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.