Let’s talk “Glee,” the pop culture smorgasbord of gay awakenings, song covers and truly insane plotlines. Recently, the show has been rightfully exposed on TikTok for various “cringe” moments, many involving the nature of Mr. Schue’s (Matthew Morrison, “Boy Meets Boy”) relationship with these literal children (allow me to speak for all of us here: so creepy). Of course, I love the “Glee” rendition of Teenage Dream and the Season Two episode “Britney/Brittany” as much as the next late ’90s/early 2000’s baby, but “Glee” has its share of problematic representations alongside many proud ones.
One character that comes to mind is Dave Karofsky (Max Adler, “Mope”), the football player who bullied Kurt (Chris Colfer, “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie”) for his sexuality. In Season Two, writers had the audacity to suggest that Karofsky bullied Kurt because he liked him and was in the closet. But Karofsky doesn’t serve to represent LGBTQIA+ folks struggling with being in the closet — instead, the character exists to excuse abuse towards members of the community.
Another failure at representation was exemplified by Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron, “Shiva Baby”). When writers wrote into her fate a car accident that landed her in a wheelchair, she attributed her positivity to the chair’s temporariness. Still, “Glee” communicated that Quinn’s chair made her undesirable, as if love and a sex life are completely out of the question for people with disabilities. The chair was repeatedly portrayed as Quinn’s ball and chain, as was the case with Artie (Kevin McHale, “The X Factor: Celebrity”). “Glee” joins a whole host of others in that argument when in reality, mobility aids are life-changing for those that use them. It represents an important extension of themselves, rather than a limitation. Perpetuation of such ignorance contributes to, among many other things, destruction or loss of 8,000 mobility aids just in the first nine months of this year by airlines and recently, the related death of disability activist Engracia Figueroa.
I also take issue with how “Glee” handled Marley Rose (Melissa Benoist, “Supergirl”), a second-generation New-Directioner who struggled with an eating disorder throughout her time on the show. Not only did the other Glee Club members fail to support her, they actively exacerbated her disorder and blamed her for her struggles and how they affected the club. Kitty Wilde (Becca Tobin, “LadyGang”), a sorry replacement for Quinn and Santana (Naya Rivera, “Devious Maids”), went so far as to take in Marley’s costumes so that she would think she was gaining weight. Somehow worse yet, Kitty dragged Marley into the bathroom at a sleepover party and instructed her to make herself vomit, even positioning the act as something Marley would engage in if she “loved herself enough.” Kitty’s despicable actions went largely unpunished. When Marley’s eating disorder caused her to faint during their Sectionals performance, Finn (Cory Monteith, “Glee”) blamed her for their loss. His behavior, too, was not condemned or rectified in any way. “Glee” thus provided viewers with the takeaway that eating disorder sufferers only have themselves to blame for their pain and should be ashamed of their struggles, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Glee” was bold in its attempts to touch on heavy topics, but the effort was not often rewarded. A jarring example of this is how Glee handled sexual assault, and more specifically, their minuscule effort to represent survivors. The only appearance where the issue was really even discussed was through the character Ryder (Blake Jenner, “What/If”), a second-generation New Directions member. In Season Four, he revealed to the other boys in the Glee Club that he had been molested by his babysitter at 11 years old. Rather than responding with the appropriate love and support, his friends rebuffed his suffering, instead suggesting that Ryder was a lucky one. Their response goes hand in hand with, and is very reminiscent of, the argument that survivors were “asking for it” or in any way wanted it. For many survivors of sexual assault, every day is a struggle, and those party lines are part of the reason why. Survivors deserve all of the love and support in the world — everything “Glee” refused to give to Ryder.
These representation failures aren’t surprising at all — anyone who’s watched the show and thus has been forced to hear lines from Mr. Shue such as “You’re all minorities. You’re in the Glee Club” knows that “Glee”’s handling of certain subject matter is often misguided, but they’re still deeply disappointing. Given everything that “Glee” has done right, such as the intricate portrayals of Unique’s gender identity, of coming out stories and of grief, these failures hurt even more because it’s clear that the show’s creators were capable of better. TV world: do better. I’m begging you.
TV Beat Editor Emmy Snyder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.