Dude Looks Like a Lady: Examining Kurt Hummel’s Gender Construction on 'Glee'
The bottom line, to paraphrase Sue Sylvester, the resident Queen of Mean on Glee, is that Americans want their gays so flaming you can see them from space.
I’ve been a Gleek since the first episode of Glee aired last year. As with all television, Glee requires a suspension of reality to allow for kids (and sometimes adults) to sing their way through the hall at school. However, I'm also a firm believer that television (and all media for that matter) has the power to socialize us and help us to develop our thinking about people, places and professions.
It's for this reason that I have become increasingly concerned about the way Kurt Hummel is constructed on the show. For the uninitiated, Kurt Hummel is a teenage student at Glee’s fictitious McKinley High School who is coming to terms with his sexuality. On the show, Kurt is known for his soprano singing voice and fashion consciousness. Although he's sometimes ostracized for his homosexuality (or at least the perception of it), he's also known for having a widowed father who supports and encourages him to be who he is.
Before getting into why I'm concerned about Kurt’s construction on Glee, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that it's impossible for televisual representations to wholly represent: there's no one way to be white, black, female or male, and as such, there is no one way to be gay. As for Kurt, there's no way for him to effectively televisually represent all gay men (or gay adolescents). What is concerning is that Kurt appears constructed as an “honorary girl” on Glee.
Again, I want to reiterate that Kurt cannot be all things gay to all people, but his construction calls into question the very idea of masculinity generally and gay masculinity specifically. Of course, this portrayal of televised homosexuality isn’t a new strategy. In fact, it’s been used frequently on shows like Will & Grace (i.e., Karen calling Will, “Wilma” or Jack referring to himself and Will as “aunts” to Will’s nephew) as well as on lesser known shows like Noah’s Arc (assigning feminine pronouns to each other and referring to one’s butt as a “boogina” a contraction of butt and vagina). These televisual representations of gay men work to continue to castrate gay male sexuality and make it possible for gay men to continue to be "read" as women and girls. Glee’s popularity (both nationally and worldwide) provides an ideal opportunity to examine gay male masculinity in and on television.
Masculinity is a socially constructed characteristic. While the concept of masculinity lives and breathes and adapts to fit modern times, it's always identifiable, even as it cannot be succinctly defined (and when it is, it's often defined by identifying what it is not rather than what it is.) Whenever necessary, heterosexual masculinity is adapted in order to differentiate itself from homosexuality (see: metrosexual) and allow for an otherwise heterosexual man to engage in “homosexual” (read: feminine) activities without having the moniker “gay” attached.
In other words, in a world where masculinity rules, a heterosexual man can be neat, get a manicure and groom his body hair without fear of being labeled "gay" -- which is the ultimate insult in our culture, not to mention an affront to one’s very manhood. To put it plainly, when it comes to representation on television, masculinity is never synonymous with gayness. Take this quote from Quinton Jackson who will soon be seen on the silver screen in The A-Team who says in a Los Angeles Times interview:
"Acting is kind of gay. It makes you soft. You got all these people combing your hair and putting a coat over your shoulders when you're cold. I don't want a coat over my shoulders! I'm a tough-ass!"
By acknowledging that he knows (or at least thinks) acting as an institution is gay due to the alleged manner in which it pampers actors, Jackson can “rise above the industry’s gayness” by acknowledging his position, asserting his heterosexuality and dismissing it while he participates and not coincidentally, monetarily benefits from this perceived homosexual activity.
The bottom line, to paraphrase Sue Sylvester, the resident Queen of Mean on Glee, is that Americans want their gays so flaming you can see them from space. Americans prefer gay men to be more “feminine” than “masculine” (to use these heavily loaded terms) so that we can continue to be able to identify who is gay and who isn’t and to continue to construct homosexuality as non-threatening to “mainstream Americans.”
The now canceled show Gay, Straight or Taken also traffics in the alleged traits of homosexuality. On the show, heterosexual women are presented with three possible suitors, one homosexual, one heterosexual and available and the other, heterosexual and taken. Through a series of interactions and “dates” the show asks the women to determine which man fits into which category. This allows her to trot out gay stereotypes ranging from a man’s interest in fashion to his neatness as indicators of his homosexuality.
Glee'sKurt Hummel, however, is a trailblazing character who can and should be applauded for a number of reasons, the least of which is his fearlessness and conviction to be true to himself. Therefore, my argument is not with Kurt’s character per se as much as it is about my wish to protest against the feminization and castration of gay men’s actual maleness.
Certainly many young (and not so young) gay men trend toward the more feminine end of the traditional behavioral spectrum. Justin from Ugly Betty is a wonderful example of a character who can be characterized as more feminine, but he is not robbed of his maleness in the same way as Kurt. The argument can certainly be made that Justin’s homosexuality was an “open secret” until the last season of the show when he officially came out as gay which necessitated his perceived homosexuality being handled differently.
However, when Justin did come out, he was immediately given a love interest with which he was allowed to perform the “sexual” portion of the word homosexuality. There has been discussion that Kurt will get a boyfriend soon, which may render my problems with his character’s sexual expression obsolete (his pining after Finn, a heterosexual member of the Glee Club, New Directions, only works to reinforce heteronormative notions about gay men as sexual predators and ignorance about sexual boundaries), but I also take issue with his construction as an "honorary girl".
One of the things that could help to construct Kurt as something other than a girl would be to allow him to express the sexual part of his homosexuality. Certainly the castration of gay men on television is nothing new, but it works in conjunction with feminizing gay men to render them nonthreatening and oftentimes womanly. The most readily accessible example of this phenomenon can be seen in Will from Will & Grace whose characterization sacrificed any meaningful examination of gay relationships in order to advance a politics of respectability -- which essentially works to primarily put an image of gay men as middle class, white, career-oriented and essentially asexual with the ultimate conclusion left for heterosexuals to draw being, “Wow, the gays are just like us! (read: normal).”
This politics of respectability can be seen today in televisual characterizations of gay men on both Brothers & Sisters and Modern Family. While these gay (white) men are in committed relationships and can be considered respectable, there is a lack of intimacy between the couples (Scotty and Kevin on Brothers & Sisters can be seen occasionally kissing while there is a petition to allow Mitchell and Cameron to kiss on Modern Family).
As I’ve been saying all along, I don’t take umbrage with Kurt being constructed as more “traditionally” feminine, rather I find problematic that he is not differentiated from the girls on Glee such that gayness becomes synonymous with femaleness. This idea was crystallized on the episode “Theatricality". While “the guys” took issue with having to perform the music of Lady Gaga, the girls and Kurt welcomed the opportunity and enthusiastically performed “Bad Romance". Finn, in a scene with the Glee Club adviser, Mr. Schuester says, “I don’t want to do Lady Gaga. And I suspect that with the exception of Kurt, that none of the other guys are gonna want to do it either. I just feel like we’re always doing whatever the girls want to do.” The implication here being that Lady Gaga (and her music) are girly, which is synonymous with gay, and because Kurt wanted to do a Lady Gaga song, he is just like the girls. Adding to the perception of being an “honorary girl”, Kurt also dons a Lady Gaga-inspired costume (based on the Alexander McQueen design).
While it's not uncommon for some gay men (and some heterosexual men) to don drag, it’s worth noting that this provides another instance where Glee (inadvertently, perhaps) connects homosexuality with femaleness. It's only when Kurt dons “heterosexual male drag” (in the episode “Laryngitis”) that the audience is invited to laugh at him because he is constructed not to be a John Mellencamp-esque “man’s man”, but an overly feminine gay young man. Additionally, when the other group (the boys sans Kurt) performs their song (Kiss’ “Shout It Out Loud), Mr. Schuester introduces them thusly: “Without further ado, I’d like to introduce the boys!” as if Kurt isn’t a boy at all.
When Kurt is allowed solos, the songs he sings -- “Defying Gravity” from Wicked and “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy (reworked as “Kurt’s Turn”) -- work to further position him as a girl (no matter how appropriate the songs are for the situation). The songs he sings have only been sung by or are most associated with women. While on its face, this's no reason to conclude that Glee constructs Kurt as an “honorary girl", this, coupled with his forced asexuality and his being labeled as “one of the girls", sets a disturbing trend for Kurt’s character development.
To quote Stephen Tropiano in his book The Prime Time Closet, “TV comedy writers have to choose between creating gay male characters with stereotypical characteristics or going against type.” (190) While Glee’s writers are doing some interesting things with Kurt’s storylines, they are truly constructing a character who is bogged down in with the duties of being an “honorary girl", and will only continue to serve as one of the ways in which culture views gay men.
Alfred L. Martin, Jr., is a PhD student at University of Texas Austin studying Media Studies with an emphasis on sexuality, race and gender. He has taught courses in Mass Media, Sociology, and Marketing for DePaul University and Media Bistro. He has presented at the American Sociological Association and the Association of Black Sociologist annual meetings and has been interviewed as an expert on media-related topics for bankrate.com, forbes.com mint.com and Edge Publications. He is also author of the blog www.PopCultureAtWarpSpeed.blogspot.com.