Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Ana Marie Cox: "Glee," Sincerity, and the Maine Gay Marriage Repeal

GLEEKING OUTAvril Lavigne songs don't make me cry. Except this morning, listening to the new "Glee" soundtrack: as I was thinking about the lost battle for marriage equality in Maine, the cast's cover of "Keep Holding On" started streaming through my headphones. I lost it.

I confess that prior to hearing the song on the show, ALL I knew about it was that Avril sung it. Kids like her, right? Oh, and it's the fucking theme to fucking Eragon.

The lyrics have some relevance to how many who support marriage equality are feeling about the Maine vote: "Keep holding on / because you know we'll make it through," "You're not alone / together we'll stand," "With you by my side / I'll fight and defend," etc. But then again, that kind of generic underdogism is also appropriate to dueling dragons or lovelorn fairies or men in tights or whatever Eragon was about. It's a fucking pop song-the lyrics are scientifically designed to be relevant to 99% of everyone who listens to it. What kind of lame-ass, earnest sap actually believes it's about THEIR OWN LIFE?


Teenagers like the ones portrayed in "Glee." Indeed, in the episode featuring the Ohio high school club's performance of the song, the show choir sings it as a tribute to one of its beleaguered members: the pregnant Quinn, freshly ejected from the cheerleading squad. There's no subtlety in the scene; they sing "keep holding on" and, by golly, they grab each others' hands. The brightness of their voices evinces a belief in triumph of friendship that would be treacly if not for the series' equally convincing portrayal of adolescence's (and adolescents') emotional brutality.

The show's mix of unpleasant realism about the experience of being a teenager (especially a social outcast-though, really, what teenager doesn't secretly believe that he or she is a social outcast?) and buoyant, enthusiastically impractical musical numbers probably accounts for why "Glee" has succeeded where other attempts at mixing television serials and music ("Cop Rock," "Viva Laughlin") have missed.

Adolescence is a time of such heightened reality, such acutely felt emotion-he didn't ask you out, LIFE IS OVER; your mom grounded you, YOU COULD DIE-that teenagers can seamlessly accommodate fantasy. Just as teens have the elastic imaginations required to fully enjoy the thrill of slasher films, they're the ideal, though the not-as-yet-fully-capitalized, audience for musical theater. (Though thanks to the "High School Musical" franchise and the rebooted "Fame," we may soon see a market rush.) The same emotional logic-and sense of personal drama-propels both the belief that somebody's going to kill the girl who goes running up the stairs when she should go running out the door and the belief that, yeah, maybe the cafeteria will just break into song.

This idea may get tested in the second half of the season, when Joss Whedon, the guy that successfully combined both horror and musical genres in his "Once More, With Feeling" episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and in his viral web series "Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog," directs an episode of "Glee." Arguably, the character of sadistic cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester-she's the one who boots Quinn-obviates the need for him to fold in any less fantastic monsters.

Bruno Bettelheim wrote that children need fairy tales and their creatures of myth in order to help them learn how to deal with figures like Sue. Her intense misanthropy and flabbergasting cruelty ("I empower my Cheerios to live in fear by creating an environment of irrational, random terror.") generate laughs via hyperbole but also, I think, because they strike a chord of recognition. If you were ever a teenager, someone's words or actions once hurt as badly as Sue's wound her victims-and you may not have had a back-up chorus to make you feel better later.

It may be that the comfort that "Glee"'s main characters provide for each other (including the gay one) explains the resonance the show has had in gay culture just as much as the musical numbers. I think that must explain the resonance the show has for me. I'm not gay. I have friends and family who are, and, for me, Glee dramatizes what happens when you finally accept yourself for who are, and what you feel when others accept you too.

At this year's Human Rights Campaign gala, the actors from "Glee" were featured guests. I've been a little too embarrassed, until now, to admit the degree to which I got stalkery with them. I still can't quite allow myself to go into details but suffice it to say I think a PR person may have taken a cell phone picture of me for future, restraining-order purposes.

Recounting the eagerness with which I approached the actors-who were all, to a person, exceptionally gracious about the tipsy redhead with tears in her eyes-I realized that I hadn't been alone in my quest to tell the young guests how much their show meant to me… and that the intensity of fandom probably had seemed strange not just because, well, it's odd to have strangers offer up such testimony, but because the show's actors are from a generation for whom being a gay teenager is just another hardship. The show itself is scrupulous in refusing to make the trials of its gay character overweeningly more torturous than the obstacles faced by its handicapped character or its pregnant character or its Jewish characters.

In the world of "Glee," being gay sucks, yeah, like being fat or skinny, or tall or short, or a member of the glee club or a member of the chess team. It sucks in that being DIFFERENT sucks.

For now, that's not the world most gay people live in, it's true. Tuesday's decision in Maine underscores that. But maybe, if we keep holding on, it WILL get better. I'll take your hand, we WILL make it through. We WILL fight and defend… Oh fuck.

You get the idea.

Ana Marie Cox is a national correspondent for Air America.

28 Comments / Post A Comment

HiredGoons (#603)

"Different from what?" is what I always ask people.

That's what I always ask them.

mathnet (#27)

Different from MLB fans, for the past two weeks.

HiredGoons (#603)

…but actually I lurv baseball, but THAT much.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Imagine trying to endure this paradigm during a generation in which we had only Carly Simon.

slinkimalinki (#182)

i had it so much better with wilson phillips.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I don't know if we're talking the same generation, but mine had Carole King also, before sliding as if on cue into the Smiths and the Cure.

Rod T (#33)

Ya' know who's different? Maggie Gallagher of NOM is different. After having a child out of wedlock, she married a man outside her own race. And now she profiteers the so-called "marriage movement". Should I go to her Westchester home and sing her a fucking song? Perhaps a Peaches/Avril Lavigne mashup?

ProfessorBen (#1,254)

So, I've been pondering an idea since it was forcefully made here (and highlighted by Dan Savage):

The idea is that we just stop engaging referenda – declare them unethical (needing a majority to support a minority): "We can declare the current process a disgusting and humiliating insult to our humanity and opt out of all future referendums. The movement would make the case to the nation why such votes are anathema to American values and in the process educate people about our families and quest for equality. A powerful campaign of continued and sustainable civil disobedience would have to supplement this strategy."

When you're down 0-31, doesn't some change in strategy seem warranted? I can't imagine this actually occurring – no state would want to be first, there are too many entrenched politician/activists, etc. But the creative minds that bring you things like Glee can be more creative in other ways too….

Bitzy (#1,913)

1-31. Go Washington State!

beingiseasy (#1,735)

I made this point yesterday in a post I wrote (if you want to read it, check it out here: if not, well, I'll summarize)
How can we depend on a majority to give rights to a minority, when historically, this has failed so so miserably? I think the change in strategy needs to be to abandon the fight for winning over the populace and taking up the same fight that the NAACP did in the first half of the century, essentially winning proxy courts cases on a state-level, establishing precedent, and then bringing is the US Supreme Court. There's an obvious caveat to that and it's the conservative bent of the Supreme Court right now but if there is enough precedent it will work, right?…right?

Abe Sauer (#148)

And, given blue-state Maine's 10-15 point average margin of victory in recent Presidential elections, Democrats!

Abe Sauer (#148)

meant for Mathnet, above.

mathnet (#27)

(up in heaven)

tankengine (#1,835)

good for you for acknowledging the fuzzy feelings a few teenagers singing about life's hardships can give. you, in blogger terms, are different.

it's not a matter of if for teenagers it's a matter of when. I think that's the strongest thought in their head… "what will happen WHEN"… (panic!!!)

as for gay rights it's not a matter of if but when. civil rights were not accepted by states they were forced on states. people should never be given a vote in matters of person freedoms and rights. it's obvious to everyone that gays should be able to marry it's just a matter of when will there be so many that are already married that we have to do something about it.

LondonLee (#922)

Obvious to everyone that gays should be able to marry? You haven't met my in-laws, or half of America apparently.

Eureka Street (#1,349)

Hey gay Maine couples — Yes/No: You want your marriage annulled? No? Well we're putting it to a vote. We'll let you know what you decide.

if we're gonna get all earnest, i always liked the spanish poster:
roughly translated, it says:
im a whore
im black
im a fag
im an arab
im a wetback
im a woman.

you are the "different" one, dumbass

HiredGoons (#603)

The problem is there are more people vehemently OPPOSED to Geigh Mawwage than there are vehemently FOR it. Most people, I don't think, really give two hoots either way and, as it doesn't affect them, they're not going to go out of their way to vote for it.

Eureka Street (#1,349)

Exactly. Even people who give more than the average amount of hoots don't vote. Compulsory voting, folks. It's the only way.

garge (#736)

It's mean to make the anarchists cry.

Also, a voting holiday would be nice.

It's interesting – a coworker was telling me that she thought we were going to have to wait several years to see real change because we need a lot of the old people with deeply-ingrained homophobia and a penchant for voting every.single.time. to die off. Morbid, yes, and I'm still not sure what to think of that angle. In an off-year election, though, I'm wondering how much of what just happened in Maine can be attributed to olds and crazies vs. the "today is election day?" normals.

HiredGoons (#603)

A little from column A, a little from column B.

iplaudius (#1,066)

Your coworker is right, but we have to keep up the good fight to keep it in the fore of cultural consciousness and on the political burners.

The old people will die, voting patterns will change as the younger generations become old enough to vote, the referenda against gay marriage will be undone, and everyone will look back and say, "OMG, I can't believe people voted for separate-but-equal! Such bigots!"

At that point, conservatives will have moved on to another issue, probably related to stem cells and cloning technology.

Abe Sauer (#148)

You are dead on. Here's some nifty data supporting that.
Seeing the 65+ markers.. it's like dealing with the 65+ block for suffrage in, say, 1923

anamariecox (#2,144)

I just want to point out that I had assumed that Choire would add the GLEE version of the song to this piece, but upon seeing the Eragon-themed version I have to admit it is MUCH gayer than anything in Glee. Also if someone could do a mash-up of the two versions, THAT would be extra-gay!

michelle (#2,154)

You hit all the right notes, Ana Marie :)

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