Pop Culture Rewind: Glee

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Words || Elizabeth Laughton

Isolation means I’m saving close to two hours a day in travel time to uni and work. I promptly dedicated this time to rewatching some childhood favourites. I’ve made it through Nickelodeon’s Victorious and I’m in the middle of Sam and Cat. My mum and I tackled the random season of Project Runway on Netflix. 

The show that I’ve had the wildest time revisiting is Glee

I was nine-years-old when Glee first premiered on mainstream television in 2009. I grew up in suburban Queensland where Glee was almost too queer to talk about in polite company. It was also pretty sexual for a show concerned with teenagers’ lives. For that reason, I was only allowed to watch certain episodes with my parents. 

Given its queerness and diverse representation, I was excited to watch Glee again. I felt like a giggly kid watching a serious adult show. Maybe it would make me warm and fuzzy to watch a diverse cast of young people navigating the epic highs and lows of high school football and choir singing. 

In reality, rewatching Glee was one of the most disturbing things I’ve done in a while. It completely uprooted my fond memories of the show, replacing them with a sense of shock that we ever considered Glee progressive.

For example, the show features a character called Artie. After watching every season, all I can tell you about Artie is that he is a creepy nerd in a wheelchair. That’s the full depth of his character after 121 episodes. His main punchline is telling girls his penis still works. The episodes focused on him depict dreamscapes where Artie walks around school singing about how much he wants to walk. His most complex and explored desire is to be free of his wheelchair. 

In the same way, Kurt’s storyline is predominantly (and I would argue exclusively) concerned with his gayness. He comes out over the course of the series, experiences homophobic bullying at school, alienation at home, and is cheated on by his only same-sex partner in the series. His partner actually cheats on him with his old homophobic high school bully! Terrific representation. Also, Kurt was the early 2010s version of white gays who appropriate black slang and think they’re precluded from misogyny and racism. 

I understand why this would’ve garnered so much attention in the 2010s. It was the one of the first times marginalised storytelling was taking place in popular, prime time media. But this storytelling was always marked by negativity. Kurt was never allowed to be content with his sexuality for more than an episode; Artie never got a storyline that wasn’t about how much being in a wheelchair sucked. This sort of storytelling is good for validating the shitty parts of life and identity, but neglects to engender hope for better, happier times. 

So, the overtly negative representation of diverse experiences was a bit shocking. 

Then, I was confronted by the hugely paedophilic overtones of the show. Take for instance Sam kissing the school nurse, Finn kissing the school counsellor, Mr Shue dancing and singing inappropriately with every female student in Glee club and Puck’s pool cleaning business funded by scantily clad mums. Why the show couldn’t be transplanted into a college setting where everyone was of age and could consent to these otherwise unprofessional relationships is beyond me. 

I’m not saying all of this to ruin what might be a childhood favourite for you. I still have a few episodes I’ll rewatch when I’m feeling nostalgic! That said, it’s entirely possible to interrogate the media we grew up on and accept that it’s not as peachy as it seemed at the time. It’s possible to reconcile loving something while knowing it’s not perfect.