2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
Glee: coming out on U.S. teen television
by Whitney Monaghan
In a special report for Entertainment Weekly in January 2011, Jennifer Armstrong notes that over the past few decades,
“gay characters have gone from one time guest stars, whispered tragedies, and silly sidekicks to not just an accepted but an expected part of teen-centric television” (36, original emphasis).
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,
“the revelation of a character’s homosexuality [often] quickly leads to narrative redundancy after said disclosure. Most of the gay and lesbian characters... have little to do after they come out, and more often than not they eventually get written out” (7).
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,
“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 as queer” (Davis 128).
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.
Rickie: Uh, Delia? Maybe we should, uh, go somewhere sometime?
Rickie: You know, like, uh, to a movie or something.
Delia: I’d like that.
Rickie: ‘Cause, um. I-I really think that we’d be good together.
Delia: Okay, but um, you’re gay, right?
Rickie: Well, I, you know, I, I-
Delia: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t-
Rickie: No, it-it-it’s okay.
Delia: That came out so rude.
Rickie: No, uh, see I-I try not to, um, no, I-I don’t like, uh…Yeah, I’m gay. I just don’t usually say it like that.
Delia: And how do you usually say it?
Rickie: I don’t usually say it. I mean, I’ve actually said it…out loud.
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.
Mercedes: So, would you ever… You know, want to hang out?
Kurt: Come over! It’s Liza Minnelli Week on AMC!
Following this, Rachel and Tina lead a “gay-vention” which they describe as a “gay intervention,”
Tina: It’s Kurt. He’s lady fabulous.
Rachel: It’s obvious you like him. We just don’t want you to get hurt by feelings he can’t…reciprocate.
Mercedes: Look, just because he wears nice clothes, doesn’t mean he’s on the down low.
Rachel: He wore a corset to second period today.
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,
Kurt: Mercedes, I lied to you—I don’t like Rachel.
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
“absorbed into the heterosexuality of the medium and its representations. In relation to television, that is, queers always have to find a place in a heterosexual structure and system” (129).
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).
As a rite of passage, a personal-as-political action or gesture, a challenge to normative identity politics, or simply the negotiation of “social boundaries that define both sex and sexuality” (Monaghan 58), coming out is “embedded in the very structures of gay and lesbian culture” (Bronski 20). To come out is to acknowledge one’s romantic or sexual desires for the same sex, it is to claim the identity of being gay, lesbian, queer or any other form of non-heterosexuality, it is to act sexually on these desires, and it is to publicly declare this identity (Bronski 20). But how does this translate to the visual medium of television? Michael Bronski argues,
“Coming out is essentially a complicated internal process, not a simple public act. Yet film [and we might also add television], more than any other narrative form—such as the novel, for instance, which can easily portray internal realities—relies almost entirely on external conflicts.” (21)
To visually articulate these internal processes, coming out on television often involves a verbal expression of sexual identity. This typically takes the form of a public or semi-public declaration—such as the conversation between Mercedes and Kurt or between Kurt and his father—that followed by a conflict that arises “between the gay person and her or his family or peer group” (Bronski 21). In contemporary teen film and television, this act of self-enunciation and the conflict that follows occupies a “pivotal position in the…narrativisation of queer adolescent subjectivity” (Davis 131). Captured in these moments, according to Davis, is often “the first experience of coming out, a self-conscious taking-on of a new, specific identity” (131).
As a narrative possibility for gay, lesbian and queer characters in film and television, the coming out narrative is only several decades old despite the fact that, as Bronski argues, it is “embedded” in contemporary queer culture (20). Until the late 60s, homosexual desire was routinely represented as “some form of social, personal or psychological tragedy” (Bronski 21). With their lives “predicated and protected by secrecy” these characters were removed of their narrative agency and “being public meant, not coming out, but being outed” (Bronski 21).
Rebecca Beirne notes that during the 1970s and 1980s, queer audiences rarely saw themselves on television and “when they did, it was usually as monsters or victims, objects of revulsion or pity. Or perhaps as a once-off ‘lesson’ in tolerance, never to be heard from again” (Beirne, Televising Queer Women 2). Although the first ‘lesbian’ kiss on television occurred in the mid 1970s on Australia’s The Box (1974-1976), it was not until 1988 that primetime U.S. television even saw its first recurring lesbian character. Even then, however, the United States and UK did not televise lesbian kisses until 1991 and 1993 respectively (Beirne). Through the late 1980s and early 1990s the coming out film gained popularity and these narratives began to migrate to television from the mid 1990s onwards, with Ellen DeGeneres’ character Ellen marking a significant milestone and coming out on the sitcom Ellen in 1997. Although ongoing gay and lesbian characters have been slowly emerging in adult-oriented television since around this period, it is important to note that ongoing gay, lesbian or queer adolescent characters have remained far less visible. In fact, there were only four major queer adolescent characters on U.S. network television between 1980 and 2000:
Cable television offered similar fare during this period with MTV’s popular reality program The Real World (1992-present) featuring a number of young gay cast members over the age of 18. However, MTV later aired a night drama series called Undressed (1999-2002) that focused on the social and sexual interactions of high school and college students and featured a number of gay characters. The U.S .version of Queer as Folk (2000-2005) was also notable during this period for featuring a gay teenage character named Justin (Randy Harrison).
This sparseness of representation is an implication of a more general restriction on sexual expression on teen television. In the United States, it is not legal for adolescents to have sex until 18, which varies somewhat by state. Teen television finesses this by implying sexual content rather than overtly depicting it. As Victor Strasburger argues,
“Although American media are not the most sexually explicit media in the world, they are the most sexually suggestive” (273).
In terms of cinematic representation, critics have observed that films in the teen genre contain “quite a bit of passionate kissing and sexual dialogue and fewer instances of implied intercourse and intimate touching” (Callister et al 470). However, as television programs—particularly those on network television—must conform to rather strict and conservative guidelines, the medium is generally understood as being more sexually suggestive than film. Strasburg further emphasizes, “What television shows suggest, movies actually show” (274). Indeed, conservative groups often consider the overt depiction of homosexuality as ‘inappropriate’ content for adolescent audiences, rendering queerness something to be suggested or implied within many television programs.
Despite this, the number of queer adolescent characters in television increased on both network and broadcast television steadily through the 2000s, with series such as The OC, One Tree Hill, South of Nowhere and more recently Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and 90210 all examples of this. However, although these numbers continue to increase, the fact that homosexuality is “not assumed but is itself that produces narrative complication” (Allen 611) still means that disclosure of a character’s (non hetero-) sexuality is often “substituted for any [other] possible narrative, romantic or otherwise, predicated on such a sexuality” (Allen 611). The concerning issue is not that there are not enough queer adolescent characters on contemporary television but that they enter their respective series or narratives as heterosexual characters. Coming out is the only narrative possibility for such characters as the conventional coming out narrative relies on the assumption of heterosexuality whilst depicting the act of coming out as “the only way for a queer teenager to achieve his/her personal, social, cultural and sexual liberation” (Padva 368). In many of these examples, particularly those of the early to mid 2000s, the queer characters are transient figures, either reverting to an initial state of heterosexuality or disappearing completely once the storyline has concluded.
Discussing Rickie Vasquez’s coming out moment, Glyn Davis writes that coming out scenes in teen television “seem to reinforce the act as an individualised one…an exultant liberationist confession of one’s essential(ised) identity” (Davis 131). However, he further notes that in addition to this, scenes such as Rickie Vasquez’s coming out can offer the potential to
“enact a complicated enunciation of queerness, in which, despite privileging a liberal paradigm, a range of different modes of homosexuality are brought into play” (131).
However, it is my understanding that much contemporary television is limited in its capacity to enact this “complicated enunciation of queerness” because coming out happens just once, to one character. Further, because coming out is represented in these narratives as a climax in the ultimate process of coming of age (see: Monaghan), the act of coming out is “not only an end in itself, but the end” to this singular narrative (Bronski 20). At this point it is wise to return to the beginning of this article, to Rickie Vasquez, and consider what Glyn Davis writes:
“Rickie’s final substantial scene in My So-Called Life, then, is centred around his coming out, which would seem to suggest such a confession as a potential narrative end point… But should it not have been a beginning?” (128).
Glee asserts itself from the outset as significant because it does not represent the revelation of queerness as a singular narrative end point. Indeed Kurt comes out to Mercedes within the first few episodes of Glee, presenting an alternative to the traditional coming out narrative via a queer storyline that only begins with the revelation of the character’s sexuality. Through this, Glee represents coming out as simply another aspect of contemporary queer adolescent experience that is no more or less important than other teen issues. Further challenging the traditional representation of queerness on television in which a solitary queer character enacts a single coming out, Glee subsequently focuses on an ensemble of queer teenage characters, each of them coming out in different manners. Through this, Glee offers a rare glimpse of queer teen community and redefining coming out as a complex and variable process rather than a singular, unchanging act.
After coming out early in the first season, Kurt faces increasing homophobic bullying which builds from threats of physical violence, to actual physical violence, to threats of death. This eventually causes Kurt to move schools for a period of time. The intense physical bullying that he faces comes primarily from David Karofsky (Max Adler), a thuggish football player. Karofsky harbours secret queer desires that surface as Kurt attempts to stand up for himself and his brutish actions are revealed to stem from both internalized homophobia and shame. As with much cinematic characterisation, the destructiveness of internalized homophobia here serves to excuse or soften audience attitudes toward the character’s homophobic actions. As James Keller argues, films such as American Beauty
“discredit homophobes by revealing that their hyperbolic hatred of gay men is indicative of their own pathological need to deny perverse longings” (183).
The danger in this is that the association between repressed queer desire and violence both “absolves the heterosexual community of responsibility for the violent repression of gays and lesbians” and “pathologizes gays as self-destructive” (Keller 183). Karofsky, however, is not depicted as a one-dimensional figure, driven only by repressed desire as he undergoes significant transformation throughout the second season. After realising the consequences of his actions, eventually offering a heartfelt apology to Kurt and—becoming a favourite with fans—he forms one-half of an anti-bullying group called “The Bully Whips.” However, he remains resistant to conventional modes of coming out and refuses when prompted by Kurt on a number of occasions. In the third season, Karofsky is largely absent, having changed schools, but Kurt encounters him at a gay bar called “Scandals,” where he reveals that he is still ‘in the closet.’
Karofksy: Is this the part where you judge me?
Kurt: So long as you’re not beating people up I’m all for being whoever you have to be at your own speed.
Karofsky: Right now I’m just trying to get through high school.
A further prominent queer character is introduced when Kurt begins attending Dalton Academy, a private boys’ school, where he meets openly gay Blaine (Darren Criss) who eventually becomes his boyfriend. Blaine comes out in an offhanded manner within minutes of meeting Kurt when Kurt questions a group of Dalton students about their sexuality. However, he later mentions being bullied in the past, his disapproving family and considers the possibility of bisexuality in one episode. In this particular episode, he goes out on a date with Rachel and yells at Kurt for expressing bi-phobic attitudes, before deciding that he actually does identify as gay. In the third season, another gay Dalton Academy student is introduced. This student, Sebastian, is depicted as openly gay and thus does not have a ‘coming out’ moment within the series. He functions primarily as a villain, disrupting the relationship between Blaine and Kurt, and is introduced as a gay character via his immediate desire for Blaine.
The ensemble of queer adolescent characters is completed with the additions of cheerleaders, Brittany and Santana. Their relationship begins subtly and ambiguously, expressing a very different relation to sexuality, identity, adolescent desire and the coming out narrative. An intimate friendship between the two is hinted to be something more midway through the first season when Brittany mentions that if sex were synonymous with dating, she would be dating Santana. This is not explicitly mentioned again until early in the second season, however, the pair go on a date with quarterback, Finn, in the following episode, promising him they will “make out” in front of him. Although equating their sexual relationship with the viewing pleasure of a (male) other—much like the lipstick lesbians of 1990s television— this scene gains further meaning as the series progresses, allowing it to be subsequently re-read in different manners. From this point onwards, intimate gestures between Brittany and Santana become markers of the ambiguity of their relationship and the season two episode ‘Duets’ confirms its sexual nature when they are revealed in bed together, sharing “sweet lady kisses”—“a nice break from all that scissoring” (episode 2.04).
The relationship between Brittany and Santana is continually aligned with non-verbal modes of communication and gestures that occur in the background of performances. It is not uncommon to see images of one girl resting her head on the other’s shoulder, hands linked by pinkie finger alone. However, as Glee is driven by dialogue and musical performance, this relationship must eventually be subsumed into more expository modes of storytelling. In episode 2.15, eleven episodes later, the two characters are confronted with their feelings. The spacing between these episodes is significant as it allows the relationship to exist ambiguously in the background for much of the first and second season, delaying engagement with the more conventional coming out narrative. As Brittany and Santana tidy themselves after a sexual rendezvous, Brittany tells Santana that she finds their relationship confusing. She says that with her boyfriend, Artie, they “talk about stuff like feelings…because with feelings it’s better” (episode 2.15). Santana quickly responds with a denial of the depth of the relationship,
“Are you kidding? It’s better when it doesn’t involve feelings. I think it’s better when it doesn’t involve eye contact…Look, let’s be clear here, I’m not interested in any labels unless it’s on something I shoplift” (episode 2.15).
They eventually seek guidance from the school sex education teacher, Holly Holliday (Gwyneth Paltrow) who is the first to ask “if either of you think you might be a lesbian.” In this scene, the camera moves fluidly around the three women as Santana responds,
“Yeah. I mean who knows. I’m attracted to girls, I’m attracted to guys. I made out with a mannequin. I even had a sex dream about a shrub that was just in the shape of a person.”
Here, the movement of the camera contrasts with the stable, fixed camera of both the previous and following scenes and is suggestive of the sexual fluidity of the characters.
With sentiments that run through the series as a whole, Ms. Holliday suggests they find a song to start a dialogue about their feelings. The idea that music can articulate what words cannot is explicit within this scene and this use of song as emotional expression is common within the musical genre. This is a significant moment within the Brittany and Santana storyline because until this point the relationship and/or queer desires between these characters had been defined by actions rather than words. In privileging ‘doing’ over ‘saying,’ Glee differentiates this relationship and these characters from many other queer teen characters, including Kurt, who verbally articulate their feelings before acting on them.
Accompanied by Ms. Holliday, the two characters perform Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” for their peers in the glee club. In this number, Brittany and Santana are positioned either side of Ms. Holliday who acts as a physical mediator but also an emotional conduit. The performance begins with Ms. Holliday in the centre of the frame with Santana and Brittany, slightly out of focus, to her sides. The camera slowly pans, refocusing and reframing Santana as the focal point as Ms. Holliday sings the opening lines—“And I saw my reflection on the snow covered hill.” We see Santana take a deep breath and look in the direction of Brittany. With the lyric, “When a landslide brought me down,” the camera reverses, cutting to Brittany, her expression concerned and questioning. The camera then sweeps across the room whilst Ms. Holliday sings the beginning of the following line—“Can the child in my heart...”— She is joined by Santana for the remainder of this verse in which Santana is depicted as singing to Brittany rather than to the audience—“...rise above? /Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? /Can I handle the seasons of my life?” All three characters come together for the chorus— “Well I’ve been afraid of changing ‘cos I built my life around you”—which builds to the climax of the performance: Santana’s solo lyric, “But time makes you bolder, children get older/ I’m getting older too.” Returning to the camera positioning of the first verse, Ms. Holliday sings the majority of the remainder of the song. With the lyric, “Well if you see my reflection in the snow covered hills/ Well maybe/ Well maybe...” the camera orbits the three performers, showing their backs in the foreground and the audience in the background, attentively watching. Until this point, the framing of the performance makes it feel like a private conversation. However, this sweeping shot of the choir room is a reminder of the performativity and public nature of this musical number.
For a performance, this number expresses a remarkable interiority. The lyrics of the song are clearly at the surface and of great importance to this dramatic situation, conveying an anxiety about coping with the inevitable changes of life. However, it is not Brittany or Santana that articulate these words as it Ms. Holliday, the conduit through which emotion is conveyed, who vocally performs the majority of the song. Beneath the lyrics are the gestures: deep intakes of breath, sighs, longing or questioning looks, tears, and of course, facial expression as Brittany and Santana begin their dialogue by literally singing through Ms. Holliday. At the conclusion of the performance, as the audience applaud, Santana sniffles and wipes the tears from her eyes. Brittany asks, “Is that really how you feel?” and Santana responds, “uh huh, yeah,” as she gets up from her seat and hugs Brittany tightly, clinging to her slender frame. Almost immediately, however, Rachel comically interjects, “Can I just applaud this trio for exploring the uncharted world of Sapphic charm? Brava, brava.” Although the performance of “Landslide” may be considered Santana’s first step toward coming out, her response to this comment acts as an explicit rejection of a specific, ‘lesbian’ identity and of conventional modes of coming out.
Santana: Look, just because I sang a song with Brittany doesn’t mean you can put a label on me. Is that clear?
Despite this immediate rejection, after the performance of “Landslide,” another coming out moment is enacted as the dialogue between Brittany and Santana commences,
Santana: Can we talk?
Brittany: But we never do that.
Santana: Yeah I know… But I wanted to thank you for performing that song with me in Glee Club because it made me do a lot of thinking. [Smiling as she takes a deep breath] What I’ve realized is why I’m such a bitch all the time. I’m a bitch because I’m angry. I’m angry because I have all of these feelings. Feelings for you, that I’m afraid of dealing with because I’m afraid of dealing with the consequences. And Brittany, I can’t go to an Indigo Girls concert, I just can’t…
Brittany: I understand that.
Santana: Do you understand what I’m trying to say here?
Brittany: Not really…
Santana: I want to be with you but I’m afraid of the talks and the looks. I mean, you know what happened to Kurt at this school.
Brittany: But honey, if anybody were to ever make fun of you, you would either kick their ass or slash them with your vicious, vicious words.
Santana: [sniffs] Yeah, I know but… still I have to accept… that I love you. I love you and I don’t want to be with Sam or Finn or any of those other guys. I just want you. Please say you love me back. Please. (episode 2.15)
While this dialogue and the preceding musical performance are Santana’s first experiences of coming out, they are not a “self-conscious taking-on of a new, specific identity” (Davis 131). What is emphasized in these coming out moments is rather an anxiety about feelings, intimacy and love which provides an interesting contrast with Glee’s earlier depiction of a character’s first experience of coming out. Kurt’s first articulation of his sexuality was a claim of a “new, specific identity” (Davis 131), an identity that he softly, timidly whispered to Mercedes, “I’m gay.” Santana, however, explicitly rejects all things carrying ‘lesbian’ connotations, particularly The Indigo Girls.
We may consider Sue Sylvester’s comment in the season two episode ‘Rumours,’ “Once a story is out, it’s out forever. You can’t put it back in” as an allegorical comment about coming out as it is represented in contemporary popular culture. Coming out is often discussed in terms that emphasize it as a fixed, historical action, a formative moment that happens just once. The implication of this is the suggestion that being ‘in’ or being ‘out’ are the only definitive options, and that once ‘out’ is selected and publically declared there is no going back.
However, Glee reminds us that coming out should instead be discussed as an ongoing process, presenting its characters with more options than a simple in/out dichotomy and suggesting that being out is far more complex than coming out once. Indeed, after coming out to his father early on in the first season Kurt feigns heterosexuality for an episode, going on a date with Brittany, when he feels that being openly gay has threatened his relationship with his seemingly conservative father. In addition to this, Santana is portrayed throughout the second season as being out to Brittany but continuing to date boys as cover.
Coming out, for Santana, does not involve a single utterance of “I’m a lesbian” but rather entails a series of tentative steps “out of the flannel closet” (episode 3.07) that are followed by panic and immediate return to the safeness of heterosexual relationships. However, Santana does slowly come to a state of self-acceptance that does not rely on the public announcement of her sexuality. This is particularly evident in the episode “Born this way” in which the Glee Club perform Lady Gaga songs wearing t-shirts expressing the things they are most self-conscious about—“BROWN EYES,” “NOSE,” “LIKES BOYS,” “CAN’T DANCE.” This episode concludes with a shot of Santana sitting in the back of the auditorium watching her friends perform and wearing her sexual identity plastered across her chest in big black letters. Her t-shirt reads “LEBANESE,” a delightful mix up with words courtesy of Brittany, and although Santana does not perform with the group, the importance of this scene is the emphasis on the gesture of simply wearing the t-shirt.
Highlighting the limits of the more typical coming out narrative, Santana remains resistant to conventional modes of coming out despite her cautious self-acceptance, refusing to publically declare her sexuality on numerous occasions. In one particular episode, after singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird” to Brittany as a means of expressing her “private” feelings—nervously playing with her hands as she sings, “I love you, I love you, I love you like never before.”—Brittany questions, “Why couldn’t you sing that to me in front of everyone?” to which Santana, wiping the tears from her eyes, replies, “No, not yet, I’m not ready for that type of [pause] public announcement” (episode 2.19). However, in the third season, Santana’s sexuality becomes exactly that: a public announcement. After viciously verbally bullying Finn in the hallway, he retorts, “why don’t you just come out of the closet?” Another student overhears this and Santana’s sexuality is eventually employed in a political smear campaign against Coach Sylvester. When alerted to this, she bursts into tears and runs out of the room, crying, “I haven’t even told my parents yet.”
In the following scene, Santana and her friends perform a mash-up of Adele’s “Someone like You” and “Rumour has it” whilst a number of other students look on. After the first verse of the song, there is a significant pause where Santana should be singing. Filmed side-on, she appears caught in inarticulateness, unable to speak. Throughout this number, the camera work begins conservatively but becomes increasingly wild. Employing an emotional rather than physical point of view, fast edits are coupled with tracking shots, reframing each of the characters multiple times throughout the number and reflecting Santana’s fragile mental state. As the performance progresses, the camera lingers on the emotion on Santana’s face, and at the conclusion of the number Santana notices Finn whispering something to Rachel. She jumps from the stage and demands to know what he said.
Finn: I said I thought you were great.
Santana: [shakes her head] You’re lying.
Rachel: No, he literally just said that.
Santana: Did you tell her too? Everyone’s going to know now. Because of you.
Finn: The whole school already knows. And you know what? They don’t care—
Santana: Not just the school, you idiot. Everyone!
Finn: What are you talking a—
[Santana slaps Finn as the others watch, shocked] (episode 3.06)
With the character of Santana deprived of her agency, Glee offers another variation to the more conventional coming out narrative as depicted by Kurt. Unlike Kurt, Santana does not get to choose the words to articulate herself to her peers. Although featuring a public announcement, Santana’s storyline provides an alternative to the coming out narrative that is nothing more than a public announcement, offering glimpses of the emotional consequences of public ‘outing’ and, again emphasising the complexity of the gradual process of coming out.
In episode 3.07 ‘I Kissed a Girl’ the series deliberately frustrates audience expectations of the coming out narrative with Santana further resisting the typical revelatory coming out. The theme of this episode is “Lady Music” as each of the members of the club sing music “by ladies and for ladies” in support of Santana, reiterating the message that “Glee is about learning how to accept yourself for who you are, no matter what other people think” (Finn, episode 3.07). Literalizing a pedagogical figuration of queerness that is remarkably pervasive within much film and television, Finn introduces Santana’s sexuality as the lesson of the week. He emphasizes the intentions behind it,
“so that you know in this rotten, stinking, mean world that you have at least a group of people who will support your choice to be whoever you want to be. That’s it. That’s what we’re doing here” (episode 3.07).
However, Santana immediately refuses this lesson, quickly retorting, “I don’t even get a say in this? Not cool” (episode 3.07).
Whilst this episode was marketed quite heavily as ‘Santana’s coming out episode’ in online press, the coming out narrative is further eschewed as the episode continues. In the typical coming out narrative, the act of the adolescent figure revealing their sexuality to parents and/or friends is positioned as the narrative climax (Bronski; Davis). Although, as Finn points out, “Everyone in this room [already] knows about you and Brittany” (episode 3.07) thus removed the need for a dramatic, revelatory moment. With Santana’s peers already aware and supportive of her sexuality the climactic revelation should traditionally involve the act of coming out to parents and any conflict arising from this. However, this does not happen within Santana’s storyline. After eventually accepting Finn’s lesson, Santana offhandedly remarks, “...I told my parents last night and they were cool with it” (episode 3.07).
This storyline does not completely eschew more conventional modes of coming out, however, as Santana is depicted engaging in a more traditional coming out to a different parental figure, her grandmother. Nevertheless, when this mode of coming out is enacted, it provides another significant variation and contrast to that of Kurt. In significant contrast to Kurt’s “I’m gay,” a phrase that he says to both his peers and family members, Santana refuses to emphasize an identity label, instead articulating her sexuality via feelings of love for another girl. Sitting her grandmother down, Santana softly asserts, “Abuelita, I need to tell you something.” Clearly emphasizing her grandmother as a role model, Santana continues, “I’ve watched you my whole life and you’ve always been so strong, done exactly what you believed and never cared about what anyone else thought of you” before enacting a more traditional coming out.
Santana: Abuelita... I love girls the way that I’m supposed to feel about boys. It’s just something that’s always been inside of me and I really want to share it with you because I love you so much. I want you to know me, who I really am. When I’m with Brittany I finally understand what people are talking about when they talk about love. I’ve tried so hard to push this feeling away and keep it locked inside but every day just feels like a war. I walk around so mad at the world but I’m really just fighting with myself. I don’t want to fight anymore. I’m just too tired. I have to just be me... (episode 3.07)
Through this monologue and the prior comment to her grandmother, Santana’s ‘outness’ is not associated with an assertion of a specific identity label but rather with the demonstration of strength, courage, truth and conviction. As she speaks, the camera juxtaposes the action shots of Santana with emotion clearly visible in her expressions and reaction shots of her grandmother appearing emotionless. These contrasting shots are followed by a brief conversation before the grandmother coldly leaves.
Abuela: [coldly] Everyone has secrets, Santana. They’re called secrets for a reason. I want you to leave this house. I don’t ever want to see you again.
Santana: [Softly] Abuela, you don’t...
Abuela: Go. Now.
Santana: I’m the same person I was a minute ago.
Abuela: You made your choice, now I have made mine.
Santana: But why?
Abuela: It’s selfish of you to make me uncomfortable, [she says something in Spanish]. The sin isn’t in the thing, it’s in the scandal when people talk about it aloud.
Santana: So you’re saying it would have been better if I would have kept this a secret? [Whispers] Abuela... (episode 3.07)
This negative response from Santana’s grandmother is a stark contrast to Glee’s earlier positive depiction of Kurt’s accepting father. As such it offers a very different portrayal of the reaction of a parental figure to the adolescent’s queer revelation. However, this scene is also significant because it portrayed as one of Santana’s multiple coming out moments.
As a group of queer adolescent activists have recently noted in a message about queer youth action called “Reteaching Gender and Sexuality,” because heterosexuality is the assumed norm, coming out as a means of marking difference from that norm and a means of connecting with a broader queer community is enacted by queer people every day. Speaking a line each, this group of adolescents aim to challenge normative assumptions about coming out and “shift the conversation about gender and sexuality” (www.putthisonthemap.org).
“I’m so over that. Like the whole, ‘when did you come out?’ As if it were one time. In the locker room. In the bathroom. On the first day of school. And the second and the third. To my English teacher. To my math teacher. To my science teacher. At my last job interview. Right now. Right now. Right now.” (Reteaching Gender and Sexuality)
Most of Glee’s queer teenage characters are represented with similar sentiment, challenging the singularity of the traditional coming out narrative as they come out a number of times throughout the series. However, it must be noted that the character of Brittany further eschews the coming out narrative, perhaps moving beyond coming out entirely. Beginning as a side character, by the second season Brittany features as one of the central ensemble of characters. However, she does not come out to anyone in this revelatory mode throughout the series. Her encouragement of Santana to sing a love song to her in front of the Glee Club—“Why can’t you sing that to me in front of everyone now that Artie and I aren’t together?” (episode 2.19)— is indicative of a fundamental difference in the depiction of Brittany in relation to the other queer characters in the series: she does not differentiate between genders and considers all relationships equal. The Brittany character thus appears to be portrayed as bisexual, offhandedly identifying herself as a “bicorn” to Kurt in one episode, however it remains to be seen where the series will take this.
Depicting different teenage experiences of coming out alongside an emphasis on the complexity of coming out as a process rather than a singular action, Glee offers what Davis describes as a “complex enunciation of queerness” in place of a unified vision of ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ or ‘queer’. Initially Glee engages a more traditional mode of coming out via the character of Kurt who participates in a revelatory-based coming out storyline. This storyline does, however, challenges the traditional coming-out narrative because it positions coming out as the beginning to a storyline rather than an end. Beyond this, Glee offers multiple variations to the coming out narrative from Blaine and Sebastian’s immediate openness to Karofsky’s struggles with repression and subsequent refusal to come out, to Santana’s long and difficult path toward self-acceptance and rejection of the public announcement of her sexuality, to Brittany: the character that seems to move beyond coming out entirely.
It is because of the unique ensemble cast format that Glee is able to do this. With previous storylines fresh in the minds of viewers and more than one queer character present at any given time the series cannot represent each of its queer characters as having the same experiences lest it follow the path of dull repetition. Highlighting the ambiguities, the moments of flux and different degrees of out-ness that are so often missing from contemporary popular culture, Glee emphasizes that queer adolescent experience cannot be reduced to simple revelation or short, three-episode narrative arc. Through the characters of Kurt, Karofsky, Blaine, Sebastian, Santana and Brittany, Glee offers multiple variations on the coming out narrative, depicting the many experiences of queer teenage characters being young and queer and, at times, coming out.
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