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.

Advertisements

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.

Glee: Carmen Tibideaux, Kurt Hummel, and the language of props

I already mentioned Carmen Tibideaux’s office decorations in my first reactions post for 4×09 on Tumblr, but I want to take an a closer look at it as I talk about the language of props in this episode, as they relate to Kurt Hummel’s performances and what Carmen sees in them (or not).

The first time we see parts of her office is during Kurt’s (partly voice-over) narration about the “golden ticket” process while the aria “Ebben! Ne Andro Lontana from the opera La Wally by Alfredo Catalani plays on Kurt’s record player. Kurt says,

Winter Showcase is like the NYADA Met Ball. Ten students to perform in the Showcase a year, the cream of the cream. She hand-writes and hand-delivers each invitation. Just getting invited is an honor. Former winners have gone on to win Emmys, Tonys, Golden Globes and even an Oscar. They all agree: the proudest and greatest moment of their careers was when Carmen handed them that golden envelope.

In other words, this is about being chosen as someone incredibly special. At the same time, it means the judgment isn’t over, yet, because the Winter Showcase is not only a celebration where ten faculty-chosen students “who exemplify the best of what we are trying to achieve [at NYADA]” (as Carmen Tibideaux explains) perform for an audience of the entire NYADA faculty and several “theatrical luminaries” (as Kurt knows) but it is also a competition, and – as we learn by way of Kurt’s comparison to the social event of the fashion world – an occasion to be seen by the right people and deemed worthy by them.

The specialness is emphasized by the visual language of that scene. Here are some images that are intercut with pictures of Kurt and Rachel’s Bushwick loft apartment where they clean up the after-kiki mess in comfy (and in Kurt’s case) fashionably distraught clothes.

01-ink 02-pen
03-peacock 04-wax
05-seal 06-envelope

The ink is the color of blood, the pen is thin as a needle and attached to a peacock feather, the envelope is sealed with royal blue wax and stamped with a signet ring. In the quill and ink, the calligraphy and the wax seal, and even the personal delivery, we have symbols of authority and tradition, and also of a certain antiquity. The aria that plays in the background only underlines that theme. Clearly, Carmen Tibideaux is all about the classics.

Let’s look at these symbols a little more closely. She basically writes with blood, which signifies the blood, sweat, and tears that are the price for achieving excellence. And since she is a former NYADA student, as well as an accomplished Broadway and opera performer herself, we may assume she has paid that price herself at some point. [This theme is repeated by her purple blouse because purple signifies power derived from pain in the Glee universe.]

The needle-thin pen makes me think of accuracy and detail (even though it seems unlikely that the calligraphy we see was actually done with such a pen), emphasizing technical skill and the precision that only comes with a lot of practice. The blood-colored ink and needle-sharp pen also make me think of a different teacher in a different fictional universe: J.K. Rowling’s Dolores Umbridge whose blood quill was used as an instrument of severe discipline by way of engraving a certain message into the student’s hand. If we leave aside the fact that Umbridge is clearly positioned as “one of the bad guys” in the Harry Potter universe, and only look at the quill as such, it is a fascinating metaphor for the way that repetition and discipline (both in the sense of (self-)control and punishment for the lack thereof) literally change the student’s body and leave their indelible traces in places that go way beyond its surface (at NYADA this seems most obvious in dance but it’s also true for other dramatic arts, including singing).

The peacock feather is a symbol for beauty, but also vanity, which is the first hint that maybe the props tell us a story that the character doesn’t. It also indicates the eye that is watching (and judging) whoever comes before it, which is interesting because Carmen Tibideaux herself rarely even makes eye-contact with Kurt. But she watches him nonetheless, to a degree that surprises him because he expected her to not even remember his name.

I found three different meanings for blue sealing wax, all of which date back to the later 19th century: a) color denoting the rank of the user, with blue being reserved to certain religious orders (source), b) five different shades of blue expressing “all gradations of passion,” and c) blue denoting constancy (source). I believe all of those make sense here. NYADA is like a religious order in the way it is devoted to a ‘higher power’ (art) to which people feel a calling and the way it comes with its own set of habits (all those black clothes and dark, muted colors) and rituals (the classes and their discipline), not to mention the elaborate application process that tests whether a student is willing and able to follow orders (see the ‘Ave Maria girl’ who was retroactively rejected from attending the school when she hadn’t practiced as much as she had been told to). Without a intense passion for singing (and dancing), nobody would make it even into the school. And there is a requirement for a constancy in one’s dedication, because the discipline required to become really good is one of constant repetition over a long period of time. [1]

The seal as such, and the signet ring symbolize Carmen Tibideaux’s rightful authority within NYADA to make those choices, no matter how subjective and unfair they may seem. And that authority implies the power to choose these symbols, so may safely assume that her choice of them has been as deliberate as anything else we’ve seen her do so far (even if it also seems arbitrary).

And then there’s the aria that plays throughout the entire sequence, the aria Kurt chose to listen to. The lyrics that we hear can be translated into “I will go away alone and far / There, somewhere in the white snow, I shall go / I will go away alone and far.” In the opera La Wally, this aria is sung by Wally, a young woman who rebels against her father’s demand to marry a man she doesn’t love and instead moves away from her father’s estate into a small hut in the snowy Alps. [2] These lyrics play into the theme of last chances (and the implicit question of what the alternatives are when you blow your last chance) that appears all over this episode. Kurt says to Rachel that he has “one more chance of getting into NYADA” and that he “can’t blow the audition.” He says he “can’t live [his] life chasing something that the Universe is trying to tell [him he’s] not good enough to achieve.” Rachel interrupts him to sa,y “it’s not the universe, it’s just Carmen Tibideaux” which Kurt counters with, “is there a difference?” And yes, I spelled “universe” differently in their quotes for a reason. Because for Kurt, Carmen Tibideaux is the capital-U Universe, that is, a kind of ‘higher power’ (like fate) that acts as the gatekeeper between and NYADA and by extension between him and a life where he at least has a chance of becoming a Broadway performer. So if she doesn’t grant him this chance, he will go alone, and he will still go far. [3] For Rachel, however, “the universe” is every person on this planet, and Carmen Tibideaux is just one of them (if an important one). But since it seems as if Rachel has already given up hope of getting one of the “golden tickets,” Carmen has no power over her in this moment.

And then Rachel gets chosen after all, she gets her golden ticket,” even if Glee itself offers us no explanation for this that is in line with anything we have learned about Carmen Tibideaux and what she values so far (see [1]).

09-chosen

Except for the fact that Carmen is all about the classics, and that’s just what Rachel delivers when she sings (and, if we are to believe her narrative, delivers to an outstanding degree). [4] And this is precisely not what Kurt has delivered to Carmen before. He has sung, and he has sung well, so a lack of talent or skill is not the reason for her refusal. He has shown courage in his choice of a song that is not a traditional audition song (even if it was a showtune), which she has acknowledged. But he has still not shown her enough of the musical style she prefers. He hasn’t been “classic” enough for her.

Which is why, when Kurt comes into her office to inquire about the state of his application for the second semester, she tells him that after reading and reviewing it, she still thinks he is “a very talented young man who knows how to sell a number but who is devoid of complexity and depth” and says that he “gave [her] surface when [she] was looking for soul.” She goes on to explain that “we are training artists here, Mr. Hummel, performers who are not afraid to show their vulnerability, and, yes, even their heart.”

Over on Tumblr, we have discussed how Carmen Tibideaux indeed has not yet seen what we have seen over and over again in the previous three seasons of Glee, namely that Kurt Hummel does the most heart-wrenchingly emotional, deep performances of his vulnerability and complexity. He sang “Defying Gravity” after his father protested Will Schuester’s decision that Kurt couldn’t sing a ‘girl’ song (Wheels, 1×09). He sang “Rose’s Turn” after he failed to convincingly become more masculine so that his father would love him more and they’d have more “guy stuff” in common (Laryngitis, 1×18). He sang “I Want To Hold Your Hand” when his father was in a coma after a heart-attack and Kurt was afraid he would die (Grilled Cheesus, 2×03). He sang “Blackbird” at Dalton after Pavarotti, the canary he was given to take care of, had died (Original Song, 2×16). He sang “As If We Never Said Goodbye” when he returned to WMHS from the safe but stifling Dalton (Born This Way, 2×18). And he sang “I Have Nothing” when Blaine pulled away from him for fear of being left alone once Kurt began a new life in New York (Dance With Somebody, 3×17). All of these openly vulnerable songs have gained him things, have moved him forward.

Interestingly, almost all of these songs are echoed by decorative elements in Carmen Tibideaux’s office. There are hand sculptures that are almost floating in thin air (“I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Defying Gravity”), bird statues and an empty birdcage (“Blackbird”) and white roses (“Rose’s Turn”). These props subtly underline the fact that we know that Kurt can do what Carmen asks him to because we’ve already seen it multiple times, even if she hasn’t. As a matter of fact, these props could also speak to Kurt himself, if he was paying attention, because he understands the language of props and accessories very well (after all, he didn’t get into Vogue.com on the basis of a website that showed off his own carefully selected outfits for nothing!), even if Carmen’s office decorations aren’t what they are as a deliberate message to Kurt – at least not one by her. [5]

hands birds
roses+birds cage

Anyhow. During his visit, Carmen Tibideaux tells Kurt she doesn’t want to see his props, his “surface” but she wants his vulnerability and soul because she hasn’t seen them so far (or so she believes). If we take her words at face value, however, it certainly seems curious that a woman who repeatedly professes to have very little time to waste, seems to be so inordinately fond of such elaborate and time-intensive gestures as hand-calligraphing ten letters of invitation [6] and then personally delivering them to the selected students who are presumably strewn all over the school building. If that is not all about “surface,” then I don’t know what is.

So, if she is indeed a person who seems to be an expert in the language of props and symbols and how they are meaningful, complex and deep, why on earth can’t she see the depth in Kurt and his props?

My argument is that Carmen Tibideaux simply is not as variable in her prop-related language skills as Kurt Hummel is. And I would argue that this is the main reason why she has not been able to fully understand the emotional depth in the performances of him she saw so far. And that is a problem she shares with the other people Kurt has auditioned for, who on average are a lot less fluent in any symbolic language than Carmen Tibideaux is: Will Schuester, Jesse St. James, Artie Abrams, Emma Pillsbury, and Shannon Beiste.

To recall: Kurt sang another song by the character Rose from Gypsy, namely the upbeat “Some People” for the role of ‘star performer’ in their Nationals set (Funeral, 2×21), echoing his earlier performance of “Rose’s Turn.” He sang another song usually performed by women, “I’m The Greatest Star” from Funny Girl, for the role of Tony in West Side Story (I Am Unicorn, 3×02), and “Not The Boy Next Door” from The Boy From Oz for his first NYADA audition (Choke, 3×18), which is basically a song about being gay (because the character who sings it in the musical The Boy From Oz and the real person upon which he is based is gay) and having grown beyond the place where one has come from. All of these songs have been about Kurt proudly claiming and showing off his talents, from his countertenor range to his dancing/acrobatics. All of these songs have also been about Kurt proudly claiming and showing off his gender non-conformity and his relation to (parts of) gay culture.

And the latter is exactly what Carmen Tibideaux (and all the other judges) hasn’t been able to understand. Because Carmen Tibideaux lives in the world of musical theater, not in the reality of Lima, Ohio. And while there is some overlap between the world of musical theater and gay culture, Kurt’s queer-related symbolic repertoire is not limited to Broadway plays but also encompasses relevant chunks of pop culture. And this means that not only wasn’t he “classic” enough in his song choice and performance style for Carmen Tibideaux, he also very likely wasn’t classy enough for her.

And this is really all we need to know to understand why Kurt’s video of his acoustic version of Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” – or even his pair of gold lamé pants – will never ever get Carmen’s (symbolic or literal) seal of approval. She simply can’t read the language of gold lamé pants and stripped-down 1980s pop songs. She seems to have problems in understanding that emotional depth and someone’s heart can’t just be conveyed by vulnerability, but also by triumph and joy, which is something that she has seen when Kurt performed “Not The Boy Next Door,” as a joyous and triumphant song of him finally embracing all his unicorn-ness instead of trying to be like everyone else. She doesn’t see the vulnerability that is implied in singing this song in this auditorium in this school in this town. In gold lamé pants. She doesn’t understand the relation between the T-shirts that Wham! wore in their “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video (which became a major fashion item back in the 1980s) and the ones New Directions wore during their performance of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”

wham2 born this way

But thankfully, Kurt Hummel speaks more than one symbolic language, and is able to give Carmen Tibideaux a performance she understands, one where he just stands there and bares his throat while singing about being hurt, first against his will, and then with his informed consent, because, apparently, that’s necessary to get him what he wants.

And then he gets a standing ovation and is accepted into NYADA, because it seems that finally, for once, the language he chose and his audience match.

It will be interesting to see how that theme plays out once Kurt is a student at NYADA. Because I can’t see him giving up a language of expression that brings him as much joy and pride as his carefully selected props and accessories do, on and off stage. But NYADA will not understand that part of him and will not want it  – but Vogue.com does, and I hope that Kurt will find a way to be all that he is in a place (or several places) that embrace and celebrate him for just that.

Notes:

[1] All of which makes me wonder why Rachel Berry is still at this school because we have only ever seen her resisting her teacher and refusing to accept instruction, so it’s easy to forget that she actually practices her singing and may in fact do well in her vocal performance classes. But this post is not about Rachel Berry, so I’ll leave it at this.

[2] In the universe of Glee, however, the “white snow” also hints at the song “White Christmas” that Kurt and Blaine will sing in the upcoming Christmas episode.

[3] After all, his fairy godmother (and Vogue.com boss) Isabelle Wright has promised him that he can achieve all his big dreams if he works hard for them. Which probably foreshadows that Kurt won’t stay at NYADA for a long time, or that it will turn out not to be enough for him. Because his dream is already bigger than NYADA (as we can see by his idea of attending the school and still working part-time at Vogue.com).

[4] And the Glee narrative is the reason why it is irrelevant that I find Rachel’s performances technically great (as far as I can judge that) but emotionally void, no matter what the show, the actor (yes, the female actor), and the character do to convince me that Rachel’s emotions are as big as her voice. Nevertheless, let me state at least once that for me Rachel is to Kurt what Celine Dion is to Lara Fabian. In other words, she technically hits all the right notes, but I just don’t feel her, whereas Kurt hits all the right notes and hits me right in the feels every time.

[5] I have no doubt, however, that Glee‘s set designers very deliberately placed all these items in Carmen’s office for us (and possibly Kurt) to see.

[6] These are invitations to an event whose audience is probably as carefully selected as its performers, and as deliberately directed as them – down to their seating arrangement that Carmen Tibideaux controls.

Glee: Of turkeys, drag queens and who is family

Note: I wrote this over several days, and it ended up as this forward-rewind thing through the dinner/kiki scenes at the Hummelberry household that wasn’t written from beginning to end but by jumping up and down through the text. Since that’s exactly how I’ve re-watched the scenes while I thought about them, I’ll leave this process as obvious as it is instead of tidying everything up into a smooth piece of writing that flows chronologically through the scene.

Glee‘s most recent episode “Thanksgiving” (4×08) had a scene where Kurt and Rachel’s small and fairly melancholic Thanksgiving dinner with Rachel’s new love interest Brody as the cook/guest turns into a party when a bunch of drag queens, gay men, and assorted other guests of several genders arrive via an invitation Kurt made to his boss at Vogue.com, Isabelle.

We’ve done an analysis of the “Let’s Have A Kiki” lyrics as they were used in the episode over on Tumblr already (and don’t miss this gem of pre-episode speculation), so I’m going to focus on the rest of the scene here, which means mostly the visuals and what happened before everyone launched into song.

01-significant otherLet me give you some context first. Earlier in the episode we learn that Rachel has talked a reluctant Kurt into staying in New York for Thanksgiving instead of going back to Lima. She has framed that decision as a strategy to avoid feeling sad and to focus on their dreams and ambitions instead of their ex-relationships. She has also declared that Kurt is “the only signficant other [she] need[s] in [her] life” while physically clinging to him in a way that looks very couple-y in an way that has been uncomfortable to some of us. After that, Brody has invited himself to their dinner by way of offering to cook for them (since Rachel isn’t too great a cook – and he also doesn’t have the money to go home). And then Kurt has invited Isabelle because she said she’d be alone otherwise (the friend she used to visit for the holiday has passed away), and agreed when she asked if she could bring some friends.

The actual Thanksgiving dinner starts out with Brody, Kurt and Rachel preparing the food. Kurt doesn’t seem too pleased about the way Brody has taken over the reign over the of dinner preparations (because Kurt actually is a good cook, and it’s his kitchen that Brody is trying to rule here), and he may even be a little angry at Rachel for handing over that task/power to Brody in the first place. Rachel tries to smooth things over (or maybe she’s just not getting the problem) but she sides with Kurt and his incredulity when Brody declares that “no one breaks out into song.” Next, Brody demands that Rachel come and help him butter the turkey, and they proceed to “use that turkey as a courtship device,” as Kurt so snarkily comments. (Yes, Tumblr has also done some turkey meta.)

The next time we see them, Rachel and Kurt sit at the dinner table, the camera is very close and there’s a candle between them, and Rachel talks about the holiday medleys she used to sing with her dads. Kurt assures her that “as long as [they]’re part of each other’s lives, holiday medleys will never be over.” At that point, the frame becomes a lot bigger and we see that Brody is actually still there and now bringing the turkey to the table. Just as he asks Kurt if he wants to do the honor of cutting the turkey, it knocks on the door. Kurt refuses not just the honor but the turkey altogether and goes to open the door to a group of people (including some drag queens, who apparently still work as visual shorthand for “gay culture”) he doesn’t know, who tell him that “Isabelle Wright invited [them] to an orphan’s party here.”

11-we were invited 10-can i help you

Since these strangers don’t wait until they’re actually invited in before they crowd the apartment and sample the greens, Kurt just tells Rachel (and Brody) that “apparently, we’re having a party.” Rachel is surprised but quickly adjusts to the new situation and she welcomes everybody somewhat after the fact. Kurt has apparently been trying to call Isabelle earlier, and she’s calling him back right that moment, which launches us into “Let’s Have A Kiki” (again, full lyrics and analysis here).

17-kiki

But let’s rewind the scene a tiny bit before we proceed any further because I want to examine Kurt’s perspective some more. When Rachel invited Brody, she turned what originally was a dinner for two roommates and friends into a dinner she has with her roommate/friend and with a guy she’s erotically/romantically interested in. In other words, she created a social triangle with herself at the center. I would not be surprised if Kurt had been a bit miffed about that at first, especially since Rachel had just told him he was “the only signficant other [she] need[s] in [her] life”(I don’t think he actually believed her, but she still said it). And now Brody has taken over his kitchen, desecrating everything that’s holy about cooking for Kurt. And make no mistake, cooking has a special significance for him, because it’s one way how he takes care of people. It’s also something he and Burt used as a bonding activity, and Burt is family, and family is sacred for Kurt. Besides, who do you think cooked the Thanksgiving dinners in the Hummel household before Carole appeared? Well, and now Brody wants to put the turkey into a plastic bag. And he sexualizes it. And while Kurt Hummel certainly is no baby penguin anymore, he still seems to be rather private about his actual sexual activities and would prefer others to be equally private. I believe the “courtship device” comment speaks volumes here with its hint at Victorian romance – more so since what Brody and Rachel did was not quite the Kurt version of “a touch of the fingertips”… So can I just say that I’m baffled at how many people read this Kurt/Brody interaction as friendship when it looks to me like a pretty open fight over whose rules – Kurt’s or Brody’s – apply in the Hummelberry household?

06-cooking

Anyhow, when Kurt lights the candle, Brody is neither in his nor in Rachel’s frame of attention (nor does the camera include him). Rachel is nostalgic about the holiday medleys she and her dads used to sing, and Kurt, not Brody, seems to be the one to share that with. This could be because Brody is busy with the cooking, or because Brody is not (yet?) someone she trusts with her more vulnerable moments. Or maybe Kurt really is her go-to person for that kind of thing. At least that’s what he seems to understand because he calls her “sweetie” and promises her that “as long as [they]’re in each other’s lives, holiday medleys will never be over.” And no matter how cringe-y I get at the idea of a romantic Hummelberry friendship, I still have to acknowledge that there is genuine affection between the two, from both sides.

08-sweetie 07-holiday medleys

But now Brody and the sexualized turkey re-enter the picture. Rachel switches back into her cheerful voice, and the intimate moment between her and Kurt is over. Brody continues to appropriate a role that isn’t his to have when he offers Kurt the honor of cutting the turkey – an honor that only the head of the house can offer (which Kurt Hummel most likely is aware of). There’s also an element of gender at play here, because the head of the house is traditionally male, and by way of assuming that role, Brody has apparently cast himself as the most masculine person in the house. He also tries to reinstall the Thanksgiving dinner he thinks they should be having, with Rachel and himself as the main couple and Kurt as their guest. However, that plan is thwarted when Kurt refuses to accept the role Brody has cast him in. He won’t cut the turkey, and he won’t even eat any of it. In other words, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with that version of a Thanksgiving dinner. Which I would extrapolate to that version of family. (His use of the word “manhandled” also echoes the masculinity theme for me.)

And right on cue, Kurt‘s family arrives, even though he doesn’t quite know yet how much this actually is his family. While he’s talking to Isabelle on the phone during the intro to “Let’s Have A Kiki,” Kurt walks around his newly-arrived guests, looking as if he can’t quite believe that this unexpected assembly of queer strangers is actually happening in his own home, on Thanksgiving, no less. He also looks as if he can’t quite decide whether to be horrified or delighted.

14-uh 15-uh

So by the time Isabelle arrives, he’s happy to let her take over the reigns for the time being. At first, he keeps to the edge, guarding the door (that is not locked, by the way), but after Isabelle has answered to his call “mother” by assuring him, that she’s “gonna let you have it,” he’s apparently come round and decided that delight is the dominant feeling he has. And delightful it is, to be queer in a queer context, not hidden or fearful or illegal (like Scandals when you’re underage) but right in the middle of his living room that has suddenly turned into a center for queer community – and family. So Kurt can take action now, prance flamboyantly along the wall and grab Brody’s hand and make him submit to the new set of rules that has just been declared by sheer majority.19-explain

Brody, however, isn’t quite getting with the program yet and interrupts the song to ask “Wait, wh- what is a kiki?” By then, Kurt has maneuvered him over into a corner of the room where Brody plunks down into an armchair (is Kurt telling him to “take a seat”?). Kurt then proceeds to explain what a kiki is, with an expression that half-helpful and half-exasperated with Brody’s cluelessness, while Rachel throws smoldering glances over Kurt’s shoulder at Brody, as if to soften the blow of that onslaught of queerness and attitude.

Rachel is actually rather good at code-switching from the quiet and very heterosexual (except for that melancholic moment where she thinks of her gay dads and their showtunes and turns her attention over to Kurt again) dinner to the thoroughly queer party that has invaded their space. She seems to know what a kiki is, she joins the singing and dancing, while Brody remains seated and an onlooker at the edge of the room who still doesn’t understand what’s happened to his nice dinner with Rachel (and her roommate). 20-tendingShe also tries to attend to Brody in the midst of all this but can’t really get through to him due to the degree of his disconnect from the new queer world order that has happened to him. Basically, her role as heterosexual semi-date to Brody relegates her to the edge of what’s going on, while Isabelle has assumed a central role both in the physical space and in the song/party as such.

But Rachel Berry wouldn’t be Rachel Berry if she let herself be pushed to the side like that. So she interrupts the song with some lines from “Turkey Lurkey Time,” presumably one of the (extremely campy) showtunes she has sung with her gay dads. At first, everyone looks at her a bit incredulously, but people soon get into the spirit, especially after Rachel has taken a drag queen by the hand and led her to the middle of the room (effectively using her to reclaim the central space for herself by way of appearing welcoming and accepting). Kurt also joins in with Rachel’s song, following her to the center of the room, and the two of them (re)claim the role of the co-hosts of the party and the “owners” of the apartment (with Rachel still a bit more in the center than Kurt).

25-rachel+drag queen 25a-rachel center

And this is where I need to pause the scene to have a moment of understanding for Rachel’s position in all of this. She’s the diva-esque daughter of two gay men who apparently did some pretty “gay” things as a part of their normal family life. Like, sing showtune holiday medleys at Thanksgiving. Which means that she actually does have “authentic” ties to this part of gay life, that it’s been the culture of her family of origin, even if she’s heterosexual herself. As a heterosexual young woman, however, especially with a sex-centered straight guy like Brody as her current object of erotic and/or romantic interest, she is located very much outside of any kind of gay life. So, when the kiki descends on her, she’s torn between her loyalties to each of these two worlds. With that background in mind, it actually makes a world of sense that she’d try to unite them by introducing a song that is “straight” and “traditional family-oriented” (or at least showtune-y) enough for Brody to relate to, and “gay” enough to not alienate the queer people who are currently partying in her (and Kurt’s!) home. And in exactly that way it even makes sense for her to consider Kurt her “soulmate” and “significant other” because his kind of gayness so far has actually been closer to her dads’ kind (with all his love for showtunes and his nostalgia for gay and gay-influenced or gay-related culture of earlier decades) that it has been to the kind brought over by Isabelle’s friends. No wonder does he feel familiar to her on such a fundamental level! And family is what much of Thanksgiving in general, and this scene in particular is all about, right?

27-rachel table 28-marvellous

At any rate, during her “Turkey Lurkey Time” portion of the song, Rachel eventually climbs on a table and uses it as some kind of stage/pedestal, while Isabelle has climbed another table at the other end of the room. At this point, however, Isabelle steps in and brings everyone back on topic by reminding them that, “This kiki is marvelous!” By now, Brody has at last gotten up from his chair and is now joining the dance as well, a move which Rachel’s attempt at bridging her worlds might indeed have facilitated (and which I will grant her as a success, even if I still don’t want Brody there at all because I neither like nor trust him). In the end, everyone dances together, with Isabelle back at the center.

29-everyone

The scene ends with Rachel grabbing Kurt by the forearms, jumping up and down excitedly, screaming “This is the best thanksgiving ever!” while Brody is forgotten in the background. So it seems that even though she managed to integrate Brody into the dance a little bit, her focus has still shifted towards the “gay” side of things. Maybe that’s just because this is how Rachel makes things all about herself, and if she’ll get attention by emphasizing her ties to gay culture that’s what she’ll do. Or maybe she has really found her own place in the amorphous “queer family” that has come together here and that’s more important than any new guy in her life right now 30-best ever(it’s Thanksgiving, after all, which I understand to be the family holiday in the U.S., much like Christmas is in Germany). I also just realized that Rachel will probably never be happy with just one significant other – unless he (and I’m strongly convinced it will be a “he,” and not just because she’s heterosexual but because she’s not very good at being friends with other girls/women – but that’s another bucket of meta for another day, perhaps) is at home in more or less the same worlds as she is. (No, I have no idea how Finn will ever fit into that picture, just that right now he really doesn’t.)

(And now I’m baffled by the fact that I’ve written myself to empathizing with Rachel more than I ever did before. Writing really takes me on interesting and entirely unexpected trips sometimes.)

Glee: Bathroom Talk

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.