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Cheering Brittana

As much attention as Glee has gotten lately for its portrayal of gay teens on television, I wasn’t so convinced. It’s great that there’s a main character on a TV show for gay and questioning youth (and everyone else) to see. It’s even better, and more encouraging, that the reponse to gay teens in primetime has been largely positive. Maybe the flood gates will open, and we’ll start seeing a more inclusive depiction of sexuality across the board. Maybe a high schooler somewhere in the middle of the country will think twice about picking on a classmate for being different. Maybe a kid will see the show and get the courage to come out to his parents. Maybe his parents will have a better idea (or some idea at all) how to support their kid.

And that’s great, but it still felt “¦ I don’t want to say disingenuous, but something was definitely off. While we watched Kurt come out to his dad, deal with a violent bully at school, and nurse a crush on his new friend, cheerleader besties Brittany and Santana’s relationship seemed to be played for laughs and titillation alone. First, the fact that they were more than friends was alluded to, and eventually they were shown in bed together, but there was still a sense of sex as performance art. Santana offered to make out with Brittany while Finn watched and every time the girls were flirtatious with each other in public, there was always this sense of a wink and a nudge and look, two girls together, isn’t this hot? Look, they share gum and smack each other on the butt, and they’re even wearing cheerleader uniforms!

Women’s bodies, and women’s sexuality, have been a vehicle for entertainment for far too long. This is especially true for women of color. No one’s expecting a thirty-minute long comedy to shatter thousands of years of bullshit and myth, but if a show is going to position itself as some kind of arbiter of tolerance (as Glee seems to have done), there’s an expectation that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. You don’t have to show every single shade of the human experience, but if you’re going to write something in you should at least do it justice. I don’t think that’s asking for too much, even for a musical comedy.

The writers on Glee were definitely not doing the Brittany-Santana relationship (“Brittana” to die-hard fans) justice ““ until this week’s episode, “Sexy.” Santana, initially reluctant to label herself or her relationship with Brittany, tries to get her feelings across in a lovely version of “Landslide.” Later, she finally confesses her love for her best friend in a scene that’s absolutely heart-wrenching. “I just want you,” she says. While the whole I’m-just-a-bitch-to-cover-up-my-true-feelings thing is a little pat, Naya Rivera absolutely sells Santana’s vulnerability and enraged disappointment.

That the storyline wasn’t wrapped up in a neat little bow is just the icing on the cake. The writing on this show definitely leads to more than a few WTF moments (the kids think cucumbers can give you AIDS? The damn guidance counselor thinks a “nooner” is dessert in the middle of the day? Really?).  On the other hand, the fact that a romantic friendship between two young women is being given such a sensitive, nuanced ““ and as yet unresolved ““ treatment is reason to take heart. (And in the same episode, we saw the most honest, hilariously awkward, touching father-son sex talk that I think I’ve ever seen.) As silly as the show often is, there aren’t many (or really any) out there willing to take storytelling on television in such, well, new directions. I fully expect more WTF moments, but I still can’t wait to see where Glee goes next.

4 replies on “Cheering Brittana”

I’ve been watching Glee through my fingers all season. Between the Bieber (Bieber!) and the not-cute-anymore plot inconsistencies, I wasn’t even liking the music as much as I used to. This episode was one of my favorites solely b/c of how well it handled the Santana/Brittany story and the talk between Burt and Kurt. Also, Afternoon Delight. That song always makes me happy.

I think it does struggle with being as diverse as it thinks it is, and at this point with being as clever as it thinks it is, which is sad. When Glee was still an underdog, it still had something to shoot for. Not that I begrudge the show success, but it seems like they stopped caring once there was a tour and a reality show and Terry Richardson photo shoot. This week’s episode reminded me there was still a heart in there somewhere.

There is definitely a problem with the way the show portrays characters. Even in the first season, Kurt embodied many offensive stereotypes without much substance, not the least of which was the predator mentality. The fact that he kept harassing Finn and thought he should get a pass on it, blaming Finn’s discomfort solely on homophobia, was really messed up. This behavior wasn’t even acknowledged by the show, within the show, until the second season. Instead, when Finn attempts to assert his own space (in problematic language, yes, no excuse for that), the fact that Kurt is gay again trumps the feelings Finn had been suffering in silence for months. Kurt’s dad’s speech was so moving and so touching that it’s a shame it was tainted by Kurt getting a pass for sexually harassing his classmate and stepbrother. I found that by the end of the season, I identified with Finn so much because, as a woman, I know what it’s like for a boy in high school who thinks his attraction trumps your “Stop. Leave me alone.”

Not to mention the fact that Kurt, who got a lot of shit for being unable to choose his sexuality, was convinced that Finn could “go gay”. He had serious boundary and respect issues that the show only momentarily addressed in the beginning of the second season.

My point is that I think the show suffers from a lot of unchecked privilege: sex, race, and yes, even sexuality privilege within the LGBT community. The male gaze dictates that lesbian and female bisexual relationships are trivial or funny. Male gay relationships, on the other hand, while made fun of, rarely get the same “nudge, wink”, condescending attitude that women in homosexual relationships get. Glee bought into that perception.

The more I watch this show, the less progressive I think it is.

Kurt has definitely crossed the line more than once. In a lot of ways, he’s extremely immature, even for a teenage boy. (And yes, there is some lazy, privilege-tainted writing going on.) I never thought the show was as progressive as it’s gotten credit for being (ESPECIALLY when it comes to race). But no one can claim it isn’t possible for a show to be popular and responsible at the same time; this episode just proves it.

IIRC, Ryan Murphy once said that he never intended Brittana to be a real plot line or much more than an ongoing joke (once again, Glee, pretending you’re being ironic about stereotypes and tropes doesn’t actually make using them refreshing), so that it’s even come this far, I assume, is partly fan pressure and partly the excellent work by the actresses, who even when the script gave them very little to work with, pushed it into a seriously compelling place.

One of the things I’ve found interesting this season is that, in my opinion, Kurt has become one of the most articulate and honest characters in defining his needs and what is important to him. He’s had a huge amount of character growth in that aspect. Likewise, Santana’s speech to Brittany was one of the most open and direct monologues we’ve ever seen on the show. I just think there’s something interesting on comparing those interactions with, say, most of the scenes between Rachel and Finn, or Quinn and (Puck or Sam or Finn), and also certainly Will and Emma. (Kurt has been a lot more of a grown-up than either of them, this season.)

I’m not sure how intentionally or specifically that’s filtered through the sexuality plotlines, and I don’t want to derail about Kurt; I just thought it was interesting that I saw that same element repeated with Brittana this episode.

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