I See You Shiver With Antici…..disappointment

Hi, my name is Bethany, and I used to be a Gleek.

Yikes, that’s really, really embarrassing to admit in retrospect, but there’s something you have to understand – I was a queer theatre kid. Glee was the only place I ever saw myself in media.

Glee was amazing. As show choir kids, we felt seen – there were weird, misfit kids on screen, being annoying as theatre kids always are, living out sometimes relatable and always ridiculous struggles, and making show choir… almost cool? (Or so we thought at the time). Mr. Schuester seemed like an awesome teacher, Finn a big lovable goof, Kurt a relatable LGBTQ+ icon, and Rachel Berry, while annoying, lived out all of our dreams.

However, in recent years, all of the past theatre kids have come together to realize… Hey, Glee was kinda messed up!

Why is that though? Why was a show that was so universally championed by weird little theatre kids in our high school days actually kind of the worst, and why did we not realize it at the time? Why do we realize it now? What has made us so disillusioned?

I think I have the answer – and the perfect episode to explain it. Season 2, Episode 5 – “The Rocky Horror Glee Show”. Will Shuester makes one of his most questionable decisions – which is saying something, because, God, who let this man be a teacher – and decides to program The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the winter musical at McKinley High.

Now, let’s unpack that for a second. Rocky Horror is probably the most iconic cult movie of all time – the one cult movie to rule them all. Starting off in London’s West End, written by Richard O’Brien as a queer bastardization of Frankenstein, starring the legendary Tim Curry as Dr. Frank’N’Furter, was a sensation when released for stage in the mid-1970s. When adapted into a musical, it flopped about as hard as it could’ve. It was literally pulled from its New York Halloween night premiere due to poor reviews. In the years since, however, it has become a worldwide cult phenomenon. There are screenings at every indie theatre in most American cities, where devoted fans dress in costume, bring their own props, sing and dance along, and scream “call-outs” at the screen, spraying water guns, throwing rice, toast, cards, and even whole hot dogs at the screen (or, sometimes, at the “shadow performers” mouthing along with the screen performers). There are theatres who devote themselves wholly to showing Rocky Horror weekly, and it’s a staple in any community theatre around Halloween, even in my small conservative Appalachian hometown – the Johnson City Community Theatre runs a small, ramshackle production every year.

So why is it such a phenomenon? Easy answer. It gives people who society usually labels as “freaks”, the drag queens, the queer folx, the transgender and genderqueer people, a place to be the norm. The accepted normality. Brad and Janet, the stereotypical, white, cis, home-grown Ohio couple, are the freaks. The cross-dressing, queer Transylvanians are normal – that’s just how they are! It was a triumph for the LGBTQ+ community in this era, and it gave them media that unequivocally celebrated them. O’Brien, the original script author and the co-writer of the movie, is queer himself, identifying as transgender. Rocky Horror Picture Show follows none of the societal rules and gives a firm “bug off” to the cultural norms of the time. To this day, it’s a production that tells young queer kids, “you can be normal too, whatever that means to you”. As a young queer kid myself, Rocky Horror became a cornerstone of my personality while I was trying to figure out who and what I was.

So why did Glee think they could take on this iconic cult film, and do it any sort of justice? Because Glee incorrectly prides itself on empowering “freaks” as well. It can be summed up perfectly in Will Shuester’s infamous quote, “You’re all minorities – you’re in the Glee Club”. The show equates being a minority, being part of the LGBTQ+ community, and being physically or mentally disabled with being bullied for being in the Glee Club. It paints Glee as a place that all these different types of people can come together and be celebrated and represented – except it doesn’t actually follow through on that at all. The people in Glee club who are minorities, who are different, are criminally underrepresented in performance. Rachel and Finn, two white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, conventionally attractive people get every single lead and starring solo. Really, most other characters in Glee are minorities in some way or another: Kurt is gay, as are Britney and Santata. Mercedes, Tina, and Mike are all POC. Artie has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair. The Glee Club doesn’t really accept or celebrate these differences, either – it merely tolerates them, which to be fair, is a lot more than most others in Lima do.

When Glee did Rocky Horror, all of the main issues with representation in the show are on display. The tone-deaf nature of Glee has honestly never been more present. Mercedes, a cis straight woman, plays the role of Frank’n’Furter, changing the iconic lyric from “Transsexual Transylvania” to “Sin-sational Transylvania”, but still referring to herself as a “sweet transvestite”. Like…. what? The entire performance reads as completely tone-deaf. The production is only done so that Will Schuester can impress Emma, the guidance counselor at the school who he’s trying to woo, which makes the motivation for the show itself a heterosexual relationship between two cisgender people. The queer representation is nowhere to be found in this production of Rocky Horror, because the content itself isn’t enough, it’s the performance and the spirit behind it as well.

Really, this is indicative of the problems that Glee faces throughout its run. There’s tolerance and representation without acceptance and celebration. So why did we view it so positively in 2009? That, too, has a clear answer. At the time, there was little to no representation in mainstream media. Acceptance and tolerance were enough for the community – we didn’t expect better. Nowadays, with all of the positive queer representation in media, we can expect more. Shows like POSE have brought the history of LGBTQ people into the light with stories that are full of heart, honesty, passion, and celebration. Looking back at Glee, it’s a disappointing, one-dimensional paper cutout of what representation should be, and we deserve more as a community than that.

White Supremacy and American Imperialism in Newsies: A Conversation

Hopeful Brendan: Hello! Today we’re here to talk about the representation of race and ethnicity in the musical Newsies, specifically in the 2017 recording. Cynical Brendan, I believe you came prepared with an assertion you’d like to make?
Cynical Brendan:Thank you Hopeful Brendan, I did indeed. I believe that a frank analysis of the choices made in this production — including but not limited to casting, lyrics, dialogue, and character portrayals — shows severe undertones of White supremacy, specifically in the form of American imperialism.
Hopeful Brendan:Well, that’s quite a claim. I’m not sure I agree, but let’s get into it: you mentioned casting, we can start there. What about the casting do you think contributed to White supremacy? It cast a lot of White people, sure, but that’s clearly not the same thing.
Cynical Brendan:You’re right, in itself it’s not. It becomes a problem when White actors are systematically cast to play almost all of the unionizing newsies in a story about the American labor movement, when that same movement has had serious issues throughout its history with being exclusionary toward people of color. And we’ve got to remember that this performance was cast relatively recently; methods of race-conscious casting were clearly viable and in use in other historical fiction theatre. Even fully “race-blind” casting would have provided more diversity that we saw — but the creators of this show chose to use neither, instead just casting almost exclusively White newsies in what’s hard to see as something other than an attempt to sweep race issues under the rug.
Hopeful Brendan:Alternatively, we could see it as an attempt to portray a class struggle rooted in historical reality without adding in some illusion of racial unity that wasn’t really present. Sure, I don’t think the casting was actively anti-racist, but I don’t think it was particularly racist either, just giving a reasonably accurate portrayal of the world of the show. In support of this view, look at the character of Medda Larkin.
Cynical Brendan:Oh? What about her?
Hopeful Brendan:I think she’s a good example of incorporating a Black character into a predominantly White setting without tokenism, revisionism, or reliance on stereotypes. The writers have discussed how Medda was based on a real-life Black vaudeville performer, Aida Overton Walker, and the actor Aisha De Haas builds on that foundation, bringing the character to life onstage in a very dynamic way. And it’s not only the acting: just look at the way Medda is introduced. Every piece of the production, from the glamorous costume to the set backdrops to the attention-grabbing lyrics and music of “That’s Rich,” demonstrates Medda to be a confident and self-possessed Black woman exercising control over space. In a show that has a lot of victimization, she isn’t portrayed as just a victim — we see her wielding real power in the plot.
Cynical Brendan:I’d argue that your analysis overlooks the fact that she’s only able to access that power through proximity to wealth and imperialism. But I’ll concede your basic point: the character of Medda Larkin does show that the writers and director put some thought into their portrayal of minoritized bodies onstage. The casting is only a preliminary warning sign anyway. My main concern is the unacknowledged subtext of White American imperialism and manifest destiny, for instance in the recurring “Santa Fe” songs.
Hopeful Brendan:Okay, I’m fine shifting to that point. Do you really see those songs as conveying a message of imperialism?
Cynical Brendan:Certainly a message that buys into imperialism. It’s all there in the lyrics: that whole 19th-century fantasy of manifest destiny, the idea of a vast untouched wilderness just waiting for White people to come along and claim their new homeland with a palomino-riding cowboy lifestyle — ignoring the fact that the whole region had been more or less an active war zone for the better part of the century, feature systematic violence against indigenous people. And “Santa Fe” presents this expansionist myth as aspirational, through musical devices that express more raw yearning than anything else in the show.
Hopeful Brendan:But hold on, let’s talk about that yearning. Because I agree that it’s there, but I also think it’s pretty clearly presented as an unrealistic fantasy that doesn’t actually exist anywhere but Jack’s head. Katherine remarks on how he “paints places he’s never seen,” and eventually even he refers to his image of Santa Fe as a “made-up world.” It barely has anything to do with the literal place Santa Fe; he might as well be talking about Elysium. What’s important is the role it plays in the story, and that much is made clear by Jeremy Jordan’s acting and singing choices at the end of Act I: it’s an imagined escape from the horrors inflicted on him and his loved ones by capitalism and state violence.
Cynical Brendan:Does that actually make it better though? Yes, the show definitely portrays his fantasy as unobtainable, but never really as undesirable. And from the lyrics in the final scene we see that when Jack realizes his idea of Santa Fe doesn’t have much substance behind it, he turns instead to a rosier image of life in New York City. Is he just swapping out one exclusionary fantasy for another? Another paradise for the White working class that doesn’t spare a shred of thought for who else might have occupied that space? If anything, the fact that it’s framed as a refuge from capitalists and cops just makes it more dangerous, because it plays right into the sort of imagery that racist economic populists depend on to make themselves appealing.
Hopeful Brendan:Okay, I vaguely see where you’re coming from but this is all getting a bit abstract. Can you point to anything specific within the show that actually ties it to manifest destiny, beyond the use of New Mexico as a hypothetical destination?
Cynical Brendan:Sure. Teddy Roosevelt. The concept of manifest destiny made manifest.
Hopeful Brendan:Oh?
Cynical Brendan:Yeah, in our big climactic moment who else comes in to save the day but Medda’s good friend Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore “The Winning of the West” Roosevelt. Theodore “nine times out of ten a good Indian means a dead Indian” Roosevelt. And every single piece of theatrical text and subtext presents him as nothing but a heroic leader and a father figure. Listen to his endearing bluster, look at his stately costume, look at the blocking as people position themselves around him in the scene. Above all look at the role he plays in the plot, carrying Jack as close as he gets to his westbound dreams — a ride in his carriage, if you will. And sure, you can be a massive racist and still do things that help White unions, but they don’t get to hide behind history here because the real-life Roosevelt didn’t do anything to resolve the 1899 strike. This one’s all on the musical’s creators. And if they can expect viewers to just ignore the reality of Theodore Roosevelt then they’re expecting us to ignore substantive race issues altogether, to live in this fantasy world they’ve created where Santa Fe is Camelot and any White politician who’s good enough for Rushmore should be good enough for us.
Hopeful Brendan:Wow. Okay. I don’t know. I think there’s a sense in which it’s impossible to tell stories about White American history without glossing over hugely important bits to turn things into a cohesive two-hour narrative; there will always be another set of horrors to unpack. But maybe that’s just me being cynical.
Cynical Brendan:Yeah. I don’t know. I think there’s a way to avoid giving those horrors positions of prominence in your work if you’re not prepared to at least gesture at the existence of a bigger and darker picture, a way to tell the story you want to tell without playing into dangerous romanticizations. But maybe that’s just me being hopeful.