thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Glee, Gay Bullying, Silence, Suicide, and Speaking Out

In Glee, violence on February 22, 2012 at 6:49 pm

Phoebe B.

The winter finale of Glee put teen bullying in the spotlight, focusing on the suicide attempt of former bully-turned-sweetheart David Karofsky. Karofsky, a former McKinley High football player, once wreaked havoc on Kurt’s daily life—Karofsky violently and oppressively bullied Kurt, ultimately causing him to briefly change schools (to the private school Dalton). However, it is revealed in the course of the series that Karofsky is in fact gay, a realization for him which prompted and perpetuated his bullying of Kurt. Last week, Karofsky announced his crush on Kurt, which was overheard (and seen) by his football buddy, which begins his forced outing, subsequent bullying, and suicide attempt. Amidst discussion of Tennessee’s proposed prohibition of the word “gay,” Glee argues quite loudly about the dangers of that kind of constructed and oppressive silence—as Rolling Stone did a few weeks ago in “One Town’s War on Gay Teens.”

Teens who are queer, questioning, gay, lesbian, transgender, or not cisgendered face the distinct danger of both real and emotional violence. This point is driven home by Karofsky after his suicide attempt as he talks to Kurt in the hospital. Karofsky says that his mother thinks he has a disease or that there is something wrong with him that could be curable—an experience he shares with Santana, whose grandmother kicks her out of the house after she comes out. With hateful language directed at him on Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, and on his locker, Karofsky lives in an environment where violence is inescapable and no place is safe. Glee does not shy away from the very real violence that pushed Karosfky to attempt suicide. Indeed, Kurt tells the prayer group that people on Facebook are still demanding he try again, as he explains the differences between Quinn’s experience as a pregnant teen and his and Karofsky’s experiences as gay teens in small-town Ohio. Kurt counters Quinn’s notion that suicide is purely selfish as he explains the fear and sense of clear and ever-present danger faced by out gay teens and even adults. He explains how suicide might feel like the only safe place amidst the violence and abuse, the only place away from the self-loathing, and a consequence of the isolation felt by Karofsky.

Karofsky's dad finds him after his suicide attempt

The episode references the suicide pandemic recently detailed by Rolling Stone. The article suggests that the consequences of a prescribed silence on anything deemed not-heteronormative isolated students and ultimately led, in Minnesota, to the rash of teen suicides. Indeed, in this Glee episode Principal Figgins suggests that the faculty must be careful to avoid multiple suicides in the aftermath of Karofsky’s attempt. And then, in that scene, teachers from Mr. Schuester to Sue Sylvester wonder what they could have done to prevent Karofsky’s suicide attempt. They wonder if it was in fact their responsibility to talk to him or to have intervened earlier. Mr. Schuester reminds the group that they had worried for Kurt’s safety, which was why they came down so hard on Karofsky, but Sue interjects that she knew something was up and she should have said something. Emma ends the conversation and the scene with the question: if it wasn’t our responsibility, then whose was it? Emma suggests here, I think, the ways in which teachers ought to protect their students and the ways in which the ability of teachers to speak to their students freely can create a safer and less lonely space.

The episode foregrounds the importance of language and community in addressing gay teen bullying, bullying more generally, and the ways in which words (in all media and real world formats) can be both violent and a saving grace. To this end, we see Mr. Schuster take up this charge in his conversations with the glee club during this episode. Indeed, this episode takes a page straight out of the “It Gets Better Project” as Mr. Schuester sits the Glee club in a circle, reveals that he too once considered suicide (granted it was because he was caught cheating, so not quite the same as what Karofsky is dealing with), and asks all the glee members to volunteer things they are looking forward to in life. We see how important it is for teachers and students—LGTBQQI and straight alike—to speak out loud about their fears, and how open discussion can save lives. Through his own life example, Mr. Schuester suggests the very message of the “It Gets Better Project,” telling the kids all the great things he would have missed out on had he ended his own life as a teen. And importantly, we even get an adult image of the ways in which it does get so much better for gay teens in Rachel’s dads, who have finally (thank goodness) appeared on the show (and one of her dads’ is played by Jeff Goldblum! What’s not to love?).

Rachel and her dads sing a pre-dinner song

Meanwhile, in the hospital, Kurt offers Karofsky his (non-romantic) friendship and suggests a friendship as a support network, like Kurt has found in both the glee club and his own family. This friendship and this ability to speak freely, the episode suggests, will allow Karofsky to grow up. The Tennessee “don’t say gay” law and the silence it endorses would prohibit the kind of support offered by Kurt, Mr. Schuester, and the glee club. I must admit that Kurt has long been a character I admired (and I love his voice oh so much) and this episode reminded me exactly why.

While Glee is often problematic, this episode loudly (and with songs) asserts the dangers of legalizing “don’t say gay” and legally attaching stigma to LGBTQQI youth and adults, which is it seems what the Tennessee law aims to do by pronouncing a moratorium on the word ‘gay.’ On Glee, we get the reverse of this moratorium and instead get a plethora of songs in response to and in solidarity with Karofsky. As the glee club responds to Karofsky’s suicide attempt through various songs—awesomely including Nicki Minaj and Santana rapping—they create a loud voice of support for Karofsky and a safe space for him and other kids like him. The episode argues that language and the community space enabled by it are absolutely necessary in order to create safe spaces of resistance against violence.

Glee club performing at regionals seemingly for Karofsky

We rarely see stories about gay, queer, questioning, or transgender teens on television. And when we do, we mostly witness a rough coming-out experience followed by the sense that everything is fine thereafter (like Emily on Pretty Little Liars). What Glee suggests, and Pretty Little Liars does not, is the very real danger of coming out for teens and adults alike in this country. Coming out is not always an act of language, nor is it always voluntary, and in a country that still harbors extreme prejudice coming out can put people’s lives, jobs, and well-being at risk. Importantly, this is not a problem specific to Tennessee; rather, it is a national one.

One of the formative media memories of my childhood was the beating and death of Matthew Shepard. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was 21 and a student at the University of Wyoming when he was hung up on a fence in Laramie, WY. He was beaten and left to die by two men who had offered him a ride home from a bar. Matthew Shepard’s death received national and international news coverage, brought visibility and attention to anti-gay hate crimes, and helped enact new legislation. Then, I remember hearing about the play (and later HBO film) The Laramie Project, which in every performance demanded continued visibility for, and conversation about, Matthew Shepard.

I am lucky enough that all my close friends from middle and high school—LGBTQQI and straight alike—made it through our teen years alive and healthy, and without much bullying to speak of. But this experience ought to have nothing to do with luck. And I am often scared by the dangers posed by silence, the continued presumption of heterosexuality as the norm, and the violence committed in the name of heteronormativity. While network TV does not often tackle the political issues head on, this particular episode of Glee does. And it makes the clear and incredibly important argument for the importance of language, the trouble with silence, and the need for community. I will say, about this week’s episode, that I was frustrated (spoiler alert) by Quinn’s car accident (while texting) which ends the episode and presumably stops Rachel and Finn’s marriage, because it felt like it diluted the power of the episode’s anti-bullying narrative drive. But, for all Glee’s problems—and oddly, on the most conservative of networks—it is breaking the violent silence surrounding LGBTQQI teens, broadcasting the importance of language and a community that crosses lines of race, gender, and sexuality loud and clear. And Glee asserts that this fight is not one just for LGBTQQI youth and adults, but must involve straight allies as well.

For more of what is going on in Tennessee:

And on silence and teachers, from the It Gets Better Project:

  1. Phoebes! Your terrific post got me thinking about how (as you say) music and singing enables conversations and pushes conversations forward on Glee. In a lot of ways it seems like this was the ideal forum to address homophobic silencing, because music is such an undeniable way to get heard. When ten teenagers break into song in the middle of the cafeteria or in the schoolyard, they’re impossible to ignore. Song’s the anti-silence.

    • Thanks, Sarah!! And I definitely agree that song on Glee almost always functions to assert community against a sort of oppressor (be it the football team and their slushy throwing or Kurt’s bullying, etc), which I think is a really interesting use of song as community. And I agree that song certainly functions as the anti-silence and sometimes even gets people outside the club to participate, like when they sing on the bleachers or in the cafeteria, which creates community outside the club too …

  2. Great post, Phoebe! I’m enjoying reading the work you all are doing here.

    I definitely agree with you and Sarah that songs function as an interesting form of anti-silence in this series, and if we go back to Season 1 where Kurt comes out to his dad, dance does too. The style of dance used in Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” and throughout the episode “Preggers” when Kurt gets the football team to dance is called J-Setting and it has an important connection both to football (it started as a dance done by the cheerleaders in the stands) and to the gay community in the south (who later took up the style and performed it in clubs). During the game at the end of the episode, the football players don’t use the typical “lead and follow” structure of J-Setting, but including this particular kind of dance at Kurt’s suggestion, so to speak, allows him to have agency in showing the world who he really is — an identity that, of course, will cause him to be bullied by Karofsky and others later on, but he always rises above them (as he does in this episode).

    Too bad that J-Setting (or something like it) hasn’t made a return in the series yet… and, in fact, the dancing as of late has returned to the strict male/female binary that we often see in partnered dancing (guys dancing with girls, or when the guys dance in a group together, they enact overtly masculine roles). At least the music still has the potential to push important conversations forward, as Sarah pointed out!

    • thanks for this great reply, Katherine! And I didn’t know that about dance and think it is really interesting and that moment in season one with Beyonce is really great and interesting. And I agree with what you’re saying in terms of the ways in which dance on the show is most often, these days, the boy/girl set-up, or just a group moving behind one singer, or it seems like dance has taken a backseat on Glee, after the series of episodes that break-up the Glee club for a bit (when Mr. Shuester forces certain people to take classes), which also means that some of the more interesting characters like Britney and Mike Chang have not been as apparent (and I really love both of them). But as you and Sarah say, at least song is definitely still functioning as a way to build community and intervene in important conversations …

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