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.

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.