Bathrooms are highly gendered and gender-policed spaces. Especially women’s bathrooms. The most recent Glee episode “The Role You Were Born To Play” (4×05) gives us a pretty spectacular example of that. And I use ‘spectacular’ both in the sense of ‘making a spectacle out of it’ and of ‘awesome.’ Because, yes, I very much enjoyed watching that scene, despite the massive amounts of transhating and gender-policing (not to mention racist and classist) language it contains. Which is why I now want to pick it apart to see how it works. I should start off by saying that I’m examining fictional characters on a TV show here, not actual human beings. Which means that I will talk about the “narrative function” of a trans* character, and that I will only briefly discuss her perspective in this post. It also means that I will defend the presence of hateful language and intimidating behavior towards a trans* person in this episode because it tells an interesting and complex story about another (cis) character. In other words, please brace yourselves (or come back some other time, or skip this post altogether, whatever works for you).
So, to get everyone on the same page, let me transcribe that scene for you and illustrate it with some screenshots.
[Marley is in the bathroom, looking into the mirror over the sink. Unique comes in.]
Marley: Hey, this is the girls’ bathroom!
Unique: I sit when I pee.
[Both look into the mirrors above their sinks, checking/fixing their faces.]
Marley: How psyched are you for ‘Grease’ auditions? I want Sandy so bad.
Unique: I’m not auditioning.
Marley: What?! Why not? You know you’d get a part!
Unique: I don’t want a part, I want the part. Rizzo. No offense, Sandra Dee, but Rizzo is the money roll of that show. A hot bitch who thinks she’s pregnant and turns out to have a heart of gold. It’s basically my life story.
Marley: [looks at Unique as if to say ‘wait, what?!’]
Unique: But they won’t give me the role. Everyone sees me in drag as a joke or as a stunt when we’re performing. But it would feel as weird for me to play Danny Zuko as it would for you.
Marley: Artie and those guys know that. Just tell them you wanna audition for Rizzo and I’m sure they’ll give you a chance.
[Sue comes out of a stall]
Sue: You know, the casual eavesdropper, hearing the feminine lilt of your voices would just assume you’re a couple of regular gals, yapping away in the crapper. But then the unmistakable scent of talcum powder and day-old pantyhose tells a different story. Well, well, well, if it isn’t McKinley High’s very own Tina Stomach-Turner and her trusty sidekick– [looks at Marley] Trying to think of a mean nickname for you and I’m blanking. But you [points at Unique], Urethra Franklin, you’re a boy and you’re fooling no one. You’re smuggling more kielbasa [points at Unique’s crotch] under these gowns than a homesick Polish lady trying to sneak through customs.
Marley: You can’t say things like that!
Sue: Oh, I think you’ll find I can say anything I want, absolutely stunning, kind-faced, blue-eyed girl. [Starts to put on Marley’s make-up from the bag she left on the sink.] Now, I know full well that gender confusion is the liberal media’s new darling, bored with drowning the nation’s airwaves with tinny sitcoms so gay that you have to stretch a dental dam over your television set in order to watch them safely. The Hollywood communists are busy force-feeding us drag queen reality shows and soft profiles of gender-confused, hormone-gobbling pre-teens who faint at the sight of their own genitals. [Puts one of Marley’s make-up items into her tracksuit top.]
Sue: (cont.) There’s no way in hell you’re gonna play Rizzo. I will not allow you to unleash a teenage maelstrom of gender-bent sexual confusion at this school. So you can turn it around and make it a launch party for your very own line of male girls’ brand-new fragrance called ‘Nutwhiff’–
Marley: We don’t care what you say! [Grabs her make-up bag.] We’re both auditioning for that musical!
Unique: [glares at Sue as she turns around]
[Unique and Marley leave the bathroom together and launch into “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” from P!nk…]
At first sight, this seems like just another one of those gender-policing bathroom scenes that happen all the time (except that many of the real-life ones are a lot scarier and often end on a much more depressing note), with a generous handful of Sue’s random insults to really drive the point home. And, yes, showing the many ways of gender-policing and misgendering and transphobia that Unique faces is indeed one of the points of this scene. But there’s more, much more to this scene than just that. And Sue’s insults are anything but random. So let’s look at these 2:10 minutes more closely.
We are in the sinks-and-mirrors part of a girls’ bathroom at William McKinley High School (WMHS), that is, a space that is defined as “female” in the two-gendered world of public bathrooms (almost) everywhere. On Glee, this is a space where many a private talk between the girls/women of that school has taken place in previous episodes (Sue is not the first teacher to use it, by the way). There have been many moments of gender-policing (including this deleted scene from the pilot — expect 19 seconds of gender-policing and trans-hate directed at a feminine cisgirl) in this bathroom. There have been fights and jealousy, confessions of secrets, and many moments of bonding between female characters. It serves as a semi-private and female-only space in the world of Glee. However, its has also been established as having leaky boundaries because some secrets have spread beyond the bathroom doors and also across the gender divide. Nevertheless, it is an intimate girls-only space, and the only one of its kind in the Glee world, especially inside of WMHS. Which is why it is so contested in the first place. Actually, the girls’ bathroom (in real life as much as on Glee) is a symbol for the boundaries of femaleness as such. Which means that everyone who enters it is automatically subject to be judged on their worthiness of being there. [By the way, I don’t think it’s a coincidence we have never seen Coach Beiste even anywhere near that bathroom. Most of her fights with femininity happen in the extremely masculine environment of the football players’ locker room – but that’s another story. As is a more detailed look at all the other bathroom scenes on Glee.]
As the scene starts, Marley is already inside the bathroom because her femaleness and femininity have never been questioned by anyone. The action starts when Unique strides in like she owns the damn space. Marley is surprised by her presence (which means that Unique is a not-girl in her mind) and states the obvious: “This is the girls’ bathroom!” (which means that Unique as a not-girl shouldn’t be there). Unique, however, walks on undeterred and informs her that she sits to pee in a tone that is amazingly both prim and sassy. And that apparently concludes the matter for Marley (as well as the other girl who has been in the bathroom with her and leaves after Marley has thus accepted Unique as a legitimate user of the space).
Let’s examine Unique’s comment “I sit when I pee” before we move on. I find it an absolutely ingenious reaction to Marley’s gender-policing because it completely deflects any questions about Unique’s body and turns her gender into something that is sufficiently proven by what she does, not what she (or her body) is. Or, to be more precise, by merely saying what she does. Judith Butler would approve so hard.
And, fascinatingly, this statement, this utterance (okay, Judith, now get out of my language again) really is enough to settle the matter of Unique’s gender for Marley because the next thing that happens (after a minimal cut during which the other girl went from the sink to the door) is Marley chatting to Unique (who has claimed the mirror next to her) about auditions for the school musical and how much she wants Sandy. And again, we need to pause and realize that this is a very interesting little sentence right there. You see, she doesn’t say she wants to “play Sandy” or even “be Sandy.” No, she simply wants Sandy. Of course we’re meant to understand this as “wants the role of Sandy,” but I still can’t help flashing back to previous conversations in that exact bathroom where girls have told other girls what boy they were really into. (Keep that lesbian subtext in mind because it will reappear in a bit.)
The next appearance, however, is made by one Sue Sylvester (the school’s cheerleading coach), who enters the scene from a bathroom stall. Which means that, like a hostile undercover spy, she has heard everything that has been said so far, which means all the gendered secrets and desires of both Marley and Unique. In other words, the previously established safety and trust of this space is now exposed as an illusion once again [gratuitious reaction gif]. Worse, the enemy was there first. And, predictably, Sue goes on to prove that she is indeed an enemy to Marley and Unique.
Before we look at how exactly she does that, let me remind you that Sue often has a casual insult ready for everyone who happens to come across her path and will pick on almost anything that looks like a sore spot. So no regular Glee viewer is surprised when the insults start (Marley and Unique, however, are both new to the school and haven’t encountered Sue before). Let me also remind you that Sue most viciously lashes out when she feels that her status, her place in the world, and her power are attacked. And I would argue that this is exactly what is happening for her here. Because Sue also is a woman who wears androgynous zipped-up track suits every single day. Until Coach Beiste showed up, she was the most masculine woman on Glee in both appearance and behavior and she remains fairly (and usually happily) masculine in comparison to the other women/girls. She has been depicted as unattractive, undesirable, domineering, and, by implication, unfeminine countless times. She has been ridiculed by several other characters, including her students and coworkers, for her decision to get pregnant at an older-than-average age, complete with jokes about the presumed absence of a sex life/functional vagina. Even her heterosexuality remains dubious because she treats men like stereotypical men in power positions treat women and can’t seem to stay in a relationship for longer than a few episodes, if she can find anyone who wants her at all, that is. She has even married herself, in a tracksuit dress, no less. (She is also played by the out lesbian actress Jane Lynch, who often appears in public in a low-femininity style, if we want to include such real-life factors, which we should because Glee tends to play with the Fourth Wall like that.) What all of this means is that Sue Sylvester’s own presence in the space of “female” isn’t exactly undisputed. And this is precisely what makes her behavior in this scene so fascinating and many-layered.
Her rant starts with a reference to the “feminine lilt” of the girls’ voices. Ironically, that actually acknowledges Unique’s gender as basically the same as Marley’s. While Unique’s voice is in a range that is pretty ambiguous by itself in terms of gender, the way she modulates that voice, her “lilt,” is feminine indeed. Sue then goes on to reference both femininity (powder, panty hose) and poverty (talcum powder, day-old pantyhose), which also implies a femininity that isn’t good enough, one that has failed to meet the standards (it’s also one of Marley’s biggest sore spots because her mother works as the school’s lunch lady and they are too poor to keep up with the latest fashion and designer brands).
Yet, Sue keeps addressing Unique with names that allude to successful black female singers, but in a way that makes Unique out to be a repulsive version of them. I’m also reminded of drag queen stage names here, which often are parodies that mock and celebrate female icons at the same time. The difference here is of course that Sue, not Unique, does the naming, which turns these names into straight-out insults – and implies that she considers Unique to be a “drag queen,” that is, someone who performs femaleness on stage but “really is” a man (or boy, in her case).
As in some previous episodes, Unique’s gender is once again defined by others, not by herself. This pattern will continue in this episode throughout two more scenes where several people speak about her in her absence, which results in an offensive and disrespectful mess of pronouns and other gendered associations and perceptions. In my reading of it, the point of all these awful scenes is that Unique’s first narrative function is to trigger all these projections about her gender in other characters (note: Unique gets to define herself in a later scene). In this case, Sue Sylvester.
The next bundle of references Sue makes in the bathroom scene relate to foreign(!) sausages, smuggling, national borders and general dishonesty/criminality (which is here expressed in terms of Polishness). Of course these are all thinly veiled (and racist) metaphors that bring up the theme of gender as a country, a place to inhabit, whose borders are controlled (but can still be illegally crossed). I find Sue’s inclusion of the term “homesick” into this part of the rant particularly telling because it describes so well the longing to go (back?) to a gendered place where one belongs (which is in fact very similar to the language Unique herself uses later, in the scene where she finally gets to describe how she feels in a two-gendered world). It’s also the point in her rant when things start to shift and break down.
Because the more Sue insists that Unique is a “boy,” the more obvious the visual parallels between the two become (now we actually see both of their whole bodies together in the some frame), the more the gendered line between them begins to blur. This is also where I want to introduce yet another layer to my reading of the scene. Because if we ignore the more theatrical elements of Unique’s femininity (and what we already know about her character) for a moment, she could just as well be a butch cisgirl who got the “this is the girls’ bathroom!” comment from Marley upon entering that space. In fact, I have known several butches who dressed a lot like Unique does in that scene, so something about her gendered ambiguity and the way women in public bathrooms react to that pings some of my receptors that are usually pinged by butches (or transguys). So, even if Sue and Unique approach the line between the two nations of gender from “opposite” sides, they still end up in a very similar place.
But now Marley interrupts Sue’s rant because (as her sideways look tells us) she is concerned about how it is affecting Unique. To understand this better, we need to know that Marley already has a history of speaking up against insults directed at people she cares for (like her mother who keeps being the target of meanness because of her size). So far, Glee has depicted Marley as an almost painfully good girl, which might explain why even Sue can’t think of a “mean nickname” for her. In fact, when Sue gets right into Marley’s physical space and again needs something mean to address her with, she calls her an “absolutely stunning, kind-faced, blue-eyed girl” in exactly the tone she normally uses for insults. And this is when something else happens, in this moment when Sue and Marley’s faces are very close together, in what was meant to be a threatening gesture by Sue. But then she ends up complimenting Marley for being pretty and kind and feminine, and we’re right back at the lesbian subtext I brought up earlier. And it throws Sue for a moment, to a degree where she has to physically shake it off, before she can launch into the second portion of her rant.
The rest of the rant is basically about media representations of transgender issues as a more scandalous next step after homosexuality has become commonplace. And while she rattles it off as if she has done so countless times before and isn’t even very interested in what she’s saying, Sue starts taking items out of Marley’s make-up bag on the sink and uses them on her own face. It almost seems as if she does it on autopilot because she never stops to acknowledge what she does. I read this both as an intrusion into Marley’s space (and I could even be tempted to invoke Freudian symbology when it comes to Sue’s hand in Marley’s container of femininity-enhancing things) and as a compulsive reassertion of her own femininity after the double impact of seeing the similarity between Unique’s gender presentation and her own and her subtle, lesbian (and thus potentially unfeminine) desire for Marley. That desire is once again emphasized when Sue ends her make-up application by putting one of the items into her jacket, right above her heart, where every romantic heroine has always kept intimate items that reminded her of her lover. And let’s not forget her invocation of a dental dam, that is, the most lesbian-associated safer sex accessory ever, as a protective measure against all the gayness on TV. Together, this also brings up the idea of not quite knowing whether you want be someone or whether you just want that person. As if she has suddenly come to her senses, Sue addresses Unique again, and tells her that not only can’t she play a female role in the school musical, but Sue will also “not allow [her] to unleash a teenage maelstrom of gender-bent sexual confusion” which only serves to underline that it is most of all her own gender and sexuality-related confusion that is inspired by the presence of Unique and which she apparently can’t allow.
And this is why I read this scene as an example of how big parts of the world react to trans* people. Because the mere existence of someone who doesn’t fit neatly into the heteronormative model of a feminine mind in a female body experiencing nothing but heterosexual desire for masculine men (and vice versa) forces everyone, no matter their own gender and desire, to find an answer to the question “what determines someone’s gender?” Granted, not everyone answers that in a trans-positive way, but they are still required to consider other potential answers to that question, if only to rule them out. And that destabilizes the very idea of gender as a monolithic block of certainty and alignment, even if that destabilization isn’t permanent. But, like the presumed safety of the girls’ bathroom at WMHS, the boundaries of gender will continue to turn out to be leaky and unreliable and maybe an illusion altogether because the enemy has always already been within. Not bad for a two-minute scene from a widely-watched TV show, huh?
[By the way, The lesbian subtext continues after the bathroom scene when Unique and Marley both act chivalrously with each other and Marley ends up wildly jumping around on stage in flat boots and jeans (which are strangely absent from the wardrobes of nearly all female characters on Glee) while Unique wears a dress and a feminine wig, which I don’t find hard to read as tomboy and femme, respectively.]
Does all of this mean that I think we’ll see a lesbian romance between Marley and Unique or a dramatic exploration of Sue’s newfound attraction to one of her female students or her own crossgendered identifications? Not at all. That’s not how Glee works, and these are not the stories that it’s ready to tell openly. But they are there nevertheless, in the spaces between what is factually scripted, what is added to that (and not always intentionally/consciously) by acting and editing, and what happens in the viewers’ imaginations when it comes to filling up the many narrative gaps and spaces that Glee has left open. And maybe there will even be ‘Marlique’ (Marley/Unique) or ‘Sueley’ (Sue/Marley) fanfiction one day to make these stories even more visible and real. And at the same time, there will be many other stories about the exact same scene, which will be completely different than mine but equally true and real.