We all know how obsessed I am with what I like to call “loss of virginity narratives,” so instead of being a hateful bastard and writing about how much I hate Glee and its depictions of teenage sexuality (which a lot of the time I do), I decided for a change of pace to give Ryan Murphy credit where credit was due and write about a time where he did something right on his insane show.
Also— the citations in this article come from the following source:
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, 123-151.
Television, which has long lagged behind its more progressive sister, film, in terms of queer representation has recently seen a surge in queer characters, storylines, and general visibility (remember when I talked about Queer as Folk?). Most major American television networks now have at least one program featuring at least one openly queer character and within such shows the representational urge has moved away from the formerly dominant “tragedy of homosexuality” model to a more modern depiction of queerness that highlights assimilation and acceptance.
Queer characters are everywhere and given the monumental victories of the destruction of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and most recently, the support for gay marriage in the United States, they (thankfully) appear to be here to stay. Fox’s innovative musical comedy-drama series Glee (2009) has remained at the forefront of this media transformation in that it not only features openly queer actors (Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch) and has an openly queer writer and creator (Ryan Murphy), but also that it bears one of the largest populations of queer characters in a scripted show currently on American television. The hourlong musical comedy-drama centers around a fictional high school Glee club, New Directions, in Lima, Ohio and its eccentric members as well as their faculty advisor Will Schuester. Each episode is comprised of several musical performances (covers of popular songs and show tunes) as well as comedic and dramatic storylines surrounding the members and their lives both in and outside New Directions. The show has been tremendously successful with both teens and adults and is currently airing its fourth season, with most episodes garnering major press coverage.
In past discussions of the show, most of the attention has been focused on the character of Kurt, the first openly queer member of the club (since his coming out others have followed), and his journey navigating the world around him as a gay teenager in his small midwestern town. Buzz got even stronger when Murphy gave Kurt a boyfriend, Blaine, with whom Kurt was madly in love and vice versa (the two have since broken up, but Murphy has hinted there will be a reconciliation, much to fans’ delight) . Murphy (and Colfer) represent Kurt using stereotypical “fabulous” gay masculinity; he wears outlandish outfits, uses biting sarcasm, and is obsessed with Lady Gaga and Madonna. Murphy’s envisioning of Blaine is a bit more subdued but Blaine remains problematic in that he is also still recognizable to even the most sheltered teen as a young, attractive gay male via his flamboyant bow ties (obviously my favourite) and effeminate mannerisms. There is no room for gender or sexual ambiguity; the two boys are a depiction of what has become an acceptable, safe, and easily coded form of queerness as it appears on film and television.
[Blaine, left, and Kurt, right, being fabulously fashion forward]
Queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” warns against such quick negative readings, deeming them paranoid. In turn, she advocates for a reparative model of reading that seeks to restore and rebuild rather than tear down. This is not to say that the show has not been met with controversy. Conservative groups have attacked the show for its frequent depictions of teenage drinking and sex and as a result, episodes containing more “sensitive” material (read: frank discussion of homosexuality and drinking) feature a disclaimer that airs immediately prior. Reparative reading becomes a therapeutic approach for the reader, allowing previously cast aside texts and objects the ability to become useful and meaningful in ways that were not permitted due to the practice of paranoid reading.
Given this, Sedgwick’s method for reparative reading offers a chance to revisit the characters of Kurt and Blaine and repair their presence on Glee as well as in the consciousness of the older queer spectator. Rather than focusing on the characters’ negative aspects (i.e. doing a paranoid reading) and Murphy’s reliance on stereotypes, for the remainder of this article I will use Sedgwick’s method to do a reparative reading of the third season episode, “The First Time,” which directly addresses queer male first time sexual experience, a topic rarely addressed on network television and whose presence is a testament to the Glee’s commitment to respectful queer visibility and representation. I will be primarily focusing on one of the episode’s final scenes in which Kurt and Blaine have a conversation where they decide to have sex for the first time (ever and with each other) and the following depiction of the encounter’s aftermath.
“The First Time” begins with Artie, the student director of the club’s upcoming performance of West Side Story, critiquing the rehearsal of Rachel (the show’s primary female lead) and Blaine in their portrayals of Maria and Tony, citing the central problem to be a lack of sexual tension due to the teens’ lack of sexual experience. Artie challenges the two to find their passion, giving examples of his own sexual awakening with Brittany, a girl from the club and how it changed his outlook on his own masculinity. The exchange sets the two on a quest to lose their virginities by opening night in order to perfect their characters. Rachel, who I choose not to focus on, seeks out her boyfriend Finn, and Blaine begins to entertain the idea of beginning a sexual relationship with Kurt.
Within the opening scene sexual knowledge becomes privileged information and a sort of initiation into beginning adulthood. Interestingly, Sedgwick asks several relevant question pertaining to the politics of knowledge, “What does knowledge do—the pursuit of it, the having an exposing it, the receiving again of knowledge of what one already knows? How, in short, is knowledge performative and how does one best move among its causes and effects?” (125). All Sedgwick’s questions are useful in beginning to construct a reparative reading of the episode, considering it intimately deals with a specific representation of certain type of knowledge acquisition. As the episode unfolds the Kurt and Blaine’s movements toward sexual experience are dealt with in a sensitive and tender way. The couple is loving, monogamous, and decidedly normative in their relationship model. In other words, the key to the “reparative process [of the episode] is love,” that is, the viewer’s enjoyment of Blaine and Kurt’s blissful and wide-eyed enthusiasm (125).
Much like the general tone of their relationship, the conservation that takes place in the final five minutes of the episode is warm and intimate. Kurt approaches Blaine after opening night to discuss Blaine’s interactions with another queer student, Sebastian, who in the previous days had attempted to steal Blaine away. To the seasoned queer reader the moment has all the trappings that allow for a paranoid reading to take place: jealousy and “an extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge per se—knowledge in the form of exposure” (138). Here Kurt aims to expose Blaine’s attraction to Sebastian, but Blaine in his reparative motions of love, forces Kurt to “surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination” that characterized the early portion of the discussion (146). Blaine then tells Kurt that he wants their first time to be special and “mean something,” rather than be taken lightly. Blaine, with tears in his eyes restates his love for Kurt and says that they should soon leave to go to the cast party to which Kurt says, “No I want to go to your house,” in a declaration of overt sexual desire. Blaine nods longingly and the scene ends.
The scene, while perhaps overly sweet, is quite effective and sincere. The couple is treated with care by Murphy and their experience is not exploited or glossed over. In fact, in comparison with other couples on the show, Blaine and Kurt’s relationship is healthier and more energetic (at least at this point) as well as more endearing. Whereas paranoid reading would dismiss the positive affect of the scene and the relationship in general as “merely reformist” or solely “about pleasure,” a viewer doing a reparative reading is able to pick up the subtle and fragile nature of first love and appreciate Murphy’s tenderness in crafting the scene (144). Kurt and Blaine’s presence within the show becomes the ultimate reparative move in that they “are no less realistic, no less attached to a project of survival, and neither less or more delusional or fantasmatic” than other characters of the queer past, yet they are represented in a joyful and exciting way, rather than as sexual deviants who are victims within countless texts (150). Sedgwick writes, “Does it matter when such projects misdescribe themselves or are misrecognized by readers? I wouldn’t suggest that the force of any powerful writing can ever attain complete transparency to itself, or is likely to account for itself every adequately at the constative level of the writin.” (150). To this, Glee answers a sharp and resounding “no” through its multidimensional and careful representation of such a private and personal moment between the boys.
In the final moments of the episode the camera pans over a pajamaed Kurt and Blaine cuddling presumably after having sex for the first time. The lighting is warm and music from West Side Story plays in the background (Rachel and Blaine singing “One Hand, One Heart”). The consent of the situation is clear and the two are shown in a way very similar to other idealized teen couples in the same moment (in fact, it is exactly the same dynamic as in a parallel scene between Rachel and Finn). The reparative viewer is not afraid of the scene’s affect and “it is possible to find ways of attending to such reparative motives and possibilities” (150). Although the episode contains problematic areas such as a reliance on idealized and heteronormative ideas of love, sex, and monogamy, it is these very areas that allow for a deeper reading to occur. In the episode’s attention to Blaine and Kurt having the same difficulties and goals the straight couples around them, their queerness takes a welcome backseat the the greater thesis of the show: first love remains a unifying and exciting experience regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
It is only when we replace our first instincts of paranoia that we are able to see the beauty of the episode: celebratory and joyful queer visibility in addition to perhaps the ultimate prize, positive and affirming role models for queer and questioning teens everywhere.