High school is a prime topic for television, both because of target TV audiences and potential subject matter. Rife with embarrassment, uncomfortable sexual tension, underdogs and bullies, high school has all the fuel for a 45 minute punch packed dramatic comedy. Glee is one such example, melding campy musical theater with after-school special plot lines, and a distinct, sardonic snark. And like many a teen-oriented show, Glee sometimes has a heart three sizes too large. Addressing issues like teen pregnancy, single parent homes, body image, and the social pressures to conform, Glee preaches to embrace uniqueness, celebrate freaks. Or so it claims. My ultimate question at the end of every episode: is Glee empowering or disempowering for its target audience? And the answer is often difficult to decipher.
Glee probably does its best work with addressing the problems of growing up as a gay teenager in a town far from the accepting embrace of New York City. Kurt must cope not only with harassment, but perhaps worse, with fears that he will be alone for most of his high school life. The complicated relationship he shares with his straight-edge father becomes one of the most compelling story lines of the series. Mr. Hummel truly loves his son, but doesn’t know how to accept his homosexuality, a concept so foreign to him. Their confrontations span the emotional realm of heart-wrenching and touching, while never neatly packaging a topic so nuanced.
The weighty issues of obesity and eating disorders inevitably surface, for this is, after all, a show about high school. The show remains remarkably inconsistent in the ways in addresses teen weight problems, running the gammet from the brave manifesto of Mercedes, the tough diva, to Quinn, the perpetually dieting cheerleader. What’s interesting is that, despite all the potential, and partial success, of the show in addressing these body image issues, it’s desire for cheap laughs sometimes supersedes its deeper emotional mission. For instance, the episode in which Mercedes is chided for “replacing a boyfriend” with tater tots needlessly draws attention and criticism to her eating habits. Lauren is constantly noshing on candy, Puckerman sings a song about her “fat bottom”
By making her, literally, the butt of the joke, Glee threatens to undermine its very cause. If a girl with a larger frame can’t earn the respect of “Glee”, how can Glee expect her to win the respect of its audience?