Employing an ensemble of queer adolescent characters, Glee offers multiple variations to the coming out narrative.
In 1994, My So-Called Life’s Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) was the only gay teenage character on U.S. primetime television.
Glyn Davis notes that “with his subtly camp eye rolls and hand gestures, single gold earring, penchant for eyeliner, soft voice and preference for hanging out in the girls’ toilets, Rickie was always fairly clearly coded queer” (Davis 128)
In the final episode of My So-Called Life Rickie’s coming out narrative reaches itsclimax. This is catalysed by the misplaced heterosexual desires of new student, Delia (Senta Moses).
In 2009, a similar character named Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) graced U.S. television screens in the hit musical/comedy series Glee.
“There’s nothing ironic about show choir!” The Glee Club is a refuge where “the invisible” misfit students are given a voice.
When Kurt is first introduced, he appears small, feminine and fragile.
Like Rickie, Kurt is coded queer from the outset of the series through his one-liners, costuming and high vocal range.
Kurt’s coming out narrative is catalysed by misplaced heterosexual desire. In this scene, the cheerleaders attempt to convince Mercedes (Amber Riley) that Kurt wants to be her boyfriend.
Glee employs the misplaced heterosexual desire as an element of comedy. In this scene, Rachel (Lea Michele) and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) hold a “gay-vention.”
When Mercedes confronts Kurt, he appears horrified but attempts to pass as heterosexual.
Kurt eventually confides in Mercedes. However, in contrast to My So-Called Life, this is positioned as a narrative beginning.
Kurt comes out to his father in this scene.
And as Jennifer Armstrong notes, Kurt’s father’s positive response signalled “the birth of a new kind of gay hero” (36).
In a special report for Entertainment Weekly in January 2011, Jennifer Armstrong notes that over the past few decades,
Within this teen genre, however, gay or queer adolescent characters have traditionally functioned almost exclusively within the coming out narrative. Whether focusing on a character actively coming out or being removed of their agency and subsequently outed, this narrative emphasizes the climactic revelation of non-heterosexuality in a manner that has lead critics such as Glyn Davis to question whether queerness can ever exist as anything else within televisual narratives. As Susan Driver notes, the representation of queerness as nothing more than revelation emphasizes a “brief moment of visible difference” whilst denying the possibility of television to “expand and contextualise [the] experience” of being young and queer beyond this (58). This is because, as Glyn Davis and Gary Needham discuss in their recent Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics,
However, as this article suggests, Fox’s Glee (2009-present) poses an alternative to the more conventional representations of queerness on teen television, particularly in the context of coming out. Employing an ensemble of queer adolescent characters rather than a solitary queer figure, Glee offers multiple variations to the coming out narrative. This article discusses these variations with emphasis on storylines featuring Kurt and Santana as these characters feature more prominently within the series as a whole. Through consideration of different modes of coming out enacted by the series, this article poses the argument that Glee represents a significant departure from the norms of both the teen genre and the coming out narrative.
Prime time television’s first ongoing queer adolescent character was introduced in 1994 in the short-lived teen drama series My So-Called Life (Armstrong). Unlike the contemporary situation, where there are many queer adolescent characters across many different series, in the mid 1990s Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) was the only gay teenager on primetime American television. Audiences were first introduced to Rickie in the very first episode of My So-Called Life. A few minutes into the episode, protagonist Angela Chase (Claire Danes)—reflecting, quite lyrically about the pressures felt as a girl growing up in the 1990s—peers out of a window as she walks down a school hallway. She spies two rebellious teenagers skipping class as she muses, “School is a battlefield for your heart.” The scene fades to black but the monologue continues, “So when Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen,” as the black screen is replaced by a dripping mass of wet hair. As Angela ties it back, her voice goes on, “Because she wasn’t just talking about my hair. She was talking about my life,” and the camera zooms out to reveal Rickie for the first time. He stands, wearing a flamboyantly coloured sweater—chequered black and yellow with red pom-poms—and rinses the dye from Angela’s hair. In this episode, we next encounter Rickie in the girls’ bathroom, a place where we will often come to see him, putting on his eyeliner and “giving the male perspective” in a discussion about boys. As Glyn Davis suggests,
However, it was not until the season final that Rickie finally articulated the word, “gay.” Nevertheless, in this first episode, Rickie’s association with Rayanne Graff marks him as a rebellious figure and his association with femininity through the hair dye, the eyeliner and the girls’ bathroom denote a queerness to his character that although not explicitly referred to until the final episode of the series, remains constant throughout. Over the course of the series Rickie becomes aligned within these ‘feminine’ settings such as the girls’ bathroom rather than those that would be traditionally be considered masculine such as the football field, or neutral: the school hallway or classroom.
In the final episode of the series, Rickie’s coming out narrative reaches climax when he finally articulates the words that the audience have understood all along. This final episode revolves around the dreams of each of the characters. New student, Delia (Senta Moses), has a romantic dream about Rickie that she tells a friend who tells a friend, and so on, until it is eventually passed around the school. When Rickie learns of this, his response, “I-I can’t even believe it. I mean it’s such an unfamiliar experience. Do you realize how much easier my life would be if I could just like her back? I mean… this could be my chance…to be straight,” reflects a desire to ‘pass’ as straight in order to achieve his dream of a normal, easy, heterosexual life. Later in this episode, an exchange between Rickie and Delia results in the revelation of his (non hetero-) sexuality. Attempting to capitalize on his “chance…to be straight,” Rickie asks Delia on a date but is eventually confronted with the disjuncture between his fantasy and reality.
In 2009, fifteen years later—or, the time it takes for one generation of adolescents to reach teenage maturity—a similar character graced U.S. and later worldwide television screens in Fox’s Glee. Brainchild of Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuck, Glee focuses on a group of misfit Midwestern high school students who are members of the ‘New Directions’ Glee Club. As is expected within the teen genre, each character enters the narrative as a fairly specific stereotype (Shary). Over the course of the series, however, these stereotypes are broken down as each of the characters recognizes familiarity in one another.
With wide framed glasses, bowl-cut hairstyle, suspenders and a wheelchair, Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale) is quite clearly coded as the nerd of the group. He is joined by quiet Asian, Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz) who dresses in gothic clothing and stutters her way through the first several episodes before revealing that her stutter is performed so that people will leave her alone; plus-sized African American diva, Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley); Broadway-loving, feminine Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer); precocious over-achiever, Rachel Berry (Lea Michele); and Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) the well-meaning, slightly dim, quarterback of the football team. These outcast characters are eventually joined by three cheerleaders, lovingly dubbed ‘the unholy trinity’ by fans of the series: promiscuous ditzy blond, Brittany S. Pierce (Heather Morris); similarly promiscuous, manipulative and fiery Latina, Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera); and Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron), head cheerleader and president of the celibacy club. With his trademark Mohawk hairstyle, juvenile delinquent Noah Puckerman (Mark Salling) rounds off the group.
As cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) notes in the first episode, “[this] high school is a caste system. Kids fall into certain slots. Jocks and popular kids [are] up in the penthouse; the invisibles and the kids playing live-action druids and trolls out in the forest, bottom floor.” And the Glee Club, she notes, are thus located in the “sub-basement.” In a broader school environment that silences difference, the Glee Club becomes a kind of refuge where the “invisibles” and minority characters are rendered visible and are allowed to articulate themselves.
Cited in 2010 as “the most important character on television right now” (original emphasis) by Tim Stack in an Entertainment Weekly recap of Glee episodes, Kurt Hummel is the first of these teenager characters that audiences are introduced to. Standing by a dumpster, encircled by a group of burly, thug-like teenage boys, Kurt appears particularly small and fragile. His form-fitting, cobalt blue jacket is an immediate visual contrast to the matching red varsity athlete jackets of the bullies. “Please, this is Marc Jacobs’ new collection” he pleads as the boys pick him up to throw him in the dumpster. A single male voice commands the thugs to “wait!” allowing Kurt to remove the jacket before being thrown in with the trash. The next lines spoken by Kurt, indicating “Mr Cellophane” as his song choice for his Glee Club audition, further assert the feminine qualities to his voice; his song choice reflective of his feelings of invisibility and unimportance in the social environment of the school.
Like Rickie, Kurt is coded from the outset as queer through his costuming, one-liners, high vocal range and strong desire to sing traditionally feminine songs. Also like Rickie, Kurt’s coming out is catalysed by misplaced heterosexual desire. However, where My So-Called Life employs this desire to emphasize the drama in the climax of the narrative, Glee employs it primarily as an element of comedy. In the third episode, the manipulative cheerleaders attempt to convince Mercedes that Kurt wants to be her boyfriend. Despite her initial response, “I don’t think I’m his type” –indicating that she understands Kurt’s femininity as code for queerness—Mercedes eventually asks him out on a date.
Following this, Rachel and Tina lead a “gay-vention” which they describe as a “gay intervention,”
In a later scene, after Mercedes and Kurt have gone out on a series of ‘dates’, Mercedes asks Kurt if they can make their dating official. Appearing horrified at this thought, Kurt immediately responds, “I’m sorry, Mercedes. But I thought I made it very clear…I’m in love with someone else” as he looks over her shoulder at Finn, clearly signalling his desire for the football player. However, when Mercedes turns she sees Rachel instead of Finn. Unable to divulge the truth to Mercedes, Kurt goes along with this, mentioning that he has indeed been in love with Rachel “for several years now.” At the conclusion of this episode, however, Kurt is unable to continue with this lie and when Mercedes approaches him, he divulges,
With tears in his eyes and a quiver of hesitation in his voice, Kurt utters the words that the audience have anticipated since the very first scene at the dumpster, “I’m gay.” Mercedes, not appearing shocked, simply asks why he did not tell her, to which he responds, “Because I’ve never told anyone before.”
The similarities between this coming out moment and Rickie’s in My So-Called Life are explicit. Both narratives feature a misunderstanding or misreading of desire, both characters consider the possibility of passing as straight, and for both characters, this is a big moment: the first articulation of their sexualities. However, where Rickie’s story ended after his climactic coming out moment with Delia, Kurt’s story continued. It took Kurt a further episode to come out to his father—something that Rickie never did—and even then his story continued. Jennifer Armstrong notes that Kurt’s coming out and his father’s nonchalant response—“I’ve known since you were three years old. All you wanted for your birthday was a pair of sensible heels…If that’s who you are, there’s nothing I can do about it. And I love you just as much”—signalled the birth of a new kind of gay hero, “one who’s loved as much for his boa wearing as he is for fending off bullies” (Armstrong 36). However, where Glee truly marks itself as unique is in the fact that the coming out moment between Kurt and Mercedes is one of many for both this character and the series as a whole.
As earlier noted by Armstrong, queer characters have recently become an expected part of the teen genre (36). However, this cannot always be cause for celebration because as Davis argues, although queer adolescent characters appear on television in larger numbers than ever they are often
Davis further argues that the general “liberal conservatism” of televisual representations of queerness means that “only certain types of queers get represented, and only certain issues are addressed by the programs in which they appear” (130). To put this simply, “if the teen series has the potential to tell us things about queer teens, it will only tell us certain things,” (Davis 130) and will necessarily omit others.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of critics (see: Allen; McCarthy) argued that the medium of television in “its institutionalised form is antipathetic or inimical to queerness” (Davis 127). That is, for a number of reasons, critics have argued that television and queerness are incompatible. Writing in the late 1990s, Dennis Allen outlines a reason for this, arguing that until the mid 1990s essentially only one homosexual storyline could occur in heterosexually dominated series’ and it was the “revelation of homosexuality” (610), suggesting that queer characters could only be ever active within coming out narratives. In 2001, in an analysis of the 1990s sitcom Ellen, Anna McCarthy argues that it is queerness itself that poses a problem for “the unfolding of [television’s] temporal structures” (McCarthy 597). According to McCarthy, this problem lies in the “difficulty of making same-sex desire uneventful, serial, everyday” (McCarthy 609). Extending these arguments beyond the early 2000s, Glyn Davis significantly questions whether it is at all possible “to depict overt homosexuality in television drama as anything other than a revelation?” (128).