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.