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Glee in 2021

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Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

It's hard to believe that twelve years ago the iconic Sue Sylvester first strode across the small screen in her brazen sweat suit. What may be even harder to believe is how poorly the show, which won Favorite New Diverse Ensemble Cast at the Diversity Awards in 2009, has aged.

Over the span of its six seasons, Glee was praised for bringing diversity into America's living room, introducing us to one of prime time's first Gay teen leads, Kurt Hummel, and his on-screen love, Blaine Anderson; featuring a main character with Down syndrome, Becky Jackson; and introducing Queer cheerleaders Santana Lopez and Brittney S. Pierce, who would be the sapphic sexual awakening for many Zoomers.

However, when we look back at the iconic TV show with 2021 vision, it becomes clear the guise of diversity was mostly used to push offensive jokes and plots, and that many of the antics and laughs we enjoyed from the show a decade ago would not fly today.

Underage everything
Glee was known for putting its main characters in compromising positions for comedic effect, but the end results were actually very cringey, and left the viewer with an uncomfortable pit in their stomach. From the first episode, the theme of blurred adult/child boundaries was crossed when the overtly pedophile-coded Mr. Shue spied on a naked Finn in the showers. While the actor who played Finn was well into his twenties at the time, the character was only fifteen. This led the way for more inappropriate adult/child relationship jokes, including a bit where another underage student is in a sexual relationship with an adult woman, April Rhodes, played by Kristin Chenoweth.

Underage drinking was also a major theme of the show, which dedicated a whole episode to the topic. The episode attempted to shine a light on the problem but instead glorified teen drinking as a fun way the glee kids could bond. The show depicted several adults providing children with drugs and alcohol, and the first season featured a plot about a teen girl getting pregnant after being pressured into drinking too much.

The abuse of underage children was not only played up on screen. On May 27, 2016, Glee actor Mark Salling, who played football star Noah "Puck" Puckerman, was charged with possession of child pornography and was expected to serve a subsequent seven years in prison. Salling committed suicide before the sentence was to be handed down.

Making fun of mental health
Glee was a show that featured racial, sexual, and ability diversity, and so it would make sense that difficult topics like mental health would be heavily featured on the show. However, Glee handled these with such tactlessness that it produced even more shame around the culture of mental health, sacrificing what could have been a meaningful message for a dull plot or cheap joke.

In the second season, cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester falls into a major depressive episode. Instead of taking the time to address the reality of depression, the show made her mental state into a pun. Sylvester left a "sue-icide" note and attempted to overdose on vitamin gummies. The reality of the issue is very serious, as drug overdose deaths have been on a steady rise since 2009, with 70,630 in 2019 alone. In fact, Glee's star Cory Monteith, who played Finn, died in 2013, while the show was still running, due to an overdose.

Glee's third season also featured a character with bulimia. Instead of educating themselves and the audiences on the difficulties so many with eating disorders experience, Glee's writers instead demonized the character, portraying her illness as a selfish choice she was making. Eating disorder jokes were commonly made on the show, but when they had a chance to tackle the subject with more caring, the creators spun the narrative to create a climate that was even more harsh for those with mental illnesses.

Sexual assault
Glee was no stranger to sexual assault plot lines as well. While there were many aforementioned pedophilic moments on the show, there were also several problematic storylines surrounding sexual assault.

At one point, a member of the glee club admits to being molested by his babysitter at the age of 11. Sexual assault against men is a major reality in America: nearly 1 in every 10 rape victims are male. However, the moment was played as a joke, with other male students unable to comprehend the severity of the confession they had just heard.

Coercion was also a theme throughout the series, with many "nerd" figures attempting to seduce more attractive and popular counterparts while they were under the influence or unable to consent. One such scene showed Tina, a member of the club, attempting to perform a sex act on an unconscious Blaine; in another episode, Blaine attempts to coerce Kurt into having sex with him. The show also depicts many moments of sexual harassment between Kurt and a school bully who is closeted; this is made to seem acceptable because the action took place between two Gay boys, one of which was discovering his sexuality.

Programing like this has led many to excuse sexual assault, especially in the LGBTQ community.

One of the most iconic characters in Glee was Santana Lopez, portrayed by the late Naya Rivera. Lopez discovered in the second season that she was Queer, but due to a fear of bullying, she refused to come out. Coming out became the major arc in her storyline, and she was portrayed as a coward and a liar for attempting to stay in the closet throughout high school, despite one of her best friends, Kurt, having had to leave their school due to death threats over his sexuality.

Many attempt to out Lopez, from the school gossip to her best friend and love interest, but Lopez was eventually outed by the heterosexual star of the series, Finn, who called her a coward for hiding her sexuality.

Outing is again a central plot when Kurt tries to convince his bully to come out in front of the whole school after being crowned prom king. The creators clearly didn't understand how personal and difficult coming out can be.

Sexual confusion was also depicted on the show, with a complete erasure of bisexuality. From the first season, viewers see Santana and Brittany hooking up, but the scenes are played as gags, their makeout sessions justified as outlets for the two most sexual girls in school. In one instance Brittney even admits to sleeping with "all the guys and most of the girls" in the school, but again, this comment is brushed off as an example of her hypersexuality, not her bisexuality.

In another episode, Blaine kisses Rachel and believes he may be Bisexual. This is brushed to the side by Kurt, who fails to acknowledge bisexuality as real, and in the end, Blaine confirms Kurt's suspicions that he is not Bisexual.

So while Glee attempted to feature LGBTQ representation like nothing else at the time, it ultimately failed to showcase positive role models in the community and left many feeling isolated. Closeted teens were shamed into thinking they were inauthentic and cowardly, when in reality, staying in the closet can be a safety strategy for many. Kids who fell somewhere in the middle of the sexual spectrum were gaslit into thinking this could not be, that they were merely confused. Victims of sexual assault, especially in the LGBTQ community, were fed justifications, given more reasons not to come forward. Underage alcohol consumption and sex were glorified, and mental health issues were demonized. Slurs were thrown around like candy on Halloween — every viewer who wasn't straight, white, male, and able-bodied likely experienced PTSD from the taunts of childhood bullies while watching the show.

Yet Glee still stands as a testament to pop culture, a celebrated coming-of-age show that shaped the adolescence of many young adults. Was Glee a product of its time, or merely an agent of the time's harsh reality? What was the impact of incorporating so much diversity on the show? Did this kind of exposure make it easier for Queer, differently abled, and BIPOC kids growing up, or did it just provide more fodder for bullies?