Lena Dunham’s hotly anticipated Girls is still the topic of the week, with bad and good reviews in every major and minor news outlet. In all the hubbub, I worry that we might have missed what was (for me at least) the most exciting moment of television in some time. Last week, Glee addressed being gender non-conforming through high school student and Vocal Adrenaline member Wade/Unique. Wade feels more at home when expressing his gender as feminine and the amazing Unique is definitely not the kind of girl who gets included in Girls.
Unique is played by Alex Newell, from last year’s Glee Project. Alex regularly performed in drag during the show. For example, he once wowed Ryan Murphy by singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls as Effie White, which may or may not have brought me to tears (I love that song!). He is truly talented and I loved him on the Glee Project (and on Glee for that matter). Sadly, he didn’t win the Glee Project, but I am grateful that Ryan Murphy saw his talent and cast him anyway—and I would LOVE to see more of him.
So here’s what happened on Glee last week: Wade asked Kurt and Mercedes whether he should perform as Unique in a Vocal Adrenaline show. The duo dissuades him from doing so, then persuades him (per Sue’s evil-ish influence), and then attempts to dissuade him again. The final dissuading, however, is unsuccessful, and Wade goes on to perform as Unique and wow the crowd. She sings, following the Disco themed episode, “Put on My Boogie Shoes.”
While Kurt and Mercedes briefly address the dangers inherent to Wade performing as Unique in public in Ohio, the conversation is quite brief. And, Unique’s apparent and overwhelming reception is perhaps unrealistic (but is also great). Indeed, Sue’s encouragement is based on her assumption that a performance by Unique will tank Vocal Adrenaline, hence her encouragement, but instead Unique wins the day. It is Glee after all, and this utopic response fits in well with the week’s lesson: that being yourself and having a dream will pay off.
For me, the most interesting part was the final moment before Unique took the stage, as Kurt and Mercedes try one last time to persuade Wade to perform as himself. However, Wade resists Kurt and Mercedes’ push for him to perform as a boy and with his resistance he pushes back on normative and prescriptive notions of gender. In this exchange, Glee suggests, I think, that Wade’s identity as a boy is a daily performance built and maintained to protect Unique from harm. Kurt seems confused and uncomfortable, for he, as Wade notes, has never felt discomfort or un-at home in his own body. Unique is not a performance of drag, as Kurt and Mercedes mistakenly believe. For Unique, to perform as herself is home.
While the episode and perhaps even the character is not perfect, Unique is one of the first positive representation (that I remember) of a gender non-conforming person (and teen) on network television, save perhaps for Isis, who is openly transgender, on last season’s America’s Next Top Model All Stars.
Glee’s position on network TV, which is a historically conservative institution and significantly more widely available than say HBO, for example, makes a representation of a character like Unique rather significant. I think it is important to make girls like Unique visible on television and in our culture more generally, and to celebrate them.
There is definitely more to say here–about race, gender, and sexuality–and I would love to hear what you GLG folks and Glee fans are thinking!