“Glee” and Queer Bullying

Violence," as H. Rap Brown, pointed out, "is as American as apple pie." As alarming and true as this may be, even more so is the reality that Americans don't get that upset about the violence we live with every day. Sure, when a dramatic event like the Columbine shootings happens—and the perpetrators are misfit teenagers—people can become outraged. But this is often not the case, as with the enormous amount of domestic violence, rape, and child abuse that occurs, mostly unreported, on a daily basis. It is interesting, then, that the September 22 suicide of Tyler Clementi received so much press. Clementi, a first-year Rutgers student, was secretly filmed by his roommate kissing another man in the privacy of his dorm room. The roommate then streamed the video on the Internet. The next day Clementi killed himself.


Did America suddenly, collectively, agree that harassing gay teens was bad? Or even a problem? Anyone familiar with the statistics knows that it happens all the time. But the harassment of queer kids has never been high on the media's list of important topics. The February 13, 2010 murder of 15-year-old Lawrence King in Oxnard, California by a male classmate, to whom he had sent a valentine, garnered some news coverage, but, for the most part, anti-gay violence against homosexuals of any age has not been newsworthy until the Clementi suicide, which was then reported in a broader context of other suicides of gay teens from bullying.


All of these led to a flurry of social outrage. Ellen Degeneres summed it up on her show: "Something must be done. This month alone there has been a shocking number of news stories about teens who have been teased and bullied and then committed suicide, like 13-year-old Seth Walsh in Tehachapi, California, Asher Brown, 13, of Cypress, Texas, and 15-year-old Billy Lucas in Greensberg, Indiana. This needs to be a wake-up call to everyone: teenage bullying and teasing is an epidemic in this country and the death rate is climbing."


CNN's Anderson Cooper spent hours over the next two weeks on the Clementi suicide, exploring bullying culture in America, especially in regard to queer kids. Such newfound attention is certainly welcome and has prompted other reverberations in the media. But for all of the well-intentioned editorializing, other responses—in particular the YouTube campaign "It Gets Better" and the popular television show "Glee"—have been less direct and even ambiguous.


The Tyler Clementi suicide prompted openly gay Seattle-based columnist Dan Savage and his lover to post a video on YouTube aimed at queer kids. Their message was that no matter how bad things seem now, "it gets better." So don't kill yourself. The original video turned into a campaign and in the past months thousands of people have posted videos telling gay kids to hang in and not harm themselves. Everyone from pop singer Justin Bieber to Barack Obama (as well as hundreds of minor celebrities and average folk) has pleaded with queer kids to wait it out.


"It Gets Better" has a certain power to it. It is impossible not to be moved by the refrain of pain in many of the videos. But the project has two major problems. The first is that sometimes it doesn't get better. The reality is that class, race, poverty, gender presentation, geography, support systems, physical abilities, and a whole host of other issues place all kids at risk. For a lot of teens this combination can be overwhelming and, in the end, it just doesn't get better. Often it gets worse. The second problem is even more serious. As a political organizing tool, It Gets Better fails to urge people to make changes now, to take action to stop the bullying, to find concrete solutions to this problem. Sure, some of the videos urge kids to tell their teachers and their principals to step in if someone is being bullied and that there are places they can get help, but there is no systematic, sustained approach for affecting change. Indeed, the very notion that It Gets Better presumes that change happens through the passage of time, not that you have to work to make it better.


"Glee," a carefully written and produced TV show, chronicles the emotional and musical travails of a high school glee club. It also deals with high school bullying—in particular the bullying of Kurt, an openly gay member of the glee club. In the November shows, the bullying reached such extremes that Kurt faced death threats and had to change schools.


So what could be bad about a hugely popular television show that sympathetically exposes the bullying of an openly gay teen? Actually, a lot. As frightening as the bullying of Kurt is—he is thrown against lockers and violently manhandled—it is important to remember that "Glee" has featured bullying from its pilot episode and almost always for comedy. In its first season, the running joke was that the football team would throw slushies in the faces of glee club members (and anyone else they didn't like). Sue Sylvester—a heterosexual woman who is clearly coded as a butch dyke and played by out lesbian actor Jane Lynch—runs the cheerleading squad and revels in being a bully. It is the hallmark of her character and played for humor.


Watching the first season induced a confusing mix of exhilaration at the wonderful musical numbers with the sheer anxiety of watching emotional and psychological violence played for laughs. If the show had intended this as a narrative ploy to make some political or social point, it would have been excusable. If it was effective, it might have even been brilliant, the way that Artaud's "theater of cruelty" works to jar us and make us think. But, alas, "Glee" used bullying mainly for a punchline.


The suicide of Tyler Clementi seems to have changed this during "Glee's" second season. With so much media focus on the harassment, bullying, and terrorizing of queer teens, the writers developed a story line of Kurt being violently singled out by a football player who is secretly gay and whose stifling life in the closet has turned him into a queer basher. Could this happen? Sure. There are many closeted men whose self-hatred turns to rage that is inflicted on more openly gay people.


But this is simply an easy out for the writers of the show. It does not show us that bullying is, on a profound social level, about power. It is the actions of those who have power—in this case the currency is popularity in high school—to keep and maintain this power by abusing and terrorizing those without it. Having begun by making bullying a joke, "Glee" seems caught in its own hypocritical web. In the show that aired on November 23, a terrified Kurt goes to acting principal Sue Sylvester and looks for help. Even as she says she will do what she can, which is very little it turns out, she repeatedly mocks him by calling him "lady."


You have to feel a bit sorry for the writers of "Glee." They have constructed a clever, popular narrative about the plight of plucky outsiders in the "geeky" glee club who have to survive the torment and abuse of the popular. The trouble is that, like the bullying content, the show's premise is based on a lie.


Many of the most popular glee club members are either football players or cheerleaders. They are already the popular kids in school. So having set up bullying as a joke, the show was boxed into a corner when Clementi, a young talented musician who really would be on the "geek" list in the high school hierarchy, actually did kill himself. The show's writers, attempting to move into the realm of the socially conscious, turned some of Kurt's bullying into a serious story, but did so by making the "heavy" not one of the students who had real power, but a closeted gay kid. The moral? Yeah, gay bashing is really bad, but guess what? It's actually done by gay people.


For all of its trying really hard to make a statement about bullying, "Glee" ends up avoiding saying anything useful about the topic and has instead been forced into grossly misrepresenting the intent and reality of queer bashing and bullying. It's too bad, because a show such as "Glee"—if it handled this material honestly—could actually reach a huge audience. Unfortunately, that audience would probably not want to hear the message that most homophobic bullying is done by heterosexuals to reaffirm their own privilege and power in society. We can hope, as the show evolves this season, that it will change its tune. But given that it is predicated on promoting its own version of high school popularity, it probably won't get better.


Michael Bronski is a senior professor in Women's and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College. His articles have been published in the Village Voice, the Boston Globe, GLQ, and the Los Angeles Times. His books include the current Queer Ideas and Action series (Editor) from Beacon Books, Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps, and An LGBT History of the United States (forthcoming in May).