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Introduction: Rationalization and limitation
Once upon a time, the mere mention of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) communities was enough to make the worldwide audience shudder in disgust. However, with changing trends and attitudes of the audiences, the concept of lesbians and gays in films and on television is gradually becoming normalized. When one speaks of media portrayal of the LGBTQ people, it refers to the way these communities are represented in the television shows, films and other modes of digital communication at present. In most cultures around the world, including Singapore, there is a great deal of intolerance for these communities. As a result, their media portrayal has also been negative (Akira et al., 2014). Moreover, there is an acute misrepresentation of these communities. In other words, whenever a homosexual or transgender individual is portrayed in a film or television show, it is usually in a stereotypical manner which does not do justice to the community. It is precisely because of this reason that the following research has been conducted. American television show GLEE is one of the first television shows to have tried to normalize the portrayal of LGBTQ communities, and at the same time shown the difficulties that these communities face (Thakore, 2014).
However, one of the major limitations of the research is that it analyzes only one episode of GLEE, with emphasis on the character of Kurt Hummel. This limits the scope of the research and even imposes limitations on how far one is able to analyse and understand the character. Kurt Hummel is one of the most important and prominent characters in GLEE. Thus, analysing his character based on only one episode limits the research.
GLEE is an American comedy – musical – drama that ran from 2009 to 2015. Essentially a high school drama, the television show focuses on the William McKinley High School, where the students get together under the leadership of Will Schuester (played by Matthew Morrison), to form the glee club which is a kind of a high school show choir. The most notable factor about the show is the fact that apart from being a typical high school drama with the same level of melodrama, relationship troubles and so on, the producers also incorporate various contemporary social issues into the show, which include homosexuality, race and other factors (Ramos et al., 2013). All of these issues are compiled in the form of a musical, where the show features a number of on screen musical performances, often performed by the cast members themselves. The first season of the show is one of the most important seasons because it is during this time that the audience is introduced to each of the characters, including Kurt Hummel. When the audience is first introduced to Kurt Hummel, he is a “visibly gay” young man who feels ousted and fails to find a sense of belonging in his high school. Kurt Hummel, played by Chris Colfer (also gay in real life, as he himself has claimed), is openly and unabashedly gay. In the very first season, the audience is witness to the humiliation and public mocking and taunting that a homosexual individual has to face in school and other such institutions.
About the show
However, as the reviews of the show demonstrate, the television show has made an attempt to normalize the concept of homosexuality. Back in 2009, the concept of having more than one gay actor in the main role was almost unimaginable. Yet, Ryan Murphy, the producer, has tried to change the way the audience view the gay communities in the States (Meyer & Wood, 2013). Even though the social and political conditions of the gay and lesbian communities have improved in the western countries, their portrayal in the media has always been negative. Moreover, gay men and women are often denied of the basic civil rights, that other citizens are granted. Additionally, homosexuals often face issues related to homophobia, homonegativity and homophobic violence – which have been portrayed in GLEE, when the only openly gay student, Kurt Hummel is continuously splashed with soda in the face by the stereotypical jocks of high school films in an attempt to exert their superiority and authority over him. Ironically, the character who was initially seen bullying Kurt turned out to be homosexual himself (Joyrich, 2014).
The question thus arises as to whether GLEE actually represents diverse groups or whether it is simply designed that way. It must be remembered that GLEE like most television shows is a commercial television show and therefore the purpose of every show is to increase the viewership, thus increasing the popularity and the TRP ratings of the show. As such, including concepts such as homosexuality and heternormativity can ensure that a diverse group is addressed through the show (Sarkissian, 2014). The concept of heteronormativity is such that it says that if an individual is born with male reproductive organs, then he would be expected to behave in a way that is distinctly masculine in nature. The heteronormative philosophy also suggests that heterosexuality is the only normal way and therefore is superior to those who dare to step out of these restrictions. One of the major reasons behind the success of the film is the fact that it does not just create a wholesome show, but instead creates an inclusive television series, which challenges the notions of heteronormativity. Many reviews have claimed that GLEE creates a kind of safe space for the troubled homosexual teens all over the world (Brown, 2014). Every member of the LGBTQ acronym was represented in the show and it also raised a voice against teen bullying and homophobic violence. Men and women of colour, men and women with disabilities and different sexualities were explored in the television show. Another reason for the show’s vast popularity is the fact that teenagers, whether homosexual or heterosexual, are able to relate to it. There are numerous teenagers in similar situations, who are unable to speak up or be at ease with their families or peers in school. GLEE on the other hand actually started a conversation about the issues that plague such school kids (Stork, 2014).
Analysis of the character – Kurt Hummel
The character in GLEE chosen as the focus of the research is Kurt Hummel, because although there are other homosexual individuals in the show, Kurt is the openly gay student from the very beginning of the show. The show GLEE has some of the most powerful episodes as far as the LGBTQ communities are concerned. The struggles of these communities are in greater emphasis in the first two seasons of the series, when Kurt Hummel is gradually introduced to the audience. The episode in question that would be analysed for the sake of research would be Episode 6 of Season 2, titled, “Never Been Kissed.”
Kurt Hummel is one of the most important characters in the show and is one of the 6 male leads. He is portrayed as a fashionable, delicate gay countertenor in the show and he is also bullied for the same reason. In the first season, Kurt is mainly shown as a gay young man who struggles with his sexual orientation and the act of coming out of the closet, to both friends and his father (Lehman, 2014). He also battles with his feelings for a heterosexual student, Finn Hudson. Kurt is portrayed as a character who is overtly flamboyant, which is in keeping with the gay stereotypes which have been established already. In popular media, gay individuals are usually portrayed as people who are outgoing, slightly over the top and a bit overdone. The character portrayal of Kurt is very realistic in nature. Kurt tries to put on an impression of being extremely confident and sure of himself. Yet, he is an anxious teenager who wants to put on a facade so as to hide his insecurities and identity crisis. His identity crisis is because he is unable to find acceptance in the person that he is (Prior, 2013). As far as his relationships with other characters are concerned, it must be mentioned that Kurt is shown as being able to form normal friendships with other students, especially Rachel Berry who goes on to become his best friend in the show. He is also able to develop romantic relationships with other characters, like Blaine. The show thus in a way normalizes the concept of romantic relationships between homosexual teenagers (TV, 2016). As far as screen timing is concerned, Kurt Hummel is given almost equal screen time as compared to the other characters. However, the focus point of the initial seasons was the development of the romantic relationship between Finn and Rachel, which meant that all the other characters had to compromise on screen time.
In this episode, the members of the Glee club are divided into boys and girls and asked to compete. As in other episodes, this episode too focuses on the struggle that a large number of LGBT teens experience on a regular basis. However in this episode, we see a change coming over the character progression of Kurt Hummel, when he begins to interact with another gay teenager from the glee club of a different school, Blaine. This episode can be said to be a turning point for the LGBT representation in GLEE, because the episode shows Kurt finally gaining the courage required to stand up to a bully. Before this episode, Kurt had expressed his frustration over being tormented and bullied a number of times, yet he never had the courage to actually raise a voice against it (Coile, 2017). His pent up frustration is vented out in this episode as he decides to no longer endure the bullying that he has to face in school.
The feelings of alienation and failure to fit in which is common in the LGBT youth is also explained in details in this season. Although Kurt never felt the need to hide his sexuality or hide behind a mask like some of the other characters on the show, he always felt out of place with the other students at his school and was never able to fit in (Television, 2013). For instance, in this episode, Kurt was placed in the boys’ team and each of the boys was asked to come up with a series of suggestions for songs that could be performed. However, the songs suggested by Kurt were blatantly ignored by the other team members, which further deepened Kurt’s feelings of isolation. Mr. Schuester, the mentor of the Glee club, does try to reach out to Kurt so as to help him, but to no avail. In order to fit in, Kurt agrees to spy on the rival Glee team at Dalton Academy, which is another fictitious school. Here, Kurt is amazed to see how a zero tolerance policy is followed as far s bullying is concerned. He also makes a friend here, Blaine, who is talented, smart, handsome and also gay. It is Blaine who encourages Kurt to stand up for what he believes is right. He understands what Kurt has been going through and asks him “to find his courage.” This acts as a trigger for Kurt and he refuses to take it lying down anymore. When Dave, his bully, attempts to attack him again, Kurt protests and speaks up and even highlights Dave’s own issues. This happens to be one of the first moments of triumph for Kurt. It must be noted here that the directors of the show do not provide a magical solution to the problems that LGBT youth face in schools in the United States. Instead, their solution is very practical and realistic (Putra). They do not show Kurt suddenly emerging as a powerful symbol of hope for the LGBT communities. Yet, they do provide a ray of hope, signalling that better days are in store for Kurt and other LGBT characters.
However, some critics are of the opinion that instead of trying to shatter the stereotypes and clichés surrounding homosexuality and the LGBTQ communities, the show actually ends up reinforcing some of them. In fact, the show has also been accused of being too gay in some cases. For instance, Kurt Hummel is portrayed as a highly fashion conscious, flamboyant person which are usually attributes assigned to homosexuals in popular media (Hildebrandt, 2016). The common notion is that a homosexual individual is feminine in nature, not masculine, and would thus demonstrate behaviour that is feminine in nature. Behavioural tendencies like fashionable, emotional, sensitive, gossiping, crying and other traits, all of which Kurt portrays, are usually associated with women. Kurt, throughout the series is hailed as a character who is supposed to be a poster boy or a role model for the present generation. Yet, at the end of the day, he ends up being a cliché and sticks to what the common perception of how a gay person should be or behave (Dillon, 2015).
In order to come to a conclusion, one must keep in mind a few things. The Fox television show certainly revolutionizes television and even normalizes the concept of homosexual individuals and their relationships with other members of the society, a concept which was quite ahead of its time. However, the question arises if GLEE manages to tip the balance of power. A few things must be mentioned her. Yes, to some extent, GLEE does manage to shatter the stereotypes and the negative connotations associated with homosexual people. It does manage to normalize the idea of gay students mingling with heterosexual students and even developing homosexual relationships with others. However, at the same time, GLEE also abides by the negative stereotypes that are associated with homosexuality. Thus, it can be said that although GLEE manages to highlight the plight of the gay students and although it manages to shatter some stereotypes, the balance of power remains in the favor of the heterosexuals.
As far as the question of Kurt’s recognition is concerned, it can be said that throughout the six seasons of the show, he is recognized solely as a gay person or a homosexual. Although the show does manage to show his struggles and eventual triumph in a realistic fashion, Kurt’s sole identity rests on the fact that he is gay. Kurt ceases to be just a representation of a marginalized section of the society. The main purpose of including so many gay and lesbian characters in one show was to highlight the troubles and perspectives of the greatly marginalized section of society – namely the LGBTQ communities. However, it must also be remembered that a gay person is more than being just gay. In other words, it must be remembered that a person’s identity does not depend on his or her sexual orientation. This is known as gay identity, and has been purposely or unintentionally highlighted in the show. Irrespective of whether a person is attracted to males or females, he or she has a different identity of his own – which depends on a number of factors like interests, personality, nature, attributes and so on. In other words, sexual orientation or sexual preferences form a very small part of one’s identity. However, in the case of Kurt Hummel, it is obvious that his homosexuality forms a chunk of his identity. In short, Kurt’s identity is that he is gay and therefore everything he does or says or even wears must reflect that. For instance, if one takes a look at the clothes he wears during the show, they are flamboyant, extravagant and extremely erratic. It is almost as if the directors are trying to make a point through Kurt. Every fashion related stereotype that is found in the society can be seen reflected in Kurt. Unfortunately, that simply enforces the negative stereotypes instead of shattering them.
However, at the same time, it must be mentioned that the character of Kurt Hummel has also had an impact on the worldwide audience, changing their perspectives about gay men. This has been true in the case of Singapore as well. Kurt’s outfits, the way he behaves on the show, the characteristics and traits that he portraits are endeared and greatly loved by the show’s dedicated audience. For example, Kurt’s fashion choices set a number of trends in 2009, when the character was first introduced. Teenagers around the world scoured to get their hands on products which Kurt owned. The fact that Kurt often wore women’s accessories or even dressed in a feminine fashion never came to their mind. In fact, younger generations around the world were beginning to connect with the character on a deeper level, and to them, the show formed an integral part of reality. It must be mentioned here that more than Kurt being gay, what attracted the youngsters was the fact that the show portrayed bullying in a realistic manner and that Kurt was also able to stand up to it. In a way, the show acted as a mirror for the LGBTQ communities around the world, providing them with hope.
In the Singaporean context, GLEE has managed to change the landscape of television. In Singapore, like many places around the world, the concept of homosexuality is frowned upon. Moreover, the Media Development Authority of Singapore forbids the promotion or the glamorization of any form of homosexuality or homosexual lifestyles on popular media. When the US television show first released, the only way people in Singapore could access the show was through the internet. In Singapore, the show has only just begun to change the landscape of television, and the concepts of gay identity or homosexuality are gradually being recognized.
In conclusion, it can be said that the US television show, GLEE has certainly revolutionized the way homosexual and queer communities are treated and perceived in popular culture. The show which released in 2009 has had a tremendous impact on the youth of the world, especially due to its sensitive portrayal of a gay character, Kurt Hummel. Kurt, with his boisterous attitude, self confident behaviour and flamboyant lifestyles, managed to win hearts around the world. However, some critics of the show have insisted that the series only seeked to highlight the negative stereotypes surrounding LGBTQ communities.
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