How Glee subverts traditional stereotypes

Image: Gifer

When Glee came out in 2009 it was an immediate success, with many praising the ensemble comedy about a high school glee club for its willingness to tackle controversial topics like gender and sexuality. Glee was progressive for its time, undermining stereotypes of female sexuality, and presenting queerness with more understanding than most of its peers on network TV. In seasons one through three, Glee provides a nuanced treatment of women’s sexuality, with depictions of female sexuality that subvert hegemonic stereotypes, and the inclusion of queer narratives not typically seen on TV.

The most prevalent examples of the first phenomenon comes from the show’s exploration of two cheerleaders who join the glee club, Quinn and Santana.  The contrast of Quinn and Santana in Season One sets up and then subverts the virgin / whore dichotomy frequently presented in pop culture. At the show’s beginning, Quinn falls firmly into the “virgin” side of the dichotomy. She works hard to fit into the ideal of “emphasized femininity”, and in addition to superficial qualifiers of being white, thin, blonde, and pretty, she goes above and beyond by being president of the celibacy club.

Image: Netflix

Her choice to brand herself as “pure” is significant, as under the virgin / whore dichotomy being discussed, any sexual activity by women lacks nuanced discussion, instead immediately placing them in the controversial second category. Quinn plays further into traditional gender roles by being the feminine foil to hegemonic masculinity, embodied in her boyfriend Finn. She is the head cheerleader to his football captain and at the beginning of series seems clearly posed to maintain her idealized image. Below she is praying with Finn after their makeup session gets too steamy.

Image: Netflix

Santana is another cheerleader, but she fulfills a very different stereotype, providing the “whore” to Quinn’s “virgin”. Both her behavior and her demeanor land her on this end of the spectrum– she is in a physical relationship with Puck, another member of the football team, but Quinn is quick to point out that they aren’t dating, just having sex. By Quinn’s definition, this disqualifies Santana from being “pure” and lands her on the other end of the spectrum. Santana’s race also complicates her sexuality, and furthers alignment with pop culture stereotypes. Because she is Hispanic, her personality falls in line with the “Spicy Latina” trope, of a Latinx woman who is passionate, impulsive, angry, and sexy. Santana exhibits all of these traits, as she is quick to anger, chew people out and threaten them, often escalating to physical violence. Additionally, as previously mentioned, she is open about her high sex drive, which aligns with the idea of the “Spicy Latina” being more promiscuous than a virginal white woman like Quinn.

Image: Netflix

Glee featuring characters that fall into these stereotypes would not be surprising– they are stereotypes because of how often they appear– but Glee’s writers trouble and subvert these stereotypes through the characters’ behavior. For example, Quinn’s self-professed virginity is called into question when the audience learns she is pregnant.

Image: Netflix

She lies, trying to preserve her reputation and self-image, and tells her boyfriend, Finn– who she hasn’t slept with– that the baby is his due to his make-out induced ejaculation in a hot tub they shared. However, in truth, the baby is the result of infidelity, a one-night stand between Quinn and Finn’s fellow football player, Puck, during which she lost her virginity. The fact that Quinn failed to live up to the strict emphasis on “purity”, a societal standard she values, illustrates how meeting all the rigid standards for emphasized femininity is unrealistic, even for those who strive to meet this trope’s ideals. Glee’s portrayal of this gap between the societal standards women hold themselves to, and actual women’s behavior, shows how nonviable emphasized femininity is in real life, and gives Quinn’s character more nuance. 

Santana’s character, on the opposite side of the virgin / whore dichotomy, also subverts her assigned “Spicy Latina” stereotype. Throughout her relationship with Puck, it is implied she also engages in physical intimacy with her best friend, fellow cheerleader Brittany.

Image: Netflix

Season Two further explores this relationship, and although at first, Santana insists she only views Brittany as someone to mess around with, by the end of the season she has realized she has real romantic feelings for Brittany stronger than any she has for men. This subverts her stereotypical presentation in two ways. Firstly, the “Spicy Latina” is overwhelmingly presented as an “exotic” fantasy of men, through a heteronormative, hegemonic gaze, so the fact that Santana is a lesbian troubles this aspect of the stereotype. Additionally, when she comes out to Brittany, Santana acknowledges her anger– a large part of how she fits into the “Spicy Latina” trope– is due to her fear of being outed as a lesbian. Both these elements of Santana’s personality– her queerness, and her suppressed, sensitive side– cause her to deviate from being a “Spicy Latina” and provide a more thoughtful portrayal of a Latinx woman on TV. 

Images: Netflix

Glee’s depiction of young, queer characters also was refreshing for network television, as Glee . The first obviously gay character on the show was Kurt. While gay men had achieved some visibility on TV when Glee came out in 2009, more feminine gay men, like Kurt, rarely got to be the main character. This can be seen in shows like Will and Grace which gave humanizing lead parts to masculine gay guys like Will, and relegated more feminine gay men to characterized side, like Jack. However, on Glee, Kurt is practices more feminine in gender presentation, with a high voice, delicate features, love of glamorous flashy clothes, and generally feminine physicality. Despite this, his gender expression and sexuality is never treated as a punchline, and the show’s negative portrayal of his bullies makes it clear homophobia is no longer acceptable. He is also a lead on the show and enjoys a full inner life. The viewer becomes very invested in his relationships and ambitions throughout the shows run. 

Image: Giphy

While Kurt’s centrality and complicated inner life may have been new for TV, his “coming out” storyline was familiar to audiences by the time the show came out in 2009. Some queer studies scholars even criticize the continued prevalence of “coming out” storylines among queer characters, as they argue making queerness something that continually has to be disclosed makes non-straight sexualities both invisible and hypervisible.

Image: Giphy

Even the critics of “coming out” storylines have something to celebrate in Glee, though, through Brittany’s character. Brittany, the aforementioned love interest of Santana, embodies the future queer studies scholars dream of: she never comes out, because she doesn’t feel the need to. She simply loves who she loves, which includes men and women, and never questions herself.

Image: Netflix
(Brittany sharing her feelings with Santana)

Glee continued to address issues of gender and sexuality throughout its run, and by the end of the final sixth season it had featured narratives centered around fat women, trans men, and many other queer people. The women and queer characters within the first generation of Glee, such as Quinn, Santana, Kurt, and Brittany set the tone for a show and provided many teens at home their first exposure to nuanced, thoughtful depictions of feminine people and queer people.

Image: RedBubble

Works Cited

(n.d.). Retrieved from https://gifer.com/en/GMsbMurphy, R., Falchuk, B., & Brennan, I. (2018, December 01). Glee. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com/watch/70177126?trackId=200257859Murphy, R., Falchuk, B., & Brennan, I. (2018, December 01). Glee. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com/watch/70184841?trackId=200257859Murphy, R., Falchuk, B., & Brennan, I. (2018, December 01). Glee. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com/watch/70177128?trackId=200257859Murphy, R., Falchuk, B., & Brennan, I. (2018, December 01). Glee. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com/watch/70184852?trackId=200257859

https://giphy.com/gifs/glee-kurt-hummel-11m7aRXoAURMI

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