Like most theater kids, I grew up with the musical trainwreck that is Ryan Murphy’s “Glee.” I sang with Rachel Berry (Lea Michele, “Scream Queens”), danced with Mike Chang (Harry Shum Jr., “Shadowhunters”) and cried to the dramatized plots of the 2009 comedy-drama. Each day when I returned home from my seventh-grade classes, I’d pick up my Kindle Fire and catch up with my favorite gang of musically-inclined, romantically complicated high school students. It wasn’t until I somehow stumbled across “GleeTok” years later that my eyes were opened to a question I had never thought to ask myself before: What was going on with this show?
I scrolled through post after post about the problematic nature of “Glee” and how its weak attempts at diversity only led to stereotypical depictions of LGBTQ+ and POC characters. And honestly, I couldn’t help but agree. It’s safe to say that in this day and age, being a hardcore “Glee” fan understandably comes with its repercussions, usually in the form of internet criticism. I suppose I believed that we as a society had laid our interest in “Glee” to rest.
But while scrolling through TikTok on Halloween night, I was met with an immense surprise — and an abundance of red tracksuits. Every other video on my For You page featured someone in head-to-toe Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, “Best in Show”) getup miming along to one of her iconic audios.
Coach Sylvester spent six years plotting to destroy the New Directions glee club out of fear that the group would overshadow her cheer team as McKinley High’s greatest performers. She also managed to verbally abuse almost everyone she came across in the process. From her first interaction with the cheer team in the show’s pilot (“You think this is hard? Try being waterboarded, that’s hard!”) we know just what kind of person Sue is going to be. Coach Sylvester’s relationship with her students is based on, in her own words, “a state of constant fear” created by an “environment of irrational, random terror.” Whether she’s encouraging cheerleaders to join the New Directions to destroy them from the inside out or informing a coworker that “right now, I’m tempted to sell your scalp on the black market as a tiny, full-length shearling coat for only the most fashionable of premature babies,” it’s safe to say that Sue isn’t exactly the teacher you go to when you’re looking for a safe space.
This all got me wondering: How is the internet so anti-“Glee,” yet so pro-Sue Sylvester? As a main character in a show that faces immense criticism on a regular basis, what is this villain doing back on our screens? How is she making her way into people’s hearts, and how has she managed to stand the test of time?
From “Jane the Virgin”’s Petra Solano (Yael Grobglas, “Supergirl”) to Hook (Colin O’Donoghue, “Trollhunters”) in “Once Upon a Time,” audiences have a pattern of resonating with villainous characters more than their creators intended. While we get our fair share of inspiration and idealism from our heroes, these opposing characters tend to bring a fresher, more realistic perspective to the table, usually with biting wit and humorous commentary.
Additionally, many of us find it hard to relate to the simple ingénues and golden boys depicted on screen: the Mr. Schuesters (Matthew Morrison, “Grey’s Anatomy”) and Ms. Pillsburys (Jayma Mays, “Red Eye”) of the media. With can-do attitudes and frustrating senses of blind optimism, basic protagonists propel the plotlines forward and tie the story together — just not always in the most relatable manner. Their villainous counterparts, however, are another story. From “Gossip Girl”’s Georgina Sparks (Michelle Trachtenberg, “Ice Princess”) to “Killing Eve”’s Villanelle (Jodie Comer, “Free Guy”), antagonists often bring fresh, deeply human perspectives to the table, often rooted in the cynicism, sarcasm and realism lacking in more “heroic” characters.
Coach Sylvester is no exception. As a middle schooler, I didn’t feel any connection to Sue’s character. I felt that her lack of affection toward her students and constant ploys to take down the glee club were nothing short of mean-spirited and unnecessary. In retrospect, however, I wonder if Sue wasn’t necessarily the meanest character on “Glee”: maybe she was just the realest. In all fairness, if I had to hear Rachel Berry belting “Telephone” at nine o’clock on a Tuesday morning, I can’t say I wouldn’t tire of it either.
One of Sue’s most prominent relationships in the show is that between her and the New Directions’s leader Will Schuester. While Will often is painted as the hero of “Glee,” he does the bare minimum expected of a teacher and considers himself morally superior for doing so. Will also engages in highly inappropriate behavior with his students, from suspending a teen for refusing to wear a revealing outfit to encouraging students to perform Robin Thicke’s notoriously problematic “Blurred Lines.” Whether labeling him a “weepy manchild whose greatest joy in life is singing with children” or reminding him that she never trusts “a man with curly hair,” Sue isn’t afraid to put Will in his place and knock him down a few much-needed pegs.
12-year-old me may have been too busy following “Glee”’s complicated romantic subplots and wondering how Rachel managed to book “Funny Girl” while still fully enrolled in college to appreciate Sue Sylvester’s genius one-liners and their hidden wisdom. However, at 18 years of age, I can look back on this show with a new perspective. Maybe Sue wasn’t the Joker to Will’s Batman. Maybe she was more the Squidward to his Spongebob: tired, irritated and ready for him to stop talking. It is my genuine opinion that Sue Sylvester is the best and smartest character on “Glee,” and I only have TikTok to thank for opening my eyes. And that’s how Olivia “C”s it.
Daily Arts Writer Olivia Tarling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.