High schoolers singing show tunes and renditions of Fleetwood Mac, a white guy rapping “Bust a Move,” teenage dramas about love lost and lead solos… Who would watch this premise? Pretty much everyone it seems. Glee’s post Super Bowl episode drew 26.8 million viewers and its weekly average hovers around 9 to 10 million viewers.
So what’s so special about this group of high schoolers living in Lima, Ohio? To use Sue Sylvestor’s — world-reknown cheerleading coach of Cheerios squad — roll call, “Santana. Wheels. Gay kid. Asian. Other Asian. Aretha. Shaft.”
Has Ohio always had this many minorities in one school? In the small group of 12 or so students participating in show choir two are Jewish, two are Asian, two are black (in the first season), two are gay (in the second season, only one openly so), one Latina and one is paralyzed from the waist down.
The brilliance of the of Glee is in its use of stereotypes, where it layers not only adult perceptions — both Asian’s are on the academic decathlon team — with traditional high school labels like nerd, jock, goth, and diva. Can you have a goth Asian girl? A Jewish jock who sings Neil Diamond songs? The gay kid wins the football game for the team?
The expected stereotypes are all still there, of course. While Mercedes (curvy black diva) is hanging out with Kurt (gay) and Blaine (somewhat less obviously gay) she hallucinates literal femininity coming from the two men:
Created by Ryan Murphy, the same guy who also brought us Nip/Tuck, Glee undoubtedly pushes boundaries; now in its second season, we’ve seen two boys making out, teen pregnancy, and witnessed the repercussions of underage drinking all while bopping along to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”
One would guess Glee’s audience would be primarily tweens who’ve never heard many of the original songs remixed on Fox’s dramedy, but as New York Magazine’s culture blog Vulture pointed out in March, the average age of a Glee viewer comes in around 38.
The result we find in this mesh of hormones, adult problems and endearing performances (see: John Lennon’s “Imagine” duet with students from nearby school for the deaf ) is audiences welcoming these characters into their homes, and like any good television show, Glee challenges our “widely held” perceptions without us even realizing it and reiterates to the younger audiences that high school labels only exist in high school. Murphy skillfully balances the serious to ridiculousness, parody to reality, in such a way that the impact of both become magnified, and we realize it’s ok to be a loser.