Thursday, October 1, 2009

Glee gays, or How I ruminate on LGBT media representation

Reeling off an extremely well-crafted and wonderfully executed Glee last night (with Ms Cheno blowing off everyone on screen with her petite-figure and amazing voice!) I found myself embroiled in quite an interesting tweet conversation ('tweetsation'?) regarding Sandy. It all started with the following tweet (which links here)

To which I asked:
This lead to a very (interested, and heated - the best kind!) conversation regarding LGBT representation which I thought best to air out here in the blog in hopes of fleshing out several sides of the argument and maybe inspire a discussion which I find usually centers on knee-jerk reactions without truly exploring the assumptions and ramifications of the arguments which the discussion elicits and demands.

About Sandy: if you haven't watched Glee (and really: why haven't you!?), you'd probably like to know that Sandy was the Glee Club teacher who - after refusing to give Rachel the star treatment she thinks she deserved - got ousted over allegations of sexual misconduct with his (male) students.
The argument proposed in the tweet, the blog post and the subsequent tweet-sation hinged on the fact that, being a 'pedophile,' Sandy should be "killed or written off" the show. What my tweet tried to raise was the question of LGBT visible representation. Namely: should every LGBT character on (network) TV be primed to be a role model? (We've seen this before with sanitized gays such as Will Truman and Marc St James being hailed as positive images, while the Brian Kennys of TV have been both touted and reviled for their 'bad gay' characterization). There are no two sides to this argument, but instead quite an interesting conversation to be had.

Before we answer the role model question with a resounding yes (a popular, and understandable position) I think we should best look at why we are required to answer positively. Well, from the recently released GLAAD statistics ("Gay characters have reached an all-time high") we can start talking about how despite growing in visibility, LGBT characters still only make up 3% of character on TV altogether. Logic goes, with such limited visibility, we should aim for a positive image, no? I mean, what kind of a community are we showing by portraying a pedophile in a high school on a network show, right? True, but then, should all "TV gays" be role models? Would that be an accurate representation of the (so-called) 'gay community' we are attempting to re-present? I can understand the argument against Sandy as a character (he's kind of a creep), but not quite why the argument then needs to jump to 'we shouldn't see Sandys on TV.' The problem with an argument like this lies in the consequences and the limits of it: where does one draw the line? Do rapists, killers and other reprehensible characters get the same treatment? No we say (unless they're gay) - which seems to me a double standard. Every argument that begins with "we need more LGBT visibility" seemingly comes with a tacit caveat ("but only positive visibility"). That, in theory I can understand, but it proposes a theory of media (and TV in particular) which grants itself too much socio-political power as an ideological machine while altogether stripping the audience of any free-thinking opinions. Case in point: could we not argue that despite Sandy's character, Glee as a whole (with Kurt in particular) advance a positive image of LGBT folk? Yes, you might say, but it is the negative image of Sandy that (hetero)viewers will cling to... which in my view is just an argument that admits defeat (and talks down to its intended audience) from the get-go.
Put differently - the impetus to put a 'good image' on TV gays is ultimately an ideological/political argument which stresses the fact that only by providing an image of well-adjusted gay people will 'we' win over the heterosexuals who are against us. This is the classic "We are just like you!" argument which organizations which I fully respect and admire use constantly to sway everyone from Californian to American Idol voters. This is deeply rooted in a theory of identity politics which I feel is quite out-dated (or at least is in dire need of a revamping) as it reeks of 'affirmative action' ideology. This can be helpful (as we've learned) but it also doesn't fix the problem at stake (namely discrimination and harassment). To require all TV gays to be 'good gays' is to demand equality in visibility, but not in representation: aren't we supposed to be striving for characters whose sexuality isn't their sole raison d'être? Aren't 'good gay characters' supposed to come from 'good writing' (as Glee observed - and was praised for by GLAAD itself - last week) as opposed to a vision of morality/ethics?
Maybe that's my biggest qualm with this specific argument. Whether we agree or not on whether characters like Sandy belong on TV full stop, shouldn't distract us from the fact that he's on a show which very overtly plays with (and tries to undermine) stereotypes (from two dimensional 'jock' and 'cheerleader' we went to 'conflicted glee/football player' and 'celibate' pregnant cheerleader). This, added to the fact that Glee - in tone, style and even subject matter (let alone casting!) - relishes a queer/campy aesthetic, begs the question of why we don't trust the audience to understand that the show itself never advocates (and even paints quite an unsympathetic version of) Sandy's actions. Or is the argument again that 'straight' viewers won't get the tongue-in-cheek tone of the show and will still walk away thinking we're all Sandys? If that's where we begin, we have little ground to gain.

These are mostly more questions than answers, but I don't think a knee-jerk "he's a pedophile what's the doing on TV" is the way to go. I mean, if the argument was couched in the mechanics of the show itself ("Sandy has been used merely as plot device rather than a believable character" - which, let's face it, is true) I'd be more inclined to agree with you in asking Murphy & co. to write him off.

Phew. Okay /rant over.


Robert William Berg said...

Wanted to add to my tweet that the thing that really struck me in your post is the idea of affirmative action, and that's exactly my problem with the argument that "negative" portrayals of gay characters shouldn't happen in pop culture. Because the idea that only positive representations should be allowed is a form of reverse discrimination, as well. Why should someone be limited from making his or her character a villain just because that character happens to be gay? Like you said, that's effectively making the character's sexuality the most important thing about him, and even worse, making sexuality a thing that limits one's ability to fully craft a character. Worst case scenario, it can lead to a lot of bland gay characters whose #1 characteristic is simply being "good." I wouldn't want all gay characters to be Sandy Ryersons, but I wouldn't want them to all be flawless saints, either.

Anonymous said...

Hey just found your blog while randomly looking at trend topics on twitter. Very interesting argument. It also brings up the question do you think that now that LGBT are being more regularaly portrayed on TV that writers/directors/ even tv execs. are afraid to portray them as anything but the Will Trumans and Marc St. James? The general tv-watching population understands stereotypes. Any character going beyond their caste are deemed controversial or groundbreaking. I believe that Glee (while still entertaining the idea of these stereotypes in Kurt's homosexuality and even jock's like Puck) Developing a character like Sandy steps out of the comfort zone many TV viewers are accustomed to watching. So of course there will be the people who think Sandy is a deplorable character based on his actions. Whether it is because he is a homosexual a pedophile or both, I'm not too sure, personally I believe he's that character that has to be creepy. I do think you raise a very interesting question. What if Sandy had been inappropriate with a female student, with Rachel? Would we hate him more? Would we be able to think his doll collection and way-too-short kimono was funny or even more creepy? I do believe that the stereotypes of the LGBT community on TV is a little one sided. Yet, until TV viewers and the general public can get over seeing all stereotypes on TV not just the LGBT ones I believe the argument will continue. I can only hope the writers of these characters will continue to push for more diverse characters as they are more enjoyable to watch. A good example of this would be the murderer on Grey's Anatomy who needed head surgery, and was actually a very amiable and deep character for the few episodes he was on. The friend I watched the episode with commented that she felt uneasy feeling sorry for him because he described how he murdered a lady in the street. I replied, "Yeah, but he's still just a guy right now, with a giant head injury." This also seemed to be the main controversy on the show with Derek all dark and broody because he didn't want to help the murderer and Meredith the opposite treating him as any other patient. These characters make for better TV, which is why I believe Sandy causes so much controversy. Hopefully there will be more like him, and that will become the norm for the citizens of TV Land. Very good blog post!

cinematt01 said...

Since you painted my side of the conversation as you did I feel I need to point some things out. You painted me as someone who lives in the extreme. As if I said all gay characters should be gleaming with purity or be banned.

First, I do not and have never said that all gay representation should be squeaky clean. Most of my favorite gay characters are far from perfect. I love it when a gay person is portrayed as complicated and less than pure. I love Kevin from Brothers & Sisters who, basically, is an ass. I even liked that Brian from QaF offered a different viewpoint. I had no problem when 24 (which rarely if ever features gay characters) introduced a gay character that was essentially a hit-man. I had no problem when the series Sleeper Cell featured a gay terrorist that was struggling with his sexuality. The audience for those shows are made up of adults that have (or should have) the ability to realize that it's simply a portrayal and not necessarily a representation.

My issue with GLEE is that a huge part of it's audience is made up of kids from middle school and high school. I have a problem with the gay kids (who are already dealing with self-loathing issues) seeing Sandy portrayed as a gay man who is a pedophile and a drug dealer. Sure, Kurt is there to offset the offensiveness of Sandy but to these kids it won't. It only solidifies their instinct to feel shame and embarrassment.

And Sandy was not merely "set-up". He DID touch a student inappropriately. And in a later episode told another student he would have no problem getting nude for him. Throw on top of that the sexual harrassment that Josh Groban's character described Sandy as doing and it makes it perfectly clear what kind of person he is.

I'm all for Glee bringing on gay characters that fully live in the gray areas of morality. I just happen to believe that this 1 portrayal of a drug dealing pedophile is offensive, inappropriate and potentially damaging.

And I'm not the only one who feels this way.

from AfterElton:

Finally, I want to circle back to Glee for a moment and mention the show's other gay character Sandy Ryerson played by Stephen Tobolowsky. Sandy got canned in the first episode for inappropriately touching his male students, but later schemes to get his job back. Gee, that's a stereotype I could live without that and am frankly a little surprised the show went there, especially as Sandy is going to be one of Will's nemeses.
If it weren't for Kurt, I'd really be PO'd over Sandy who is pretty much a walking cliche at this point who crosses the line into offensiveness as far as I'm concerned. When you're Fox, and you don't have a single gay male non-animated character on your network (and air So You Think You Can Dance) you really need to think twice about what you put on television.

mB said...


I didn't intend the post to be a "sum up" of our argument (notice how I never even mentioned the fact that you called me out as "ignorant" for example), and instead chose to use our tweets as a jump off point (though- never did I say that you personally were the one advancing the specific arguments I was bringing up.

But again, even the AfterElton criticism comes with the "if it weren't for Kurt" caveat, no?

Mike said...

this is such an interesting debate. I don't have strong feelings either way, so I hesitate to insert myself, but I find the idea of a Kurt/Sandy dichotomy (good gay/bad gay) not really very satisfying as a balancing effect. It seems to me that the stereotype Glee is promoting is that it's OK to be gay if you're young and cute, but if you're older and less attractive, then, well, that's just creepy and suspicious.

mB said...

Yet April was shown as a future version of Rachel, Will's been crafted as a future version of Finn (or at least a foil), Sue actually told Quinn she saw herself in her ("without my bone structure"), Puck's cougar conquests could be seen as a foil to Sandy's liaisons (if they ever have happened)...

Couldn't one argue that these sorts of pairings have nothing to do with sexuality but with the choices you make? Again, I think Murphy & his writers are much smarter than simply presenting a good/bad gay scenario but are actually fleshing out full-bodied characters (which, as I say, may be Sandy's biggest flaw as a written character).

seanisbored said...

Gay people have flaws like everyone else; the gay community has people who aren't perfect.

Ergo, to me it seems perfctly obvious, we should be showing all kinds of LGBT characters on T.V: killers, peados, assholes, jerks. As long as it works for the story/character of course.

We shouldn't be blaming the media for the stereotypes or trusting them to create a positive image of gay people.

cinematt01 said...

in response to Mb

Yes, the After Elton article did mention Kurt but the article they ran most recently said this:

"Finally, Sandy Ryerson? Really? The show made another reference to his being a creepy pedophile. I half-expected to see him follow Kristin Chenoweth out of the showers with his own posse. Please, please let this be the last wee see of him."

Also, me thinking a statement you made was idiotic is not the same as me thinking YOU are an idiot. That couldn't be further from the truth. At the time I was frustrated that you kept pigeon-holing me as someone who only thinks in extremes (all positive role models or none at all). That just isn't accurate.

I do see your point and I appreciate your view. I just happen to see it from a different perspective.

Michael Parsons said...

There are Sandy's out there, but the interesting thing is he is still very much in denial about who he is, and that is the point.
Because he is afraid of coming out, he acts out in these ways that are just gross.
I see it more of a lesson of how intolerance breeds unwanted behaviour.

Branden said...

I don't have a problems with Sandy. He is like old-timey gay. The way that close minded people think gay people are.

You have Kurt, the progressive modern interpretation of what it means to be gay today.

It's a good counter balance for the show.

Stephen Tobolowsky is the best.


i'm two days late but could we not use the word "pedophile" to describe somehow who is hot for 17 year olds? that's way past puberty. i'm just saying. The media always encourages everyone to be into teenagers so does this make us a nation of pedophiles? are soccer moms who are into twilight (the characters are supposed to be teenagers) pedophiles? Was everyone who was hot for Lindsay Lohan in mean Girls a pedophile?

this has always bugged me.

I like my men a little more seasoned... ideal man: Ken Olin on thirtysomething or Billy Campbell on Once & Again = hottest tv men ever. but that said I don't think people should be vilifed for thinking people younger than they are (but still well past puberty and legal in other countries even if not in the US ;) are hot.

but ON TOPIC: this is a great topic. I love GLEE but i HATE-HATE-HATE that character. unfunny stereotype and stephen tobolowsky has been doing the same shtick for decades. i can't believe he still gets so much work.