How Glee Teaches Girls To Slut Shame

Glee. Marketed as a progressive LGBT positive show, it just…well, isn’t, as the LGBTQI community worked out about three years ago. As @princessjack has documented in this blog, Glee has a fine tradition of slut shaming: Teacher Sue Sylvester posed nude for a magazine way back when but it is used to threaten her reputation now. Aspiring young actress Rachel Berry’s high school mates (one who herself has porn on the internet) fly out to tell her not to do a college play in which she plays an old woman who is topless in one short and non sexual scene. The episode concludes with the boys posing semi nude for a calendar while Rachel agrees not to do the play. Cute and enlightened quotes include “you’re not a porn star- even though your hair and make up make you look like one”.

Fast forward to 29th November and Glee is continuing its tradition. Sue Sylvester is now principal, having framed her predecessor to get the job. Sue is disgusted by twerking and goes on local TV to announce her attempt at a state-wide ban on twerking. She then threatens to fire Schuster, who defends twerking to the school board by describing how previous dances were viewed as disgusting (I would’ve included the can-can and grinding in this, but Schuster does a good job.) So we’ve got a woman who posed nude for Penthouse condemning a sexy dance appropriated by a woman (Miley Cyrus). The man, Schuster, defends it. This encourages girls to slut shame and police each other. But it doesn’t stop there. Why just include a bit of slut shaming when you can have, like, a whole slut shaming themed episode?

Marley wouldn’t consent to sex with Jake in the last episode, so he has sex with a cheerleader who’s name I didn’t catch. She’s portrayed as a bad character who secretly spies on the Glee Club for Sue Sylvester, deliberately steals Jake from Marley and then mocks Marley about it. Marley responds “Jake’s not like that and if he did, he would aim higher than trash like you”. The cheerleader says that Marley is slut shaming her for expressing a woman’s natural sexuality and that slut shaming is “retrogenderist” (among some other made up words) but that she’ll be the bigger person and not report Marley to Principal Sylvester and get her suspended.

This might sound great. But it’s not. If you watch it, it’s obvious that the concept of slut shaming is actually being mocked and denied. Words like “retrogenderist” were put in to overly complicate and make fun of the idea that slut shaming exists or that it’s not a good thing to do. The point that’s being made is that the cheerleader is a slut and deserves to be shamed. The link with ultimate Glee Club nemesis Sue Sylvester further portrays her as a baddie. We all know that slut shaming won’t lead to expulsion (in the Glee world or anywhere) so that line seems especially mocking. In fact, school authorities turned a blind eye to the slut shaming that lead girls like Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons to kill themselves.

This is real virgin whore dichotomy stuff. Marley the good girl virgin vs Cheerleader the whore over who will get Jake. Why does the ‘slut’ have to be the baddie? Sue is also the baddie and she too posed nude; is Glee saying that sluts are evil? It’s been a long tradition in the movies and TV for sexually adventurous women to be the femme fatale and for the less adventurous or repressed woman to be the hero’s girlfriend. It’s also very interesting that Sue and the cheerleader are some kind of ‘slut’ team against our heroes the Glee Club. There aren’t that many bad characters in Glee right now. Why does the bad character have to be set up as a ‘slut’? Set up against the celibate virgin girl?

There’s also a race issue here. Marley is white while Jake, the cheating boyfriend with the bad boy image and a reputation as a “man slut” (quote from previous episode) is biracial. The cheerleader is black. Given that there’s only one other black main character, a trans girl, it’s kind of odd that it’s the black kids who are promiscuous and unethical. There’s a long history of blacks being portrayed as hypersexual. It’s also kinda weird that the black kid is evil, a slut and Sue’s spy and the biracial kid is a “man slut”, a bad boy and a cheater. That’s two out of three black characters. The cheerleader is basically set up to be hated by the audience, because she’s a fairly new character compared to Marley and Jake who she’s hurting. And she is the minion of the Glee Club’s nemesis. There’s no way we can root for her.

The idea that the man (Jake) wants sex while the woman (Marley) is reluctant is not very progressive. It teaches girls that they are the gatekeepers of sex and should be demure. It teaches boys that they have a right to sex and if their partner doesn’t consent, it’s totally fine to cheat. The ethical implications of a spy (the cheerleader) having sex with the enemy she’s spying on (Jake) are vast, yet Jake’s informed consent is not explored.

Admittedly I didn’t watch the rest of the episode. The short-wig-equals-REBEL thing with Rachel Berry and the idea that the worst thing that could happen to a trans girl in high school is get her wig flushed down the toilet had already kind of ruined the episode for me before the denial of the existence of slut shaming. Glee could’ve taught kids about slut shaming. Its relatability, popularity and standard of scripting means that it’s got the potential to get sociopolitical messages across in a couple of seconds. And it chooses to tell teens and preteens that slut shaming should be encouraged and anyone who questions the double standard is a slut. Oh, and that sluts are evil and blacks are probably sluts.

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5 thoughts on “How Glee Teaches Girls To Slut Shame

  1. Innocent Loverboy November 30, 2013 at 7:03 pm Reply

    The cheerleader’s name is Bree. She’s a relatively new character.

    There are two other recurring characters who are black: Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley) and Coach Roz Washington (NeNe Leakes). Series 1 also featured Matt Rutherford (Dijon Talton). There have been several other characters of varying ethnicities in the show, such as Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba) and Mike Chang (Harry Shum, Jr.).

    There are also at least two characters with Down’s syndrome, notably Becky Jackson (Lauren Potter).

    I personally think it’s a relatively inclusive programme. The way they dealt with slut-shaming got on my nerves a bit, and Bree isn’t a character who’s written particularly well. But there have been much worse things on TV for such an issue.

    The point they made with Bree isn’t that she’s a bad person for being relatively promiscuous – she’s a villain for other reasons. Jake’s older brother, Noah “Puck” Puckerman (Mark Salling) was known for being promiscuous in the first series – even having sex with some of the mothers of the kids in school – and was portrayed as a complicated character, eventually being cast into a more positive light.

    Okay, it wasn’t an issue dealt with particularly well. But they’ve dealt with racism, sexism, transphobia, sex work, violence, suicide, homophobia, death, gender steteotypes, sex addiction, alcoholism, drugs and rape – you’ve got to give them points for trying. Most shows wouldn’t dare.

  2. Slutocrat December 2, 2013 at 4:55 pm Reply

    Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂 Yeah, most shows don’t dare address these issues, though I feel that if the issues aren’t addressed well- or addressed in such a way that discrimination is actually promoted- it’s best not to deal with them at all. The issue I have with the characterisation of Bree isn’t that she’s a villain for being a slut- it’s that a villain is the slutty one while the good girl is a celibate virgin. This is a long tradition in film and TV. Glee does have diversity- but then it should, as the US has more diversity than European countries anyway. But diversity is pointless if the minority characters are portrayed negatively (though I’m not suggesting that Glee portrays coloured characters negatively all the time, though I suppose it’s worth mentioning that back when Quinn Fabray was Sue’s spy she seemed to be a more rounded, complex character than Bree). But yeah, at least Glee does try 🙂

  3. Innocent Loverboy December 3, 2013 at 7:42 pm Reply

    One of the things I like about Glee is that it seems abundantly aware that it portrays kids as being a bit stereotyped, which is why it’s a surprise when the characters seem rounded (Quinn Fabray, a good example as you cited, had her own pregnancy storyline and wasn’t portrayed as a slut, which was surprising).

    There’s even one episode in series one, in which Sue sets up her own glee club and deliberately only picks minority kids (“Santana! Wheels! Gay kid! Asian! Other Asian! Aretha! Shaft!”), which I think deals well with both people who exclude minorities and exclusively picking minorities… “for the greater good”, shall we say.

    Interestingly, only 13% of the American population is black… so in twelve randomly selected Americans, one or two at most may be black. The original glee club (although it’s changed since then) had two black characters, two Asian Americans, two Jewish characters, one gay character… I think that’s a spread, of a sort!

    Bree isn’t written particularly well and I suspect she was brought in to be another villain, as Sue is now ensconced as principal and Roz isn’t seen much. Other “annoying bitch” characters in the past (Santana, Terri, Sugar, Kitty…) have ended up being more rounded, for a reason. Maybe we’ll see Bree doing that.

    But I doubt it, actually.

  4. girlseule December 6, 2013 at 10:29 am Reply

    I have never seen Glee but you raised a good point. Why is it that girls and women that are portrayed as doing something as normal as having sex are portrayed as bad?

  5. Georgina July 20, 2014 at 6:03 am Reply

    I think this article is exactly the type of thing Glee was trying to satirize. It’s this hyper political correctness that is holding any real progress back. By wanting to burn the house down when ever you see something that you think is offensive, it stops you from actually taking a moment to think about what the scene means under its surface. Slut shaming is a real epidemic, but the thing Glee is pointing out with these characters is not that they like sex, but that they are using sex to cover up deep emotional issues, which is not a good thing. By exaggerating many issues, Glee forces viewers to challenge there own beliefs and thoughts. Santana and Quinn did not stop Rachel from doing a topless scene because she was going to be topless, they stopped her because she was only doing it to be “bold”. Rachel is not a sexual character, and she shouldn’t do something that she knows she doesn’t want to do, just because it will make others notice her. She wasn’t celebrating her sexuality. I also think it is grossly unfair to cast the writers of Glee as racist because the characters who they have being villainous, happen to be black. That marks your own failure to see behind race, as Glee has long been a very color blind show. At no point is Bree’s skin color mentioned. She should be treated like a person, not a hidden motive. There is a lot of deep seeded bigotry in this world, but these problems are extremely complicated, and it doesn’t help be over simplifying them.

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