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How Glee changed the world

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Just over ten years ago, the doors of McKinley High School opened for the very first time. 

Glee was a show unlike any other, incorporating musical theatre and a variation of other genres into a jukebox musical. However, unlike many standalone jukebox musicals on both stage and screen, Glee has had an astonishing lifespan: it ran for six seasons, gained platinum status with its cover of ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, and picked up a vast array of awards including Primetime Emmys, Satellite Awards and Golden Globes.

Image courtesy of FOX

With a devoted following of Gleeks behind them, Glee in its heyday seemed unstoppable. But what made Ryan Murphy’s creation such a cultural phenomenon?

Before Glee, high-school dramas followed a fairly typical formula. These impossibly beautiful, 6-foot tall, acne-free 30-year-olds would prance round schools with their heels and occasionally mention their algebra homework in between their countless raunchy parties. Shows like Gossip Girl and 90210 barely focussed on the misfits: it was always the beautiful cheerleaders and the tortured-but-handsome bad boys who were at the centre of all the drama which, most of the time, had nothing to do with school at all. 

When the bullied and the misfits were incorporated into the show, they were either instantly transformed through a hairbrush and contact lenses or used as a side character with the purpose of furthering the ‘depth’ of these two-dimensional tropes. Perhaps they are used to help them learn a valuable lesson about bullying or are shown to be obsessive, unhinged psychopaths who put our dashing hero/heroine in danger. Either way, they certainly won’t be around in the next episode. 

Subsequently, with 45.5% of US high school students living with low self-esteem and with an astonishing 95% feeling inferior at some point in their lives, how is this kind of representation productive? What sort of message does it send to those who do get bullied and don’t fit the ‘popular and perfect’ criteria these kinds of shows reinforce? We have these young people constantly comparing themselves to these pristinely polished students with exciting, cosmopolitan lives, but that’s neither real nor accurate. All it does is reinforce these statistics and damage their self-esteem further.

That, however, is where Glee comes in. What made the show so special was the fact that Murphy decided, for once, to shine the light on those deemed ‘imperfect’. Take the lead character, for example. Rachel Berry, played by Lea Michele, was the lead and heart of the show with an astonishing voice and high-school quarterback boyfriend. She also had a larger-than-average nose, struggled to make friends, was mocked for her clothing style, and got ‘slushied’ on the daily. 

Image Credit: Mike Ownby via Flickr

From the very first episode, Murphy made a conscious effort to put the ‘misfits’ and the ‘losers’ at the very heart of the show. Although they all got bullied in the hallways and mocked for their weight, disabilities or sexuality, they all found a safe haven in Mr Schuchster’s  (played by Matthew Morrison) Glee Club; a safe haven that, by extension, the audience were able to access too through watching. Indeed, with 40% of young people reporting that they feel lonely, seeing a show where the outcasts are able to overcome their own isolation means that they were not only able to see people that they could truly relate to, but also they were able to feel hopeful that things would get better for them. 

It’s also interesting to note that despite the lead cast being able to join the glee club and find solace in each other, the bullying didn’t stop, and their lives didn’t dramatically change overnight. Similarly, the 20.8% of students who report being bullied might not be able to escape it as easily as it is presented in some teen dramas. There are some things like bullies that are beyond one’s control, and Glee helps to reinforce a message of hope and optimism. It’s realistic about the fact that bullying will continue, but it encourages the audience to take it in their stride and not let other people’s actions or perceptions define their identity or self-worth.

I would argue that the single most important thing about Glee’s legacy is the leaps and bounds it took with LGBTQ+ representation. With 1.3 million young people in America identifying as LGBTQ+, it was through Glee that they were able to see themselves reflected and represented on mainstream television for the very first time. Glee covered issues relating to the struggle of coming out as gay and lesbian, as well as repression, bisexuality, sexual experimentation, homophobic bullying and the sensitive portrayal of a transgender character beginning their transition.

Glee didn’t just show the struggles, however. Again, what Glee did right is give this community hope. With 42% of LGBTQ+ youth reporting that they live in an unaccepting community, Glee didn’t centre these character’s storylines solely on the struggles they faced as a result of their orientation. They also represented an important message of acceptance amongst parents and peers, successfully normalising and representing gay and lesbian couples in the same way as they did with heterosexual couples. Again, they helped convey an important message about identity and hope because it was through showing the good, the bad and the characters’ constant resilience that they were able to show their LGBTQ+ audience that it will get better, and they aren’t invisible. They are listened to and valued. 

Image via Wiki Commons

In 2019, it can be argued that as a country we have taken positive steps when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues, and so it can be hard to think back to a time before that. However, before Glee, attitudes towards queer identities were a lot more negative and hostile. They were very much the minority, and two men could barely have a peck on a daytime soap without hundreds of complaints to Ofcom. Glee was ten years ahead of us, and it seems like we have only recently caught up with them. 

Glee really made its mark by being a subversion of the same tired high-school format. Whilst there were beautiful cheerleaders and bullying football players, we saw them too struggle with issues including teenage pregnancy, suicide attempts and struggles with their own sexuality and identity. It shocked life into an oversaturated genre by transforming it into something three-dimensional, with human interest, and paved the way for shows to be more daring, representative and honest.

People of the BAME community, LGBTQ+ community and those living with physical and mental disabilities finally had people on centre stage both figuratively and literally. They finally had characters they could identify with on screen. Although it is easy to remember Glee based on the tragedies and controversies surrounding its cast, we cannot forget how ahead of its time it was, and we need to give it credit for how it paved the way for the more progressive society we see before us today. 

Glee comes to Netflix UK on 30th June.




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