I want to talk about last night’s episode of Glee. Specifically the return of Samcedes.
I know, I know, who even watches that show anymore? I do. I love musicals. Even though Glee‘s decline over the last few seasons has been stark and unceasing, it’s brilliant moments of meta-comedy (far and few between as they may be) keep me coming back. Plus I really love a show I can sing along to. I’m secretly five years old. Judge me.
That said, one of the biggest reasons Glee began careening off the rails way back in season three was its insistence on cramming the show full of Very Special Episodes when the show’s strength was the comedy derived from following around a band of sometimes eccentric misfits and outsiders who shared a love of music. Two seasons later, after having dealt with teen pregnancy, a character’s untimely death, coming out, homophobia and 294 other issues, you’d think they’d at least have tackling serious topics like this down to a science. But alas, Glee is a Ryan Murphy show. Continuity and sensitivity are two words he’s never heard of if he’s dealing with issues that don’t directly speak to his own experience.
Now, I’m a fan of the couple, but though this is the third go-around for Samcedes, it’s the first time their relationship is ever really being addressed with any depth. (Which Kurt references in meta-fashion after they announce their reunion.) When their relationship was initially introduced back at the very end of season two, it took place entirely off-screen and we never got to examine their relationship dynamics. Glee has always been fond of off-the-cuff pairings (and they have had interracial couples before), but Samcedes was by far the most interesting one, and the audience was largely denied any opportunity to enjoy them, except in retrospect after Mercedes had a new boyfriend and Sam had moved away, only to come back again and try to win her back. Though, to be fair, this was due mostly to Chord Overstreet getting fired and then rehired between seasons.
If you haven’t been keeping up with the show, here’s where we’re at: the Glee club, having lost at Nationals, has had their funding cut by new principal/past rival/present cheerleader, Sue Sylvester. The club is now disbanded, the seniors have graduated and the show’s moved to New York full time. Mercedes is now there recording her album, and Sam is there pursuing modeling. Sam and Artie also now live in Mercedes’ apartment.
Last night’s episode, “Bash,” marked the return of Samcedes, but in the absolute most problematic way possible. Let’s set the scene: Sam, now living in Mercedes’ apartment, asks her why they broke up in the first place, and lets her know that he’s still interested. Mercedes expresses her trepidation about restarting a high school romance, and we’re treated to a lovely little scene of them being adorably cute together. Later, as they wait for Sam to join them for dinner, Mercedes’ backup singers (and first ever black friends, apparently) point out that she doesn’t really need to be moving backwards romantically. Sam arrives, and proceeds to say every single racially offensive thing you can possibly think of, while said backup singers look on in disgust, and Mercedes looks rightfully embarrassed. In a subsequent scene, Mercedes’ backup singers let her know that she can’t date Sam because “he’s white” and her fans are going to care about the message she’s sending by dating a white guy. The episode ends with Mercedes learning a very important lesson about “not judging people based on their skin color” and of course, their relationship resumes.
Here’s my issue: Instead of tastefully addressing the difficulties of navigating an inter-racial relationship, Glee instead decided to rely on the “black women are judgmental about interracial relationships” trope. Mercedes’ backup singers are cast as being intolerant and their objections to Sam are simply reduced to “he’s white.” No mention is ever made of Sam’s incredibly problematic racial micro-aggressions like asking why “hip-hop artists name themselves after cars” (the singer’s name was Tesla, for Nikola Tesla) touching the other singer’s hair without permission, and assuming they both were not wearing their natural hair. To make matters worse, the episode’s conclusion frames Mercedes as the one who needed to learn a lesson about race and has her apologizing to Sam.
Now, while it’s easy to wax poetic about colorblind love (plug that single, girl!), that is not the world we’re currently living in, and as a black woman hoping to soon be on the rise in the music industry, Mercedes likely understands that better than any of the other character on the show. Remember last season’s (probably forgotten) storyline about losing her record deal because she wasn’t comfortable dressing more provocatively for her album cover? It strikes as more than a little offensive to frame the acknowledgement of their interracial relationship as something that Mercedes needs to learn how to deal with, when Sam is the one spouting off at the mouth.
Throughout the episode, Sam says increasingly offensive things without being called out, or apologizing in any way. He not only doesn’t acknowledge that his behaviour is a problem, but he goes out of his way to shame Mercedes for taking his race into consideration of her decision to resume their romance, and even laments to Blaine that “it’s so hard being a straight white guy.” Granted, I’m 100% certain that that line in particular was purposely inserted to rankle viewers, as with every other instance of hipster bigotry the show as employed, but when the rest of the “lesson” is played straight, it muddies the message.
I think what pissed me off the most was the way the show scapegoated the black backup singers as being “the real racists” while completely ignoring Sam’s transgressions. The sweet, sensitive Sam Evans of season two has long since been replaced by the “dumb blonde” current iteration, but that isn’t an excuse for his racial insensitivity, (he literally says that the Glee Club had all types of people, “black, white and Tina”) his rudeness, or his inability to be situationally inappropriate. Not to mention, the episode makes a big show of the characters being “adults making adult decisions.” In which adult universe is an unemployed model an ideal partner?
By not addressing Sam’s “accidental racism,” and effectively coming down on his side morally by not having anyone reprimand him, and having Mercedes be the one who “learns,” Glee is implying that Sam was in the right, and that there was nothing wrong with the things that he said to Mercedes and her friends. It inadvertently reinforces the idea that those kinds of micro-aggressions are okay because they were not meant to offend. Sam may be an idiot, but I can’t imagine their relationship lasting very long if he can’t figure out that negging your girlfriend and subtly undermining her self-worth are less than awesome things to do.
The episode makes the mistake of positioning Sam’s race blindness as an asset and Mercedes’ acute awareness of race as oversensitivity. Reducing her trepidation about restarting a relationship with her two-time ex-boyfriend as she prepares to have her career take off to “No one will buy my album if my boyfriend is white” is to completely side-step the issue. Additionally, I find it painfully unrealistic that Mercedes never addresses these issues with Sam. Perhaps that’s coming in a later storyline, but I doubt it. Mercedes isn’t stupid, and she’s had storylines that dealt with her size and her hair before. I find it hard to believe that she’d want to be with someone who was so oblivious to her sensitivities in those areas.
I’m not at all surprised that Ryan Murphy is better at dealing with LGBTQ issues than race issues, seeing as he is a gay man. But I’m annoyed that no effort was made to carefully and sensitively address an issue that is increasingly relevant in today’s society. The stark difference was made that much clearer by juxtaposing Samcedes’ storyline with Kurt’s storyline of getting beat up after standing up for a different (presumably gay) man who he saw being attacked. Kurt’s storyline was handled with care, and we got yet another entry into the Burt Hummel Playbook Of Excellent Parenting, while Samcedes’ very relevant and topical issue was irreverently glossed over.
I want to be clear that I’m not rooting for Samcedes to fail. They’re actually a pretty adorable couple, and I have to admit, having Sam pursue her so doggedly, and have Mercedes, a plus-sized black woman be portrayed as the object of affection who is treasured and desired, pulled on my heartstrings a little. We need more of that. But we also need interracial relationships that don’t have super problematic racial dynamics that cast aspersions on the minority partner’s awareness of race.
I stopped expecting sensitivity from Glee quite some time ago, but it doesn’t stop me from hoping for better from a show that I love so completely. I have always been #TeamMercedes in the ongoing Diva Wars, and having Amber Riley rejoin the cast is possibly the best decision the show has made in the last two seasons. She’s an incredibly talented woman an performer, and I love having her represented in the cast. But if this is how they’re going to treat her character? I’d rather Amber find better work elsewhere.