Glee, Fox's new program about a high school show choir, is either brilliant or complete garbage. If the viewer approaches the show as a satire, it takes sharp aim at the teen dramedy genre and is a great send-up of the high school social structure. If taken more seriously, however, it's a mess of screeching one-note characters and reinforces unnecessary stereotypes.
The cast was obviously crafted to be a virtual salad bar of diversity. The titular Glee Club features an African-American girl, Mercedes; an Asian girl, Tina; a gay boy, Kurt; and a boy in a wheelchair, Artie. Unfortunately, I say "features" in the loosest sense of the term, considering that these characters are either full-on stereotypes or are devoid of defining characteristics aside from their appearance. The black girl is overweight, so she has to be just as sassy and fabulous as the gay boy! They both love Beyonce! He also loves Marc Jacobs! Did I mention how fabulous they are?
As for Tina and Artie, they're lucky if they get one or two throwaway lines per episode. I had to Google their names because they've had so little screen time in the six episodes that have aired so far, despite being marketed as major characters. This is understandable considering the size of the ensemble cast, but at the rate this is going, I can't wait to see Tina driving to SAT boot camp in a car with a Hello Kitty steering wheel cover. However, one of the more minor Glee Club members is an Asian football player. While it's certainly a change to see an Asian male in a conventionally masculine role, he has even less of a presence than Tina.
Out of these minority characters, Kurt has received the most in-depth characterization, featuring heavily in the fourth episode. Kurt might fit better under the generally queer umbrella, considering that he has exhibited some potentially trans leanings, such as a preference for women's clothing and aligning with the girls in a battle of the sexes. Played off the right way, this character could be a statement regarding the idea that all homosexual men are extremely effeminate. Unfortunately, the show isn't gutsy enough to blatantly challenge the stereotype, and viewers are left questioning Glee's intentions. Considering that the actor who plays Kurt is homosexual and the role was written specifically for him, it may be inferred that the character is supposed to be a mockery of the archetype, but the show hasn't yet made this obvious. While there are certainly some gay men who love designer clothing and decorate their homes like Ikea showrooms, it's about time to move on from constantly perpetuating this image of flamboyance. Kurt could be used to deconstruct these previously established ideas, but the actor's personal connection to the character lends an earnest quality to the portrayal that cannot be ignored. Regardless, we cannot expect a single character to represent an entire community, and any and all presence of LGBTQ characters on American television shows the progress of the public mindset.
While the portrayals of minorities may be passed off as being clever satire, the female characters on Glee get an even worse deal. For the most part, they are manipulative, whiny, and generally unsympathetic. Terri, the wife of the Glee Club's coach, is the worst of them. She is possessive and demanding, faking a pregnancy when she believes that her husband Will's interest in her may be waning and taking a job at the high school in order to keep an eye on him. To complete her plans, she intends to adopt a baby from Quinn, the head cheerleader and president of the Celibacy Club. Quinn has her own set of issues; she tells her boyfriend that she has had a miraculous hot tub pregnancy rather than owning up to breaking the Celibacy Club's vows with his best friend. While her fear is understandable, the lying does nothing to help her previously established image as a bully. The only other female student who has had serious character development is Rachel, the star of the Glee Club. While she is talented, ambitious, and strong-willed, this is overshadowed by her desire to constantly be in control and at the center of attention. Her diva behavior builds up to the point where another character announces, "That Rachel girl makes me want to set myself on fire." Also forceful is the cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester. She may advocate caning and general cruelty, but at least her character is distinctly approached as being an over-the-top caricature. It is made clear to the audience that Sue has no purpose other than to be a force of unflinching evil, and she accomplishes this to hilarious effect. Sue's foil is Emma, the school's twee, delicate guidance counselor whose main characteristics are germophobia and a backbone deficiency. While Emma is the most endearing of the lot, she is not genuinely likable enough to compensate for the others.
Glee is still a new show, but it's about time for it to decide which direction it's going in. Viewers can only hope that it will fulfill its smart, witty potential instead of snowballing into pure superficiality.
For more, see Bitch Magazine's take and The Advocate's interview with actor Chris Colfer.