After airing for just over half a decade, Glee entered into its sixth and final, 13-episode season in January. Michelle Parke, editor of Queer in the Choir Room: Essays on Gender and Sexuality in Glee, explains in the introduction that, in those years the show tackled a variety of topics including: gender, sexuality, sex and, to a lesser extent, discussed race, religion, disabilities and (arts) education. What began as a critical darling for its slightly subversive take on after school-special plotlines, over time was viewed by critics as inconsistent in tone. Whatever one may think of the quality of the show, it has made an imprint on popular culture and Queer in the Choir Room presents a number of takes on what exactly that imprint was.
The collected essays examine the characters and events of the first three, and occasionally the fourth, seasons of the show through a number of critical lenses. The collection is split into four sections with particular focus for each: coming out narratives, the intersectionality of queerness and other identities, the complexities of gender performance and the show’s reach in popular culture through and fan-fiction. A majority of the essays help place the show in a context of in larger discussions of sex, gender and sexuality taking place in the 21st century.
For example, the two essays discussing coming out narratives paint a picture of a show that pushed some boundaries but reinforced others. In Hawkins’ contribution to the collection, “Coming Out: Challenging Portrayals of Diverse Sexualities,” the author provides examples of how Glee challenged previous problematic coming out narratives. Hawkins’ argues that Kurt’s initial narrative built off prior tropes in order enter into new territory that featured multiple LBGT characters navigating public and private identities including some who refused outward identification. The show also pushed against assumptions of characters’ sexuality based of presentation. In contrast, Miller’s “Forced out the Flannel Closet: The Coming Out Imperative,” argues that the show’s logic conflates closeted and bisexual identities and pushes the perception that public gay/lesbian identification is the only sustainable and authentic non-heterosexual identity.
Other essays, including the one above, also critically examine how Glee’s supposedly ‘color-blind’ view underserves characters of color. The character Santana Lopez receives the most attention as a Latina character who is initially assumed to be straight, considered by a number of viewers to be bisexual but labeled lesbian by the show and other characters. Queer in the Choir Room explores the labels put on her and how they intersect. Another strong focus in the collection how gender is performed: whether it is about the show’s presentation of girls and women on the show, Quinn and Blaine navigating their dual identities (good/bad girl and nice/tough guy, respectively) or the usage of Madonna and Britney Spears songs throughout the series.
There are also contributions that provide less obvious, but no less important takeaways. Essays discuss asexuality, the portrayal of sex and sex education on the show, the usage and re-contextualization of Broadway classics and how fan-fiction about Kurt and Blaine’s relationship explores adolescent sexuality and changing attitudes about homosexuality.
As with many collections, some contributions are not as strong as others in this book. While all the essays bring interesting ideas or provide important criticism, a few essays arguably do not provide enough context or limit their scope which leads to less accurate discussions. For example, in “Glee Literally Means Glee: The Queer Art of Community’s Parody,” Hayes argues that Community’s parody episode (“Regional Holiday Music”) unconsciously takes on characteristics of Glee in its parody despite its critical stance towards the show. Community is portrayed in this essay as hyper-critical, smug and averse to sincerity. It does not mention that the show often parodies other shows and genres with a mixture of varying degrees of both affection and cynicism. The show also regularly portrays relationships and friendship between characters with sincerity. Despite these exclusions, the essay does provide notable insights to how the narrative operates on Glee.
For better or worse, Glee was part of a major cultural conversation about lesbian and gay folks (in conjunction with other ‘G’s: the It Gets Better project and Lady GaGa). The show will continue on until the summer of the next year, and despite declining in ratings, it still reaches a considerable amount of people. After the third season, Glee has introduced new plotlines and characters in order to explore new issues. The introduction of the character Unique Adams and Blaine’s crush and friendship with straight character Sam throughout Season 4 would benefit from analysis. An expanded edition or second volume of Queer in the Choir Room, which tackled these subjects, would be more than welcome. Until then, Queer in the Choir Room serves as a great addition to critical conversations about the once smash hit of a show.