Glee: boys, girls, and homosocial squeamishness

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.

Pan Am & The Playboy Club: Romancing a future that’s already happened

The other day I finally caught up with the first episodes of both The Playboy Club and Pan Am, both of which have seemed to be destined to be Mad Men but about women. Certainly, both shows are trying to cash in on the interest in that stifled and stylized world, and neither have in conception struck me as likely to do it very successfully.

On viewing, The Playboy Club seems more in the mold of Mad Men at first glance. It’s dark and no matter how central women are to the story, it’s really feels like a story about men and their clothes, haircuts and ordering of the world. Selling it as a story about women because of the bunnies and the women at the supposed center of the plot seemed besides the point, despite several central female characters I should theoretically care about. Frankly, I was bored.

That said, the show is doing some interesting things odd to the sides, even if I found the female rivalry plots overplayed and the mob drama of no emotional interest. The lesbian bunny is an interesting choice. Being a bunny wasn’t sex work, but queer women in sex work is a real thing, and certainly this is as close to that story as we’re going to get on network TV. If any straight people want to tell me how the Mattachine Society plot line read to them, I’d love to know. For me, it was the first time I really sat up and paid attention. Did I feel the hope and the fear because it was my people? Or was that when the show snapped into some better pacing?

Pan Am, on the other hand, is a much larger bucket of weird. It’s a lot less subtle, and really, as much as I’m all over it, the sweeping movie soundtrack music and the completely pornographic shots of airplanes before every commercial break are a little much. I love that stuff, but really, I can only take so many emotional climaxes about our past imagined future in 48 minutes. And there are lots of moments that feel like heightened reality (particularly in the repeated row of marching stewardesses routine) in a show that, in its domestic dramas (here again, another confrontation between two women who have slept with the same man), is also trying to be delicate. That it also seems to have two subplots involving international spying just adds to the possibly delicious ridiculousness.

Of the two shows, Pan Am managed, I thought, to be a greater love letter to the era and showcased the rivalries between women with a greater subtlety. But both shows’ emotional tones feel so off — The Playboy Club is too full of despair for a first episode and Pan Am is a little too up about a future that’s already happened. For me, they really only worked as companion pieces, bracketing the world as it was and is.

Pan Am was definitely more fun to watch, and I suspect it will last longer. But I really want to see where the Mattachine Society plot on The Playboy Club goes, although right now, I’ll be surprised if the show survives the season.

Anyone got any bets?

“Sanquali” excerpt

When Joselle first asked me to write “Sanquali,” I had no idea what to do. Some of the thing she was looking for from me sounded easy (mannerpunk), but I’d never thought about werewolves before, and I don’t have the best track record of writing women or lesbians.

When a female-type person in fandom says, “I’d rather be writing boys,” it can mean a lot of different things. A quirk of our writing habits and skills or too much time spent in slash fandom. It can be about internalized misogyny, a dislike of writing things close to home, or any of a million other things, all of which are pretty hard to untangle from each other.

At various points, I’ve tried on all these explanations for my own writing habits, and they don’t necessarily feel true or untrue. But they universally don’t feel like a tight or complete fit. Today, I think I write boys more often because I always played the male roles in all the school plays I was in growing up, and so it’s more natural, when telling a story or taking on someone else’s skin for me to think male.

And werewolf stories are all about skin. How does someone become a werewolf? How does the transformation work? What does it mean to their place in their family, amongst their friends, and in society? And how would that weigh (or not) on a woman in a world where gender and role are closely, specifically, and largely inflexibly linked. What’s more important, being a wolf or being a woman?

It was those questions that got “Sanquali” going. I built a mythology of the place, and then tried to find a way to make it interact with its people. The characters are mostly women — a guard, a thief, a wealthy daughter, a socially important mother. But there’s also a male guard who helps to frame the story. I felt a bit weird about doing that in a woman-focused (and lesbian-focused) anthology, but it was an important statement about “Sanquali” the place. This is a world made and shaped and structured for women by men, even when they are absent, ineffectual or irrelevant, to what the women are experiencing.

Sanquali isn’t a romance or a love story, although relationships and potential relationships (primarily a lesbian love triangle or polyfidelitous arrangement) are suggested, and an arranged marriage is central to the plot. Even for a lesbian anthology, it was really important to me not to write an “issue” story. This is a plot that happens to have lesbians and not the other way around. Plus, in a world with supernatural wolves in sarcophagouses hanging out in rich people’s basements, it seemed like lesbianism was really not going to be anyone’s central crisis.

Anyway, here’s a small chunk of the opener.

Antonia scratched at the dirt floor with her long knife and listened halfheartedly as Gino attempted to tell a creepy wolf story. It was, she thought, one he had clearly heard told before and was perhaps even bored with himself. That was, at least, the only explanation she could find for the manner in which he was telling it, punctuating the all-too-familiar mythos with excessively dramatic pauses and frankly ludicrous hand gestures.

“Every city has two societies and so two stories of its founding,” he said, flourishing his hands as if to beg she imagine such a city placed between them. “Sanquali is no different. The rich live above, on the hill and in great rooms with grand windows.” He went up on his toes then to emphasize the height of the hill, before descending into a crouch. “And the poor live below in the valley by the flooding river or in the low-ceilinged basements of the houses they serve. These men and women of wealth or poverty, however, are not the only residents of Sanquali. There are also the wolves.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Antonia said when he paused and looked at her expectantly. “Our little basement here is a nice touch, though.”

“I’m setting the scene; it’s supposed to be eerie,” he whispered, at if there were an audience beyond the two of them to hear him stray from the narrative. “Thanks, though,” he added shyly.

Antonia laughed and shook her head as he stood again.

“Those who live above say the wolves helped found the city—”

“It would really be better without the jumping around,” she said, not feeling bad about criticizing him because she could have been so much crueler.

“I’m wooing the audience.”

Antonia stared at him until he blushed.

“These wolves,” he continued, “rescued two boys, who were carried to the city on the river, and they tended to them, feeding them, keeping them warm and teaching them to fight. The boys learned courage from the wolves and crawled out of the dens and caves of these animals to build the city and its great society. When women were needed, the men found she-wolves and beseeched the gods they had created to make them human.”

“That’s actually really weird,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“There were no women until we turned wolves into some?”

“It’s just a story,” Gino said weakly.

“Well, it’s a stupid story,” Antonia said. “Why would I start as a wolf, become a woman, and then get turned back into a wolf part-time?”

“Sanquali” is part of the anthology Bitten by Moonlight, available in ebook and trade paperback.

reporting for an audience of one

I was 17-years-old when the Berlin Wall fell. It was my senior year of high school, a year, during which, I had hoped to study abroad, largely to escape the bullying and awkwardness I felt at school and the secrets I was beginning to understand the need to keep at home. But, when I had broached the subject with my parents the year before, it was a subject that had gotten squashed quickly.

My mother, who is Jewish, was uncomfortable with my desire to study in Germany or Austria, places that fascinated me because of her own love of their art — I grew up looking at women painted by Gustav Klimpt and Egon Shiele, women who looked like me and seemed like home.

In truth, looking back on it all, it may just have been the first thing that it sprung to her mind to say; my parents’ objections were probably more likely about money or my being off somewhere far away from their rules. But with my mother’s reaction being what it was, I didn’t ask a second time. Like all things I longed for, I merely stared at it from afar, lingering on travel ads in the newspapers I was raised to read daily as civic duty, hoping my desire would be obvious and, somehow, magical.

So I didn’t study abroad, and a month after my seventeenth birthday I wasn’t in Germany. I watched the Berlin Wall fall from our dining room table during that surprising week where I was allowed to have the television on during dinner. And each night, as I watched those events, I thought of two things: David Bowie’s “Heroes” (a song which kept me going in high school and that is deeply and complicatedly enmeshed with Berlin Wall mythology) and how I could just get up at 4am, take the can of cash I was hoarding out of the bottom of my closet, steal my mother’s credit card, grab my passport out of the second drawer on the left of her roll-top desk, take a cab to the airport, and run away, to Berlin, so I could be there as the Wall kept coming down.

But I had no nerve. And while I don’t know if it would have worked, I have always regretted that I never tried. 21 years later, I have still never been to Berlin.

Patty is too young to have particularly strong feelings or recollections about the fall of the Berlin Wall. She did not grow up afraid of nuclear war. In terms of scale, her Berlin Wall moment was, probably, sadly, 9/11. And here is this moment in Egypt, and she’s in India, doing what she loves, living without television and without radio she can understand. The news she gets comes on her mobile phone, from me, from friends, from the calls the other people on the dig get.

My academic degree is in journalism, a profession I selected for a host of foolish reasons: needing a respectable job-possible major to get parental assistance (and permission, I was 17) to go to college and wanting to be a war reporter because of fictions (V, the original version) I had loved as a young teen.

I was never a war reporter, but I did work for the AP for a few years in their Computer Assisted Reporting unit back in the mid-90s. When I write non-fiction now it’s scholarship, criticism, analysis, personal essays, or, in the hey-it’s-a-paycheck category, light lifestyle pieces for various online media.

But when I call Patty tomorrow, it’s my job to be a reporter, even if I’m just reporting all the news I watch both because it is my nature and because it is a requirement of my analysis work. I’ve been doing it since the beginning, starting with the Giffords shooting and then since the time I paged her in the middle of the night about Tunisia and Yemen and the beginnings of Egypt. The page didn’t go through right, and she, puzzled as to why I was frantically texting her about Yemen, called me on her lunch break, and I ran everything out as fast as I could.

Since then, it’s been hard to keep up the excitement and intensity and confusion and fear and hope of what’s been going on in Egypt. I’m just one person, without video or images to show her, without direct information, and with a great deal of fatigue from how much these events have upended my own working life. But it’s so important to me that I do a good job, that when she plays Where Were You When games she’ll have more for this than “I was in India, so I sort of missed it.”

I’m a news junkie. Maddeningly so. It’s not just work. It’s a compulsion. Sometimes, she has to tell me to change the damn channel because I’m about to watch the same episode of Rachel Maddow twice in the same evening. She puts up with this with a great deal of amusement, and she’s certainly into current events herself, just in a way that’s a bit less odd. So I hope I’m doing okay. That I’ll do well tomorrow. That she’ll be able to say in response to this entry in the Where Were You When game, “I was in India, and my girlfriend had to tell me about it on this crappy mobile I bought, and we kept getting disconnected and it was like two tin cans on a string and it seemed so strange.”

To me, who has the news on all the time, often on multiple screens and channels, it doesn’t seem like enough. But it sure does seem like something, like paying a debt for the way I once did, and still do, dream of Berlin.