Glee: Warblers on ‘roids, Or: “In Just Seven Days, I Can Make You A Man”?

This post was sparked by two things: a) my fascination with the visual language of the Warblers storyline in the Sadie Hawkins (4×11) episode (of which I surprisingly haven’t seen even a single gif so far), and b) LettersFromTitan saying that Glee “constructs masculinity as something necessarily constructed” [1].

Let’s recap what happened before this week’s episode. In Dynamic Duets (4×07), we learned that the Dalton Academy Warblers had gained a new leader: military academy-trained Hunter Clarington, who called himself “not even remotely bisexual” while he tried to seduce Blaine Anderson back to Dalton, strongly supported by Sebastian Smythe (who was established as someone with few scruples when it comes to getting what he wants sexually in Season 3). After Blaine refused the offer, the Warblers sang “Whistle” (originally by Flo Rida) and “Live While We’re Young” (originally by One Direction) during the Sectionals competition in Swan Song (4×09) while performing two spectacularly acrobatic choreographies. Since the New Directions were disqualified for leaving the stage because one of their members fainted in the middle of their performance, the Warblers won the competition (and the glee club at William McKinley High School had to hand over their choir room to Sue Sylvester and her Cheerios).

Sadie Hawkins opens with Sam Evans doubting that the Warblers’ “weird flips and superhuman jumps” were simply the result of hard work, suspecting they cheated, and launching his own private investigation into the matter after Blaine told him he needed evidence to make such an accusation. And evidence he finds. Cue “before and after” images of several Warbler faces that indicate a thickening of their jaws and necks over a very short period of time.

02-hunter before 03-hunter after
04-warbler1-before+after 05-warbler2-before+after

That kind of imagery is of course iconic for all kinds of makeover stories, a trope that Glee has used over and over again (Rachel basically had a makeover at least once a season, and we actually saw before-and-after pictures of her face in her nose job story in Born This Way (2×18)) [2].

It’s also iconic for transgender documentaries, a genre that seems downright obsessed with before-and-after imagery, to either prove a person has been their “true” gender all along (that usually gives us “tomboy girl” pictures for transmen and photos of “effeminate boys” for transwomen) or to show the audience how much they have changed and how far they have come (that usually gives us “girls” in princess or prom dresses for transmen and military “man” portraits for transwomen). And then there’s the visual self-documentation many trans* people are doing on their blogs and YouTube channels that often uses a similar progress narrative of change. As someone who has seen the faces of several of my transgender butch and transguy friends and lovers change by way of hormone treatment, I can’t not see this connection [3].

Another variation of the makeover trope in trans* contexts that is relevant here is the narrative where transmen have to learn how to consciously create a masculine appearance. This is always a complex thing that ranges from knowing the difference between a “male” and a “female” short haircut to where the center of gravity is in a “male” vs. a “female” body and a gazillion other details that can make or break the appearance of “natural” masculinity. So, paradoxically, a lot of conscious work goes into making one’s masculinity look “natural” and “effortless” when it’s anything but.

05b-roid rageBut back to the story. Sam convinces Blaine that the Warblers have taken hormones to enhance their athletic abilities, which would disqualify them from the competition and make New Directions the winners [4]. The two take their evidence to Finn, together with a cellphone video Joe and Artie took at the local coffee shop of Hunter erupting into a fit of violent “‘roid rage” over getting the wrong kind of sweetener is his latte [5]. I won’t discuss here whether higher levels of testosterone actually lead to more aggressive behavior in previously perfectly peaceful people or not (scientific studies on that are inconclusive), but the idea of a connection between testosterone and aggression certainly exists (and as a cultural product, Glee works with such ideas, even if they have been proven wrong by science).

The same is true of a connection between high testosterone levels and an increased libido, which effectively brings us back to the songs the Warblers chose for their Sectionals performance: “Whistle,” which is basically a song about how the singer (Hunter) likes his blowjobs, and “Live While We’re Young” (sung by Sebastian), which is about having casual sex shortly after meeting someone while pretending it’s love and not caring about the consequences.

And now Blaine and Sam bring in Warbler Trent, who confirms that, yes, the Warblers have been using steroids to enhance their chances of winning. And Hunter apparently not only ran that operation but personally administered each of the hormone shots into the butts of his fellow Warblers. Cue blurry faces, faceless and muscular male bodies, sexy and sinister black latex gloves, needles dripping with fluids, and Hunter squirting a dose of that fluid into his own mouth…

07-blurry faces 08-faceless bodies
09-dripping needles 10a-oral

In other words, Trent reports a medicalized secret cult of masculinity with major homosexual undertones, run by Hunter “Not Even Remotely Bisexual” Clarington. Well, as fandom speculated before, Hunter probably gets his biggest kicks out of being in control and making everyone else do what he wants them to, so gender may indeed be irrelevant to him. Nevertheless, Dalton is an all-male world, and the Warblers use a substance heavily associated with masculinity to get an advantage, and Glee portrays this in images that allude to male sexuality, so it’s difficult to ignore the homosexual associations here. Even if Sebastian is strangely absent from the scenes.

In fact, I read the blurry faces and faceless bodies with well-defined muscles, the emphasis on naked butts, and the presence of white fabric on naked skin as an allusion to gay bathhouse culture (remember Sue’s fantasy about Blaine performing(!) on the bathhouse circuit?) and the erotic imagery that relates to it (steamy rooms that make faces hard to see, anonymity, gay sex, white towels draped over idealized male bodies, etc.).

At this point I need to make a small detour to explain the title of this post. The quote is a line from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where the mad crossdressing scientist Frank N. Furter sings it to his creation, the android Rocky whose most obvious characteristic is his bodybuilder physique. And if that wasn’t queer enough already, the line actually refers to Charles Atlas‘ bodybuilding ads of the 1940s in which Atlas claimed to “manufacture weaklings into men” and to “build a kind of new men.” Many of those ads had at least slightly homoerotic subtexts, which is precisely the reason for all the Rocky Horror references to Atlas. And Hunter has cast himself in a very similar role as someone who uses “scientific” or medical procedures to manufacture the kind of man he believes will win the competition [6].

It’s also a rather grown-up version of masculinity that is presented here and created by testosterone (just look at the well-defined arm muscles in the screencap above), in other words, these are men, not boys. In fact, the Warblers have made themselves into extra-masculine men, or, if you will, literal super-men.

And it’s “round-faced Warbler” Trent, the “sunshine of the group,” whose “hormones can’t handle heroic(!) doses of testosterone,” who doesn’t “even shave yet,” and who is called “Sensitive” by Hunter when it’s his turn to take it into the butt — in other words, boyish, child-like, and implicitly asexual Trent –, who ends up blowing the whistle in a way Hunter definitely didn’t mean him to. Trent is the pure and innocent child who gives up the prospect of winning with the super-male, artificially adult Warblers to side with the New Directions in an attempt to win back the honor and harmonious band of brothers the Warblers used to be. Trent resists Hunter, he fails Hunter’s version of man-made and streamlined, optimized masculinity and his blurry face becomes a sharply defined one again because he now is an individual who broke out of the Warbler machine. And this act may ironically “make him a man” more than any amount of testosterone shots ever could have done.

11-trent blurry 12-trent face

This is also where Trent has similarities to early Kurt who also repeatedly failed at the kind of masculinity society rewards, but who gained his individuality in exchange. And he has similarities to Blaine, whose childlikeness has been heavily emphasized this season (the two even joined the Warblers at the same time, which probably makes them the same age).

So it seems that one story Glee tells us about adult masculinity is that failure at it actually often is a good thing. Even if it is punished within the world of high school hierarchies, it tends to lead to being better human beings (who are also men) in the end (off the top of my head, I could easily make a case for Kurt, Puck, and Sam here, but they probably aren’t the only ones). Which is why I’m very curious to see how the Warbler storyline will continue in the next episode.

And when I started writing this, I actually had no idea that I would ultimately end up with so many connections to the trope of “being a man” that Glee keeps revisiting…

——-

Notes:

[1] I’m especially interested in the latter since I’ve often seen the opposite idea discussed (that is, masculinity is “natural” and therefore seems to require no effort to achieve whereas femininity is “artificial” and needs constant and visible work), especially around drag queens vs. drag kings, and, extrapolating from that, of male-to-female vs. female-to-male trans* people and their respective ease (or lack thereof) to be read as the gender they identify with. If you’re interested in academic writing about this subject, check out Judith Halberstam’s book Female Masculinity, especially the chapter on drag kings.

[2] And don’t forget the many, many fandom-created gif sets that show the development of Chris Colfer’s face and body from 2009 to 2013…

[3] I also need to mention that several transguys get their information about testosterone from cismale bodybuilders (due to the absence of long-term studies about the effects of testosterone on transmen), which further connects the two subcultures.

[4] Fans have correctly noted that this still wouldn’t mean the New Directions were the actual winners (they’d still be disqualified for their own violation of the rules), but let’s grant Glee that bit of illogic for the sake of the story, okay?

[5] And can I just mention here that “Latte” means “boner” in German? Which is in no way related to the Italian word for (espresso with) milk, but that doesn’t keep us from making bad sexualized puns about coffee drinks over here.

[6] It’s deliciously ironic that Hunter’s efforts aim at winning a show choir competition, which actually seems a rather “un-manly” thing to do in the world of Glee.

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Glee: What we can learn about fandom through the “Fandomspotting” podcast

Yesterday the weekly live podcast show “Fandomspotting” aired an episode about Glee (entitled “Better Than Regionals!”) with a panel of interesting guests, all of whom consider themselves Glee fans:

The show has been archived on YouTube, and a transcript has been created by some of the listeners.

Thanks to European-friendly timing, I was able to listen to the show live, which resulted in my first time of liveblogging over on Tumblr. Now that I’ve had the chance to revisit the recording and transcript, I’d like to follow up on that with some further thoughts.

First of all I have to say that I was expecting something completely different from this podcast. I expected conversation about Glee fandom, by the selected media professionals and/or fandom experts. I was hoping to hear interesting comments on how Glee works compared to other shows/formats, how it tells its stories, how fandom reacts to Glee (e.g. are there favorite tropes in Glee fanfic?) and how that ties in with fandom/creators interaction, and maybe even a brief summary of the most popular fandom hot button issues.

This is unfortunately not what we got (with some notable exceptions).

What we did get was more or less a repetition of the same debates that have raged ever since Glee fandom became a thing, plus some spoiler-based speculation about the next episode (Sadie Hawkins, 4×11) and general fantasies about the Glee the panelists would like to see.

Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the announcement that claimed that “no one loves to hate their favorite show like Glee fans,” and invited listeners send their “questions and comments—snark and screaming encouraged!—because this week’s panelists are ready for the fray,” (bolding mine) because that sure sounds more like Jerry Springer than like a thoughtful discussion amongst fellow fans…

But let’s look at some parts of the conversation in more detail.

When the panelists first gave their opinions on Season 4 of Glee, I was surprised to find out that one of them (Catherine) clearly didn’t even like the show as it is right now (she later said she much preferred the first thirteen episodes [2]), and another one (Tamila) hadn’t even watched anything after Makeover (4×03) [3]. That seemed odd for a podcast that was explicitly about fandom, and not about the show.

As the discussion went on, it became clear very quickly that there are two different approaches to watching Glee that were represented by one or more of the panelists (and all of the panelists actually represent parts of the larger Glee fandom here) [4]:

  • Some Glee fans (here most obviously Tamila and Catherine) believe that Glee’s goal is (or should be) to show an ideal world with many happy LGBT characters and same-sex couples, and to generally celebrate diversity. These fans often foreground one kind of main interest (e.g. LGBT issues, or gender, or race, or disability) and blame everything that doesn’t relate to that main interest for taking away time from what they believe is the most important aspect of Glee. They also tend to demand unambiguous “heroes” and “villains,” believe that the show should transport a clear moral, and think that offensive statements/actions by characters should always be contradicted within the text. They often expect trustworthy narration, tend to take Glee at face value, and focus mainly on the parts of storytelling that take place in dialogue and in center-stage action on-screen.
  • Other Glee fans (here most obviously Racheline) believe that Glee depicts the terribleness of the world as it is, with the promise of “a happy ending at the end of the tunnel.” They tend to be interested in the intersections of “otherness” in various characters (e.g. being LGBT and a person of color, being female and disabled), even if the show focuses an explicit storyline on one of these aspects only (which may not be their own personal main interest). They believe that the world shown in Glee is fundamentally unfair, that narrative/poetic justice won’t necessarily happen, that all characters are morally ambiguous, and that the main goal of Glee is interesting storytelling (instead of public service announcements or the presentation of a better world). They also assume that what seems to be the storyline of any given episode may in fact not be what that episode actually is about (see the podcast parts about the “lesbian blogger” comment in Glee, Actually [4×10]). They often consider non-verbal elements (e.g. props, sets, costumes, or background action) and implied off-screen action to be a fundamental part of how Glee tells stories and believe that the show’s creators assume a culture-savvy viewer with a lot of pre-existing knowledge, especially about but not limited to past and present LGBT culture and musical theater.

If there was any doubt left: my own approach to Glee falls firmly into the second camp, so this colors my opinion of Glee and this podcast. Like anyone else, I am no objective observer. I believe that Glee is a smart show that assumes smart viewers who are willing and able to look (at least) twice, do their research, and understand intertextuality as one of the ways to produce any kind of culture these days (no matter whether they can talk about it in fancy university-speak or not) [5].

If we look at most of the debates that repeatedly rage through Glee fandom as debates between these two approaches (and shades and variations of them), it might be easier to understand why we keep saying that “we are all watching a different Glee.” Because we are. Because depending on our expectations, Glee shapeshifts from a horribly offensive show with some terribly botched storylines and a ton of serious issues about the depiction of women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc. to a brilliantly intertextual show with amazing micro-continuity, a ton of inside references to LGBT culture that fly right under the radar (or over the heads) of any potential censors, and a spectacularly diverse cast of characters, none of whom actually is a stereotype (no matter how much they seemed to be one at first). And very often, all of this is true at the same time.

And since so much of this seems like Reception Theory 101 [6] and general basic Literary Theory [7] to me (yes, I have an academic degree in this area), I can’t finish this post without saying how bitterly disappointed I was that a “fandom academic” (Catherine), who has written her doctoral dissertation on fanfiction of all topics, didn’t seem to be able to apply any of these things to Glee. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect a conversation in academic jargon (of which I’m actually not particularly fond anywhere), but I did expect academic ideas about cultural “texts” and their reception to influence her private fandom and her public discussion of a show like Glee. I did expect someone with an academic degree in these areas to be able to at least wonder if maybe Glee is the way it is (and always has been) on purpose, and if so, what that might mean for watching it. But the only person who actually did any of that (and did it well) was Racheline.

I also would like to say that I found it upsetting to hear Tamila (who, remember, hasn’t even watched any of the seven episodes that have aired after 4×03) first demand “evidence” from Racheline for a claim she made about the development of the character of Blaine Anderson in this season (a claim which she has already written about on her blog and for which she could have offered plenty of supporting data from the show) and then basically prevent her from saying anything about this at all. I also found it upsetting that the moderator (David) just let this happen and then immediately switched topics [8].

This, together with Catherine’s claim that “Will Schuester getting really really drunk, ripping off all his clothes, running screaming down the halls of McKinley and finally molesting a student like he’s so desperate to” was her “fondest dream for [future] Glee” and her and Tamila’s interruptions of Rae’s explanation why she thinks Glee needs to stay at least partially in Lima to share their hate of Finn left a really bad aftertaste for me about a podcast that was otherwise mostly calm and respectful in tone.

All in all, I found the podcast an interesting example of existing conversations in fandom (that I now get to analyze – yay!), rather than a source of new thoughts about aspects of Glee or Glee fandom.

Mostly, however, I mourn all the contributions we didn’t get from this group of people, and I’m afraid the moderation is mostly to blame for that [9]. I know that a lot of the conversation in Glee fandom happens around speculation and spoilers and favorite episodes/characters/songs/relationships. I know that these are all easy conversation starters and/or ways to make sure everyone can contribute something (and all listeners can relate to something). So I’m all for having some elements of that in a podcast like this. But why have experts/professionals (who are also fans) on a show like this when they don’t get to be experts/professionals? I would have loved to hear how everyone’s work (paid or volunteer) influences their way of being a fan. I would have loved to have some input from their different areas of specialty (academic fan studies, professional media work/writing, involvement with huge fandom projects and charity). I would have loved to hear how their different perspectives impact how they perceive Glee fandom at large. And I’m very sad to say that I consider most of this podcast a waste of the potential and knowledge and experience every single panelist brought to the table [10].

So this is my wish for future rounds of conversation amongst different kinds of Glee fans: Let’s not be satisfied with the smallest common denominator of topics. Let’s not consider our vastly different backgrounds and experiences of Glee a hindrance. Let’s not repeat the same old conversations that we have already had a hundred times on Tumblr in other fan-made media. Instead, let’s be curious about each other. Let’s find out what story each of us has to tell and what we can teach each other about how life (and Glee) looks from where we stand (or sit, or lie, or dance). Let’s take closer looks at aspects of Glee that help people understand how its intertextuality works and how its non-dialogue storytelling adds so much depth and nuance to the show. Let’s talk more about what we love about Glee. And if we don’t particularly love Glee at any given point, then let’s talk about what we love about Glee fandom and its products. And if we criticize things about Glee (as we also should!), let’s do so in a way that doesn’t assume there is only one right way of telling a story or getting a message across to an audience. And if there’s really nothing to love anymore about Glee and its fans, then maybe let’s go and watch Teen Wolf instead [11]?

——-

Notes:

[1] I’m going to refer to the podcast participants by their first names from now on, because not all of them have given their last names and I don’t want to create hierarchies that way, and also because they addressed each other by first names on the podcast.

[2] Episodes 1×01 to 1×13 were produced in a block before any audience reaction could happen and influence the show. Later Glee episodes were and are written and filmed only a few weeks before airing, with some scenes being shot a lot closer to the air date. Because of this, the “First Thirteen” are often considered a different kind of Glee than everything that followed them.

[3] Please keep that firmly in mind when you consider her plentiful comments about later episodes.

[4] My explanation of these approaches is of course simplified, and there are probably many shades of the two as well as paradoxical combinations of the two. I don’t mean to imply that any of the panelist’s opinions are as unambiguous as my summary. In summarizing these two approaches, I’m also extrapolating not only from what has been stated in the podcast but also from what I have seen on Tumblr in the past six months of my own active participation in Glee fandom.

[5] Of course I know that this is not an accurate description of the average (read: very casual) Glee viewer. I also acknowledge that Glee (like any other cultural product) works differently when looked at only once. But none of the Glee fans who come together on Tumblr (or a podcast about fandom, for that matter) are “average viewers,” and hardly any one of us looks at any given episode of Glee only once (especially not if we also count the massive amounts of gif sets and screenshots that constantly float across our Tumblr dashboards). That said, I wish we would stop assuming that “the average/casual viewer” of Glee is automatically too little involved to understand the complexity of Glee. And that we also stop assuming that young LGBT people are unable to be media-savvy about Glee (especially since many young people are infinitely more familiar with remix culture and finding out shit on the internet than many of us 25+ or 35+ folks).

[6] Basically, reception theory says that a “text” (that is, a book, movie, piece of art, TV series, song, etc.) isn’t just passively consumed and accepted as-is by its audience. Instead, the reader/viewer/listener understands and interprets the meaning of this “text” based on their individual cultural background and life experiences. That means, the meaning of a text is not some kind of “truth” hidden in the text itself, but that the meaning (or rather, meanings) of the text is created in the relationship between the text and the reader/viewer/listener.

[7] Most importantly, deconstructivism, postmodernism/post-structuralism, and queer theory. Please forgive me for this one academic footnote without explanation of these concepts. Some tiny summaries of them (and of course links to further information) can be found in the Wikipedia article on Literary Theory, but to expand on all of them here would completely blow the scope of this post and footnote.

[8] The show went on for almost another fifteen minutes, so I don’t buy the argument of there being time constraints. It also didn’t seem like an undue elaboration of a single point after the panelists spent a huge chunk of time on discussing bisexuality earlier on.

[9] Or possibly the concept of “Fandomspotting” as such. I know too little about how the podcast generally works to judge that.

[10] This is not to say that fans who have more-than-average knowledge/experience in entirely different areas wouldn’t also bring immensely interesting perspectives to such a podcast (personally, I’ve read fascinating comments about aspects of Glee from teachers, singers, fencers, etc.).

[11] Which I haven’t seen a single episode of. Probably because I’m way too happy with Glee and Glee fandom.