When I was growing up, television shows used to advertise ‘very special episodes’ which meant that a sitcom character had a friend who got pregnant or a classmate who was being abused. The phrase was a cue that a popular series was going to highlight a social issue that was rarely discussed on television. The stories usually involved the secret abuse/pregnancy/addiction being discovered by a shocked main character. The effect however, was more of a ratings stunt than an important contribution to social dialogue.
Recently, Glee did its version of a ‘very special episode’ where the characters spoke and sang about sex—both gay and straight. It was thoughtful, funny and at times, touching. It didn’t, however, stage a shocking moment or a stunt. Glee‘s approach to the subject not only allowed the series to meaningfully add to the teen sex conversation, but also demonstrated how far television has come in its attempts to be culturally relevant.
On the episode, Gwyneth Paltrow reprized her role as substitute teacher Holly Holliday. This time, Holly was taking over for the sex education teacher and discovered that some of the glee club kids had interesting theories on pregnancy that involved a stork (seriously) and a hot tub. So, in Glee’s tradition of forming musical numbers around the smallest of plots, Mr. Shuester (Matthew Morrison) decided that the kids should express their feelings about sex through song.
There was raunchy rock ‘n’ roll, a touching ballad, and Prince’s “Kiss” performed as a sort of Dancing With the Stars tango. The storyline also made an attempt to be inclusive with both gay and straight characters dealing with their sexuality. In an interesting departure from her usual characterization, Santana (Naya Rivera) showed a vulnerable side by declaring her love for Brittany (Heather Morris) and her fear over being labeled a lesbian while the openly gay Kurt (Chris Colfer) had ‘the talk’ with his father who handled the delicate matter of boy/boy mechanics by giving his son a few instructive pamphlets. Their discussion, while tailored to the different way two men may approach intimacy as compared to a man and a woman, focused on the universal idea of self-respect.
Celibacy was also covered but in a way that suggested the writers had little faith in it as a choice teenagers would embrace. Guidance counselor Emma (Jayma Mays), now married but still a virgin, was recruited to lead the celibacy club in a song that represented abstinence. Her selection was “Afternoon Delight”. She thought it was about dessert.
Glee has dealt with pregnancy, so sex was the next obvious plot choice. The inclusion of gay teen sex may have made some parents uncomfortable, but like the ‘very special episodes’ in television’s past, it was meant to raise awareness and potentially start a discussion. Unlike those episodes, it didn’t try to contribute to our cultural conversation by staging a ploy for ratings. It simply represented gay and straight sex without judgment.