Miscellaneous / News / Opinion

Glee series chokes

Coach Roz reprimands the girls after hearing their comment about Bieste’s black eye.

By: Shannon Clarke

Feature image via Glee Fan Site

Glee, like any good cultural phenomenon, is a polarizing program. The same music theatre comedy that was nominated for award after award halfway through its first season is now battling serious backlash following another half-hearted “PSA style” episode. This time, the topic was domestic violence.

Almost immediately after “Choke” aired on May 1 (both a reference to chickening out at an important moment and a chilly reference to assault) critics took to their blogs to ask if the show had gone too far.

After football coach, Shannon Bieste (Dot-Marie Jones) walks through the hallway with a black eye, sharp-tongued cheerleader Santana (Naya Rivera) makes a joke about her, saying “looks like Mr. Bieste went all Chris Brown on Mrs. Bieste.”

Cheerleading coach, Roz Washington (NeNe Leakes) overhears and chastises the group for laughing about domestic violence. It’s fair criticism. Using Brown’s assault on Rihanna (an artist who has been covered on the show, by the way) as a “joke” is distasteful and disrespectful but it happens. It didn’t take long, for people to forget that her story wasn’t just an isolated, tabloid story about celebrities — it’s a real issue and will continue to be no matter how many Grammys Brown receives or how often the two collaborate.

Coach Roz refuses to let the flippant comment about violence against women go, and teams up with Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) and Coach Bieste to teach the Glee girls about the gravity of violence against women. They also give them their assignment for the week: to perform songs about female empowerment.

This in and of itself isn’t the problem —though, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective to relate the issue back to high school and dating violence. The problem is this storyline, in all its seriousness, was given the usual Glee treatment. That is, hardly any.

Bieste’s story, a story about domestic violence, is thrown in with storylines about Puck (Mark Salling) who may not graduate and whose friends must help him cram for a test and Rachel (Lea Michele) and Kurt (Chris Colfer) preparing for their college auditions.  This, says television blogger and Huffington Post writer Joey DeAngelis, is where Glee’s good intentions often fail.

“When such a serious storyline is told adjacent to, say, Rachel and Finn trying to get married and complaining about getting married, then it seems almost offensive. It makes it seem like they are of equal caliber, which they most certainly are not.”

At its core, Glee is a comedy. It’s how it manages to get away with blatantly stereotyping its cast and the more ridiculous storylines. But it has also prided itself on the central theme of acceptance, and, has charted its characters for three seasons as they navigate high school on the fringes. This often includes more “serious” storylines.

But Glee has an awful habit of dropping these “real issues” in and yanking them out, hardly ever returning to them again. Entire issues are introduced and abandoned in a single episode, thus minimizing their importance.

“Choke” certainly left an open ending to Bieste’s story but if past storylines are any indication, it seems unlikely. Not four episodes ago a recurring character attempted suicide — and the trauma of that lasted until the end of the episode. The following episode, “Prom-asaurus “ was about impending graduation. Coach Bieste didn’t make an appearance, and it included an almost physical altercation between Finn (Cory Monteith) and ex-girlfriend Quinn (Dianna Agron).

The show’s writers and editors also make unusual editorial decisions when dealing with these issues, as was the case with this episode. Coach Roz, whose disgust with Santana’s joke inspires that week’s assignment, asks Coach Bieste why she “didn’t just hit him back.”

It seems odd that the same person, who explained that she has some experience with domestic violence and has witnessed how hard it is to leave abusive relationships, would say something so classically insensitive. Survivors of domestic violence are often asked why they didn’t fight back, or leave.

The episode also seems conflicted over its treatment of women. While Coach Roz is encouraging female empowerment, Puck sexually harassing his geography teacher for a passing grade is treated for laughs. Bieste’s final scene (arguably the most emotional of the episode), is immediately followed by Kurt calling the college judge (guest-star Whoopi Goldberg) a bitch.

But this likely won’t be the end of Glee or their attempt at “serious” issues. Kurt’s experience with gay bashing was developed over several episodes and seasons. Santana’s outing was shorter and had more holes but was also a multi-episode storyline.

Hopefully this wasn’t another flash in the pan plotline. The topic deserves more respect and attention than the twenty minutes it received.

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