Equal Opportunity GLEE or Minstrels Circa 2010?

Binocular | June 23rd, 2010 - 3:55 pm

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I am not writing this because I’m a party pooper.  I know how much everybody loves GLEE.    It is, after all, the hottest new show on the planet (i.e. the planet acc. to John Smith).   Well, at least, whenever the show is on, my Facebook is flooded with gleefully GLEE posts.   But perhaps, because it is the hottest show, it is a good time to problematize it a little bit.  You know, just a little.

So the tiny Filipino girl with the vocal chords of ten overweight singing black women is joining GLEE.

Did that sentence bother you a little bit?  No?  Just a little?  Maybe?

It probably raised a hair or two on your arm more than you care to admit.   It’s a kind of racy statement to make.  Emphasis on racy.

Indeed, Charice, the Filipino girl discovered and lionized by Oprah, is joining the next season of GLEE.   And so, to tickle the minds of my facebook friends, I posted:

i’m curious what kind of stereotype is waiting for charice in GLEE–u know after the singing overweight black girl, the flamboyant homo, the lusty latina, the bull dyke coach..what’s left? kung fu no-speak-english asian? chop chop!

The Land of Equal Opportunity?

At first glance, GLEE seems like the dreamboat of the marginalized peoples of good ole USofA.    The cast is as colorful as Carrie’s shoe closet in Sex and the City, and certainly makes Carrie’s foursome  and whitesome a cast of old Puritannica.   I personally have not seen so much diversity out of the closet in one show.   The black girl and the gay guy are best friends.   There’s a Jewish girl and a white jock.   There is this Latina in superminis.    Most of all, they all sing happiness and sorrow on every single episode.   They bring back the 80s for those of us in Madonna nostalgia mode.   What’s there not to like?

Well, let’s take a closer look. 

The young actor who plays the swishy-swishy gay boy said on a TV interview one morning that he always had his legs crossed in GLEE.    Need we ask why?  He didn’t have to say this in public for me to know that his role is a cookie-cutter mold of every flamboyant, effeminate, gay boy in high school.   To accentuate an already obvious stereotype, listen to him speak.   Well, these types of gay boys do exist, and we should honor them.  Indeed!  In fact, during gay pride parades, we honor our drag queens.   It is simply unfortunate that the American media honor them too much and make them the symbol of gay pride.   In America’s tunnel vision, they see what they want to see: stereotypes. 

The gay boy stereotype will also not be so much of a problem, until the other stereotypes come marching in:   now we also have a black girl who is overweight and who sings,  a dumb white jock, a latina girl whose face screams of lust and sex, a “neurotic Jew” (thanks Jeff Y. for this–I didn’t know how to describe her), a butch lesbian coach, and so on.

The Antecedents

Long and long before GLEE, there was the minstrel show.

The Black and White Minstrel Show won the 1961 Golden Rose Of Montreux. The variety series could almost always guarantee an audience of at least 16 million, but frequently managed to top 18 million viewers. At a time when the variety show was a popular television genre for the whole family, The Black And White Minstrel Show established itself as one of the world’s greatest musical programmes on television.  more here.

As we already know, these “minstrels” are not real black folks, but white performers on black face who entertains by creating caricatures of black people in America.   It took a long time for Americans to realize there was something wrong with these shows, that these characters they had conjured in their narrow minds were the byproducts of hate and fear of the other.    It is this deep source of fear where stereotypes come into being.   Their lack of interest, fear of, and need to dominate over black people had created such monstrous public performances that pandered to the same visceral emotions of people who paid and gathered to watch them. 

Performances could be hypnotic; sometimes we leave the theatre afloat in good hormones, we momentarily forget our deep convictions.    The people behind theatre recognize the effect a “good show” can have on their audience.   Political theatre, which we see for months during election year, is based on the premise of messages shrouded with glitter.   The invigorated audience could easily fail to see beyond the superficiality of lights and sounds, because our hearts are so convinced of the fairy tales.   We tell people how wonderful this show is, because we truly don’t see ourselves in the shoes of the characters whose very stereotypical portrayal of people don’t necessarily hurt us, albeit such generalizations impact so many in less than stellar ways.

Maybe to bring back the minstrels is a bit too heavy-handed.   Yet, modern day racism is very subtle.   People no longer have to put on a black face to tell you that they don’t like you.   Those days are gone.   And because the subtlety is perhaps more powerful, we ought to give it much more thought, and therefore, concern.  Let’s not be too quick to be entertained.  In these days of quick bytes and short attention spans, the media can get away with almost anything. 

Defying Stereotypes 101

We generalize about people whenever our imagination and initiative fail us.    Our lazy bones tell us that people hold certain immutable characteristics because that is just the way life is.   Asians can’t drive.   Blacks are listless.   Latinos are well, just ask Arizonans.    And of course there is the lack of geographical knowledge; go to the Philippines and you know Asians do fly on the streets. 

And Charice, the Filipina girl will soon join the cast.   What awaits this young girl is anybody’s guess.  But how about a stereotype-defying role?   There is a rumor that she is playing a foreign exchange student.  How about a student from, say, Germany?   How about her parents are stationed in the military base there?   How about she’s a daughter of a famous Chinese actress, and as dumb as the dumbest Asian you’d love to meet (for a change)?  How about she’s not even Asian?   Her name is really Candace O’Brien.   

How about remove the epidermis of how we view people of color in the United States, and do a little work of uncovering the many complex layers of personalities and characters (normal ones!) that live and thrive in our worlds, and find some REAL characters who don’t tickle the stereotypical fantasies of John Smith? Stereotypes are stereotypes; unlike wine, they don’t improve with time.

I congratulate GLEE for attempting diversity en masse. But hey, in 2010, aren’t we beyond Kung Fu Asians, queeny gay boys, and tormented Jews? Can we finally see America?

Related Reading:  Black Face Mistrelsy, NPR the Legacy of Black Face, Charice Joins Glee,

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