Is Glee Immoral?

Since Glee‘s debut in 2009, one of the major criticisms of the show has been that it’s immoral. Glee has been criticized for the racy photoshoot its stars, who play high schoolers though they’re of legal age, did for GQ, for its relatively realistic portrayal of teen sex and drinking, for its well-developed gay characters and most recently, for its sympathetic treatment of a new transgender character. Most of these criticisms say more about the people mounting them than Glee itself. But over the past two seasons, it’s become impossible to escape the conclusion that Glee is an immoral show, but not for the reason cultural conservatives believe. It’s become a show that’s not just sloppy but exploitative and manipulative of serious societal issues and human experiences. And it’s time to walk away, even for hate-watching purposes.

via ‘Glee’ Is an Immoral Television Show and It’s Time to Stop Watching It | ThinkProgress.

My reaction is probably this:

So Glee goes off the air. Are we better off? Sure, Glee can be super clumsy. But hell, they just introduced a black transgender teen character on prime-time American television. They made middle America care about a fashion obsessed boy with a girl’s voice and fall in love with the hot lesbian cheerleaders who actually have feelings and consequences to their love.

Glee has strong characters with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities.

So sure, Glee’s not perfect. It tries to do too many things at once, and tries to not be a PSA at the same time, because PSAs are boring. But for its acheivements, for the flashes of absolute brilliance and for the plain old breaking down of walls that Glee manages on a week-to-week basis, I can’t see how it can be called out in quite this way.

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19 thoughts on “Is Glee Immoral?

  1. I am not quite where the writer you quote is at, though “exploitative and manipulative” seems legit. At some point, breaking down barriers simply by SHOWING the atypical characters you mention isn’t enough; I’m reminded of shows like Family Guy, which I cannot stomach, that present all sorts of characters and plays them all for laughs. Yes, Glee gives us overweight actors with actual storylines: but they pepper those stories with fat jokes. They give us gay characters, and make them the butt of the other characters’ jokes. The same with the geeks, the kids in wheelchairs, the learning disabled…

    Much like Henry Higgins, Glee treats everyone the same — the Dutchess gives and gets as good as the flower girl — but at some point, I have to wonder if it’s because they have no respect for anything other than their own (hit-or-miss) cleverness.

  2. Actually, seriously…..as someone who does work in disability and media, the usual response to any barrier-breaking is that it “shouldn’t be done” that it’s inappropriate or exploitative or not the time. People don’t know how to tell our stories, and people prefer not to see them. It’s concern trolling. It’s that simple. And I’m not saying that’s happening here, but you’re going to have a really hard time convincing me that those words actually mean anything or come from a place with my best interests at heart.

  3. The full article (which, my bad, I just read after posting the above), is not so much about how Glee treats the main cast as how it uses minor characters as emotional lab rats to pump up ratings and deal with The Big Issues they don’t have the courage or ability to tell through the primary players.

    (For instance, they put Quinn in a wheelchair; look how well they’ve managed to flesh out that bit of horror since we’ve been back from hiatus…)

    I said something similar myself recently about Karofsky, and how I felt like watching his character be hauled out during ratings’ periods and his pain put on display, only to have him ultimately hauled offstage again, made me feel like I’d been watching an emotional snuff film.

    The Beiste story last night, it could be argued, was just Karofsky’s Suicide 2.0: “May Sweeps”.

  4. I read the full article. It talked about main characters. It was largely about main characters.

    “Emotional labrats” is the kind of thing I’m talking about. It’s the first complain heard, every time, and the solution is always, don’t tackle those stories.

    They’re doing a very good job with Quinn.

  5. For myself, I am not saying “Don’t tackle those stories.” At all. Quite the opposite. I’m saying tackle the fuck out of those stories, don’t have them pop up for 9 minutes and then disappear again because Glee’s writers have written themselves into a story they have neither the time nor the inclination to explore further. Or they’ve given the story to a minor character who will necessarily only be in a few episodes per season.

    Domestic violence and teen suicide are hardly unexplored or groundbreaking topics. They are, however, BIG topics, difficult topics, and topics I would like to see weighted appropriately within the parameters Glee sets up (ie, we still have to have songs, we still have to have lighter B plots); the problem is that, because these stories are so often given to minor characters, they are necessarily relegated to B plot status and it feels a little cheap and ratings-driven.

    Which — whatever — Glee is a fucking television show. Of course they’re ratings-driven. For me, it’s not whether or not to watch Glee or turn off the set in moral indignation; it’s about how much value to give it, how much time and attention to give it, how much of myself to invest in the stories that it tells.

  6. As usual, I agree with you completely.

    When I see people criticise Glee for its imperfect representations of (insert issue of choice here) I always wonder whether they would prefer for those issues to not be represented at all? And then I wonder where that would leave us.

    I think we need to remember that we are always judging things by our own subjective moral standards. The fact that something doesn’t sit right within our personal moral code does not necessarily mean that it is inherently ‘immoral’. That is a really damning criticism to make, and I don’t think it’s a completely fair one.

    I often feel like people assume I defend the things that Glee does just because I am a fan. Actually, I am a fan because I think Glee does things that are worth defending. And I don’t care what anyone thinks of me for saying that.

    (Also, anyone who has time to “hate-watch” TV shows………well. Perhaps it is time for those people to seek out some more positive things in life and focus their energy there instead. Just saying.)

  7. who actually have feelings and consequences to their love.

    They do? As I recall they’ve had about two minutes of dialogue for the entire year.

  8. “It’s become a show that’s not just sloppy but exploitative and manipulative of serious societal issues and human experiences.”

    Is the show truly exploitative? I guess any show is–if by exploitative we’re recognizing a program as having a goal of profit to some degree. Is it exploitative of serious issues and human experience? Again, is there a show that isn’t, in a most basic way? Other programs might cover domestic abuse, for instance, let’s say something like Law and Order. The goal for them is ultimately to entertain emotionally, and draw viewers in, no?

    The reason a more traditional show might explore characters’ “experiences in rich, complex, compassionate ways” might have more to do with the world of the show, which is to say that a typical drama is set in “reality,” in a world that operates “normally.”

    Glee is different. The Glee world seems kind of like ours, but yet it’s not–because weird shit happens, like people breaking out in song, or having costumes for a number that will never be performed publically. Or people getting full rides to college thanks to an application submitted by a friend. Or a coach wanting to shoot cheerleaders out of cannons. Real, and yet not. That’s why we have go suspend so much disbelief to even engage with it.

    The trouble is when something that is perhaps “too real” meets the typical Glee world. The audience recognizes that disconnect (like a suicide story, or spousal abuse), because that story is still treated according to Glee world rules. So we get tent jokes. And it’s really uncomfortable and WTF. And if our response is to cry foul, that the story isn’t represented the way we’re used to, then we’ve forgotten Glee’s more postmodern stance . . . We’ll never be satisfied if we’re expecting traditional storytelling.

    Does that make the show “immoral”? In a lot of ways the show always is–characters are immoral, hypocritical, ridiculous. But they’re glorious too. Glee is like a collage of human experience, not an in depth exploration of characters’ lives meant to educate the public.

    Sorry to blather on. I did mean to make sense :p

  9. Whenever I read these types of arguments I can’t help but react with thank goodness we are talking about this. Yes the domestic violence plot was clumsy and exploitative and weird, but I have seen more educational and nuanced discussions of domestic violence today than I have seen in the last year. This is good. That said, it is better when it show presents these issues in a coherent narrative.

    Glee can be emotionally manipulative. It can hit us over the head with its PSA of the week. It can randomly wander off and completely forget what should be a major plot. It can treat some issues insensitively and/or unfairly. This does not make it immoral. This makes it imperfect. It was also given us some of the most unique and empowering moments I have ever seen on television.

    There are times where I wish was better. Last night was definitely one of them. I am getting very irritated with the writer’s systematic destruction of all the Jewish characters and their Jewish identities, but I am going to assume this is accidental.

  10. //The trouble is when something that is perhaps “too real” meets the typical Glee world. The audience recognizes that disconnect (like a suicide story, or spousal abuse), because that story is still treated according to Glee world rules. … And if our response is to cry foul, that the story isn’t represented the way we’re used to, then we’ve forgotten Glee’s more postmodern stance . . . We’ll never be satisfied if we’re expecting traditional storytelling.//

    I don’t really think that’s the trouble. Glee has always handled “real” topics, both in the background and the foreground of the show. The seasonal arc of the first season was Quinn getting pregnant and being kicked out of her home by her parents; the arc of the second season dealt with Kurt getting bullied to the point of death threats. Sam was homeless, Blaine was gay-bashed, Burt had a heart attack. Everybody has been bullied, in ways ranging from slight to very serious.

    And there are a host of background characters with serious problems that have been played in a very Glee tone: Brenda Castle from season one was a drug addict, Will’s mom was an alcoholic, Suzy Pepper tried to commit suicide (via hot pepper) because she was obsessed with Will, Ken Tanaka got depressed and frumpy like Jessica Simpson before he had a nervous breakdown and quit teaching, Aural Intensity’s choir teacher had swelling in his brain after Sue pushed him down the stairs (twice); the governor’s wife from “Original Song” had this to say: “My husband is verbally abusive and I have been drinking since noon.” (And then Sue punched her.) April’s alcoholism started out being treated fairly seriously, but eventually became more comedic. Terri had some form of mental illness.

    So I don’t think the trouble is that the audience doesn’t know how to respond to serious topics treated in Glee’s usual way. Obviously there have always been complaints about Glee’s tone–specifically that it doesn’t balance it’s wacky humor and it’s heartfelt topics well, that it was preachy, that it was hypocritical–and about Glee’s offensive humor. This wave of outright moral repugnance and critics being completely fed up, though, is new, and has really sprung up in the wake of “On My Way” and “Choke” (and to a lesser extent, “I Kissed a Girl”).

    And I do think there’s a difference in the way that Glee treats it’s serious storylines in general, and the way it’s treated Karofsky’s suicide attempt and Bieste’s domestic violence plotline, and I think it’s exactly what Rosenburg states in her article: “[Bieste and Cooter's] relationship plays essentially no role in the show, and Coach Beiste is not a character whose inner life the show consistently explores.” Generally when the show hauls out a “real” topic and then tells us to care about it, it does so with a character we actually see from week to week. Even if Sam’s homelessness was only the A-plot for one episode, he continued existing on the show and he continued being homeless–it got minor mentions in the episodes proceeding after “Rumours”. Kurt’s storyline about bullying proceeded in a consistent way–the bullying started getting bad and then escalated up until he transferred. Quinn always had to deal with being pregnant when she was pregnant, and Quinn was always there. Even if they weren’t at the forefront of an episode, they (and their problems) were still there all the time.

    With Bieste and Karofsky, though, they can haul the characters out for a lesson and some misery porn and then put them back in their toybox. And because they are so distanced from the everyday life of the show, the episodes revolving around their very serious issues do feel out of place in a way that, for example, Burt’s heart attack didn’t, because his heart attack and subsequent coma had a very serious effect on a major character. Something like Jean’s death had a serious effect on a major character. Everybody getting together to talk about the issues of characters they rarely interact with feels like it’s more about the issue than the characters.

    //The goal for them is ultimately to entertain emotionally, and draw viewers in, no?//

    I think the part about drawing in viewers (and specifically critics’ sense that Glee is just dealing with these topics solely to draw in viewers and gain critical praise) has a lot to do with what people find exploitative about these recent episodes. At the beginning of the season, Ryan Murphy said there would be one tribute episode and no guest stars, because he wanted to focus on the characters instead of something big and flashy. Once it became clear that ratings were falling, though, we got *three* tribute episodes and a parade of guest stars (Bomer, Whoopi, Lindsay Lohan). Obviously he could have just changed his mind for artistic reasons–it happens–but combined with Glee’s falling ratings, it’s suspicious. When shows go for a ratings grab in unsubtle ways, viewers tend to find it cheap and cynical.

    Similarly, Murphy said last season, “Too far would be showing the truth of the situation in which kids are committing suicide. That’s not something that I would ever show.” Cut to a year later when Glee’s showing Karofsky preparing to hang himself. Again, could be purely for artistic reasons, but even at the beginning part of the season when we saw Karofsky again, there was no set-up for the suicide attempt storyline. They had to contrive a situation (Karofsky, after seeing Kurt once in a bar, waited around for five months and then, despite wanting to stay closeted, decided to attempt to court him in a restaurant where, conveniently, a single kid from Karofsky’s school who conveniently knows him just happens to be hanging out for no reason) to even put him in the position for that plotline to happen.

    I think talking about Glee as immoral isn’t a particularly useful way to approach it, but I do think there’s something very cynical about Glee’s recent big, serious, “shocking” plotlines (and it’s recommitment to tribute episodes and guest stars).

    Sorry to tl;dr at you, but there’s really a lot to cover about this topic.

  11. I was going to respond that yes, there is inconsistency in how some of these character’s stories are presented, but the more I read that original article, the less compelling it seems to be. I mean, the article uses Quinn and Bieste as central examples of an immoral approach, but neither the Quinn or Bieste arc is over, and at least for Quinn, I feel like they’ve been consistent in presenting her evolving reactions to what’s happened to her. Neither is Santana’s story over (Lopez is coming), albeit with her, we haven’t had reference to anything to do with her coming out, but we have seen her be much more public with Brittany. It’s not completely ignored.

    Karofsky’s “On My Way” arc didn’t end in a completely satisfying way, but his story has been told for over a season—as a minor character who wasn’t regularly featured, that’s actually pretty impressive. I think if they hadn’t mentioned the detail about his mother wanting therapy for him, that arc would’ve felt a bit more finished (other then Kurt’s lingering guilt, which they could’ve done something with in the episodes that followed directly after). But there was plenty of development there, following Karofsky as he struggled with his guilt and identity.

    I like all the characters you cite that are again, consistently dealing with some serious shit, but portrayed with a dark, at times ironic, tone. Those characters are really caricatures, and their issues are depicted with humor and a kind of nonchalance. Me likey.

    I like the commentary posted yesterday on After Elton in response to the piece DG cites: http://www.afterelton.com/column/glee-is-not-immoral?page=1,1. In some ways I think we’re left with a show that does treat these serious issues lightly (perhaps too lightly for some), but also attempts to question our assumptions about said issues at the same time.

    As for Murphy, he changes his mind all the time, and I don’t care about that very much. The tributes have been good and more plot-driven, and I’ve enjoyed the guest stars they’ve brought on. Sometimes people say things then end up eating their words. I do that a lot, because I’ll find that what I said originally was wrong, or because I realize the idea I dissed the other day actually was a good one. I still wouldn’t call Glee’s approach immoral or even cynical. Perhaps hypocritical is a better way to characterize it?

  12. I think this is the nail on the head — Quinn’s story isn’t done. Santana’s isn’t. Nor is Beiste’s (guessing).

    Also, as you say, Karofsky had a significant arc — he bullied, he assaulted, he grew, apologised, struggled, found a place of peace but ultimately found the struggle too much.

    I love to wonder if he hadn’t been a bully, would he have tried to kill himself? Was part of his issue that he couldn’t bring himself to tell or ask for help, after everything he did to Kurt? It’s a really good — but long, and people’s memories are short — storyline.

    People don’t call out the Chang Sr storyline, but that one was left simmer for a while too. And we’ve heard it’s coming back.

    People freaked out for a whole season that Quinn’s storyline was dropped. And in Season 3, Beth was back.

    It’s hard to have a problem with dropped storylines when — arguably — it just hasn’t come back yet.

  13. (Replying to your reply, since these comment threads are wonky)

    //I was going to respond that yes, there is inconsistency in how some of these character’s stories are presented, but the more I read that original article, the less compelling it seems to be. I mean, the article uses Quinn and Bieste as central examples of an immoral approach, but neither the Quinn or Bieste arc is over, and at least for Quinn, I feel like they’ve been consistent in presenting her evolving reactions to what’s happened to her. //

    The article actually doesn’t mention Quinn at all. I think you’re kind of missing the point of Rosenberg’s criticism if you think her issue is that Bieste’s storyline (or Karofsky’s storyline) isn’t wrapped up yet, or didn’t end in a satisfying way. She does seem to have doubts that Glee will revisit Bieste’s storyline again (I don’t, but then I read spoilers), but her primary issue, and the one that I think has a lot to do with why reviewers have reacted violently to this episode and “On My Way”, seems to be the fact that “Glee inflicts something dreadful on a character who’s there solely to elicit reactions from the main cast…It’s one thing to put a character you want to flesh out fully through a lot of difficult things. It’s another to use trauma as a sparkly toy to distract and manipulate your viewers in the absence of your ability to tell a coherent story, or to give a character you are invested in an emotional experience. “

    I mean, you can disagree with her hypothesis as to why Glee is using minor characters for these big issue storylines. But I don’t think you can actually disagree that this is the new factor that differentiates these storylines from Glee’s earlier, more serious storylines. I said this in my previous comment, but generally when Glee wants to treat a serious subject seriously, it explores it through its main cast members, characters that we see every single week instead of every six episodes or so (or even every ten episodes or so, in Karofsky’s case). They don’t appear when the writers want to raise a Serious Issue and then disappear until the writers feel like dealing with that Serious Issue again. (With the notable exception of Quinn, also in this season. She has been basically disappearing during episodes that don’t directly have a plotline for her.)

    The fact that those storylines involve the main cast, who are there every week, means that those storylines (and even less dramatic but still emotional storylines, like for example Puck failing his geography test, or the dissolution of Schue’s marriage, or Mike’s conflict with his father) are written and read very differently than Karofsky’s “On My Way” storyline or Bieste’s “Choke” storyline. You simply can’t do the same things with a minor character’s storyline as you can with a regular character’s. You can’t do the same thing in one episode that you can do in ten, even if all you’re doing in those ten episodes is giving the storyline three minutes apiece. And as a result, audiences are going to react to those storylines differently.

  14. The issue that almost every negative review of “Choke” has mentioned, including Roseberg’s article, is that Bieste’s “Choke” storyline came literally out of nowhere. “Heart” set up Karofsky’s storyline for the next episode, but the last time we saw Karofsky (in “The First Time”) didn’t set up “Heart”. (And of course Quinn was hit by a truck, literally out of nowhere.) These were sudden, shocking events, not events that evolved naturally from previous storylines, or from things that we already knew about the characters involved. (With Karofsky, we did know that he was afraid of people knowing that he was gay. Once we knew he had been outed, the suicide attempt itself was fairly predictable. The outing, came out of nowhere, and involved a lot of contrived situations to make happen in the first place.)

    And obviously, with all three, they were going for the element of shock, and they even managed to integrate it into their themes. Certainly part of the point of Quinn being hit by a truck is that life is unpredictable, and certainly part of the point of Bieste’s storyline was that nobody expected it, even Bieste herself. But an issue just popping up out of nowhere can feel like, well, an issue just popping up out of nowhere. The way the Huffington Post phrased it was, “there was no build-up to this story. It was just… there, which makes the writers seem careless and like they’re just grabbing PSA ideas from a jar. “ Like I said in my last comment, it can feel like the issue (or the event, or however you want to phrase it) is more important than the characters, and people a) don’t like when we’re supposed to care about issues for the sake of issues, rather than for the sake of the people they affect, and b) don’t like being blatantly preached at. Shocking events can also feel exploitative, which is one of the issues that a lot of people have with these episodes.

    The simple fact that we don’t see Bieste every week also has an affect on how the story is read. We don’t just care about Finn when something dramatic is happening to him—he’s there on our screen every week, and so we care about him every week. The other characters take an interest in him every week, so it’s not completely random for someone to be suddenly pay attention to him the week that he has a serious problem. He’s not just a mechanism for a storyline about a kid whose dad commited suicide. When we’re only asked to care about Bieste this week, for this storyline, when we weren’t expected to give a damn about her last week–again, it can feel like it’s more about the issue than the character. Even when Glee has dealt with characters on about the same level as Bieste—Shelby, for example, or Jesse—the show didn’t decide to ignore them, then drop an emotional bomb on us, and then ignore them again. Their storylines had build-up and follow-through. (Shelby got the fuck out of town pretty abruptly, but she didn’t show up on the show just to get out of town again. She hung out for a while first.) Their storylines also had a direct effect on major characters, instead of merely serving as an object lesson.

    I mean, the major point I’m trying to make is that “On My Way” and “Choke” really aren’t just Glee as usual, and the audience’s and critics’ response to it isn’t because they don’t know how to respond to Glee. Glee is actually doing something very different with these episodes and storylines than it has before, and that’s why the response is different. You don’t have to agree that Glee is doing something awful by doing something different, but I think noticing the differences might explain why other people do find it awful, and certainly why they’re responding to Glee *differently* than they have before.

  15. “I mean, the major point I’m trying to make is that “On My Way” and “Choke” really aren’t just Glee as usual, and the audience’s and critics’ response to it isn’t because they don’t know how to respond to Glee. Glee is actually doing something very different with these episodes and storylines than it has before, and that’s why the response is different. You don’t have to agree that Glee is doing something awful by doing something different, but I think noticing the differences might explain why other people do find it awful, and certainly why they’re responding to Glee *differently* than they have before.”

    So it comes down to these episodes then, both of which I enjoyed very much, but some critics didn’t. Yeah, I still see the Karofsky story as a mere continuation of a story that lasted a year or more, and as for Bieste, I found it a plausible story that helped explain a lot about her character. Obviously, YMMV, right? I do comprehend the writer’s stance; I just find her claims to be filled with loaded language, and underpinned by the assumption that the character’s stories she’s upset about are over, when they aren’t.

    Is something different happening? Well, plenty of fans are upset with anything past S1x13, and by and large, people’s responses to the show are always so all over the place–that’s nothing new. But as I think about the two eps mentioned above, maybe what’s different is that both stories featured a plot development more daring/shocking than what they’ve attempted before: suicide and abuse. So, no wonder that their treatment of said issues will invite praise and criticism to various degrees, and maybe that led the author of the article to note a trend.

    Truly, the intent of my original post was to speculate on some ways I think Glee is more like literature of the fantastic (incredible realism), which necessarily creates a vert different relationship between reader/viewer/text. Someday I write up something more directly on that. I never meant to suggest viewers didn’t know how to watch the show, of course. Every episode gives us multiple ways to love and hate it :). Happy Watching! I’m sort of dreading the next one, for completely shallow reasons related to hair gel.

  16. KATE!!! We agree again! This makes twice. We should work for the UN…

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