Is 'Glee' a Little Bit Racist?

by Michael Landweber

9 December 2009

After this week’s fall finale, Glee is taking a hiatus until April. Seems like plenty of time for a little sensitivity training.
 

Glee is a frothy little show. It’s got spunk. The musical numbers are cheesy and fun. The cast is generally game for the kitsch and capable of carrying the story on those occasions when the scripts call for a bit more. Though it is not as funny as it thinks it is, there’s still enough humor to get a couple of genuine chuckles each hour.

But there is a problem in Glee-ville. What’s the best way to put this? In keeping with the let’s-put-on-a-show attitude, allow me to paraphrase a song from the great off-Broadway musical, Avenue Q.

Everyone’s a little bit racist. And so is Glee.
  
The odd thing is that Glee is probably among the most racially diverse shows on TV right now. There are 12 kids in the glee club that gives the show its name. By my count, there are seven white kids, two African-Americans, two Asian-Americans and a Hispanic girl. Throw in the fact that one of the white kids is gay and another is in a wheelchair and that’s the kind of line-up that wins tolerance awards, right? (And this doesn’t even take into account a couple more ethnicities represented in the school’s teaching ranks.)

So what’s the problem? Quite simply, the show is about the white people. Exclusively. The writing staff has barely been able to come up with any dialogue, let alone a storyline, for any of the non-white kids. This leaves most of them with nothing to do but sing and dance in the group numbers. I noticed this in the first two episodes, but decided I should reserve judgment. But now, half a season has gone by and nothing has changed.

I don’t think that I’m being overly sensitive here either. I fully understand that minor characters play minor roles in TV series. This is set at a high school in Ohio. The entire glee club could have been white and no one would have blinked. But someone – a casting director, a showrunner, a studio executive – decided that the glee club should be far more diverse than the extras seen loitering in the halls. But isn’t it a bit of a slap in the face to then give the non-white cast members nothing to do? It almost feels like Fox is just stacking the deck for its seasonal tally of minority characters in their shows.

Take for instance the Hispanic cheerleader. As far as I can tell, she had no dialogue at all until episode 11 when she was given a couple of out-of-left-field lines about sexting. In fact, the only way I know that she’s Latina is that I looked up her online and found out her character’s name is Santana Lopez. Got it. Hispanic. Check.

There are two Asian-American kids in glee club. Again, the guy has hardly said a word as far as I remember. The girl, Tina, has talked. She’s even been involved in some of the storylines. She was briefly a competitor to the main diva, Rachel, for a performance, though she gave up the solo. And she was allowed to crush on the white kid in the wheelchair, though he spurned her interest when she admitted that she had lied about being a stutterer. Of course, it was a pretty interesting revelation that her character was so shy that she invented a stutter to avoid talking, but instead of delving into her story, it was played as merely a foil for the white kid.

Oh, and the kicker with the Asian-American characters. The characters are named Mike Chang and Tina Cohen-Chang. And, no, there is no indication that they are related to each other. Are you kidding me? High-paid Hollywood writers couldn’t come up with a second Asian surname?

It doesn’t get any better for the African-Americans. There is an African-American guy in the choir. He appears to be mute (except when it is time to sing background in the group numbers). In one episode, he wasn’t there and his absence was explained because he had a spider in his ear. That’s weird and funny. You’d think that might be an excuse to have a subplot that explained how that happened and followed him through the ordeal. But it was just a convenient way to create an uneven number so that one of the white kids had to do an awkward duet with the white teacher. 

The non-white character that has come closest to actually becoming a full-fledged character is Mercedes. She can sing like nobody’s business and has been given the spotlight in a few musical numbers. She even had one B-storyline when she had a crush on the gay kid. But again, it ended up that she was a foil to push him in the direction of coming out of the closet. We know that her dad is a dentist because she told us, but like the other non-white characters, we have never met any of her family members on the show. This would not be a problem if this was a high school show that took place only in the high school. Except it doesn’t. We’ve met parents and siblings for five of the seven white kids. (For the record, the two white kids with absentee families are the disabled guy and the girl who is being portrayed as the dumbest blonde ever to put on a cheerleading outfit.)

Lighten up, you say. This show is just trying to have some fun and sell some soundtracks in the process. Sure, that’s true. And to some extent, the show has even acknowledged it has a problem, which as we all know is the first step to recovery. There was a whole episode where a teacher (Jane Lynch having too much fun as Sue Sylvester) points out that the minority students are second-class citizens in the glee club. Of course, she was doing it to try and break the group up. Did this lead to getting to know the non-white characters better? Not really. Their main complaint seemed to be that they weren’t allowed to sing enough hip-hop and R&B. Seriously. The whole controversy evaporated when they realized the white teacher was just manipulating them.

But it was a moment from another episode that really drove home that the writing staff of Glee understands the disparity they’ve created. All the characters were picking names out of a hat to partner up on a ballad. Simple, right? Each kid says the name of their new partner when they pick it. But Tina, the Asian-American girl, says “other Asian kid”. Funny throwaway, but really?

Is there something sinister going on here? Is Glee trying to subvert Obama’s post-racial America by relegating minorities to the background? I don’t think so. It is, after all, just a piffle of a show, enjoyable as it may be. I think they just don’t completely realize what they’re doing. But the show has a rabid fan base and it looks like it’ll be around for a while. The writers will need many more plots to sustain it through a second season. And they’ve got a long hiatus coming up since Glee will not be back until April, when it gets a prime post-American Idol slot. Hopefully, the creators will use that extra time to look around and realize just what a rich set of characters they could potentially have and what a poor job they’ve done utilizing the full cast.

Topics: avenue q | glee

//comments
//related
//Mixed media
//Blogs

Culture Belongs to the Alien in 'Spirits of Xanadu'

// Moving Pixels

"The symbols that the artifact in Spirits of Xanadu uses are esoteric -- at least for the average Western gamer. It is Chinese culture reflected back at us through the lens of alien understanding.

READ the article