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The Sex Files #6: A Feminist Gleek’s Breakup with the Show

Welcome to the Sexual Health blog, run by BCSSH!  Here’s the simple version of who we are: we’re a group of students who think that condoms are important.  For the longer version, see our website!

I’m going to begin with a confession.  I love Glee, and so does just about every BCSSH board member.  But I mean, I seriously love Glee.  I’ve been a “gleek since before you marketing geniuses came up with that clever moniker. I watched the Lady Gaga-themed episode on a Bolt Bus to DC and cried, in public, without shame (and it wasn’t the first time a Glee episode brought me to tears, either). I’m even listening to the soundtrack as I write this. And as blasphemous as this is, I think I like the Glee version of “Like a Prayer” better than the Madonna original (that’s right, I said it). Like I said, I love Glee.

So what problems could a BCSSH-er have with a show that, time and time again, declares (even shoves down our throats) its promotion of tolerance, friendship, and, above all, the idea that life can be a musical?  Why am I formally declaring my breakup with Glee now?  (Warning: spoilers may follow if you’re not caught up!)

Was it the diversity issues?  Like the further marginalization of characters of color through their consistent tokenization (Sassy Black Girl, Shy Asian Girl, and Voiceless And Ethnically Ambiguous Male Who Can Dance, amongst others) and relegation to subplots and supporting roles whenever they’re not altogether ignored?  Was it the fact that, in this day and age when eating disorders are disturbingly common and young women are dangerously obsessed with their weight and attaining unattainable standards of beauty you chose to hire actors (who are meant to portray high schoolers) between the ages of 20 and 29 who conform to many of these unattainable standards? 

Or was it the hypocrisy of your claims of breaking ground with episodes that served only to reinforce stereotypes?  I mean, do you think portraying Kurt, the only openly gay character (at least before Blaine arrived on the scene), as overtly flamboyant increases visibility and tolerance of gay characters on TV?  Or could it reproduce tired stereotypes, perpetuating the narrow-minded view of gay men as one-dimensional, jazz hand-waving caricatures?  (Note: the less-stereotypically-gay Blaine is still a singer/dancer, and even the deeply closeted jock Karofsky demonstrated a special penchant for choreography for the “Thriller” number in “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle” episode.)

Is having a female football coach really such a revolutionary idea when she’s portrayed as abnormally masculine — exactly what gender norms would dictate?  Is having a main character use a wheelchair all that progressive when the actor himself does not have a mobility impairment?  (And don’t try to tell me there simply aren’t wheelchair users who are also talented singers and actors or that Artie’s one scene of non-wheelchair dancing prevented the hiring of a wheelchair user, when experienced wheelchair dancers are hired as stunt doubles for Artie’s scenes regularly.)

It was all those things.  But what was the final straw?  Well, this is the sexual health blog.  So, you guessed it:  it was the sex ed episode.

I’ll give you some credit, Glee.  You clearly wanted us, the audience, to understand that Emma, in her obsession with celibacy and refusal to acknowledge anything else in the spectrum of choices people can make about their sexuality, was being unrealistic and irrational.  You, like us, were appalled at Brittany’s honestly believing herself to be pregnant after a stork built a nest on her garage.  So what’s my problem?  Call me crazy, but I can’t help but be just a little irked by how even those who advocated for sex education (Holly Holiday and Will Schuester) were completely terrified of actually implementing it.  They considered sex education to offer students dangerous information with which they couldn’t be trusted (what horror, young people being informed about their bodies!) and which was inherently unacceptable in a high school setting — unless, of course, it was placed in a context of fear with the express purpose of discouraging sexual activity altogether.

Take, for example, how, even after Holly’s awesome song (which was very consent-filled), she reminds students that “whenever you have sex with someone, you’re having sex with everyone they’ve ever had sex with — and everybody’s got a random.”  Is that true?  Sure, in a way.  But what message does this – a ricochet between the extremes of a dirty dancing-filled “sex ed” lesson and an ominous warning, with no actual facts in between – send to students who are already as uninformed and misled as this bunch?

Glee writers, with this episode you’ve echoed the misconception that sex education is either raunchy or frigid.  People think that if schools are talking about sex, it must be scandalous.  Why, they must be encouraging kids to hump in the hallways like a small group of post-nuclear holocaust bunnies trying to repopulate the planet!  And the only alternative would be to advocate total abstinence until marriage (and even then, sex is only for baby makin’ purposes, of course).

But this is the exact problem with mainstream perceptions of sex education.  Sex education isn’t — or at least shouldn’t be — either of these extremes.  Instead, students should be informed with evidence-based facts in a judgment-free environment that includes the full range of options regarding sexual activity.  And armed with these facts, students should then be left to make their own choices, based on what they decide is right for them — not what lawmakers, preachers, parents, or anyone else try to force on them. 

Holly suggests approaching sex ed in the same way parents trick their children into eating vegetables by hiding them in foods they like.  But that tactic will never teach kids to like vegetables, and shrouding sex ed in mystery or allowing it to assume this culture of shame will never help young people develop a healthy understanding of sex or sexuality.  Sexual health is an essential part of our overall health, however absent it seems to be from our national discourse.  The last thing this country needs, Glee, is yet another voice — especially one as melodic and far-reaching as yours — saying all the wrong things about sexual health.

But Glee, you know I love you like Sue Sylvester loves tormenting random passersby.  Your songs are just so darn catchy, and I really don’t know what I’d do with my time if I weren’t stressing about Rachel’s antics or belting it out like Mercedes (which I totally can, when no one is there to cramp my diva style).  So let’s consider this a warning.  I’ll keep watching, and my heart will still involuntarily flutter every time Blaine smiles at Kurt (or, let’s be honest, at the screen), but there’s only so much I can take.  You need to get your act together… please.

Peace, Love, and Lube,
A Tentative Feminist Gleek (tentative on the gleek part, not on the feminist)

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