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Amber Necklaces, Death Eaters, and Hockey Sticks: Why Fictional Bullies in Pop Culture Deserve a Second Chance

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Any time I find myself frustrated with network TV and recent writing developments on other shows I love, a rerun of House airs that reminds me why it’s important for today’s writers to take risks, even if the social environment does not always condone them as politically correct.

The episode in question was Season 4’s “House’s Head,” in which women are shamelessly objectified. In House’s hallucinatory visions, which follow his concussion from a bus wreck, Cuddy is wearing nothing but lingerie, assuming the role of stripper in a club. As a feminist I shuddered as Cuddy gave a medical diagnosis while dancing before her fellow colleague in his fantasy/nightmare vision. I inwardly cursed the writers for using hallucinations for what seemed to serve as a gateway to porn.

In the hallucinations, House realizes that he had spent the evening with Amber, an intern he fired in Season 4. Like House who is known for being an arrogant ass, Amber was titled “Cutthroat Bitch” by all of her cohorts; she had no reservations about emotionally tormenting her competitors in order to get the edge. She was incredibly dislikeable but compelling to watch. Somehow, when one of House’s women in his visions asked the question, “What is my necklace made of?” and we and House both knew that Amber was the forgotten passenger on the bus, dying of mysterious causes, we were actually afraid and upset for both her and her former mentor. Somehow we had come to care about a misogynist who objectifies women and the “bitch” who terrorized his employees.

At almost the same time as House aired this series finale (the year of the writer’s strike), people had just finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in 2006. In Rowling’s stories, the bully Draco Malfoy had always distinguished himself by not just waging emotional warfare on Harry and his pals but also, in the opening scenes of this installment, physically assaulting him on a train. But by that particular novel’s end, we had all witnessed Draco crying in the boys’ bathroom, and we felt sorry for him because Voldemort was pulling the strings to make his family completely miserable.

In recent episodes of Glee, jock Dave Karofsky has been seen both shoving Kurt Hummel against his locker and kissing him in the same hour of storytelling, and some activists are becoming upset that violence and sex are being conflated in a manner that disrupts the very message that programs like the Trevor Project are trying to promote: that bullying is never ok, that teens don’t deserve it, that there is no excuse for being a “cutthroat bitch” or son of one.

The problem may center on Glee’s airing of these episodes during a time in which most of the country is shocked over the death of gay teens and young adults who felt they had no way out from emotional and/or physically bullying and, consequently, chose to take their own lives. It’s not appropriate to say that the one openly gay teen on Glee is going to be hooking up with the very bully who made his life a living hell.

But, as referenced earlier, if anyone in pop culture could be called a bully, House himself could, and last I heard, he was sober and trying to maintain a functional relationship with one of the very women he had bullied and emotionally destroyed from time to time. Likewise, Rowling’s Draco was responsible for numerous incidents leading to harm of other teens, including punching Harry and then stepping on his nose to break it before locking him inside the Hogwarts Express. And, although the recent film’s opening prohibits me from giving the details for fear of being accused of spoilers, the subject of Draco’s redemption is, indeed, one topic addressed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

So why can’t people hope that Glee‘s high school hockey player David Karofsky is redeemed? It’s still too much, I think, for most people to accept, given the current societal climate of worry over proliferating acts of bullying.
Perhaps a different line of reasoning may be used in the form of an argument of resemblance. Let’s remember Rachel Berry hovering menacingly over Sunshine in the Glee series opener this year, mocking her accent and intelligence for being Filipino, and then promising to send her auditions but then rerouting her to a crack house. As Sunshine said, “I could have been killed.” And why did Sunshine leave McKinley? Because she said that if she stayed, “Rachel would make her life miserable.” And Finn, and the rest of the Glee Club, forgave her after a small amount of time. Too small, perhaps.

And the Emmys just recently gave Jane Lynch an award for bullying half of the campus at McKinley in her performance as Sue Sylvester. She even bullied Will into kissing her “with tongue” and then backed away saying that even his “breath smelled mediocre.” And of course, Will, in turn, had already used sex to bully his nemesis in the same episode last season by saying he wanted a date with her on “hump day” and serenading her with a funky, yet disgusting lap dance, somewhat similar to the behavior Cuddy shows House in his visions, although she spends most of her time wrapped around a pole.

It seems that Glee makes a habit of showing bullies, and some of them are even its protagonists, which, again, is reminiscent of Fox’s show House.

We live in a revisionist time. Some of us, not all of us, may be strangely fascinated with the idea of going back and rewriting the bully’s tale. Think of Wicked’s protagonist Elphaba, who, when I was growing up, was simply known as the sick witch who tried to set Dorothy’s friends on fire and destroy an innocent puppy in front of a farm girl’s eyes. Likewise, we tend to sympathize with the addict and bully Gregory House who knows medicine but humiliates people to provoke them into a relationship with him.

Why has Fox chosen to back off the redemptive arc for Karofsky, or at least, why the sudden hesitation in letting him appear as human (he was last seen threatening to kill Kurt in tthe most recent episode)? It may be money. Darren Criss’s single “Teenage Dream” went to number one on iTunes, and he has now signed a contract with the show, which implies that he may be the frontrunner for Kurt’s love interest in the coming year. If that’s the case, I’m prepared to spend the rest of the season feeling like Mercedes, who was bored to tears during her meal with Blaine and Kurt at Breadsticks.

To return to the main topic, bullying in Glee never started or ended with slushies to the face. It started with the diva attitude Rachel cultivated, and it continued with characters like Puck and Finn who wanted to put Kurt in a dumpster or Artie in a port-a-potty and lock him in. Bullying is never excusable, whether the real-life victim is gay or straight, fantasy young adult character or network tv actor. It’s always horrible.

But Dave (Max Adler) deserves more than being pegged as the kid who threatens to kill a fellow gay student, and I certainly hope that he will change in the coming weeks. Adler has already done so much work for the Trevor Project and last weekend’s concert in D.C. against hate crime, and he has been given a chance for character development with the famous kiss in the locker room. Yet we and the writers feel safer with Blaine, and that’s a normal, knee-jerk reaction to the idea that exploring a villain’s backstory and motives means excusing him for every terrible thing he’s done.

When did the Blaines in stories suddenly override the revisionist craving for understanding why people are driven to cruel acts or bullying words? Blaine’s story has already been told (he apparently suffered from bullies himself and now goes to school in a place where he is a top man on campus because he belongs to a singing group). Karofsky’s story hasn’t been told.

And what I fear is that it won’t be. We’re too uncomfortable with the idea that if we tell it, it means Kurt might find something to like, and that would be unacceptable. But for the gay teens who remember being that athlete who didn’t know how to handle his emotions or to treat people well because he didn’t even know how to treat himself, we do the story a disservice from backing cautiously away from taking risks.

In the fictional world, what bullying sometimes means, especially those who can identify with the Daves and Dracos and Amber and Houses of the world, is that everybody can find reconciliation and love in unlikely places. The journey should be complex and unpredictable, yes, but let’s face it, Glee is, in some ways, escapist tv in the same way that Harry is an escapist story of young adult fiction, and it’s all right (isn’t it?) to hope that the villain can be a catalyst for healing or unification among unlikely cliques of people. Or in Glee perhaps the villain or bully can add to the fascinating overlap existing between the athletic and artistic worlds, which, I think, is where the show’s strange magic lies. The scenes between Will and Sue, Biest and Will, Puck and Artie, Kurt and Karofsky…they all captivate us because these two cultures of the body (sports) and the mind and spirit (the arts) have always been divided unproductively, most often in schools. Think about the way people dismiss athletes as “meatheads” or “guys on a scholarship,” and then consider what bullying messages are associated with them. Look at how Biest is treated for being a woman in a man’s world of football. What people remember from Glee are the scenes between characters belonging to different cultures, even if those scenes are messy and nonpolitically correct. Perhaps they remember those scenes most.

In fact, I loved seeing Karofsky (representing the underrepresented hockey team player) slushie Finn (the sports player turned artistic performer) in season 1. He did it because, as he said, Finn had been making fun of him since he was in fifth grade and Finn began his journey toward most popular guy in school– “You and your girlfriend have walked around here treating the rest of us like we’re worth nothing. Now there’s a new world order.”

I don’t think Kurt and Dave should walk off into the sunshine. I have never thought so. But I want Max Adler’s character to have more than a few homophobic lines through which to measure his “bullyish” persona, which, let’s face it, is now a persona that in part represents the very GLBT population we say we want to protect right now. As House says to Amber, in referencing his best friend Wilson, “It’s the lonely misanthropic drug addicts who should die in bus crashes. Not do-gooders in love.” In this same vision, Amber replies, “You don’t always get what you want. Just what you need” (a song I might add that has connected House and Glee from the beginning—I think Fox likes to recycle their music copyright options).

Writer Joss Whedon said the same thing once. “Don’t give the viewer what they want. Give them what they need.” I argue that right now attention to Blaine is what viewers want.

It’s not what we need.

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About Shannon H.

  • Jennifer B

    This definitely makes some sense after seeing Deathly Hallows last night.

  • http://notesfromnancy.blogspot.com Nancy

    Karofsky mkight be a bully, but it seems to me that he does worse when paired with his oversized football buddy. This next episode is supposed to be pivotal.

  • Shannon

    And the fact that it’s pivotal actually makes me very, very nervous. I’m scared they’ll keep him as a Neanderthal whose father has to intervene to prevent him from pushing Kurt down a flight of stairs.

    Shannon

  • Carol

    While I think Glee does want to feel some symapathy toward Karofsky, ultimately, at far as it seems, they are not glamorizing the relationship in any way. Clearly Kurt was disguisted by the kiss and pushed Karofsky away when he leaned for a second one. Kurt does sympathize with Karofsky. However, Kurt is horrified at Karofsky’s death threat.

    Point is, Glee is showing what the relationship is, but they aren’t supporting it.

  • Wendy

    This article is fantastic. It ties together so many of my fandoms in a thought-provoking way. I especially love the reference to Joss Whedon – someone well known for complex and layered characters.

    Also, I can’t tell you how much I was hoping for Draco to be redeemed in the books and how glad I am that at least the movies are allowing us to see the more human side of this character.

    Hopefully, Glee will rise above the all too common practice of lazy writing to tackle this complicated issue.

  • Ariel

    I am hoping so very much for a redemption arc for Karofksy. I find it so interesting and as so many people have said, he’s representing a lot of people out there, and if he becomes a better person, someone who can put all the hate and fear behind him, maybe they can too.

    With that said, I just want to point out that Darren’s success with Teenage Dream really couldn’t have affected last week’s episode. It was written and filmed long before we saw Teenage Dream, and while I’m not saying it won’t affect what happens later on, I think there are a few more episodes that will be unaffected by Darren’s popularity.

  • Juan

    This needs to get to the writers of Glee so they can see how /actual/ people are reacting. Little teen fangirls that sit around seeing Darren and enjoying his song aren’t the ONLY voices of Glee fans! As we all know, Max Adler can sing too – and well, seeing as he ranked somewhere high for show choir! Why not delve into this character instead of letting him fly by night?

  • Dee

    I really think the writers would do well to show that a bully like Karofsky can find redemption for the path he has taken.

    I’d really love to see them let Max Adler sing, show through music (and hey, that’s what the show does best right?) that his character is willing to, and does change. I think that’d be such a great way to take the Dave Karofsky arc….especially if they let it blend in with Kurt’s, as a victim of bullying.

  • Amy

    Great article!!!!!! It’s really moving…….. Yeah, although I don’t expect well-made SL of Glee, I just want them to make interesting and message delivering story!

  • http://www.twitter.com/deboratrmj Debora

    I sure hope the writers won’t back off from Karofsky storyline just because Teenage Dream is a #1 iTunes hit. I SO want Karofsky to be redeemed! Plus, an angst storyline would sure do much more good to the show than the option!

  • Kelley

    Wonderful article. All of this Karofsky business has me genuinely interested in the show rather than being just a casual viewer leaving it on for background noise. I’ll be beyond disappointed if it doesn’t go anywhere.

  • Jim

    This is an excellent summary of how Glee is using the issue of bullying to walk on both sides of the fence, as it were. It would be somewhat hypocritical if they choose, as part of their storyline, to focus on Dave’s bullying such as to make him the heavy with no information about why or what’s going on with this kid, especially in light of his kissing of Kurt. This is dangerous for kids who are bullies for the same reason or simply are extremely closeted. Glee has built a whole comedic routine around the issue of bullying. Here are some rather significant incidents in this show:

    1. Episode 1 – Pilot. Sue forcibly cuts off the pony-tail of a male student against his will. Mocks him for looking like a girl. We laugh

    2. Many episodes – Puck and Finn forcibly tossing Kurt in a dumpster. We laugh

    3. Pilot – Puck and football team are going to toss Artie in a port-a-pottie, with the rationale that he can’t get more hurt because he can’t walk anyways. We laugh

    4. Episode 1 – Pilot and I think a couple of others – Quinn, Santana and the Cheerios actively and intentionally cyber-bullying Rachel. We laugh

    5. Many episodes – Glee members slushied by Dave, Puck and football players. We laugh. This is their Season Two ad campaign by the way.

    6. Don’t know the episode – Sue pushing children around in the hallways when she got angry. We laugh

    7. Never been kissed – Dave is vilified by some for his abuse of Kurt, but Artie suggests to Puck that he throw him down the back stairs because it will be less embarrassing. We laugh

    Glee, as much as some would condemn Dave for his conduct with Kurt, has glorified bullying to some extent for the sake of getting a good laugh. People condemn bullying (as it should be) with one hand (Karofsky) and applaud the comic nature of it with the other (see above).

    The character of Dave is so incredibly desperate to maintain the illusion of his heterosexuality. He is like an alcoholic…he has to admit it to himself before others can help. He has to get by the actual knowledge that his parents and classmates would have of him being gay, which is clearly an impediment, but also his OWN assumptions of how they will feel about him if they know. He is reacting to his OWN assumptions of their response to this information. This is why kids who are faced with this type of situation kill themselves. The consequences of someone finding out, which is now a very real threat to Dave, are huge. His world as he knows it will die.

    This article is extremely well done. I agree that it would be a huge disservice if the writers are simply going to make Dave an unsympathic character who is abusive and threatening and conveniently remove him from the mix because he’s a closet case, without some redemption at some point. Dave is a victim of homophobia too, and this NEEDS to be resolved for him too in a positive way. Not to do this will be an injustice to all of those kids that are so closeted (and although not necessarily a bully like Dave), feel they can’t come out and end up hurting themselves. I can’t believe, especially since Max Adler is doing the “It Gets Better” campaign, that they would allow this to happen to his character. This trick is to do this in a way that keeps with the Glee vibe (ie. humour, song and great writing, without being maudlin or cheesy).

    ps. sorry for the novel…

  • Carol

    Hmmmm, Max Adler can sing in real life. A First Chair in State Choir? That can’t go to waste.

    He’s bound to have a voice for showtunes. How about “I Am What I Am” from La Cages Ax Folles. Maybe that will be his redemption song when he unexpectantly sings it at a pep rally.

    Now as much as Blaine is a Mary-Sue, a mentor with an informed flaw- his inability to stand up to the bullying- he still is a likable character and his relationship with Kurt is developing. Still, I want to see where the Karofsky plot go. I hope the Blaine and Kurt relationship remains platonic.

    And we shall wait for “Furt” when we shall Karofsky’s father.

  • Kevin

    Ryan Murphy isn’t easily influenced by his fans. If he needs to tell a story. He will do it. With or without your consent

  • Shannon

    Oh I certainly know it. I’ve heard rumors of Kurt transferring to the private school. I’m done with the show in that case. And that’s ok; he has a hit on his hands, and that’s probably the most important thing to their team of writers.

  • Sarah

    Excellent article, and I really felt you touched on a lot of valid points. I’m a big fan of Glee, but I agree that they are generally notorious for having bullying related issues in their content. The fact that one character like Sue is “praised” for being a bully, harassing her coworkers left and right, and treating the students in ways that could be construed as outright child abuse and yet gives the back hand so quickly to Karofsky for bullying is very ironic. Yes, he makes Kurt’s life a living hell…but like so many viewers who after seeing the now famous kiss, I am thinking there is far more to Karofsky than just being some “sweaty Neanderthal”. Call me crazy, but I actually kind of feel bad for him. His whole reason for bulling, Kurt especially, is merely a front for covering up who he really is. Now I am not excusing Karofsky’s behavior, that would be very wrong, what I am saying though is that he is or should be able to be redeemed. I truly hope further developement happens with this character. Max Adler did a brilliant job in just those few intimate moments in the locker room, and when Kurt pushed him away, he was genuinely hurt. Something tells me that Karofsky’s yet to be seen father will not be that voice of reason that steps in to stop the violence, but instead will be the reason Karofsky forces himself to be seen in as this uber-macho jock. I also don’t think that Kurt and Blaine as a couple would work, for the largest reason that they both are so alike as people, their interests (cite their discussion at Breadsticks with Mercedes), etc….it would get so boring, so fast. Now Kurt shouldn’t date his tormentor either…I mean would YOU date someone who made your life miserable for what seemed like an eternity just to do it? Didn’t think so.

    Sorry for the rant lol.

  • Shannon

    I agree w/not dating one’s tormentor. However, I want to see the two actors work together again. They do an excellent job playing off one another. And maybe someday, when things have changed, they don’t have to necessarily date, but be friends.

    However, with all the great examples listed above re: tormentors on GLEE, I almost feel like if no one dated his/her tormentor or was friends with his/her tormentor, there would be no relationships on the show at all. :)

    Again, I may have to stop watching. I’m getting far too attached and invested to see them ship Kurt off to another school.

  • Jarred A

    Great article! I would like to see them explore Dave some more, but I’m not foreseeing it. Not this season at least. There is a lot of potential there for a compelling character arc.

    I am reminded of Zuko in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series (the show, not the movie. NEVER the movie). His character story arc and development was more compelling than the main character’s. His journey from being a bully to a hero was my favorite part of the show. His history, his internal struggle, and his choices. Good stuff.

  • Leslie

    I understand what you are trying to say but I don’t understand your logic when you are implying that in order for Karofsky to be redeemed he has to be with Kurt.
    I don’t think this is the case at all or realistic. I can see maybe a friendship between the two but nothing more. I think that its fully possible for Karofsky to be redeemed and for Kurt/Blaine to happen. I think Kurt deserves a nice and sweet guy like Blaine, even if its “boring”… Maybe if they are happily together it will give the writers more of an opportunity to write about other characters (including Karofsky) instead of focusing on romantic drama, which plays out fast (see Rachel/Finn/Quinn/Puck and Will/Emma, for example).