Long gone the days where seeing any gay character on television was abnormal and shocking. Today, most shows on TV have one or two characters that are gay. However, they’re just there as an excuse for diversity; only a few number of them actually explore gay relationships or give them equal screen time and emotional depth as their heterosexual counterparts (Deb, 2012). This addition of multiple different depictions of same-sex couples and gay and lesbian people by television is being widely praised by the LBGT community as it makes the idea of homosexuality more common and representative of the actual community (Purcell, 2014).
However, people who go solely off the media’s depiction of gays and lesbians could have a skewed view of what they are actually like. This could be detrimental for youth who are developing their ideas of what homosexuals are actually like as this is their only source of information on it (Purcell, 2014). Whenever a new television show comes around with a gay character, the first question people ask is “Is he/she playing a realistic depiction or is he/she just another cliché?” But it seems no matter how the character is portrayed or how the character acts, someone will still be unhappy if not angry at the depiction. You will hear and read comments like “He’s too gay!” or “They’re trying too hard to make her look lesbian” or “I’m gay and I’m nothing like them.” This essay will analyze how the television show ‘glee’ mediates queer sexuality through its male gay characters.
Glee is an American musical comedy-drama television that started airing on the Fox network in the United States in 2009 and is still on air. It has also been on syndication on various channels worldwide and the sixth and final of the show will be airing this fall. Although it isn’t the most groundbreaking or most controversial show when it comes to depicting queer sexuality, I chose to study it as it is more relevant and popular with my generation than shows such as Ellen and Queer as Folk. It is also on network television with a large following, therefore having a broader reach and stronger influence, American musical comedy drama.
The show focuses on the lives of a group of friends that take part in their high school glee club, New Directions, as they try to deal with “relationships, sexuality, social issues, and learning to become an effective team” (Project Casting, 2014). When the series first aired it had only a single leading gay character, however as the show progressed several characters discovered that they also have homosexual feelings and desires; in addition new characters were introduced which were also queer. The show has broken the mold by bringing a broad range of queer characters to the television sets of American audiences, including an effeminate gay man, a jock who is gay buy ashamed, a gay man that comfortable in his sexuality, a girl coming in terms with being a lesbian, and a bisexual.
One of the biggest critiques of the media’s portrayal of homosexuals and same sex couples is that they are shown as straight people would want to see them. Gay men are usually seen as overly flamboyant and feminine leading to that stereotype. And women are either seen as manly and butch, or as seen on the show The L Word as what a straight man would want to see (Purcell, 2014). So is the media’s portrayal of gays and lesbians a positive thing? On one hand it brings attention to something that was once a taboo and makes it more commonplace, but on the other it creates stereotypes that teenagers and young adults associate with queer people.
Consequently, the show has been both lauded as ‘‘leading TV’s gay teen revolution’’ and criticized for its sometimes ‘‘obvious’’ and ‘‘stereotypical’’ ‘‘neat neutering’’ of gay characters (EW Staff, 2011; Smith, 2010). Either way, with an abundance of queer sexualities represented, the show deviates from traditional teen television narratives where queer identity is not often considered one of the ‘‘facts of life’’ (Kielwasser and Wolf, 1992).
What got people talking about the show in the first place, other than the music, is the storyline surrounding the openly gay character, Kurt Hummel. Some find his story to be the heart of the show, and in part responsible for the shows great success (O’Callaghan, 2011). The character is played by openly gay actor Chris Colfer, who has won several accolades for this role. A lot of the story lines he has been in come from experiences that happened to him in high school. The actor has stated that he didn’t want Kurt to be “overly flamboyant because it’s so overdone,” but instead, wanted to portray the character as “more internal and superior” with a “ ‘I’m better than you’ persona” while “underneath it all he’s the same anxious and scared teen everyone is/was at some point” in their lives (Fernandez, 2009).
However that is not what the audiences saw. Even though he only reveals his sexual identity to his best friend in the third episode, you could already tell that he is ‘queer’ from his first scene in the pilot episode (Pilot (Glee), 2009). You have probably come across characters with similar if not exact characteristic as Kurt, in movies, television shows, and even books.
In his first scene, he is wearing visible make up with several layers of branded clothing, which in no way are school attire. What is even more peculiar is that he is able to afford all this clothing, even though he comes from a low-income family. When he speaks he makes references to fashion brands and Broadway shows, which the other characters are not even aware of. He also has a feminine walk and flips his hair every few minutes. In that same episode, Kurt performs the entire “Mr. Cellophane” number in a high falsetto. His choice of song suggests that he is not seen for who he really is, and his choice to sing in a female range blurs the lines between his gender and sexuality.
Even though it’s a cliché, its not an ‘inaccurate portrayal.’ The show isn’t a documentary, so some characteristics are unrealistic and it does deal with the honest perceptions people have about gay people. While some applaud Glee for it’s honest portrayal of its gay characters, others claim its too picture perfect. Kurt is depicted as a flawless person in his looks and in his actions, which may give gay teens unrealistic expectations in how they should look and how they should act. What is being presented is the desirable image of the gay male, in terms of race and class, is the same as the desirable image of the heterosexual male.
What differentiates Kurt from the rest of the stereotypical gay characters is that he’s not there for laughs or diversity. He’s there because he serves the purpose of saying, gays are real people with feelings too, and he’s there to let gay teens know they’re not alone. And that’s why there’s more praise than outrage toward a character like Kurt. As a gay teen, Kurt is faced with a number of scenarios that challenge his true identity. In a later episode, named ‘Preggers’, Kurt joins the football team in an attempt to show his dad that he is not gay.
After returning home from kicking the game winning point, he is shown in the basement of his house applying skin care products in front of a vanity mirror (Preggers, 2009). He finally tell his father that he is gay; however his father admits he has known that Kurt was gay since he was three because he asked for high heels as a birthday gift. This is another gender stereotype, in which girls want dolls and men want cars.