Sunday, July 29, 2012

Glee's Love Affair with White Boys (from the archives)

I originally published this post last summer.

Glee's Chris Colfer, with the show's creators, Brad Falchuck and Ryan Murphy. Murphy is a judge on  The Glee Project.  (Photo courtesy of vagueonthehow)

Maybe I'm a glutton for self-righteous but hypocritical pop shows, or maybe it's just my backwards penance for having once been a gleek. Whatever the cause, I've been following The Glee Project. I've never been a huge fan of reality TV, so I can't say much about the genre as a whole, but The Glee Project (let's just call it TGP from here on) has revealed a lot about what Glee thinks it's all about - and what it's really about.

If you aren't familiar with this show, here's the basic gist: 12 performers between the ages of 18 and 24 compete for a recurring role in season 3. Each week they sing and "act," ultimately creating a group music video. Based on their performance in the music video, the bottom three are selected, who then perform a "last chance" song, and one is sent home. Same reality schmuck you see everywhere else, right? Except TGP has the Glee legacy of thinking it's progressive and inclusive and multicultural. And like Glee, TGP is so wrapped up in its own image that it can't see the truth, which is that Glee and TGP are all about the white boys. 

Exhibit A: let's check out the initial demographics of the contestants. There were 12 contestants total in the first episode. Six women and six men. That's fair enough, right? But if we look at the race of the contestants, we find 8 white people and only 4 people of color. By the end of the fourth episode, only one person of color was left, compared to 7 remaining white performers. Of the first four eliminated, 3 were women and only 1 was a man. That one man, as you might expect, was a person of color. He was eliminated for suggesting an alternative move in the music video, a suggestion that he made politely and which improved the original direction they gave him. The three white judges who eliminated him thought he had a bad attitude.

When, in the fifth episode,  they finally eliminated a white man, it was a very short man whose hometown was in Brazil. After him, they eliminated a white girl, leaving the cast with four men and just two women. It's miraculous that Alex, the only person of color currently on the show, has made it this far. All these decisions are made by three white men.

If I were to sit down and talk with those three white men, they'd probably tell me I'm missing the big picture and that they choose whoever is most talented and the best fit for the show, regardless of race or gender. They'd probably point to the people of color (and white women) who feature prominently on the show. They'd probably remind me that two of the main characters on Glee are big women and that unlike any number of other shows, Glee actually shows big women in relationships with men who aren't big. They'd probably also remind me that Glee is progressive by developing relationships for homosexual characters. And then, when they said all that and I still insisted that the show is in love with white men, to the detriment of everyone else, then those three white men would probably shake their heads and walk away bewildered.

But here's the problem with Glee's attempts at including everyone: yes, on the surface, Glee and TGP do a hundred little things to suggest they're including everyone. But when you look at the key decisions that determine who gets camera time, character development, and storylines that are worthwhile - and who doesn't - when you look at those key issues, it's hard to ignore the sad truth. When it came to the initial performers TGP eliminated - the ones they saw so little promise in that they didn't want to wait and see more of those performers - they valued white men more than anyone else. And when it comes to characters with depth, characters whose parents are portrayed on Glee and who overcome real challenges in order to grow and learn as individuals - those characters are white men more than anyone else. Yes, some of them are gay and thus minorities in their own right, but they're white men all the same.

Awhile ago I was talking with a friend about how it bothered me that I'd read so little African American lit in my time as a college undergrad. She said, "Well, I don't care who wrote a book. I just care whether it's good or not." But the point she was missing - and which so many of us who are privileged by race, gender, and/or socioeconomics miss - is that what we perceive as "good" is always tinted by subjective lenses. Her high school teachers only assigned one or two books by black people, so how did she have the chance to determine whether she liked black authors?

And the same principle applies with The Glee Project and its parent show. If the three white men who eliminate contestants on TGP don't know how to relate to people who aren't like them, how can they truly determine whether a woman of color is giving a moving performance? A panel of truly representative judges probably would have selected an entirely different cast.

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