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.

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

  1. Pingback: High Notes: “Sadie Hawkins” (4×11) | Deconstructing Glee

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