and danger for her as her career does, or does not, progress.

Identity was also in play with Puck. Can he still be Puck and care about school? And does that identity issue even matter when the whole plot line was just another excuse for Glee to talk about what makes a man (there’s a reason, by the way, that Glee never talks about what makes a woman — it’s because that’s not an ambition in a place like WMHS. Being a man is enough to be a goal. Being a woman never is — a mother, or a wife, sure, but not just a woman).

The domestic violence plot-line also touched on matters of identity, although I can’t help but feel like subtler writing would have told us more (never before have I actually wanted to rewrite an episode scene-by-scene for fun just to figure out what it was actually trying to do). But still, somewhere in that mess of heavy-handedness, there is a message that the fact that someone hit Beiste isn’t the thing that defines her for anyone that knows her. Since we know she and that plot-line will be back before the end of the season, hopefully we’ll see some more positive resolution for her character; and when we get that resolution, I’ll probably be a lot more tempted to write about this entire arc, because Beiste and gender is one of the great gifts Glee has to offer.

Finally, while unrelated to matters of true selves (unless we want to suggest a possible relevance in Mike’s discussion with Blaine about hair gel), I do have to note Puck’s remark that “even Blaine” has helped him become a man over the last four years.

Was that about the fact Puck’s only known Blaine for a year? Was it about Blaine being gay? Or was it about Blaine’s gender identity? As much as Blaine’s always been one of the guys, I thought yesterday’s episode in particularly went out of the way to make that an uneasy fit in body language, conversation, and even the way everyone’s physical size was shown in frame.

If Glee‘s secret plan is to remind us that things fall apart and the center cannot hold, I approve, even if I could have done without “Choke”‘s clumsiness and the return of fandom wars over Marti Noxon’s creative preoccupations (see: Buffy: The Vampire Slayer). But, I hope next week’s will bring some structure to that discussion, because not only was that episode in search of an A-plot, but so is this post.