I am a fan of Glee. I am not sure if I am a “gleek,” but I do, every Tuesday, get excited for 7pm (CST) to roll around so I can enjoy me some Glee. But, this week I found myself disappointed even though all the commentary around me, notably Facebook, was heralding this episode as one of the best ever. I think it was a good episode. I think it addressed some interesting and very pertinent issues, but it really did so in very traditional ways providing no space to imagine life in a different way. I want to begin thinking about my disappointment with the scene that provoked it the most, moving to the second scene that disappointed me and then perhaps bring these scenes in relation with the episode as a whole and other scenes similar to this in recent television.
We saw in this episode perhaps the most violent harassment/bullying against Kurt in the show at this point. And in one harrowing scene, Kurt confronts his bully, following him into the locker room, yelling. At one moment we are sure that Kurt is about to get pummeled, but instead we see him forcefully kissed. The bully is a bully that likes boys, but cannot seem to admit it. We see, as we often see, the repressed homosexual who instead of engaging his feelings, acts out against those who do engage such attractions. This is done to distance himself from that which he seems to be – seen later when Kurt’s new gay friend helps Kurt confront this bully. After this kiss, we see Kurt stunned at what just happened and I was stunned that Kurt’s first one-screen kiss was non-consensual, forced through a moment of bullying.
One might say that we expect the first kiss to be romantic, but most often they are not…allowing this scene to be “real.” I understand that logic, but in the time/space of this show, this is the only time we have seen a gay male kiss. We have of course seen Santana and Brittney kiss numerous times, but such kissing operates, I think, on a different plane than a scene of gay male intimacy. As Martha Nussbaum points out in From Disgust to Humanity, it is more often than not the scene of gay male intimacy that provokes the most disgust AND numerous commentators on “lesbian” porn have noted that such porn – lesbian porn – is produced for “straight” men. The lesbian scene of intimacy is a rather strong fantasy for “straight” men and does not produce the level of disgust that two men kissing does.
And this is where I want to think about this scene and my disappointment. In this episode titled, I believe, “First Kiss” we see the two “queerest” characters experience their first kiss. Kurt experiences his first kiss from his bully – the repressed homosexual. And Coach Beist experiences her first kiss from her former bully – Mr. Shue. “We” could not see a romantic first kiss with these two “queer” characters for similar reasons – our disgust at scenes of intimacy that are not “normative”.
We could not see Kurt have his first kiss be the ideal, romanticized first kiss because that would not have made him sufficiently the victim. It would have made the gay scene of intimacy as romantic and legitimate as the scenes of straight intimacy we saw between all the “straight” couples. And this is just unacceptable it seems. Instead, we can only imagine the gay male as victim as we most often see Kurt OR as we saw him in the first season as the “predator” trying to turn his straight crushes gay. Now, Kurt’s presence on TV is significant. He is a significant representation to see on TV as GLBT students are present and visible in high schools more and more in contemporary society. And do face a constant barrage of harassment and bullying, often left unaddressed by teachers and administrators. This was seen poignantly when Kurt confronted Mr. Shue.
However, I wanted to see a space made for us to imagine a world where the gay kid is not solely understood as a victim. Sociologist Laura Essig noted in a recent article about LGBT youth suicide that:
“The fact that way more than five queer teens had an amazing month, had their first love, their first encounter with the richness of queer culture—from drag to politics—is not a story we want to hear as a culture. The fact that hundreds or even thousands of queer kids stood up to a bully, injected queer consciousness into a classroom or a family dinner, and generally lived technicolor lives over the rainbow rather than locked down in some black and white Kansas is lost in the news cycle. We prefer our queers as victims. They're easier to support and much less scary that way.”
So, while we do see Kurt stand up to his bully, which were fantastic scenes, we still cannot see Kurt experience the pleasure of a first kiss. We are still uncomfortable with the scene of gay male intimacy, in part, I think because of feelings of disgust that pervade our understandings of intimacy and sexuality. Of course, this intimacy will occur eventually on the show – hopefully as Kurt finds other gay teens in the area. BUT, I think it is significant that before we can get to where other forms of intimacy are in the show, we must first degrade, violate, gay male intimacy. We seemingly cannot imagine a world without the queer as victim…And I think this is extended in the use of the figure of the repressed “homosexual” who in many ways is a victim himself. He is a victim of a world that has a severe lack of imagination – that cannot imagine multiplicitous forms of intimacy. He may not be a “homosexual” or he may not want to identify as a “homosexual” not because he is homophobic, per se, but because he wants something else. He wants to create a world where he can be intimate on his own terms – not the terms presented to him through Kurt or his straight counterparts.
My disappointment was furthered when Beist admits she is a “40 year old virgin.” This rather mannish woman is seen as disgusting enough to work better than a “cold shower.” And upon learning this – that her players are using compromising images of her to “cool” down while having steamy make out session with their opposite sex partners – she quits her job. Luckily for her, the saving grace and dreamy Mr. Shue steps in to give her that first kiss and the audience feels all warm and fuzzy…after all who wouldn’t want to get kissed by Mr. Shue? Yet, who is Mr. Shue to step in and give this woman her first kiss? Is he the knight in shining armor who gives hope to all the wretched female creatures, saving them from themselves? But more importantly, who wants their first kiss to be one out of sympathy at best, pity at worst? Is Mr. Shue’s kiss really any different than the repressed bully? Is his sympathetic kiss to “build” Beist up and get her to stay really any less violent? After all, it was not consensual either…and while the two of them joked about it afterwards, I think it is important to step back from the “warm and fuzzy feeling” to think about this moment.
I think it is significant that the first kisses of Kurt and Beist were qualitatively different that the first kiss of Artie and the scenes of heterosexual intimacy seen between the “straight couples” of the show. But, this is not unique to Glee. I am not a tv critic, but these moments also brought me back to my disappointment in ABC Family’s now cancelled show Huge. In one episode we see the only gay character become the butt of a joke. And the joke – operating through a dare – was for another seemingly straight boy to kiss Alistair, the gay camper. And in doing this, Alistair experiences his first kiss with the audience seeing again the impossibility of the gay character having a first kiss that is not a violation. We cannot seem to imagine a first kiss between two men that is consensual, romantic, and intimate. Rather, it seems that to protect “ourselves,” we must first imagine that this intimacy emerges out of a victim status.
I recognize that bullying and harassment are real experiences of many youth – gay or straight. My disappointment is that the “gay” youth seemingly can only operate as victims. They are never successful, always haunted by bullying and violence against their body. And, to a certain extent this violence is an important constitutive element of being a “gay” subject. But, I think investigating and thinking about ways to read this violence is important. I think Glee does a fine job at illuminating the struggles of all the characters. No one is completely innocent, everyone struggles and the Glee kids are challenged to encounter their otherness – perhaps simplistically at times. But, I am disappointed that Glee could not be more radical in showing the possibilities for their queer characters…