Hey all, I ended up changing my topic to the birth of character and problems with stereotypes in Glee and Community. Enjoy!
To describe them, Glee and Community really aren’t that different: charming, straight white male leads with kind of funny hair, leading a diverse group of misfits that along the way becomes their own community. When you look a little closer, however, they quickly diverge: on the one hand, you have an earnest and kind teacher who would do anything to see his students succeed, and a group of young people just trying to find their place in this world – or at least, high school. Also, they are a choir and they sing songs. On the other hand, you have a self-absorbed and snarky ex-lawyer who just wants to get a degree so he can get back to “exploiting the legal system for profit” and a group of people who have made some dubious decisions in their lives, and are now trying to figure out where the hell to go from here.
These are my two favorite new shows, and both well on their way to becoming some of my favorite shows, period (and I loved Roseanne, so watch out). I love both of these shows. However, I am surprised by the disparity in their receptions. Glee, the musical show about the scrappy show choir that could, has been getting rave reviews, and has cultivated a rather rabid fan base already, on the strength of only thirteen episodes (and, it must be admitted, two studio albums) (how many songs do they sing at sectionals, anyway?) while Community, the sitcom about the lovable community college losers has been almost uniformly panned, at least by people I know (by which I mean, almost everyone in both my Looking at and Writing for TV classes). I am also struck by how they both engage in media tropes to address pertinent social issues of identity and representation, in very different ways and to fairly different outcomes. I feel that the two are supremely related.
I’m going to be real here. I find Glee wildly problematic, not only in regard to structure but in regards to social commentary. I feel that its engagement with issues reinforces a cultural imperialism, where the actions of people outside the dominant culture are ruled by those who are white or straight or able bodied, or they are fit into constrictive stereotypes determined by the dominant culture. In my mind, Community is far superior. It is more intelligent, better written and more consistent than Glee, and it is so socially on point. However, for the sake of continued realness, I love Glee. I love Community too, but I really love Glee. I have all the music. I cry probably at least once an episode. What is it that is so engaging and lovable about this show? And why don’t people find Community to be equally as engaging?
I think it comes down to each show’s treatment of representation in regards to social expectations. Both shows utilize stereotype and trope. A trope refers to any recognizable cultural convention or device in fiction, used to communicate quickly and efficiently with an audience. I use stereotype to mean a standardized belief or expectation held about a certain social group. However, each show does so in a very different way that ultimately sums up each of their underlying messages and projected social outcomes.
Glee has often been criticized for its stereotypical characters. Its characters are representations we recognize, and the writers of Glee expertly fulfill our expectations of the stereotypes. They are fleshed out and made human, made accessible and real. They add depth to the stereotypes to make them fuller, and give them all a heart of gold: Rachel is still an obnoxious diva, but she has a heart of gold; Finn is still a dumb jock, but he has a heart of gold; Mercedes is still a sassy black girl, but she has a heart of gold. However, they each still fulfill the recognizable constructions we have been taught. It is their very familiarity that makes them so attractive. This is a problematic approach because is it ultimately socially static; it doesn’t look outside of what its characters are to what they could be, and so continues to barricade them in this strict and limiting roles. We like them because we understand who or what they are, but it is that which we recognize that is problematic.
The characters on Community are kind of like what is going to happen to the Glee kids after high school. Annie is motivated, neurotic and accomplished, much like Rachel, if Rachel’s motivation were to get her addicted to pills, then take her to rehab, where she loses her scholarship and ends up in community college. Troy is the star football player, like Finn, if Finn were to go on to dislocate both his shoulders during a keg flip, lose a football scholarship, and end up in community college. Pierce is like Puck, the lady’s man, at sixty, still trying to use the same moves on women now forty years younger than himself. Community takes the expected social construction of these characters and expertly subverts them, in the same way that Glee expertly fulfills them. It is affirmative in a way I rarely see on television. While Glee recognizes the stereotype and then writes the character to fulfill that stereotype, Community allows for its characters to be something other than they appear to be. They are not bound by expected tropes of their characters. Annie, the honor student, is also an ex-pill junkie. Troy, the dumb jock, is also an aspiring comedian. Abed, the person of color, is also a filmmaker. By subverting and going beyond the audience expectations of these stereotyped characters, Community has created both a space for comedy and a space for honest affection, where Glee breeds mere affectionate familiarity.
It is these methods of characterization and cultural representation that ultimately determine the messages sent by both Community and Glee. Glee suggests that we are all essentially separate; in the world of high school, social cliques are rigid and identity is fixed for you. The bounds of what one can be are limited. What Glee seems to suggest, however, is that regardless of our fundamental differences, we can all come together in peace and harmony. Community has a different, and to my mind, more refreshing message: in the end, we are all just people. It is funny, exciting and apparently off-putting because it subverts the stereotype, allowing each character to be more than their box. It recognizes the capacity of humans for multiple identities, and represents people navigating those identities. How healthy would it be to live in a world where we all were allowed to represent all sides of ourselves equally, and not have to pick a stereotype to fulfill? To be judged on the basis of our character, rather than on any of our identities. Glee presents a familiar future, one we feel comfortable imagining. It’s something we have been hearing our whole lives. Community presents a world more alien, less known, more progressive. It might not be as warm and fuzzy, but it is the future I want to see, and with any luck, someday will.
The reception of these two shows suggests that people are not yet comfortable with the idea of post-identity, that it is easier and perhaps preferable to them to have these tags to help them identify or recognize people? It makes it feel as though there is so much more to learn about a person, but how many can we really learn from equating a person to a stereotype? If identities are constructed for us, and no one can fully fulfill a stereotype, can they actually tell us anything about who a person really is? Perhaps on television there simply is not enough time to get to know people in such a comprehensive way; that is, after all, the purpose of the trope. They provide useful starting points for characters. Community is allowing their characters to move beyond the stereotypes into more fully developed people, while Glee is allowing their characters to enrich the stereotype they embody. Ultimately, however, a stereotype is limited, and without allowing a character to move beyond the bounds of what is permitted for their stereotype, the character will stop growing and stagnate.