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.

Modern Femininity, Mama Rose, and Why She Deserved a Dream for Herself.

I’ve been trying to decide for years now if it’s messed up that “Rose’s Turn” is one of my pump-up musical theater songs.

Everyone has that playlist of songs that you go to before a competition, a job interview, a performance, or really anything that they need a boost of adrenaline and confidence for – or if you’ve just had a terrible day and need a pick-me-up to get through the next four hours of classes and assignments. “Rose’s Turn” is easily one of my top picks from my version of that playlist.

Like yeah, sure, Mama Rose is literally having a nervous breakdown in song, and I’m definitely not supposed to root for her or think she’s a great person, and I’ve just watched her inflict some serious psychological damage on her kids for two hours… and yet… “Rose’s Turn” is one of the most exciting, adrenaline-pumping, satisfying musical theater ‘I want’ songs EVER. Why is that? Why am I obsessed with this song? Why is it one of my go-to songs to screlt in the car when I need a boost?  

Hear me out – it’s because Bette Midler’s iconic 1993 performance of Rose’s Turn reads to a modern viewer as a fiery show of self-acceptance, a rejection of cultural norm, and a discovery of non-traditional femininity. It’s no secret that Rose doesn’t exactly embody traditional femininity, especially not in 1959, when Arthur Laurents wrote the book to Gypsy and Jules Styne and Steven Sondheim turned it into the classic musical. Traditionally, women are demure, beautiful, nurturing, and soft-spoken. They are not too confident, and while they may have goals, they aren’t working too hard or getting in anyone’s way to achieve them. They are subservient to men. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Mama Rose is none of those things. She’s bold, brash, confident – she is not afraid to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. In the first scene, we see her barging into an audition and ordering everyone in the room around to make sure her daughters look like the stars that she firmly believes she can make them. She isn’t afraid to essentially ask Herbie to marry her in their very first meeting. She bribes and silver-tongues her way through every situation that dares stop her.

Mama Rose certainly tries to show us that she loves being this way. She exudes confidence. This is written into the book, but Midler also brings an anger and a passion to the character that makes her utterly impossible to ignore. She doesn’t care that she isn’t the star, that she often rubs people the wrong way – her character and perception are secondary to the success of her children. But throughout the show, we see little hints at Rose’s insecurities, in the way Midler delivers a line or in the ghost of a facial expression. Is she truly accepting of her lot in life? Is seeing the success of her children enough for her? As she slowly alienates all the people who love her – first June, then Herbie, and finally ever-devoted Louise, we see the cracks in her façade start to show.

And see, here’s the thing – I feel bad for Rose. I can’t help myself! Even though I am well aware that Rose is a toxic maternal figure, and she has not by any means done what is best for her children, I absolutely feel sympathy towards her. She has been forced to attempt to fit a mold that she will never conform to. Mothering is the “natural” occupation for women of this era, so where does Rose direct all of her dreams, her goals, and her ambitions? Onto her children. Before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it wasn’t commonplace for women to have their own careers while still being mothers. If you were a mother, that was your job. This was the age of the housewife and the picture-perfect nuclear family. I understand why Rose would’ve felt forced to direct all of her goals onto June and Louise – “don’t I get a dream for myself” was the cry of every stereotypical 1950s mother.

Today, it would have been far more societally acceptable for Rose to have that dream for HER, not for her daughters. Our modern concept of an “ideal woman” (at least from my perspective as a 22 year old who’s ready to get rid of gender roles) is unafraid to pursue her goals. She’s capable of juggling lots of different hats: mother (Rose), careerwoman (Rose?), dreamer (definitely Rose). She’s a master of networking, of finding opportunities where there are seemingly none, and getting to her end goal in whatever way possible. Midler’s portrayal definitely plays into this bold and almost conniving side of Rose in a way that shoves all those character traits front and center. And I ask you this, reader – if Mama Rose was Papa Rose, would we view the character differently? It’s appropriate for men to be pushy and know what they want. When men obnoxiously advocate for themselves, it’s seen as admirable and forgivable instead of unacceptable. Would these aspects of her character be seen in a warmer light?

Obviously, I’m not saying we should forgive Rose for the way she treated her children. She undoubtedly caused them a lot of trauma and stunted their growth and mental development. She was by no means a good mother.

However, Rose is a product of her time (and I usually hate that excuse). It’s so easy to see how these naturally occurring personality traits could have been warped by outward expectations and turned into the poisonous things that they become in Gypsy. And with that lens, it’s hard to NOT view “Rose’s Turn” as a satisfying and thrilling realization of what Rose has lost because of what society has told her is acceptable. It’s never been her turn. She doesn’t get a dream for herself. She isn’t allowed it. But God, she could’ve had it, and Midler makes that obvious. The showpiece that she makes “Rose’s Turn” gives us a vivid picture of how Rose could’ve turned her energy and charisma into an incredible stage persona. Rose is finally showing herself. She’s exploring her inner show woman. She is accepting herself as she is, while mourning what she has lost. And man, it is so satisfying. I was waiting for her to let loose from the first moment she sauntered into frame, and she finally does it here.

Yes, it’s a breakdown, but sometimes breakdowns are necessary to come to terms with important realizations. Who hasn’t had a screaming collapse in the worst moments of their lives, when all their buried frustrations are finally escaping out into the world? (okay maybe I’m revealing too much of myself here, but I digress…) That’s why I want to hear “Rose’s Turn” when I need to get my adrenaline going. It’s cathartic, it’s healing, it’s loud and, for the first time, it’s truly unapologetic.

When I hear “Rose’s Turn”, I want to do it for her, and all the women she represents, who didn’t get dreams for themselves.