House of Cards: Of saints and stories

My birthday is October 4th, which is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi.  I’m not a Catholic, but my father is, at least sometimes, and the talismanic nature of saints have always interested me.  Among other things, St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals.

A few weeks ago, I was in Rome on a brief weekend holiday while in Europe for my day job.  Rome, however, was a research trip for a writing project, and I anticipated being tightly focused on documenting things once remembered about the city in preparation for a project that is set mostly in Rome and Southern Italy. To a certain extent, I was successful.  But I was also distracted by the things that always distract me in Italy: Great food that is surprisingly often gluten-free, and the gloomy, less visited churches that are barely even footnotes on the tourist maps.

One of the things the eclecticism of my religious upbringing (if you missed it: Dad changed religions a lot, my mom is Jewish, and my childhood was a sea of hippie oddities) is actually really helpful for is pulling apart pop-culture.  And so sitting in a church so blackened with soot that the interior was nothing but ominous, I started turning over House of Cards‘s Francis Underwood — his name, his faith, and the structural function of each in the narrative both of the show and his own life — over in my head.

And I came back, in that dark church, constantly to saints.

Because Francis Underwood is, absolutely, also a patron saint of animals.  When we first meet him, he puts a dog out of his misery, with his bare hands, and doing what is possibly the right thing has never seemed quite so unsettling.  It’s one of the great moments in scripted media ever.  It jumps off the screen, because of how spectacularly it jumps off the page.

But the motif of animals, blood and murder, certainly doesn’t end there.  Not with the way Francis makes a bloody x by swiping his finger across a newspaper photo of a rival after eating ribs, and not when there is so much discussion of in S2 of who is whose dog .The hacker Gavin Orsay, goes to his knees and barks to both show he understands and loathes his place, while businessman Xander Feng is essentially held hostage in what becomes a slow death by politics not-unlike the slow, illegal, bleed supposedly performed on the pigs served at Freddy’s BBQ.  Everyone is an animal in House of Cards. As one of the key promotional lines of S2 constantly reminded us: Hunt or be hunted.

The thing is, there are a lot of saints named Francis. St. Francis de Sales, for example, is the patron saint of writers and journalists.  Our Frank Underwood puts some of those out of their misery too, doesn’t he?  And his victory at the end of S2 is won, quite significantly, by his writing a letter to the president on a typewriter that bears his other name, Underwood.

It should be unsurprising.  After all, Frank Underwood says in S1, “I pray to myself for myself.”  It is perhaps one of the most shocking moments of the show thus far, at least in a nation that places so much value on religiosity both in politics and pop culture. This statement of Frank’s, however, is, I believe, less atheistic than it first appears and more gnostic or Thelemic in nature.  If it reads as a rejection of, as opposed to a oneness with a god, it does so largely because we’re supposed to consider Frank Underwood a very bad man.

While he is no villain I ever wish to be, and I view his schemes as a constantly cautionary tale (never come up with a plot that is dependent on the other parties involved doing what you think they are going to do; people will always surprise you and you’re never going to be as smart as you think you are), I find a great deal about Frank, and his wife Claire, profound and useful to me as I navigate my own relationship with the world.

Frank’s moment in the church, and his saints names, remind me, in spite of all his sins, the we each carry within us remarkable power, terrifying resilience, and peculiar affinities that allow us, if we’re paying any sort of attention, to write the story of our own lives through the living of them.  These possessions of Frank’s also suggest tantalizing clues as how the series may progress through S3 and perhaps beyond.

Because without House of Cards morphing into a totalitarian horrorscape, Frank does not have much more to achieve.  Other than reelection as president, he now can only fall. But as a saint of animals and writers, and as his own god who writes himself into being (praying to himself for himself), he must necessarily also write his own fall and achieve it too as a victory.

To that end, I would suggest keeping your eyes on Claire.  Frank is in so many ways her mentor and in so many ways she is surpassing him.  It is my very strong suspicion is that Frank’s final victory can only be his own written and wished for demise at her well-trained hands.

Glee: Passing and the ongoing disappearance of Blaine Anderson

Over the last couple of days, I’ve dug through all the Glee related entries I’ve posted here for mentions of passing. There are a lot of them, and they’re mostly related to Blaine around sexuality, gender, and race. They’re also mostly about my hope that Glee would deliver an actual plot line around passing.

Of course, hindsight is 20-20 and in fandom’s mad and excellent scramble to figure out what Blaine’s choices in “The Break Up” were about, it’s become clear, of course, that Blaine’s passing wasn’t just a bit of seasoning or a tease at a story that could be told. Rather, the narrative was — intentionally or not — unfurling all along.

In a show that’s ostensibly about underdogs, Blaine Anderson has always been a bit of a conundrum. Doesn’t he have too much going for him for us to really care about his problems? Certainly he’s been easy for a lot of viewers to resent, whether it’s been the “too nice, too boring” charge of my friend Shanna over at Don’t Turn It Off or just a general distaste for his prep school manners and privilege.

Blaine’s not, as far as I can tell, a character people have ambivalence about, because if Glee is about the triumph of underdogs, why does this dude, who really seems to have fewer obstacles than most of his WMHS peers get, among other things, all the solos?

But the fact that Blaine seems to have so many fewer problems than most of the other WMHS kids, is something that’s embedded in the character not just in the Doylist sense, but in a Watsonian sense as well. Blaine’s fine. Why worry about Blaine?

But Blaine isn’t fine; he just passes for fine.

Just like he’s gay, but can pass for straight at WMHS. We can argue (as a few enthusiastic people in my Ask on Tumblr often do) that Blaine can’t possibly he choosing to pass with those ridiculously short trousers and the bowties. Yet the fact remains that his outfits are based on classic menswear style, and he is seen being accorded masculine status (usually in opposition to Kurt) on repeated occasions.

From Bieste’s reaction to Blaine during the auditions for West Side Story to the choir room guys (particularly Puck and Artie) treating him like a “bro,” to Sam’s inaccurate insistence that Blaine isn’t into “gay” things that, canonically, we’ve seen that he’s absolutely in to — Blaine is, whether he wants to be or not, viewed as at least an honorary straight guy. We even see it when Kitty and her bullying friends pick on a group of New Directions members and Blaine’s sexuality doesn’t even merit a remark. WMHS hasn’t become suddenly not-homophobic; rather, Blaine just doesn’t ping their anxieties because he doesn’t visibly step out of boxes regarding gender and desire that trigger their discomfort.

In short, when it comes to sexuality and gender concerns, Blaine passes whether he wants to or not, just as Kurt doesn’t, whether he wants to or not.

But the matter of not being seen for what he is doesn’t end there for Blaine. Racial passing is also a theme in his narrative, even if its one that’s been given markedly less attention. However, aside from establishing his background with Rachel’s offhand “vaguely Eurasian babies” remark in Season 2, matters of race (and skin tone) have popped up around Blaine repeatedly. After the topic not having appeared at all this season, it shows up twice in remarks from Brittany during the election process in “Makeover.” In hindsight, that placement seems a critical reminder just before the shock of 4.04 that no one ever seems to see Blaine for what he is.

He’s gay, and passes for straight.

He’s a person of color who passes for white.

He’s gotten seriously physically hurt in canon twice, but there are no visible scars or wounds that force anyone to remember or acknowledge it happened.

These three items, combined with his talent, means he’s offered opportunities to perform, given the benefit of the doubt in social situations, and pursued as a friend and lover in ways that characters who can’t pass — Kurt, Mercedes, Artie, Santana and Becky (just to name a few; I have no idea what the show is doing or intends to do with Unique and the passing issue) — often aren’t.

But the thing is, Blaine’s not straight. He’s not white. And he’s not scar-free.

And those aren’t the only things he passes for. He also passes for responsible, supported, accepted, and just fine. With everyone. Even his boyfriend.

But Blaine’s not, necessarily, responsible (see his relationships with alcohol and sexuality). He certainly seems to be lacking in family support. And he’s not accepted by his peers, because the guy they often give acceptance to isn’t really him.

And he’s not, at the end of the day, fine, and that was clear to a lot of us by the time he performed “Cough Syrup,” if not sooner.

Blaine’s not fine because the passing is killing him.

But the thing about passing is that it’s complicated. It is not innately good nor bad. It’s a thing that some people can choose and some people can’t avoid. It’s a thing that can help some people be safe in some circumstances. It’s also a thing that can put a person at risk or make them feel like they are disappearing.

And disappearing is exactly what Blaine Anderson has been doing. His very existence is (in a marvelous bit of rubbing up against the fourth wall commentary) an exercise in persona. And, despite the people around him seeming to sense that something is wrong, the things they have done to help have either reinforced the disappearing Blaine is experiencing or underscored the futility of outside intervention in the construction and deconstruction of his identity.

One scene I keep lingering on in the wake of 4.04 is the argument Kurt and Blaine have in Emma’s office during the debacle with Chandler at the end of Season 3. One of the weirder and funnier things Blaine snaps at Kurt about is Kurt sneaking bronzer into his hand lotion.

“It looks weird,” Blaine says, “if a person just has tan hands.” Blaine is disappearing, and Kurt senses this, but can’t truly identify it and hasn’t the faintest clue how to actually stop the process. All he can do is hold on by what little he can reach.

The disappearance metaphor is heartbreaking in part because of how it ties into Blaine’s passing problems.

It’s also intriguing, because it reminds us again of the question of how much of the passing story regarding Blaine in Glee is Watsonian (in this case, internal and intrinsic to the story) and how much of it is Doylist (specifically, how convenient is it to a commercial narrative to feature a character who can be perceived as both gay and/or straight as well as PoC and/or white as individual audience members desire based on their own biases and narrative needs)?

Being a cypher, and being able to pass, seems, quite clearly, to be killing Blaine Anderson in the Watsonian sense. But it’s arguably, and unsettlingly, something that may well be being considered as quite useful in the marketing of the character.

True Blood: This use of “Teenage Dream” feels oddly familiar

While we wait for the fall TV season to begin, and I wonder how many shows I’m actually going to manage to keep up with, one of the things I’m also watching right now is True Blood. It’s not intentional, it’s just that Patty is a fan, so it’s on, on Sunday evenings, and I keep up on it for the sake of household conversation — much the way she really can’t stand Glee but knows everything about Kurt and Blaine and insists she actually cares when I tell her about it (what can I say, she’s a generous soul).

Last night, however, as Tumblr was melting down from spoilers from the Glee filming in NYC, True Blood gave us a moment I can’t really help but share with you all, despite offering a lack of analysis, because it’s a darkly delightful use of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” that’s actively funnier if you read this blog.

The scene features Russell Edgington (take a minute with that name, would you?), recently returned from the nearly permanently dead to undead vitality and epic bad behavior, dancing to the strains of “Teenage Dream” with the Reverend Steve Newland, former anti-vampire hate preacher, who’s now a vampire himself. And just in case that wasn’t clear enough, for bonus gay allegory, they’re now an item — Newland having left his perfect blonde wife, and Edgington’s former partner being brutally dispatched in the midst of an ugly vampire feud a couple of seasons ago.

The “Teenage Dream” lyrics, of course, are perfect — two vampires dancing amongst blood and gore as Katy Perry sings about staying young forever is a great way to remind us that pop-culture and bubble gum songs aren’t always so innocent. But the construction of the scene also made me cackle loudly, not just because I watch Glee, which also used the song in its own rather unforgettable way, but because of the degree to which the themes and visuals remain oddly the same from one show to the other.

Maybe it’s the wood-paneled room. Maybe it’s that I’m pretty sure the sea of corpses Edgington and Newland are dancing amongst is entirely made of men (frat house, all boys school — what’s the difference?). Maybe it’s that everything is so new and magical to Newland. Or maybe it’s, if you’ve been watching True Blood faithfully (even in the not exactly intentional way I have been), the degree to which a major plot point currently revolves around the faerie kingdom, and how Edgington wants to enslave it for his own in order to enable himself and Newland, and their kind, to come out of the shadows and walk in the day.

The degree to which it felt like a corruption of the Glee scene (and while True Blood often plays hard with other pop-culture, I wouldn’t trust myself to hazard a guess on the intentionality of this) — from the dead men to the alcohol to something that is anything but the glorious romance of children — was not insignificant.

Regardless of why this scene exists, it gave me a good and disturbing laugh last night, and I imagine it’ll merit an odd chuckle from many regular readers of this blog as well. Enjoy!

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.

Glee: Kurt Hummel, heteroaesthetics, and feminine modesty

When Glee‘s season 3 started, one of the things we were told was that Kurt’s outfits would be less outrageous — he’s getting older, he has a boyfriend, there’s less need to shock. And for the first four episodes, this was by and large true: there were fewer inexplicable pieces and gender non-conforming choices, and Kurt largely stuck to vests, dress shirts, trousers and stylish scarves. Sure, there were some outrageous accessories, but he’s growing up, not dead….

And then there was sex and Kurt Hummel’s fashion started knowing no gender once again.

At first I thought I was just seeing things as I watched too closely for all the ways I expected a heteronormative bucket of fail to get poured all over the first time narrative in 3.05 in a desire to appease straight audiences. But after watching 3.07 last night, I’m convinced that 3.05 marks a specific and intentional turning point regarding Kurt’s clothing that actually echos back to, among other things, season 1, and is designed to amplify the passing-related plotlines of the current season.

It’s all about the knitwear, starting with Kurt’s first outfit in 3.05.

Sure, he’s wearing a tie, but he’s also wearing one of those form-fitting knee-length sweater (dresses) that he made clear his dad abhors in S1 (he promised to stop wearing them to get his car, remember). It’s a brilliant outfit choice for the scene where Blaine’s nattering on about masturbation and Kurt’s unsure of his own desirability. The male/female content of the outfit combined with the ridiculous animal print and Kurt lounging on Blaine’s bed like a girl goes a long way towards saying, “I’m not like other boys, and there’s not even a short explanation.” But Blaine blows right by that and a conversation that starts about insecurity winds up being about flirtation.

It’s later in that same episode when we see the first of the many, many capelettes and ponchos we’ve seen since (and just in case you weren’t clear these capelettes are girl clothes, Rachel wears one in this episode as well, when she arrives at the Hudson-Hummel home to sleep with Finn for the first time). It’s that scene with Sebastian in the Lima Bean, and Kurt has this severe almost nun-like look going on, what with the high white and black collar, the amorphous shape of the cape over his chest, and the prim disapproval. But it’s important to remember that Kurt never intended to see Sebastian in this scene — this supposed to be him and Blaine engaging in their private routine — and therefore a private, relationship-centered moment, even if conducted in public.

In fact, outfits that are arguably supposed to be about Kurt and Blaine time (or at least Kurt explicitly addressing Blaine with the outfit), remain resolutely feminine in influence from this point on. There’s that equestrian moment in 3.06 in which Kurt is wearing something not only feminine in nature, but in which Blaine is solicitously helping him down from a chair he was standing on (said equestrian outfit, it should be noted, echos the polo motif in Blaine’s bedroom as seen in 3.05).

There’s also that hideous outfit involving the belted shawl/poncho and the leather Sunset Boulevard turban. And then are the three feminine outfits of 3.07 — the kilt (without leggings this time), the long grey knit turtleneck poncho, and the asymmetrical knit poncho worn during “Perfect.”

These clothing pieces aren’t just feminine for all the ways they aren’t masculine. Rather, they are all deeply representative of feminine modesty. Ponchos, in particular, minimize the figure and frequently show up in modest dressing blogs with a range of cultural emphases. That we also have Kurt covering his hair with greater frequency post-3.05 (sure, he’s always been into hats, but I have to argue this is different), particularly in that ridiculous Sunset Boulevard outfit, is also notable. In fact, the only time Kurt shows skin in one of his feminine outfits is when he has some leg on view in 3.07. But, if we argue for the school girl uniform reference, there’s a primness and social modesty connotation here too — regardless of what we’re all thinking on Tumblr.

But Kurt’s clothes haven’t gone entirely this direction. Not in the least. In fact, when he has to engage in public moments — such as his student council election speech (3.06) and election day (3.07) — he’s in masculine attire. Kurt Hummel performs a lot of things — queerness and femininity, of course, but also masculinity — when it suits his needs. There’s a discipline in that, a reading of and playing to the audience that he lacked in earlier seasons. It’s a savvy he’s acquired now, one that speaks both to politics and his own goals as a performer, even as it in no way impinges upon how he chooses to present himself in his private (even if conducted in public) life.

The big aberration here, of course, are the outfits he wears on his date with Blaine to Scandals and when he tells Blaine he’s going home with him (for sex) at the end of 3.05. Those are both what should arguably be private moments, and therefore, to fit the pattern above, involve feminine attire. But they don’t. At all.

My suspicion is that the variance here comes from two things: extradiegetically, to make it very clear that Kurt and Blaine are two gay boys; and intradiegetically, because Kurt is worried in both of these situations about proving man enough — first for gay culture, and then second, for his boyfriend who so clearly wants to be wooed and seduced (see: the Sadie Hawkins dance and Blaine’s interactions with Sebastian). In fact, extradiegetically, the auditorium outfit is actively hilarious, at least if you’ve been following the hanky code discussion over on Deconstructing Glee. That hanky code queer in-joke is, however, part of what makes Kurt’s adventures with gender so utterly subversive and queer.

For folks (largely queer folks) paying attention, Glee informs us that Kurt is happy and eager to be an aesthetically feminine partner in his relationship and play act at that very role… when it’s about his relationship. But that in no way makes him a passive, submissive or traditionally feminine partner; it doesn’t even make him a girl (sidenote: I loathe all the stereotypes it’s necessary to address to untangle what’s going on with Kurt, but it’s the world he, and we, live in). It places a heteroaesthetic dynamic around Kurt and Blaine, while firmly removing any hint of a heteronormative one.

That heteroaesthetic dynamic serves to amplify queerness for the viewer interested in queerness, but also to minimize queerness, by suggesting the actually rejected heteronormativity, for the viewier not interested in, or not comfortable with, that same queerness. This is a type of relatively outrageous passing, one that offers Kurt and Blaine safety both intra- and extradiegetically, without imposing restriction on their significantly queer gender expression and sexuality.

Finally, that Kurt’s feminine aesthetic choices evoke modesty seems to play into broader issues around his experience of sexuality. Kurt has, for all his “baby penguin” denial, always been a sensualist — it’s present in his fretting about fabrics, skin care, and even food (despite the toxic, self-restrictive tendencies we’ve seen there).

Since 3.05 we have seen him project physical modesty and avoid physical contact with people who aren’t Blaine (including, but not limited to, Rachel and the awkward hug that required warning; and Brittany and the lack of hug response/cringe thing), and it is emotionally touching as well as indicative of how much work he is having to do to both segregate his desire from the rest of his life and to integrate it into a necessarily public existence. This parallels neatly with the male/female dichotomy of Kurt’s presentation and additionally with the heteroaesthetic/queerness passing game he and Blaine are, I think, knowingly playing.

Glee: Why is Kurt Hummel dressed like a flying monkey?

While Glee often causes me to ask somewhat bizarre questions, I never really anticipated that one of them would be Why is Kurt Hummel dressed like a flying monkey? And yet, this is the first thing I thought when filming stills started to leak weeks ago from the season finale finally broadcast this past Tuesday night. Even more surprising to me than the question, however, is that the question actually has an answer.

While that answer is obviously embedded in Kurt and Rachel’s performance of “For Good” when they break into Wicked‘s theater; there’s a lot more going on with Kurt, the Wizard of Oz (and Judy Garland) and its place in gay culture, and magicianship than I noticed, or would have expected, at first glance. It’s why I keep writing about this show, even when the other questions it evokes are often inane things like “Wait, Quinn swore vengeance and executed that vengeance by… getting her hair cut?” Alas, I don’t have an answer for that one.

When Kurt and Rachel get to the Wicked theater, break in, and are not chased off by a security guard (who gives them fifteen minutes on the stage to confront their dreams), Kurt tells Rachel that the only way for her to solve her dilemma (a career vs. love conundrum that is both annoyingly conservative and relatively common) is to sing. As they stand in front of the Kansas set background and Rachel protests the lack of orchestra, Kurt tells her to imagine one, and then, with a wave of his hand, not only is there an orchestra, but the set has switched to the black and green of Oz, at which point Rachel launches into the song with the lyrics, “I’m limited,” which go on to say that Kurt (who is cast here in the Glinda role), can do all the things she can’t.

Which leads us to wonder, what are those things? After all, Rachel gets far more solos than Kurt. His voice may be beautiful, but no one knows what to do with him half the time, and as much as the glee club is happy to have him back, his song choices, performative styling and apparent gender variance are still a sticking point, albeit one that’s fonder than it’s been in the past.

The thing is, Kurt does have a skill, a magic, that Rachel doesn’t have. And it is an imagination that wills things in the world. It’s no accident that Kurt’s imagination transforming the stage comes a week after “Funeral,” an episode in which he leads the glee club in “Pure Imagination.” Nor is it an accident that this performance also follows closely on the heels of his return to McKinley with “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” re-purposed from its original meaning into another moment where Kurt makes what is unreal (sets, stage craft, performance) real.

Kurt, of course, has always been doing this, but until his adventures at Dalton (which is explicitly faerieland in Glee — even moreso than McKinley. At Dalton there are no classes, no teachers, no sense of home or context or place. One of the first things Kurt asks once he meets with Blaine and the Warblers council there is “is everyone here gay?” And let’s not forget, once having consumed food (okay, coffee) in faerieland he winds up staying so much longer than previously anticipated), Kurt’s imagination has been a site of toxicity for him. This toxicity, and failure, was highlighted particularly strongly in his pursuit of Finn, a situation in which Kurt tried to use the force of his imagination to will his desire into the world — and fails with significant consequences for multiple people. He later tries the same thing with similar results, to a lesser extent, with Sam.

Dalton changes all that. Not because it is a safe environment, but because it is part of the ordeal. There is initiation (“Teenage Dream”), apprenticeship (his failed audition with “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” where his giftedness is a flaw because it is untrained and unapproved; this is then followed by his misery during “Soul Sister” where he must accept a place of smallness that’s alien to him and feels cruel even in its necessity), acceptance of powerlessness (present not just in the events that drive Kurt to Dalton, but include that whole mess with Jeremiah and Blaine), evolution of perception through events related to altered states and sexuality (Rachel’s car crash of a party and the events of “Sexy”), and, ultimately a reclaiming of power (challenging Blaine about all his solos) before being elevated to various statuses long sought through group (the Warblers granting him the duet with Blaine) and personal acclaim (Blaine’s “You move me.”).

That Kurt is finally able to make himself seen, not just professionally, but personally, because of a performance regarding a dead bird (yes, it’s ludicrous and actively ignores the original context of the Beatles song “Blackbird,” but that’s nothing new for Glee) in which he is dressed in black and wearing an animal skull brooch (Kurt, in fact, has a collection of brooches in the theme of “dead animals,” even if most of them are little plastic replicas of the mounted heads of much larger beasts), clearly portrays Kurt as a magus, newly arrived and stating his desire to be recognized.

Death is transformation and alchemy, and as Kurt chooses to take control of his situation by moderating everyone else’s interaction with that death by being chief mourner and mortician for Pavoratti (okay, I know, I know… dead bird, just stay with me folks), Kurt is finally able to will what he’s been wanting for a while (a boyfriend, Blaine, and center stage) into being. It’s also the start of the path that gets him back to McKinley (because he makes people desire his presence — Santana may be self-serving, but she’s also serving Kurt and his gifts), New Directions and eventually New York. All of these are, as mentioned above, locations and situations in which we see repeated demonstrations of Kurt’s power to make what he imagines real, and, thanks to Rachel, in the season two finale we see that power recognized externally on an overt basis for the first time.

Which gets us back to Why is Kurt Hummel dressed like a flying monkey? (a phrase, which, I’ll admit, is just really fun to say over and over again). In the land of Oz, the flying monkeys were free creatures who did as they pleased until they were enslaved. In pop-culture (and political cartoons), they often appear as minions and irritants, powerful only in their ability to serve and to be disruptive — that is, they cause decay to what already exists, but do not transform or create newness, at least not in their abused state.

So, Kurt arrives in New York in that guise (Kurt’s clothes, while always outrageous, are rarely actively ugly, at least to my eye, but the furred epaulets on that jacket from Lip Service are truly ridiculous and both it, and the hat, are sort of out of the range of Kurt’s more typical fashion vocabulary, even if he wears a lot of stuff from Lip Service); sheds it when he gives Rachel her magic moment (in which she points out that he’s actually the magic — she sings to him, and he sings out to the audience); and then returns to Lima, Ohio, to declare victory, dressed in Oz’s colors — silver and green — having been liberated and having brought the magic home. This possession of magic is here confirmed to us both with Blaine’s “I love you” and with Kurt then declaring that, all in all, he really has had a pretty good year.

Giving Kurt a “hero’s journey” on Glee was always going to be a daring choice, because he’s a gay kid and because he performs gay in the particular way he does. But to take a gay kid who the world too easily wants to read as weak and make him a magician — that is, someone with the power to change others and bend reality to his will — is a truly risky and starling choice. It makes Kurt powerful, threatening, and seductive. It normalizes his gender presentation through function (because in a dichotomous system magicianship requires a union of the genders and an ability to step outside that union); and it confronts, side-steps and perhaps even embodies Glee‘s awkward preoccupation with the “predatory gay” stereotype, with a sort of enviable power.

Kurt, like most of Glee‘s main characters, has another year in Lima, but his season two arc shows us that he’s already gotten out.