Despite Glee‘s strong focus on multiple queer characters, I’m increasingly noticing that the show is remarkably squeamish around issues of homosociality as it intersects with homosexuality. And, as is usually the case with Glee, I having trouble telling if this is an intra- or extradiegetic problem. Fair warning: I’ll be talking about some spoilers from future episodes to make this point.
All of this really occurred to me because of two fandom complaints that seem particularly loud right now. The first is an assertion that outside of scenes specifically about Kurt and Blaine, you can’t tell that Kurt and Blaine are together. The second is that Brittany and Santana have not kissed or explicitly been shown to be a romantic couple.
While I actually have some problems with both of those assertions for a myriad of reasons, including a feeling that they ignore issues of relationship style, history, and queer teen safety, the fact is, people are seeing something, and what the audience sees is, absolutely, one version of what’s really happening on screen.
What I suspect people are reacting to, around both couples, is Glee‘s intense discomfort around homosociality and where it intersects with homosexuality. Certainly, we saw this from within the narrative when, in season 2, Finn tells Kurt he can’t ask Sam to do a duet, because it’ll ruin the guy’s life at McKinley. But, increasingly, I suspect we’re seeing this from external sources; that is, writers being squeamish as opposed to writing characters who are squeamish.
On one hand, we have Kurt and Blaine, who are explicitly a couple. Despite multiple assertions that both confirm and muddle each of the character’s roles around gender performativity, we can also basically agree that the explicit text as presented is at least supposed to be two gay boys in love. The thing is, Glee is very cagey about showing these two boys as boys together in the context of male peers, even male peers who we are told are totally on board and supportive of them as a couple.
Blaine can dance with Kurt at the prom, once Kurt is cast as the prom queen. And in an upcoming number from Grease, Blaine’s performing with the boys and Kurt’s performing with the girls. Now, we can say that’s because Kurt prefers to be with the girls. And we can say that’s because of Kurt’s vocal range (which is a particularly weak argument when Kurt’s range is, at least, historically male-appropriate), but really, it seems to be about Glee knowing how to write gay couples as long as they aren’t socially playing for the same team.
The same issue is in play with Brittany and Santana, but it’s causing a completely different set of fan reaction problems. Brittany and Santana are positioned as on the same team — literally. They’re both highly femme cheerleaders, and they’re together, or so we’re told (and not, particularly, shown). Glee seems to have no idea how to portray this, because they haven’t been able to split them up in a performative context the way they have with Kurt and Blaine.
Additionally complicating the situation is that physical homosocial behavior among women is so culturally acceptable (before you even get to stuff like “I Kissed a Girl” hijinks), that it’s nearly impossible to tell they’re dating. Straight girls who are close friends do, do things like hold hands, hug, and kiss on the cheek, all the time. So the only reason we really know these two are together is Santana’s discomfort with her coming out process, and the snarky joke of them being in bed together that started it all back in season 1.
Glee often gets itself into trouble by playing the long game and then seeming to get distracted halfway through. It also struggles when it’s too murky around whether it’s portraying toxic situations or being toxic in how it’s portraying situations. Add to that the fact that mainstream TV really isn’t to be trusted in general on how it writes queer people, so believe me, I get the anger and suspicion.
Certainly, I have my own sets of concerns, largely related to how sexual desire between women is minimized unless its for male pleasure (something Glee has both skewered, and it seems, bought in to), and how sexual desire between men inevitably turns into some sort of discourse on perceptions of gay male promiscuity (e.g.,: Kurt and Blaine have a beautiful moment; Sebastian is a predatory creep — tell me something I couldn’t have spotted from orbit, thanks).
But I do think it’s worth looking at the homosocial conundrum the show faces when critiquing how it handles Kurt and Blaine and Brittany and Santana. At the end of the day, Glee has set itself a ridiculously huge challenge in putting these storylines as front and center as they are.
While the age groups that are the most desirable TV audiences increasingly see gay content as no big deal, the statistical minorities that are offended or uncomfortable remain very large. Additionally, even straight people who support LGBT equality, can and do (wow, the Internet is such a source for what people aren’t willing to say to you at dinner parties) sometimes get uncomfortable with queer content, or wonder why suddenly their TV is filled with stories about people who aren’t like them. Us gay folks are used to it; our allies, for better or for worse, aren’t.
It’s my suspicion, that even as Glee has written about homophobia as displayed around homosocial behavior (i.e., locker room worries, the Kurt and Sam duet, the prom), the show’s powers that be have also been cognisant of how that anxiety exists around homosocial behavior in its audience. With Kurt and Blaine that problem has largely been easy to “solve” because of how Kurt’s been written from the beginning and because of Colfer’s vocal range. With Brittany and Santana a so-called solution has remained elusive, and such, so has a great deal of clarity on that relationship and its physicality.
As much as we talk about how Glee is awesome, subversive and complex on LGBT issues, there’s still this arena on which the show strikes me as squeamish, and whether it ever decides that two guys in the T-Birds can totally be dating or that the head cheerleader can really get a sparkles and glitter girl, absolutely remains to be seen.
But as much as I want Glee to solve its extradiegetic homosocial anxiety, I also want the issue to be one that allies who are fans of these two couples consider in their own lives. The first person I ever had in my life who described themselves as an LGBT ally to me wrote an opinion piece for our university newspaper, without my permission, about how being my roommate didn’t make her gay. Talk about homosocial anxiety; she used my situation to make sure the world knew she was straight.
Ultimately, my hope is that if we’re going to spend time wondering what Glee‘s afraid of, that we’ll also spend some time wondering what the audience is afraid of, and how, sometimes, in some cases, we may be contributing to those anxieties.