The Glee of Sex
I have a lot of problems with Glee. Start with the constant character assassination, cloying and ill-conceived Very Special Episodes, and plot holes through which you could pilot a plane, and don’t stop as you move on to their troubling portrayals of disability and adoption (among numerous other things), and you’ll land smack dab in Ryan Murphy’s messed-up attitudes toward female sexuality.
From Brittany, an older teen who is written with the mentality of an elementary-schooler (she still believes in Santa Claus and leprechauns, tries spells to make her cat poop candy, and doesn’t understand how babies are made) and yet gets with every straight guy in the school in a way that the show seems to think is funny and not-at-all-disturbing; to Emma and Coach Beiste, McKinley High’s guidance counselor and football coach respectively, fully grown women in positions of authority who are portrayed as sweet and damaged perpetual virgins; to the way (until very recently) all the teen girls who were “nice” avoided sex, and the girls who didn’t were “bad” or broken — Glee is a cesspool of female sexualization.
A quick definition: sexualization occurs when someone is treated as though their sexuality is the most important thing about them (i.e., it doesn’t matter if you’re kind, or hardworking, or smart, or good at sports, or anything else — if you’re a girl who’s sexual, you’re “bad.” Or, on the flipside, if you’re not “hot” enough, you’re not important as a human being.) It also almost always involves women being treated as the objects of someone else’s sexual agenda — props in someone else’s play — as opposed to actors on behalf of our own sexual desires and boundaries. These constantly repeated cardboard-cutout ideas of women’s sexuality cause, according to the American Psychological Association, impaired ability to complete math & logic tasks, eating disorders, depression, and a host of sexual ills.
Which is why I cheered when Glee finally attempted to treat the subject of teen sexuality with some nuance in their recent “First Time” episode. In it, characters both male and female grapple honestly with figuring out what are good and bad reasons and contexts for having (and not having) sex, and a “nice” character (Tina) reveals, without any fanfare, that she and her boyfriend started having sex this past summer, and it’s been great for both of them. There are plenty of nits I could pick with the episode (it is Glee, after all), but overall, it felt like a giant step forward in the show’s portrayal of teen sexuality.
Not so for the Parents Television Council, who have launched a ferocious campaign against the show, saying, “The fact that Glee intends to not only broadcast, but celebrate children having sex is reprehensible.”
That the Parents Television Council considers seniors in high school “children” tells you nearly everything you need to know. The rest you need is about their willful denial of the importance of context. They seem to believe that any depiction of teen sexuality — including depictions of teens negotiating safer sex, and an early Glee episode (which gave me false hope for the show) that saw a lead character unapologetically informing her peers that girls have their own sexual desires, and another one challenged by male performance anxiety — is a danger to “our children.” In order to believe this, you must also believe that all teenagers are a) too dumb to tell the difference between the vapid, ornamental bunnies on the deservedly cancelled Playboy Club and, say, the smart, abrasive, complicated and proudly sexual Britta on Community, and b) would be completely asexual if they could only avoid the sexy grip of Evil Television Shows. These are far more childish beliefs about sexuality than any held by most of the teenagers I’ve met.
Over here in reality, we know that many teens explore sex. It’s true that television can influence how they think about sex, which is why erasing all sexuality from the airwaves is never the answer. Sex is a part of human life, one that many teens are working hard to understand for the first time. Silencing the media’s conversation about sexuality just drives the subject underground. That leaves young people less equipped to negotiate safer sex and contraception, and to articulate needs and boundaries. Instead, we should be working toward a media that prioritizes the quality of its sexual messages over the quantity of them. Much like all of us would do well to do with sex itself.