The slap heard round the GleeVerse, and the stories that led up to it
From the very beginning of Glee, the show has been addressing two realities that are pervasive in the lives of today’s teens: bullying and LGBTQ awareness/dignity/acceptance. Glee doesn’t address just these two realities, but they have arguably been the strongest thrust of the ways in which Glee has attempted to make social statements/shape public perception and debate.
In 3x06 Mash-Off, the writers made a deliberate choice to mash these two issues up with each other in a way we haven’t seen on the show before. We’ve been shown a lot–very powerfully and done very well–about the social evils of bullying kids because they are gay. We’ve also seen the show address bullying of those who are different/perceived as being less important/more vulnerable. The biggest emphasis through Seasons One and Two has been on the terrible reality of kids who are gay being bullied because of their sexuality, or kids being called gay as a way of attempting to bully them
While Glee has done wonders with this story line, it isn’t the only aspect of LGBTQ realities & struggles that the show has addressed. For instance, Glee has portrayed, through Kurt’s story, the struggles teens go through in coming out to friends and families, the loneliness that comes from being the only out person in school and, therefore, not having the types of romantic relationships one’s peers take for granted, and struggles with a segment of the faith community that condemns one for being who one was created to be.
And, as I said above, it’s looked at the problems of bullying in a more general context, focusing on the bullying suffered by all of the kids who dared to be different, including the generalized bullying of them by Karofsky and Azimio in Season One (although even much of this was frequently focused on Kurt because he is gay, or on calling Finn gay because of being in Glee and spending time with Kurt); on the bullying of Rachel by the popular girls and by others from time to time; on bullying of Finn in particular for being a popular kid who dared to leave the conventional, expected mold and express his individuality by joining Glee (after Kurt, Finn and Rachel have been the two characters on the show who’ve been bullied the most); and on the journey of Puck away from being a bully himself. Through the Second Season story of Dave Karofsky, Glee looked at the ways in which kids who feel like they are forced to live lies about who they are can sometimes act out by turning their feelings of self-conflict into conflict directed toward others.
But as far as the bullying storyline goes, when dealing with it more generically Glee has been in a bit of a dilemma. While the show condemns bullying, at the same time it has long derived much of its most biting humor (or attempted to do so–sometimes the efforts fall flat) from two characters given virtual free reign to be bullies–Sue Sylvester and, particularly in Season Two and into Season Three, Santana Lopez. Very seldom have they been shown to feel remorse for what they do, and when it has happened, the remorse has never lasted for long–in a short period of time, they were back to their bullying ways.
Mash-Off showed both of these characters at a zenith of bullying, Sue via her increasingly over-the-top negative campaign ads and Santana who went, over the course of the episode, from her customary level of insult (calling Finn a beached whale, saying Rachel has a moustache like a Middle Eastern dictator) to the most severe escalation we’ve ever seen from her. Recalling the tragic case of the bullying of an Irish-American girl in a Massachusetts high school that led the girl to commit suicide because she was so mercilessly and continually harassed, put-down, and bullied by others, Santana instigated physical violence against Rory, probably because his feelings for Brittany shown in 3x04 Pot o’ Gold still made Santana feel threatened. She later attacked with pin-point precision to viciously strike every single insecurity Finn has about himself. Her actions were written to be, beyond the shadow of a doubt, so far over the top that no one would find them acceptable and that everyone viewing would recognize what she was doing was bullying.
And with this bullying storyline, Glee mashed-up another aspect of the painful, difficult, and sometime dangerous realities LGBTQ kids and adults face–being outed by others when they themselves, for their own reasons, have chosen to remain, or feel that they have no choice but to remain, in the closet. Rather than show us, as they’ve done with Kurt’s story, a gay teen being bullied because they are gay, Glee here chose to show us a bully who happened to be gay and, as fallout from her bullying, wound up being outed, and then, as a result of the bullying of another (Sue’s extremely negative campaign ads directed toward her rivals), was outed to an even wider group of people. Finn’s words, the outgrowth of a personal quarrel and of him seeking to attack Santana’s one vulnerability just as she had hit all of his, completely crossed the line of acceptable behavior by making public and by judging something private, something only Santana and Santana alone had the right to reveal, on her own terms and in her own time. The compounding of her outing by having it get caught up in the political campaigning and be broadcast to all of the community was an outgrowth of Finn’s actions that, even though he didn’t intend them, were written to show, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that outing another is not ever acceptable and carries all sorts of potentially grave, unforeseen consequences.
While the writers took care to state that Finn did not intend for his actions to have the far-reaching consequences that they did by having him express his belief that everyone in the school already knew about Santana and didn’t care, his actions in outing someone were simply, plainly, and unjustifiably wrong. And while the writers offered a suggestion for why Santana might be bullying others to such an extreme degree, having Finn echo Santana’s own personal explanation for her behavior back in 2x15 Sexy by saying that she is bullying others due to all of the fear she has inside about what might happen if she comes out–essentially, a rationale that echoes Dave Karofsky’s bullying of Kurt–her bullying acts were simply, plainly, and unjustifiably wrong. We were offered explanations for the actions of each, but in neither case did the show intimate that their actions were excusable.
The choice to mash-up these two primary foci of Glee–the struggles faced by LGBTQ teens and the struggles faced by kids who are bullied–brings the devastating effects of both into sharp focus. This mash-up apparently has, in some cases, led to a type of mash-off competition among viewers who have entered into arguments about which behavior is worse, which is less excusable, which is more justifiable. The writers are very smart, and clearly they knew this would happen and that it would generate heated conversation about the two issues they care most about. From the way the episode was constructed, we were not given an easy, simple answer as to which issue the show thinks matters more; from what we’ve seen over the course of two plus seasons, we know that Glee believes both of these are equally important, and in Mash-Off we saw both thrust front and center.
It’s hard to predict these days what Glee will be doing, and how it will accomplish what it appears to set out to do, but a best guess suggests that upcoming episodes, and maybe the remainder of Season Three, will keep seeing these issues engaged through the ways the stories brought to an explosive point in Mash-off continue to be told. Glee made a brilliant choice in using the two characters of Finn and Santana to tell these stories, because they have years, now, of history and antipathy and entanglement that completely organically, and with rock-solid continuity, make their confrontation not only feel natural but inevitable.
Cory Monteith and Naya Rivera absolutely shone in their performances here, as they did in the scenes from 3x04 and 3x05 that most immediately laid the groundwork and set-up the explosions in 3x6. Waiting and watching to see how these two extremely talented actors continue to embody the stories of their characters as they convey the writers’ messages both about the evils of bullying and the painful & often harsh struggles of LGBTQ kids, each more often than not the result of social prejudices, and about the triumphs of overcoming bullying, finding and acting on inner strength, rising above the hate of the world, and figuring out how to be true to oneself and to survive as one does so, promises to make for excellent television and a powerful continuation of Glee’s third season. Perhaps the biggest question that remains is the long-standing one: how will a show that simultaneously condemns bullying as a serious matter and relies on instances of bullying for comic effect find a way to reconcile, or at least move forward, with this conflicting mash-up of attitudes toward bullying?
Hilarious number–it is still making me smile! And total props to Glee for finding yet another adorkable way to present the Gleeks of the New Directions as underdogs–a necessary predicate to letting them struggle, rise up, shine, and gain personal, interpersonal, and sometimes even actual competition, wins!
The Retro 80s awesomeness was (to borrow hackney-ed but in this case appropo slang) totally rad, and Cory Monteith’s singing was a great match for the song and was really, really, really well done. So great to hear Finn singing again–it took over 25% of the season to get there, but Mash-Off let us hear Finn with a reclaimed & renewed voice.
(I still like “Hit Me / One Way” the best of the episode, though–it was the song that fit the story perfectly, so it gets top marks in my book.)