9 Things “Glee” Did Right: On Bullying, Burt, Brittana, One Straight Butch and A Straight-Up Bitch

Glee has fucked up more often than not over the past several years, but it also did a lot of things right (besides produce a lot of really good pop covers). As the series comes to a close this Friday night, we wanted to look back on the times Glee didn’t make us want to remove our eyeballs and donate them to a haunted fruit basket.


 

1. They Re-Wrote The Script On Bullying

by Riese

bullying

There was always a limit to how much tolerance anybody could be expected to extend to their gay friend or child on television. You might be okay with it, privately, you might personally refrain from beating him up yourself. But stand up for him? NEVER! That would mean all kinds of terrible things, like the possibility that you, too, were gay! We learned to settle for “tolerance,” like that was all we deserved and all we could ask for. But, following several episodes of Kurt getting bullied and nobody doing enough about it, “Furt” demanded more. Kurt visited Dalton and met Blaine and realized that he was allowed to demand more, and one hopes that everybody watching at home knew it, too.

He demanded not just tolerance, but acceptance. Not just acceptance, but a protective embrace, but loyalty. In one solid hour of prime-time television, we saw loyalty in spades: A group of popular girls tell their boyfriends they have to stand up for Kurt. Four football players tell another football player that if he doesn’t stop bullying Kurt, they will destroy him. Rachel tells her popular football-playing boyfriend that she’s never been as disappointed in him as she is when he wouldn’t join the guys standing up for Kurt. The football coach stands up for Kurt.

The entire Glee Club shames the popular football-playing boyfriend for not standing up for Kurt. Kurt’s father goes after the bully. The bully is expelled. We witness the glory of community accountability. But Kurt still demands more, and he transfers to Dalton to find it. The Karofsky/Kurt storyline also provided a triumphant twist that happens in real life all the time and also happened on Queer as Folk, wherein the guy defending the gay guy isn’t gay, it’s the guy attacking the gay guy who is. So THERE.


2. Brittany bypassed bi tropes

by Heather Hogan

brittany-unicorn

With the exception of Santana’s very bizarre and out-of-character tirade about bisexual people being flaky cheaters (despite the fact that Brittany never, ever cheated on her) when she was getting together with Dani, Glee handled Brittany’s bisexuality with surprising aplomb. She wasn’t a depraved bisexual sociopath. She wasn’t an insatiable sex maniac who would do anything with anyone. She wasn’t a threesome gateway. And she wasn’t just experimenting. Brittany loved who she loved, and when she was dating someone, she was with them. The show painted her as a super math genius in the end, but her real genius was her superheroic empathy. She just saw things in other people (especially Santana) that they didn’t see in themselves. In a world where bisexual characters are sociopaths at worst and deeply narcissistic assholes at best, Brittany S. Pierce was a breath of fresh unicorn air.


3. Sue Sylvester defied all sort of stereotypes

by Heather Hogan

sue

Find me a woman over 50 on TV who is not a playing a supporting role as someone’s grandma. Go on, I’ll wait. You can’t even name five of them, right? Can you name a woman over 50 who is playing a series regular straight butchy woman on TV? Nope, you sure can’t, because Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester is the only one. Sue defied stereotypes left and right. The butchy straight thing. The fact that her main focus was her career and not a family. The way she never apologized for being a HBIC who wanted more power. Sometimes she was the villain and sometimes she was the hero, but she was one of the only characters on the show who was always entertaining. (Maybe the only other character on the show besides Santana.) We’re only ever going to see one Sue Sylvester on our TVs. Weirdly enough, I think I’ll miss her most of all. You could tell her story for a hundred years and never run out of hijinks.


4. They told a teenage lesbian coming out story that hadn’t been told before

By Riese

santana-coming-out

When I first heard that Santana was a lesbian (before watching the episode myself, ’cause I didn’t have a television), I thought it might be a joke, because you know, Santana is the slutty one who sleeps with all the boys! But then I realized, all at once: but I was the slutty one who slept with all the boys. Santana’s story was the first teenage lesbian on television who felt like me, even though I was in my early 20s by the time I figured it out. I didn’t figure it out gradually and then suddenly or even just gradually, I figured it out all at once, like Santana did, and then all the discordant elements of my life came together and finally made sense. I never would’ve predicted lesbiansim was my final clue, but there it was, and it felt right but it also felt so scary. I’d thought making out with girls was just an extension of aforementioned sluthood and couldn’t possibly mean I wanted to like, date one. “I made out with a mannequin,” Santana tells Holly when trying to parse out who she likes. “I even had a sex dream about a shrub that was in the shape of a person.” Boys greased the wheels of her social ambition, and her need for popularity and power was so strong that it disguised itself as desire for the boys themselves and not what they represented. Was Santana always written that way? I don’t know. But sometimes life feels like that: one storyline, and then another.


 

5. Dave Karofsky and Spencer Postmodern Gay Were Jocks

by Heather Hogan

karofsky-spencer

Karofsky’s suicide storyline was exploitive and terrible, and Spencer’s self-satisfied meta commentary about the glory of Glee was insufferable and masturbatory, but there’s no denying that having two openly gay football players on a TV show is a big damn deal. The blow up after Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend on ESPN after he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, just last year, proves that. And Sam still hasn’t found a permanent spot on a roster. Sports culture (especially football culture) is still rife with homophobia. And sports culture (especially football culture) is a driving force in nearly every aspect of American life, from the economy to what’s on TV to Top 40 song lyrics. So it had to Get Better on Glee before it even had a shot of Getting Better in the NFL.


6. Kurt and Blaine were endgame

by Heather Hogan

klaine

There has been a very weird, very gross dichotomy between the way gay men and gay women are represented on TV for a long time. Gay men are more prominent, but up until very recently, they were never seen in sexual (or even overtly romantic) situations, especially on network television. Gay women, however, have been hyper sexualized and used as ratings bait for over a decade. But Kurt and Blaine blew up that double standard. Their first time having sex was as important as Rachel and Finn’s first time having sex. They kissed with their mouths open and also with their tongues ON FOX. They made out at school, in cars, in their bedroom, in hotel rooms, in fake elevators, and at prom. They shared some of the most romantic moments and duets on the whole entire show. And they got married, in the end, at a double gay wedding. Kurt and Blaine really did change things for every other broadcast network. Just a couple of gay teenagers in love.


7. They Had a Teenage Trans Girl of Color Who Was A Part of the Main Cast

by Mey Rude

unique

Okay, yes, there was a lot about how the show treated Unique that was a straight up mess, but there was also something revolutionary about her. Let’s think just for a minute about how amazing it actually was to have a character like Unique Adams on Network Television. She was a black, plus size, supremely talented and fashionable trans girl who had a group of friends who actually cared about her and, when they weren’t being completely ignorant, tried to support her in her transition. We’d never seen a character like her before and we haven’t really seen anyone like her since. As a fat, trans woman of color, seeing Unique do things like be the best singer at Nationals, or have fun at a sleepover with the other girls in “Glease” or have her fellow New New Directioners step up and say that they’ll walk home from school with her so that she doesn’t have to be afraid anymore regularly brought me to tears. Despite all the show did wrong with Unique, they did make is so that trans women of color like myself had someone on TV we could look to and see ourselves reflected back.


8. Kurt and Burt’s Father-Son Relationship Was Brilliant

by Heather Hogan

kurt-burt

Kurt and Burt’s father/son dynamic was the thing that hooked me on Glee in the beginning. Burt Hummel was the voice of middle America. He was not some teenage thespian. He was a blue collar widower who went from taking away his son’s car if he acted gay to officiating his son’s gay wedding, and in between all that, he became the best father any gay TV character could ask for. He gave Kurt love advice, life advice, and forced him to listen to safe sex advice. He drove Kurt to the airport so he could follow his dreams to New York, even though he knew that meant Kurt would never really come home again. Burt was Kurt’s safe space and the springboard for his dreams. And, as soon as Kurt came out to him for real, he was Kurt’s greatest defender when he found himself being bullied for being gay. Glee fans can’t agree on anything, really, except for the fact that Burt Hummel is the best ever. He probably changed as many minds as Kurt did, because like Burt, a lot of Americans didn’t know any gay people until Kurt came out. And when the mechanic from Lima, Ohio was okay with it, middle America felt okay with it too.


9. Lesbian fandom seized its power

by Heather Hogan

brittana-wedding

Riese and I have written about this a lot in our recaps this season, but it should be repeated (forever, really): Way back during “Sectionals,” the 13th episode of season one, Brittany said a thing that wasn’t meant to stick. It was meant as a joke: “Sex isn’t dating; if it were, Santana and I would be dating.” If she’d said that at any other time in history, maybe it would have just floated on by. But she said it during a perfect storm of Prop. 8 backlash, a horrific pandemic of gay teenagers committing suicide after being bullied, and the rise of Twitter. Suddenly, lesbian fandom had a way to talk to the people who made TV, and there was a justified fire inside them, and they were not backing down.

Santana resonated with so many lesbians who had never seen themselves represented on TV before (see above) and Brittany resonated with so many queer women who didn’t feel the need to bag-and-tag their sexual orientation (see below). And, of course, falling in love with your best friend is a lesbian rite of passage. For six seasons, lesbian fandom demanded to be heard, to be represented fairly, to be able to watch see story that was meant to be, right on their TVs. Every milestone of Brittany and Santana’s relationship happened because of lesbian fandom. From their first (actual, real) kiss to their wedding. The Lesbian Blogger Community didn’t quit when the show’s creators chided them on social media, mocked them inside the show, or tried very hard to ignore them. When I write the book on lesbian fandom, I will point to Brittana fans as the ones who changed the world.


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Riese is the 36-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2568 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. Glee is the show with the most highest highs and lowest lows ever. But how good were those highs.. I’ll just be here having feelings and being grateful for all these good things they gave us.

  2. Find me a woman over 50 on TV who is not a playing a supporting role as someone’s grandma. Go on, I’ll wait. You can’t even name five of them, right? Can you name a woman over 50 who is playing a series regular straight butchy woman on TV? Nope, you sure can’t, because Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester is the only one.

    Not true! I can name another! Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May on Agents of SHIELD. She may not be as butchy as Sue is on Glee – her style and characterization is completely different – but she’s over 50, a series regular, and is stoic and tough as nails.

  3. I have such mixed feelings about the “butchy straight” thing on television–I feel like you could write an entire article about that!

    I think the super-butch-but-aggressively-hetero character is often played for laughs and as an obnoxiously self-congratulatory bid for progressive points from people who would never script a queer butch character. Maybe some of the Sue storylines in early seasons owe a little something to this trope, but she’s definitely her own complicated phenomenon. Jane Lynch doesn’t perform Sue’s butchiness as a disposable gag–it’s very much a part of what makes her such a dynamic, charismatic character.

    What’s Jane Lynch doing post-glee, does anyone know? I’m going to miss Sue, but I’m excited to see what’s next.

    • She’s got a CBS comedy on the way called like Death Angel or something. Hang on. Okay. “Angel From Hell” is what it’s called. From Variety:

      The half-hour comedy centers around an unlikely friendship formed when a woman, Amy (Lynch), claims to be the guardian angel of another woman, Allison (yet to be cast). Lynch’s character is described as larger-than-life, brassy and flamboyant, and when she claims to be a guardian angel, Allison can’t decide if she’s actually an angel or if she’s just plain nuts.

  4. Great list! One teeny, tiny thing. Kurt and Blaine never made out at prom. They never even kissed at prom. They danced at Kurt’s junior prom, but Kurt’s senior prom took place during Glee’s third season. Remember season three? That was the weird season where Glee got ridiculously uptight when it came to gay affection and wouldn’t let Kurt and Blaine get within five feet of each other, let alone kiss. (or, for that matter, let Brittany and Santana talk to each other, even when Santana was forced out of the closet) Oh, season three.

  5. It’s nice to be reminded of the good times! I had just come out around the time that Glee started and seeing Kurt’s relationship with his awesome dad gave me comfort after being so horribly rejected by my family.

    Klaine’s relationship had so much passion & romance, I wish they had developed a lesbian relationship on the show in the same way. Brittana never did it for me, even after Santana came out, it just never felt authentic (until the wedding).

  6. Did this really just make me tear up? What does that say about me as a person?

    Thanks for reminding me of the things that I actually loved and that resonated about Glee in its best moments. Hate-watching my way to the season finale, I feel more relieved that it’s over than sad that it’s going. This was a great reminder that this show has raised a generation of queer kids and that it made me cry almost as many times as it made me yell at the tv.

  7. So like (sort of) sorry to use my first comment to be contentious but, is there also going to be a [x] things that Glee did wrong list? ‘Cause I understand that series finales bring out the misty eyes and sentimentality, but Glee was a really important and powerful show for me for the reasons listed above (and more) but it was also the show where I learned that just ’cause folks are gay doesn’t mean that they can’t be y’know, racist, misogynistc, transphobic/misogynistic, fatphobic and so on and so on. And I’m afraid that Glee’s gonna go down in history as a show with a good heart that occasionally made off-color jokes when, to me, espescially as I became more aware, it was a show that was more often hurtful than it was uplifting.

    • “And I’m afraid that Glee’s gonna go down in history as a show with a good heart that occasionally made off-color jokes when, to me, espescially as I became more aware, it was a show that was more often hurtful than it was uplifting.”

      Yes, that! I’m so on board with this comment. It’s like the PR on the *Glee legacy* is being built around all of the possible eye-opening it might have done for middle America and how it has “changed the world” (I’m not all that convinced Glee made that big a difference TBH). But the legacy wants to ignore the hurt it more often caused to the so-called underdogs they were supposed to be championing.

      Having that “we’re changing the world” spin thrown at you while watching the show and continually seeing all of the shit you’ve described – “racist, misogynistc, transphobic/misogynistic, fatphobic and so on and so on” – just makes me pull the stink-eye. Frankly, it makes seeing those things worse because all the spin is telling you you’re supposed to be going into a safe TV space. No show is perfect on all of these fronts, of course, but the amount of wrong on Glee was too overwhelming for me.

  8. Am I the only queer girl watching Glee who thinks the whole “the lesbian blogger community created Brittana” thing is way, way over-exaggerated?

    Then again, Brittana never did much for me. Santana was an obnoxious bully 90% of the time, and as a bi girl, I didn’t think Brittany was a positive bi character by any means. She was portrayed as over-sexualized yet completely child-like (verging on delusional at times) in the first few seasons, and then the math genius thing was sprung out of nowhere in order to give Heather Morris time off for her pregnancy. Santana had more legitimate adult chemistry with Dani than she ever did with Brit, and Brittana’s reconciliation in S5 (when Santana was supposedly still dating Dani, who was never mentioned again) seemed to happen for no valid reason. And then suddenly they’re getting married? No thanks.

  9. Amazing list. I started tearing up. Don’t mind me, it’s just that Glee was the very first show I ever saw queer characters and it will always have a special place in my heart.

    Regarding Glee and bisexuality, I know that Glee has been super problematic sometimes. I know that. I was raging at Santana’s unchecked and out of character flaming biphobic rant. I was rolling my eyes during seasons 2 and 3 when they refused to say the word bisexual. But you know what, Brittany remains one of the best bisexual characters I’ve ever seen. And for all Glee has done, it never insinuated that Brittany was confused or experimenting or any other of the negative stereotypes.

    Aside from her relationship with Santana, the best examples of Britt’s sexuality being treated as legitimate was when they were broken up. In “Glease” Britt tells Santana that she isn’t dating anyone, male or female. When she was starting to be interested in Sam, both Sam and Britt were aware of her history with Santana and respected it. When Santana came back and wanted to get with Brittany again, Brittany made it very clear that she wasn’t choosing Sam because he’s a guy, just that things between her and Santana wouldn’t work out at the moment. Even Sam never hinted that he was better for Britt because of his gender. Santana was never ever treated as a phase.

    This was so important because too often, when a bi character dates a guy after dating a girl, it’s seen as “going back to boys”. Glee never did that. They had a bi girl dating a guy and her sexuality wasn’t erased. Plus, she ended up with Santana and she was never treated as “now a lesbian”. I have to say, that for all Glee’s faults, they did that well.

    Plus all the other stuff on your list, of course.

    • “And for all Glee has done, it never insinuated that Brittany was confused or experimenting or any other of the negative stereotypes.”

      This would be a more valid point if not for the fact that the character was written, for several seasons, as if she were continuously confused (about everything). She believed (among many other things) that her cat could talk and that an Irish exchange student was actually a leprechaun. She did not graduate on time because she had a GPA of 0.0. How are we supposed to believe that a person so confused-verging-on-delusional, clearly portrayed as unintelligent at the least and mentally dysfunctional at worst, could make her own safe, well-informed sexual choices?

      • I don’t want to start an argument, but your reply definitely comes across as “Girls with cognitive disabilities or in general aren’t that smart and therefore say illogical things can’t be certain of their sexuality and can’t make informed sexual choices”.

        Brittany knew she loved Santana and knew she liked guys like Sam and Artie as well. It was one of the few things she was not confused about at all (after her questioning period in season 2, of course). The show never tried to discredit that. Disabled characters can be queer and have sex, you know.

        • But the show never presented Brittany as disabled. They presented her as “quirky” and almost always used her lack of intelligence as a joke. However, the problem was that for three and a half seasons, she was presented as child-like, operating pretty much on the level of a six-year-old while still being highly sexualized. Santana took advantage of this more than once, one example being when she bullied Rory into essentially forcing Brittany to defect from New Directions and join the Troubletones, which she had previously told Santana she did not want to do.

          As for the show never discrediting any of Brittany’s relationships, even in this season she was shown as essentially having forgotten about her sexual relationship with Artie when she invited him into her room to talk about wedding planning and he had to remind her that he had been in the room many times in the past.

          I’m not saying women who aren’t that smart can’t have sex; I’m saying Brittany was always presented as a character that did not make very well-informed choices and therefore was definitely not some kind of bisexual role model.

  10. I’ve heard it said so many times before, but I’ll just say it again: no one hates Glee more than Glee fans, but most Glee fans I know still recognize just how much of an impact this goddamn show had on our lives.

    (Most Glee fans also agree that Glee ended at the end of season 2, and I more than agree with them)

    The first episode I watched was “Wheels”, when Kurt and Rachel had that Defying Gravity diva-off and I loved Kurt immediately. But when Santana began to find herself in season is when this show really changed my life.

    I came out of the closet alongside Santana. I was younger and I was really scared, but Santana Lopez was the first lesbian that I had seen anywhere and she gave me the courage to be myself. I remember watching Santana come out to her grandmother and I cried because I knew my own grandparents would act the same way. She and Brittany will always have a soft spot in my heart, even after all the bull that the Glee writers put the fandom through. I think that for younger lesbians and bisexual women, Brittana helped us feel like we could be who we are and fall in love with who we love even in this new era of cyber-bullying and other ways people try and tear young girls down.

    I guess this means I’ll be watching the season finale this week!

  11. I disagree about Brittany. She was portrayed really differently in season one (like when she wanted to sleep with Kurt so she could have a “perfect record”). They changed her character really dramatically once her and Santana were together. I liked her better at the end, but the continuity was wrong.

    Heather Morris is a fucking talented dancer, though, so I could get over how I never really “got” Brittany’s character, even when everyone else thought she was hilarious.

    I do really love the show though, and have probably seen the entire series 4 or 5 times through. I really do think they did more right than they did wrong (and I realize that is an unpopular opinion).

  12. I love this list! Glee may have been seriously off it’s rocker but I’m still glad that we had a show like this. Most people will most likely gloss over all the bad it will still be the show that tried to shed light on every issue under the moon. No matter how cringe worthy it was. I’m probably apart of a very small group but I just wished they would have ran this season a little longer or introduced the new characters sooner.

  13. Oh yeah, a guy marrying the guy who attempted to rape him and blamed it on the alcohol, who made him answer to a compliment how his boyfriend was so much better than him, that not a problematic message AT ALL… Kurt would’ve been better off marrying Dave than Blaine, which is pretty damn telling.

  14. Great article! I agree with (almost) everything you said. The only thing I would like to argue is when you say that “Glee has fucked up more often than not over the past several years”. Well, Glee may not be the perfect show (but which one is ?) and me too, during its run, I had some trouble accepting certain episodes, but now re-watching everything in perspective I have the feeling that every single thing that happened in these six seasons (even the most unpredictable) had a reason to be and probably no other show in TV history had a link so tight between plot, fate and audience.

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