Written in Oct 2015 for a Sociology of Gender paper at the University of Auckland
In her article on lesbian pulp novels and US lesbian identity, Yvonne Keller argues that academia and queer history have mistakenly ignored lesbian pulp novels published in the 1950s and 1960s due to what is viewed as a problematic nature. She argues that these novels, though typically written for and marketed to heterosexual men, provided accessible representation for lesbian women who otherwise would never see themselves in media, and that the novels provided a means for lesbian identity formation (Keller 2005). Today, I would argue, we have the opposite problem: a cult in which representation reigns supreme, obliterating all other critical analysis. Shows like Glee, The L Word, and even American Horror Story are lauded for their representation of queer and transgender characters, while critiques of the shows and the way they reify harmful norms and ideals fall to the wayside.
In Sarah Warn’s introduction to Reading the L Word we see a struggle with representation analogous to Keller’s argument about pulps: when you’re not represented, when you don’t see yourself in the media you consume, you will grab and hoard any representation that exists. Lesbians in the 1950s and 60s consumed lesbian pulps even though they were largely marketed at straight men and filled with generally negative content: women struggling with their identities and not getting a happy ending. In the early 2000s, queer representation on television was sparse: Warn discusses the sparse queer moments in television in her introduction. So when The L Word (then called Earthlings) was announced, it was big: “Someone was actually creating a show about lesbians?” (Warn 2006). It wasn’t just that The L Word had a singular lesbian character or issue or storyline, but it was about lesbians. Multiple lesbian characters who the show revolved around, who would interact with each other and have relationships and problems that weren’t just “I’m a lesbian”. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote very early into the show: “The sense of the lesbian individual, isolated or coupled, scandalous, scrutinised, staggering under her representational burden, gives way to the vastly livelier potential of a lesbian ecology” (Sedgewick 2004). Notably, just like the pulps of the mid-20th century, part of The L Word’s draw to network Showtime was its presumed appeal to straight men.
As The L Word aired and progressed, it grew immensely popular in the lesbian community. AfterEllen.com’s success is largely due to it and its fanbase; Autostraddle has countless “Top [X] Moments in The L Word” lists; and it’s difficult to find a social circle of lesbians who haven’t seen every episode. And not without reason: it was a long-running show with a lot of representation for lesbians – unfortunately, only a very specific subset of lesbian; the main characters are cis, wealthy, ‘lipstick’ lesbians. There is little diversity in The L Word and little sensitivity to other minority groups: trans women either don’t exist or are made fun of, and the trans masculine representation is supremely flawed.
However, it’s been 11 years since The L Word began airing and 6 since it finished: surely the state of queer representation has improved, right? It’s certainly spread – it’s a lot more common to see queer characters on shows (though usually one at a time), and shows like Glee have become the younger generation’s The L Word, with more than one queer character/issue/plotline at a time. The uncritical attitude toward representation hasn’t shifted in the same way: representation trumps other issues.
On the surface, Glee sounds ideal: a queer character in a cast of diverse ethnicities right off the bat, with more and more introduced throughout the seasons, including a Black trans woman by the third season. Glee has been lauded by media and thoroughly embraced by youth, queer or otherwise, as an example of a progressive show with good queer representation. Unfortunately, critical analysis of the series reveals its normative agenda and ideology.
Katherine Wolfenden’s article on Glee’s stereotypes and neoliberal flexibility provides a succinct and powerful summary and analysis of the problems with Glee as a show overall: specifically the way the show fails to challenge dominant thinking, social norms, and harmful ideologies. Glee is guilty of not only failing to deconstruct harmful systems like masculinity, but also of strengthening them by utilising lessons of acceptance and diversity to build these ideals into the hegemonic system (Wolfenden 2013). She does this using Robert McRuer’s notion of neoliberal flexibility, a model under which media, corporations, and normative majority populations can benefit from diversity, and under which minorities are tolerated and worked with instead of demonised. This model of flexibility does not guarantee positive and unproblematic representation, however: McRuer points out that in many representations
“disabled, queer figures no longer embody absolute deviance but are still visually and narratively subordinated, and sometimes they are elimated outright… heterosexual able-bodied characters in such texts work with queer and disabled minorities, flexibly contracting and expanding, while queer, disabled minorities flexibly comply” (McRuer 2006, 18)
Wolfenden sums it up nicely: “queer and disabled people appear in the media… so long as they are still subordinate to able-bodied, heterosexual characters” (Wolfenden 2013). In the case of Glee, it’d be easy to assume the minority characters on the show exist purely to provide a foil to the normative majority characters.
The first major example, used by Wolfenden in her article, is the treatment of Kurt, the effeminate gay boy in the show from the start, by the other characters – especially by the jocks, who perform hegemonic masculinity. Throughout the show Kurt is treated as one of the girls due to his sexuality and the effeminate masculinity he performs (both of which are implicitly equated by the show, another harmful societal norm reified but ignored in the desperate praise of both Kurt and his actor, Chris Colfer). Kurt’s brother, Finn, is a normative, heterosexual teenage boy: he’s the quarterback and is dating the HBIC-trope cheerleader. Finn is regularly called upon to protect Kurt, who is written to assume the role of the fragile, vulnerable, and effeminate gay boy, and when Finn inevitably gets past whichever societal barrier is preventing him from standing up for Kurt, he learns how to be a better man: not by example, but by protecting Kurt in the same way he would protect his girlfriend. This is made absolutely clear by his post-“manning up” speech performance of Bruno Mars’ Just The Way You Are, in which he sings both to Kurt and to Quinn, his girlfriend.
Two things are happening here. Firstly, the relationship between Kurt’s sexuality and his gender performance is emphasised and naturalised. Wolfenden points out that “Kurt may not be a manly man, but he can be understood and accepted as a functioning female” (Wolfenden 2013). Kurt cannot be accepted as a masculine gay man, but when he becomes one of the girls, he receives the acceptance and protection of his normative masculine brother. Secondly, and as a result of this, the show’s model of masculinity is shifted to include a form of tolerance – but a limiting and unchallenging one. Finn’s masculinity includes protecting Kurt – but Kurt as a gay man with an effeminate performed gender, as one of the girls. This leaves harmful notions of the sex/gender binary, of heteronormativity, of toxic masculinity, and of the exclusion of minorities untouched, unchallenged. It reifies the assumption that gay men are inferior, unable to perform masculinity appropriately, and that they are weaker and deserving of protection in the same way that women (who are also portrayed as inferior under this model) are.
The second major example of problematic representation involves the character of Unique Adams, a Black transgender woman introduced in season three. Right off the bat this character upholds harmful societal ideas about trans women: she is played by a cisgender male actor, an industry standard that leads to inaccurate and harmful portrayals, makes it extremely hard for trans women actresses to get work, and relies on the popular notion of the trans woman as “just a man in a dress”. Interestingly, Glee showrunner Ryan Murphy is also guilty of this in one of his other shows, American Horror Story: Freak Show, which features a transgender woman playing a ‘giant woman’ in the freakshow, the part of which was originally cast for a cisgender man (Leah 2014). The introduction of Unique was a step forward after no trans representation and the use of a transmisogynist slur in a season two episode about Rocky Horror. However, Unique’s character has very little to her, and simply becomes a foil for the other characters via the neoliberal flexibility discussed above, and a shell through which the show can explore gendered and race based discrimination (Sandercock 2015).
In her debut episode, Unique meets with Kurt and Mercedes, another Black woman. In this interaction and throughout her appearances, Unique is portrayed as aligned with and between these two characters – she is queer (by means of her gender, as she is straight – though Kurt immediately misassumes her to be a gay cisgender man) and Black. This is highlighted further as characters point out their similarities: one character can see no difference between Mercedes and Unique; another calls the two very similar nicknames; and Unique herself refers to herself as a love child of Mercedes and Kurt.
Keegan points out that transgender representations on screen (I would argue elsewhere, too) is reduced to emotive affect: “feeling bad” (Keegan 2013). This is necessary, under neoliberal flexibility, to represent queer characters while taking away their ability to embody deviance and thus challenge norms. McRuer discusses this necessity in the context of compulsory able-bodiedness:
“The culture asking [such questions as ‘wouldn’t you rather be hearing?’] assumes in advance that we all agree: able-bodied identities, ablebodied perspectives are preferable and what we all, collectively, are aiming for. A system of compulsory able-bodiedness repeatedly demands that people with disabilities embody for others an affirmative answer to the unspoken question, ‘Yes, but in the end, wouldn’t you rather be more like me?’” (McRuer 2006, 9)
This, I would argue, is the source of the ‘tragiqueer’ trope that pervades queer representation and harkens back to the lesbian pulps and earlier: queers in media don’t get happy endings, they don’t end up together, happily; they generally end in the death of at least one character. By representing queers as doomed to unhappiness, dominant forces prevent queer minorities from being able to challenge norms or provide an alternative to the hegemonic system.
Glee’s representation of Unique falls into this trope. Her storylines revolve around her trans identity and how it harms her or sets her back – the gendered school bathroom access storyline in season five gained positive media attention, but involved Unique being subject to transmisogynist violence which, in the real world, typically ends in a physical violence, often murder. The storyline is resolved when Unique is given access to a private faculty bathroom, but such a resolution only others and marginalises her further, instead of addressing the clear culture of transphobia and violence at the school.
One of Unique’s other major storylines involves romance – a topic that is typically a dangerous site for positive representation. Traci Abbott points out how “romantic contact stifled because the filmmaker fears the audience will read the trans character’s gender identity as inauthentic and the romance as transgressive” and that depictions of romance involving a trans character can “undermine the otherwise positive portrayal of the trans experience and reaffirm the dominant viewpoint that authentic gender is dependent upon birth sex rather than gender identity” (Abbott 2013, 34). It is worth noting that attraction of any kind to a trans person is fraught in our society, and the ‘deception’ that we seem to inherently embody is still grounds for the justification of murder in forty-nine out of fifty US states.
Unique’s romance plot is already housed in a tense context, then, and it sadly does nothing to challenge any of the ideological problems with the context. She plays the inaccurate trope of deceptive trans woman, pretending to be a thin, white, cisgender woman online in order to talk and flirt with a classmate, Ryder (another footballer), online. Via the persona of Katie, Unique helps Ryder to change his views towards her as well as his reliance on essentialism, an ideology inherently harmful to transgender people. However, as Sandercock points out, both Unique and ‘Katie’ express these views to him, but it is only Katie he considers seriously. This is as far as Unique and Ryder’s relationship progresses, with no on-screen intimacy involving Unique, only reifying Abbott’s trans/romance dilemma. Unique’s attempt at romance reinforces the trope of trans woman as deceptive, does not challenge heteronormative assumptions about sexuality and gender, and while it highlights Ryder’s racism in listening to Katie but not Unique, it does little further.
It’s easy to understand the urge to reach out and grab on to whatever representation you can find. Growing up with no reflections of yourself makes queer and trans identity formation hard. However, the uncritical cult of representation that we see in public discourse today is harmful. It’s all well and good for cis white queers – representations of them are less and less rare. But those representations are all too often paired with harmful representations of those marginalised within the queer community. Those representations are all too often utilised by the normative majority to justify their own positions. Perhaps what we need is a new L Word; one filled so thoroughly with minority representations that we no longer are the minority; one that does not utilise our representations to justify harmful normative ideals.
Abbott, Traci B. “The trans/romance dilemma in Transamerica and other films.” The Journal of American Culture, no. 36 (2013): 32-41.
Keegan, C.M. “Moving bodies: sympathetic migrations in transgender narrativity.” Genders, no. 57 (2013).
Keller, Yvonne. “”Was It Right To Love Her Brother’s Wife So Passionately?”: Lesbian Pulp Novels and US Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965.” American Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2005): 385-410.
Leah, Thomas. ‘AHS: Freak Show’ Transgender Actress Erika Ervin Is Changing Things on Television in a Big Way. 2014. http://www.bustle.com/articles/43406-ahs-freak-show-transgender-actress-erika-ervin-is-changing-things-on-television-in-a-big-way (accessed September 2015).
McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Sandercock, T. “Transing the small screen: loving and hating transgender youth in Glee and Degrassi.” Journal of Gender Studies 24, no. 4 (2015): 436-452.
Sedgewick, Eve Kosofsky. “‘The L Word’: Novelty in Normalcy.” Chronicle of Higher Education 50, no. 19 (2004): B10-B11.
Warn, Sarah. “Introduction.” In Reading the L Word: Outing Contemporary Television, edited by K Akass and J McCabe, 1-8. London: IB Tauris, 2006.
Wolfenden, Katherin. “Challenging Stereotypes in Glee, or Not? Exploring Masculinity and Neoliberal Flexibility.” Student Pulse 5, no. 2 (2013).