Live from the Lilith Blog

November 4, 2010 by

The Glee is Mine

KraussI am a 23-year-old aspiring writer and I moved to New York City just over a month ago. (I’m a newcomer to the Lilith blogosphere, and as someone who strongly identifies as a young Jewish feminist, it seems like a match made on JDate.) I’ll be exploring the way that pop culture intersects with and shapes identity – specifically my identity as a Jewish woman.

Glee is a TV show that has brought nothing but joy into my life. Not only has it produced a slammin’ cover version of “The Boy Is Mine,” (I’ll admit I’m a sucker for ’90s Brandy), but it also touches upon some potent issues. Musical theater and a progressive social message all in one? Pretty much a dream come true.

The most wonderful thing about Glee is how thought provoking it is. The most recent episodes have touched upon an array of issues, from male body image to the fluidity of sexuality. (Side Note: I’m completely obsessed with Brittany and Santana’s lady-loving.)

It has also been interesting to watch the way that the show deals with its Jewish characters. 

In episode 7 of Season 1, “Throwdowns,” Sue Sylvester (the glee club’s cheerleading coach/nemesis) divides the glee kids up in an attempt to turn them against each other. She forms a group dubbed “Sue’s Kids,” of all the minority students, referred to by names like “gay kid, Asian, other Asian, Aretha.” Noticeably absent from this group of minority misfits? The Jewish characters – Rachel and Puck.

Rachel and Puck are grouped with the likes of WASP-y Quinn and blonder-than-blonde Brittany. They are very clearly the white privileged kids. It makes sense, and I am in no way indignant that these characters didn’t make the “minority cut.” But it did make me think about what it means to be an invisible minority, which is exactly what I am as a pale-skinned, Ashkenazi Jew.

Light-skinned, American Jews have access to white privilege – I don’t view this as debatable. Yet I have always felt acutely aware of my cultural difference. In a sea of Christianity, I was constantly called upon to speak for all Jews as the authority on holidays, culture and history in my public high school, and my culturally Jewish summer camp was a haven for discussing things that I couldn’t in the outside world. At least in the unscientific survey of my own experiences, Judaism has been (and continues to be) a differentiating factor from white America, while simultaneously being a part of that white America. What is the significance of this paradox? As a simultaneous insider and outsider maybe I am in a perfect position to change a flawed system of privilege.

Or maybe I’m simply over-thinking this. Am I just “playing the ethnicity card” to feel different in the mass of privileged white people? Or does being Jewish (and a woman – I didn’t even touch on male privilege in this post) really place me into a gap in American society, somewhere between the white standard and the “other”?

To be honest, I don’t know the answer. But thanks for bringing up some damn good questions, Rachel Berry. Until next time, in the indomitable words of Noah Puckerman: “Shalom.”

–Emma Gray

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  • aviva

    I’m a Gleek; I admit it freely. Well, a bit beyond freely, perhaps—I’m somewhere in the netherworld between the tweens and the queens that adore the show, that collar strangers at Starbucks and evangelize about it, that tell them that they must, must watch it, and are a little scary about it. Part of it’s the music, sure—I’ve always felt that life should be more like musicals, and that we should be allowed to break into song at any given opportunity, even though I have an awful voice and can’t carry a tune with a suitcase. And the drama, of course, I do like seriously Byzantine drama, and I went about for years declaiming “I don’t watch soaps,” while racing home to catch ‘Melrose,’ then followed Darren Star into the ugly backwoods of Wisteria Lane as well. So there’s that. But something there is about ‘Glee’ that goes deeper.

    Most high school dramas deal in stereotypes, almost as if it would be too much, with all the academic stress and social hierarchy and megahormonal sexual tension, to admit individuals that don’t fit into the tidy ‘Breakfast Club’ niches. And ‘Glee’ does that. But it does it in such a manner that is almost better than wiping the slate clean. We have our familiar codes, yes, but Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuck and Ryan Murphy present them to us in such a beautifully Confucian way that we are able to see straight past them and into the characters themselves; this is a crucial when, not only do you have a large cast, but half of your allotted 48 minutes are taken up by musical numbers. So we have these reductions, these essences, that represent so many others, and yet, constitute delightful individuals in themselves, rounder than they are flat.

    Sue Sylvester, of course, is first on everyone’s list; Jane Lynch’s absurd hypervillain with her consuming Seussian hatred for all things gleeful and her abiding control issues. I love her tender, respectful relationship with her Down-afflicted sister; it could’ve played out as a gratuitous fabric softener, but Lynch does much more with it, adding a succinct complexity to her twisted, driven character, all ice-blue eyes and tendons, that really makes her evil pop, eclipsing her more one-dimensional demon sisters of the Wilhelmina Slater/ Alexis Carrington sort.

    Standing up to her, sort of, are Will Shuester and his apprentice Finn, full of bumbling white boy good intentions, paving their paths to hell. Emma, the shrink, is as fucked-up as our suspicions would have us believe all shrinks are. Molly Shannon just joined up as a pedophilic junkie, and that’s just the faculty! Over here we have the students: the Quinn bitch, made human by her near-immaculate conception and its frightening consequences; Britney, with her Berra-esque pronouncements, the one-blond WordPress factory; Santana, the cynically wily, seductive Latina, channeling Velez and Moreno. Then there’s Artie, the stoic crip, hipper and more graceful than you might expect; his friend with (maybe? Someday? Dare we hope?) benefits, Tina, the rebellious Asian (her surname is Cohen-Chang; her motto might as well be “Whaddya got?”) There is Mercedes, familiar to us as the sassy black judge from decades of courtroom drama. She’s fat, she’s black, and she will tear you a new one if you step out of line. She’s also in love with her soulmate, baby gay Kurt, who is as masochistically apt as she is at finding true love, doting hopelessly as he does on Finn-with-the-cowboy-wallpaper. Everyone’s parents are dead or divorced or dogmatically gay, leaving our friends to fend for themselves, a ‘Lord of the Flies’ with auto-tune and better wardrobe.

    And then there are Rachel and Puck. My personal ‘Glee’ MacGuffin, the Holy Grail that keeps me watching, is an answer to the question: “Why does everyone hate on Rachel Berry?” Despite her desire to hog every number for herself, she’s the nicest, hardest-working and most ethical person in any given room, doormat-desperate to be liked, and the glue that keeps the glee club together, with her wicked voice and political assertiveness. What’s not to like? And yet she is the regular target of castigating comments, backstabbing and Slushies to the face. Why, Lord? And why aren’t people meaner to Puck, who—at least it would appear—warrants it? And why am I so turned on by the possibilities of Rachel and Puck? It goes well beyond the old good girl-bad boy tension; I’ve wanted this to happen for what feels like an awfully long time.

    And then, last week, it all became clear to me. The two were sitting up in Rachel’s room, Puck examining himself in the mirror from under a split-face Phantom mask, and he tries to seduce her with a throwaway line: “Jesse will never really know what it means to be Jewish.” Cue blinding epiphany. Rachel is American Jewry, in all its neurotic splendor and nervous assimilation; Puck is Israel, and if you don’t like it, there’s a dumpster with your name on it.

    As I was still reeling from this revelation, they proceeded to have a conversation that not only cemented this significance, but, with the current terrifying political climate leering like Dennis Hopper from the closet, tore holes in my heart. She informs him that “slumming it with me actually improved your reputation—it gave you a sense of humanity,” and that she wants him to act in a video with her, in which she dies in the end. “Do I get to kill you?” he asks, and she shakes her head. “Actually, my dad shoots me.” You don’t need to know a thing about J Street or the steep rise of anti-Semitic violence in the US to get the twisted frisson, although the fact that, after his election, Obama called Mahmoud Abbas before he called Ehud Barack might enhance it some. He asks Rachel—the only person he trusts—if she thinks he is the guilty party in the school’s latest scandal. She hesitates, then plunges the knife in: “It does sound like something you would do.” Et tu? Israel has few more vocal antagonists than Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, but the American left, many of them Jewish, are trying hard to change this.

    Puck tries to make sense of the typhoon of anti-Israel sentiment: “I’m so tired of people judging me for a few mistakes I’ve made. I try, you know? I say, be cool, Puck. Be nice. But by second period I’ve got a fire extinguisher in my hands and I’m spraying some dweeb with it.” For millennia now, all Israelis ever wanted was some peace; we would make concessions and resolutions and found dialogue groups, march and talk and meet and sacrifice. And then some fucktard would blow up a kindergarten, and we’d be all over the world’s front pages bulldozing an olive tree or something, monstrous bullies that we are.

    Rachel strives for some common ground with him: “I watch a couple of imperfect performances, and the litany of criticisms just keeps building up like a volcano, and then it comes bursting out.” And it’s true. We are the Chosen People, the People of the Book; but we are also the People who Cannot Shut Up to Save Their Lives. Jews constitute 2.2% of the U.S. population, but 97.8% of its ‘I can’t believe they said that out loud’ comedians. Rachel and Puck try to team up: “How do you think we can get people to see us differently?” but teaming up has only one end for the passionate, physical Puck–”why should I stay if there’s no chance of us making out?” Rachel is torn, but stays faithful to her rising star Jesse.

    Jesse, hmm, Jesse, yes. Let us examine Jesse. Jesse who came out of nowhere to rule the school. Jesse who was an unknown quantity, a dark horse, but so magically charismatic that in the end he captured our hearts. Jesse, who was so hard for Rachel to trust, but to whom in the end she gave her heart because he promised, promised, swore up and down, to treat her right, because she was a good person and deserved it. If Rachel is American Jewry, I wonder who Jesse could be?

    In the culminating scene, the three men in Rachel’s life–Jesse, Puck, and Finn– realize that she’s been seeing them all. It’s only acting in a video, some might argue, but what the makers of ‘Glee’ understand is that in a post-ironic world, we know not seems—we know but is. Jesse ends it outside her locker. “I knew you’d break my heart,” she tells him, refusing to cry. They have to continue to co-exist, he replies, but “don’t talk to me.” Then, when you think you’re feeling as bad as you could possibly feel, the music starts, an impassioned, exquisite rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart.’

    It is common, especially when examining TV shows, to assume that the writers are autistic creatures in a hermetic cell—that there is no outside influence upon, and no real significance to what’s going on in this little escapist world we share—or that if there is, it’s right up in our faces, like ‘Sopranos’ or ‘The Wire’. There are two arguments against that: one, that Falchuk and Murphy, also created ‘Nip/Tuck’, and there are few that would argue over the staggering stacks of signifiers tied up in that show.

    And two—that if this really is nothing but a facile, pubescent puff piece, then why, as Rachel was tearing out her anguished lament of ‘living in a powder keg and giving off sparks,” as one by one, the little UN of her erstwhile glee club allies stood up and walked out on her, why was I crying as hard as I’ve ever cried in my life?