Praising Glee doesn’t come naturally to me, at least not anymore. Attaining cultural juggernaut status after its first nine darkly comedic episodes was the worst thing that could happen to Glee quality-wise, and it’s been an unfortunate mess of morals and misplaced “edginess” ever since. The worst thing about current Glee, though, is the fact that there are still some brilliant moments hidden amongst all the chaos…and they usually air right after I’ve said something along the lines of, “NEVER AGAIN!! ME AND GLEE ARE FINISHED!!!” Go figure.
But my love-hate relationship with Glee has never been tested more than with last week’s episode, “Sexy.” When I heard Gwyneth Paltrow’s Hip to Your Jive Holly Holliday would be back as a sex ed teacher to educate the glee club, I assumed the worst—and for the most part, I got it. There were a few well-played jokes about the horrific state of sex education in the U.S. today (the reactions to Brittany seeing a stork outside her window and assuming she was pregnant were priceless), but the actual “education” presented in the episode was…problematic.
Sexalicious Tumbleweed Holly and Pristine Virgin Guidance Counselor Emma spent the episode pitted against each other Black Swan style, each pushing forward their respective sex education agendas while managing to teach nothing at all. While Holly gave out condoms and writhed on chairs to the tune of Joan Jett, the writers decided that Emma needed to backslide into her first season intimacy issues. What’s more, the episode ends as Emma’s marriage does. In other words: what a frigid prude, ammirite?!
Any effectiveness Emma’s fear of sex and subsequent pressuring her students to abstain might have had was undermined by the fact that Glee decided instead to make her look completely foolish. Holly may have been onto something with her, “expecting teenagers not to have sex is unrealistic” stance, but the fumbled handling of Emma’s storyline was enough to muddle the overall message. By the episode’s end with all the glee kids sitting in Celibacy Club, I actually had no idea what the episode was trying to tell me about sex education. That it happens, unless it doesn’t? Who even knows.
BUT: the other half of “Sexy” was handled beautifully. Kurt’s dad gave his son a sex talk that was both compassionate and realistic, ending with this:
“Kurt, when you’re ready, I want you to be able to … do everything. But when you’re ready, I want you to use it as a way to connect to another person. Don’t throw yourself around like you don’t matter. ‘Cause you matter, Kurt.”
The inclusion of “I want you to be able to do everything” made this speech not one about discounting Kurt engaging in more casual hookups, but one about him assessing himself and what he wants. It was also refreshing to have a sex talk specifically about safe gay sex, which is usually only vaguely addressed. Sex talks on TV also tend to be depressingly black and white, so this kind of nuanced discussion was a pleasant surprise.
But the hands-down winner of “Sexy” was one Ms. Santana Lopez. Santana and her best friend Brittany’s physically intimate relationship has been played for laughs since day one. “They’re not attracted to each other,” the show seemed to be saying, “they’re just promiscuous.” And that was true: Brittany and Santana were the male characters’ go-to hookups, and both girls seemed to readily accept these roles.
But something funny happened along the way: it became clear that Brittany and Santana’s friendship is perhaps the strongest, deepest one there is on Glee. I didn’t have high hopes for the show itself realizing this, since its creator Ryan Murphy told a reporter asking about the Brittany/Santana relationship that Glee wasn’t “that kind of show.” What kind of show was it, I thought, that Kurt’s storyline could be so prominent while a potential queer women storyline languished in the background? Disappointed, I moved on.
Enter Santana Lopez in “Sexy”. While Holly and Emma faced off as two-dimensional female tropes of sexuality, Santana came to the stunning realization that she was in love with her female best friend, and she tackled it head on. She absorbed it, she steeled herself, she went up to Brittany and she laid it all on the line:
“What I’ve realized is why I’m such a bitch all the time—I’m a bitch because I’m angry. I’m angry because I have all of these feelings, feelings for you, that I’m afraid of dealing with…because I’m afraid of dealing with the consequences….I want to be with you. But I’m afraid of the talks, and the looks….I’m so afraid of what everyone will say behind my back. Still, I have to accept that I love you. I love you, and I don’t want Sam or Finn or any of those guys. I just want you. Please say you love me back.”
Never in a million years did I think Glee would give this storyline this kind of gravity. I had accepted that Glee would continue to champion its gay boy storylines while its clearly queer women languished in Gimmickland, but wow, did this episode change things. I was especially surprised when Santana responded to Rachel applauding her and Brittany’s “sapphic” relationship by insisting on not having her sexuality labeled; there just aren’t that many TV characters who insist that they are neither gay nor straight, but just who they are. To have queerness addressed in a serious way on a show as high-profile as Glee is a huge deal.
So where does Glee stand? Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Every week brings such a mixed bag of insightful and disappointing that predicting how the show will treat a storyline is to pretty much throw caution to the winds. I can only hope that Glee will remember its more effective, three-dimensional moments, and strive to repeat those rather than the shallow female stereotypes that almost made me quit.
(For a fantastic discussion of Santana and her queerness, check out Autostraddle’s recap of “Sexy” here.)