Tuesday, April 26, 2011

thoughts in my head: the problem with 'glee'

So I know this afternoon’s thought-provoking and conclusive post was meant to act as a finale to my (mostly) daily posting kick. But while I wrangled over the dilemma of whether to post tonight or not I realized- this is my blog, and if I have something to say I’m going to say it, regardless of my nice conclusions.

If you know anything by now, please know I have opinions that tend to not go unvoiced when the feeling is strong or provocative enough. And while I have yet to mention it here, there is (yet another) television show I have some big feelings about, and this particular show is perhaps a bit more mainstream than my beloved Doctor Who. The show is, of course, Glee.

I’ve been with Glee since the very first episode (unlike Who) which, considering I went to a quasi-Arts school and am a professed theatre geek makes total sense in the frame of their target demographic. Were Glee merely about high schoolers singing cute songs, I would watch it. But thankfully, Glee is so much more than another Mean Girls with some showtunes thrown in.

Glee is going where no other show has gone before; it actively promotes its interracial, multi-religious, various sexual orientation identified cast. Glee is the first show that I have seen that includes not only a struggling gay teen (Kurt) but also one who is totally confident in himself (Blaine, portrayed by the love of my life that is Darren Criss. (I swear I’m not fangirling, I swear!)). These two boys have kissed on screen, as have the two women Santana and Britney, all of whom are breaking conventional stereotypes surrounding the queer community. Santana is a total maneater and is super attractive, shattering all those norms people think lesbians fall into (you won’t catch her eating granola or wearing Birkenstocks). Furthermore, in the slew of other characters themes like identity with religion, race, and being a minority or outcast have been explored in some truly creative and fresh ways that always retain the real message that is the heart and soul of the show: embrace your inner freak, because that’s the best part of you.

I really love Glee for all of the aforementioned reasons, as you might infer from the glowing review.

But there are some aspects of the show that I am really not a fan of. And these facets of the program really need to be criticized and honed in upon, because to be frank, I expect a lot from a show that preaches its own capability to do a lot.

To begin with, the sheer amount of auto-tuning going on in every single song is (a) disheartening and (b) kind of insulting. These singers are all phenomenal and yet the Glee producers feel the need to touch up every note so that their voices are mere machines. Part of what makes music so beautiful- especially live music, which is what they are supposed to be singing- are the mistakes. An awkward vibrato or occasional missed note gives the performance a more human quality that makes it accessible and genuine. Besides, I took years of voice lessons and was in choir since the dawn of time so I could sing, not a machine! What’s the point of that anymore if you’re just going to clean it up and make it sound like a robot? And what’s offensive is the fact that these actors, many of whom have trained their voices their whole lives, are being belittled to what an auto-tune device can produce. Come on, Ryan Murphey, you’re better than this. Lea Michelle was on Broadway for heaven’s sake; her belty notes need not be augmented.

And I’m the first to admit how much I love electronica and hip-hop beats (we all know ALL CAPS is fond of lathering on the auto-tune). But never 100% of the time, and never as a replacement for powerhouse voices like Amber Riley, who plays Mercedes.* My qualms with Glee, though, do not solely rest with the fake singing.

In tonight’s episode, Emma, the neurotic Guidance Counselor with known OCD, finally caved in to the sleezy-cheesy Mr. Schuster (the Glee club’s teacher) and went to see a psychiatrist. Things I approve of: her character seeking professional help for a serious problem after admitting that she does, in fact, have some anxieties that need to be addressed. Things I do not approve of: the way in which her appointment went.

In the show, Emma confesses how afraid she is to admit her OCD problems and how much anxiety has dominated her life since she was young. After some discussion with the therapist that lasts approximately 2 minutes, the therapist tells her she needs to have talk therapy and to take prescription medication that will ultimately alter the chemicals in Emma’s brain.

What?!  Enter a problem faced in contemporary American culture and society: medicalizing serious mental health issues in a way that proclaims medication to be the cure to all mental illness. I do not dispute the benefits of prescription medication, they absolutely have their use and place. But to prescribe, after one hour-long session, medication that will alter one’s brain chemistry? And to liken mental illness to Diabetes? Fat chance we’re going to let this one slide, Glee.

Problem one: Diabetes is purely biological. Yes, it has to do with lifestyle and dietary choices, but ultimately diabetes means you don’t have enough insulin. To solve this problem requires a regiment on your eating habits and, if necessary, insulin supplements. This does not belittle the disease (in fact it seems pretty wretched) but it is by no means similar to Depression or being bipolar. Mental health is both biology and environment, which therefore means one little pill will not cure Emma’s compulsion. There is no easy cure to mental illness(and I’m not saying that Diabetes has an easy-peezy cure either). It requires mental discipline, a strong desire to get well, a support system, and sometimes medication. But not medication prescribed after one heartfelt session.

Yes, the psychiatrist also said weekly therapy. I agree wholeheartedly, despite having no letters strung along to the end of my title. But she still told Emma to take brain-altering medication after an hour. An hour! This is crazy, people! You can know someone for years and not really know what they need!

I realize this is a complex issue that gets very personal, very quickly. Medication helps. I dare not dispute this,  but I contend the ease with which Glee often treats the problems of its characters. Pills won’t cure Emma, just as confronting surface-level problems with the complexity of sexuality won’t reinvigorate the country-wide conversation on gender and its construction, or that treating high school like it’s the determinant of the rest of your life (which, take it from me, it most certainly is not) is a healthy lesson to teach the kids who watch the show.

So to conclude, I do really love Glee. Yes, I hold it to a very high standard in ethics (far higher than Raising Hope or whatever trash comes on afterwards) but I think this is because the show sets that standard. When you take on radical issues of gay rights at this point in our country’s social awakening, you got keep that banner high and your eyes ahead. Yes, the TV show is excellent at showing that gay rights are human rights and really we’re all just people trying to get by and be happy. Thus the harships and happiness and just plain relationship-ness of Kurt and Blane, Santana and Britney, and every other freaking couple on the show (did I mention that I hate how the only consistently single character in the Glee club is the strong, independent black woman?) And yeah, I know it’s just a TV show and I’m probably super-over-analyzing it, but it is a show that is speaking for the voice of my generation (if I may be so bold). So this generation-member has some qualms to voice with the show.

So there.

Do you watch Glee? What do you think of the show?

current jam: still "judas" lady gaga. 
best thing in my life right now: blaine serenading kurt. melted to the floor and then into the ground. keane + darren criss = magic!
days until departure: still 35!

*Amber’s voice, to my ear, is the least touched up, which is comforting because girl is FIERCE!
And thanks to my friend Nora for helping me formulate some thoughts on this post! 


  1. I definitely agree about the autotuning, although I do feel that the psychiatrist did not actually used diabetes in a direct comparison with OCD-- more so as a way to make audience members who do not have knowledge of and/or experience with mental illnesses understand the sort of problems the show was dealing with.

  2. Amber is such a powerhouse. But I hate that the show spends more time acknowledging the fact that she never sings than it does on her performances.

    I agree that we live in a country that is majorly over-prescribed, but I think that in Emma's case, medication was needed. The reason Diabetes is used so frequently in comparison to any given mental illness is because of exactly what you said- there are both biological and environmental causes of it. An obese person who goes to their doctor for Diabetes treatment would immediately be put on a diet and exercise plan as well as on insulin supplements. The psychiatrist follows the same basic plan when treating a mental illness by setting up therapy sessions and supplementing them with a medication. If I were Emma's psychiatrist, I would have prescribed her the medication too. Her OCD is clearly having a serious impact on her life.

    As a feminist, I feel let down by Glee. The only woman on the show with any real power is portrayed as a nut job, and while Rachel may have goals, she's the only one. Finn is somehow their unofficial leader, much like Mr. Schuh leads the adult crew. Where's the girl power? Also, tonight's episode about Rachel wanting to get a nose job... sigh. I'm curious to know your feminist reading of Glee, Lizzie.

    You're right- what it lacks in feminism Glee makes up for in promoting The Homosexual Agenda. The show really reflects all the different types of gays there are in high school (the late-in-life gay, the prom kings, the closeted lesbian, the Brittany).

    Hope all is well, and that your finals are delicious!

    Hope all is well!

  3. I have been unable to bring myself to watch an episode of Glee, even though when Darren Criss was added to the cast I was very tempted. The auto-tuning was immediately what turned me off from the show, because I think it makes the show just be a bunch of poorly done covers. I'm not saying the actors cannot sing, or don't have talent, I have no clue, but the overproduction of the songs makes them seem cheap, and poorly produced, rather than the high quality that the producers are likely going for.
    I'm also not a fan of television shows where pregnancy is dealt with, and abortion never comes up. I believe most American teen television shows have this issue though.