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.