26 May 2010
Oriana Fox & Vikki Chalklin
The US musical comedy series Glee began airing on the Fox network in 2009 and has since become a worldwide phenomenon. The programme is about a high school singing club populated by mixture of adolescent ‘misfits’ and clichéd ‘popular’ kids such as the prissy gay boy, the chubby and outspoken black girl, a geeky wheelchair user and three vengeful cheerleaders. Building from the commercial success of TV talent competitions Pop Idol and X Factor, Glee also parodies films such as High School Musical and Bring It On.
The cast of teenage ‘outsiders’ enact an ambivalent relationship to mainstream stereotyping and identity politics, featuring a greater diversity of characters and minority representation of perhaps any other mainstream show, but also failing to avoid the common traps of representation when it comes to stereotyped roles, tokenism and the reduction of minority characters to their otherness. The diverse cast of Glee represents what Sara Ahmed (2008) calls the fiction of happy multiculturalism, whereby the promise of happiness through cultural interaction and diversity obscures the power relations and histories of violence behind them. Through its collection of minority characters, then, Glee presents an image of happy multiculturalism and achieved equality, wherein the reality of discrimination and inequality is obscured by the happy smiling faces of a diverse group of teenagers harmonising to sentimental classics like True Colours and Imagine.
Perhaps what is most compelling about Glee is the joy of hearing voices united in song. When we join together to sing the same song, we don’t completely deny our individuality because our particular voice adds to (or detracts from) the harmony of the chorus, and in order to blend and merge with the voices of others we have to conform by singing the same lyrics and melody. In this moment of seeming unity, some voices may inevitably be left out because they cannot carry the tune. Should the group change its song to include those voices that were previously out of range? Is there something revolutionary about the unified choral voice of Glee’s cast? Does losing ones boundaries lead to social liberation or just the denial of difference and hierarchy? Or is the liberatory moment radical because it can alter (rather than simply deny) power relations?