A few weeks ago I finally yielded to the raves of several friends and gave Fox’s hit show Glee a try. Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have raced through all of Season 1 on Netflix. It’s everything my friends said it would be: funny, charming, musical, a bit campy. What struck me immediately was that amid the knowingness and too-smart-to-be-anything-but-cynical vibe that defines everything in our generation, this show stands out as relentlessly cheerful. I searched and scrutinized for the “we’re being so happy ironically angle,” but my search was in vain. This really was earnestly chipper. Je savais what this je ne sais quoi was: it was high-octane Mormon.
That’s right, if BYU-TV thinks they have a patent on happy-go-lucky “see the good in the world,” it’s past time for their lawyers to initiate a barrage of cease and desist letters to Fox headquarters. Yet the litany of reasons why Glee re-runs won’t be syndicated on BYU-TV anytime soon is lengthy and pointed.
There is no doubt that Glee is on a mission to evangelize a liberal philosophy. The astonishingly methodical nature of the show’s sniper strikes on liberal bugaboos makes it impossible that the writers aren’t working from a most-wanted hit list. Producer Ryan Murphy zealously adopts the quintfecta of today’s intersectional feminism: sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism and sizeism. Throw in school bullying, a gratuitous knock on Sarah Palin, some vicious takedown of abstinence-only programs, rampant casual teen sex, and it’s liberal utopia. Of course, liberalism doesn’t always conflict with Mormonism, and many Mormons (including me) are politically liberal, but we’ll look more at that in a minute. First, a more detailed accounting of Glee’s issue advocacy (keep in mind I’ve only just finished Season 1–surely the list has grown in the first half of Season 2):
- Ableism (discrimination against disabled people) is a darling of today’s intersectional feminism (feminism that branches out into other -isms). One of the show’s leading characters is wheelchair-bound Artie. An episode was devoted to the problem of the school not providing him accessible facilities (wheelchair ramps in the auditorium, and an accessible bus for the glee club’s competition travel). Other episodes on theme deal with Artie’s emotional journey in relation to his limitations, another character’s fear in the face of a potentially disabling disease, a weep-worthy performance by an all-deaf glee club singing and signing “Imagine,” and the plight and humanity of a paralyzed former high school football player. Even the show’s melodramatically malevolent villain Sue Sylvester has major soft spots for the two Down’s syndrome people in her life, her sister and one of the cheerleaders.
- Glee makes a self-conscious nod to racial diversity by having two Asian glee club members, two Jews, one black one, and one Latina, and many times referring to the characters by these identities.
- Sexual double standard, another hot issue in today’s feminism, is an issue the show handles with gusto matching the war on ableism. The show features, predictably, a “stud” football player who has slept around the school, but also a sweet cheerleader Brittany who if anything has bested the stud in exploits. Her behavior is openly recognized and doesn’t seem to cause any special notice, much less derision, from her fellow students. Another female character denounces the school’s abstinence club during their own meeting, declaring that, contrary to some of the club’s teachings, girls want sex as much as boys.
- Sizeism/fat shaming, a third favorite topic of young feminism, is tackled in an episode where two new additions to the cheerleading squad (including the one with Down’s) are given an ultimatum to lose weight.
- Season 1 features a handful of gratuitous anti-conservative jokes including Sue calling Sarah Palin stupid, and a jerk of a dad excitedly running off to watch Glenn Beck.
- Attacking homophobia is a central theme of the show. Chris Colfer’s character, Kurt Hummel, is, as a fellow character calls him, “capital G Gay.” In one episode he comes out of the closet for the first time, to a fellow glee clubber. Several of the show’s most powerful scenes feature his interaction with his more traditionally-minded father, including when Kurt comes out to him. His father, in spite of his traditional inclinations, serves as a model of how to parent a gay teen fully acceptingly. Other queer characters include hyperpromiscuous cheerleader Brittany, who seems just as likely to have sex with women as men, and has an ambiguous but clearly sexual relationship with fellow female cheerleader Santana.
- Unquestioned acceptance of extramarital sex happens throughout the show. At one point, several characters collaborate in various configurations to cure the virginity of two glee club members. Numerous similar examples could be listed, including among the high school faculty. Make that nearly unquestioned–the popular cheerleader Quinn Fabray becomes pregnant and suffers various severe consequences as a result, all throughout Season 1. Still, this has no effect on the carefree approach to sex by the other students (or adults). The school’s Abstinence Club is a joke, with goofy, out-of-touch teachings and club President Quinn getting pregnant.
- Glee takes on religion and atheism in an episode titled “Grilled Cheesus”.  The title is a tip-off that the show isn’t going to do many favors to religion. Producer Ryan Murphy reports being at pains to balance pro-religion and atheist messages in the episode. Assuming that’s true, it shows a total failure on his part to understand religion and sincere, thoughtful people of faith. He shows empathy for losing faith and struggling with theodicy (Sue loses hers after her childhood prayers to cure her sister’s Down’s go unanswered), but the students on the faithful side are such poor representatives (one is moved to fervency by a grilled cheese sandwich (!)) that they cannot provide any real balance in the episode.
While #1 ableism and #4 sizeism are trendy liberal enemies, battling these is hardly limited to liberal philosophy adherents. Common ground can be found on other list items as well. The church recently declared, “We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different – whether those differences arise from race, religion, mental challenges, social status, sexual orientation or for any other reason. Such actions simply have no place in our society.” So there isn’t as much territory of conflict for politically conservative Mormons, and certainly not for politically liberal Mormons, as the above list might imply. That said, the show’s pervasive acceptance of teen sexuality, even with the nod to Quinn’s consequences, is a serious assault on our traditional morality.
Of course the centerpiece of potential conflict between Mormons and Glee is the issue of homosexuality. Which brings us to the eponymous coupling of this post, Klaine: Kurt Hummel, and his potential love interest Blaine, a confidently out gay student from a neighboring all-boys school . While I haven’t yet watched Season 2, a trip to Fox’s website last week had me stumbling on this preview video of the then-upcoming Christmas episode:
The clip enriches to weapons-grade the duality I am trying to describe in this post: the mixing of a sweet, cheerful Mormony aesthetic with content that runs contrary to the church’s teachings on morality. Aside from the gay aspect, the choreography and delightful melody (update on lyrics: ) of this scene exemplify the kind of chaste, playful, purely joyful courtship to which our best BYU-attending sons and daughters aspire.
As much as I, an adult secure in my testimony, delight in watching this clip, I wonder how Mormons should feel about youth watching this show week after week. In my estimation, the producers of Glee have been fantastically successful in their objective of creating an irresistible vehicle for their views, and moreover making those views all but irresistible. Should we be outraged? Worried? Adamantly tuned out? My husband is probably giving up on the series because of what he perceives as continual hammering on gay issues and “issues” generally (but then, I’ve always been the bigger fan of musical theater–by far).
I’d love to hear from casual watchers, Gleeks, and ex-Gleeks in the comments (time for lurkers to de-lurk). I’ll even forgive you the occasional Season 2 spoiler. For my part, I think I’m veering in the direction of being disheartened by the promiscuity, very unperturbed about the gay themes (assuming continued non-promiscuity), and in the end still a sucker for the spirit-lifting happy vibe and thoroughly enjoyable musical numbers.
 The “Grilled Cheesus” episode is from Season 2, but an informant (my sister) has insisted that this post really couldn’t be complete without mentioning this episode, so these notes on it are brought to you with help from her.
 The first half of the title “Shipping Klaine” is fandom slang for being a fan of a particular relationship.
 See my comment here for an explanation of some problems with the lyrics. For more, see Feministing’s post about problems with this song a couple Christmases ago.