The “Other Ethnic”: Minorities in Glee.
It occurred to me recently that, despite being a member of the original cast, Jenna Ushkowitz, who plays Tina Cohen-Chang on Glee, has only had one solo where the narrative has allowed her to finish. ‘Tonight’, ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘I Follow Rivers’… The first two songs called for Ushkowitz to deliberately sing them badly, and ‘I Follow Rivers’ was interrupted by hecklers.
Let’s look at the maths of that for a minute:
There have been 46 episodes of Glee so far, with an average of about 8 songs per episode, which equals about 370 songs overall, and out of all of those songs, Jenna Ushkowitz has only been allowed to finish singing one, ‘True Colours’.
That was all the way back in Season One, so I went and watched it again to refresh my memory, and do you know what I noticed?
The ‘True Colours’ performance is a little under 2 minutes long, and of those two minutes, the focus is on Tina for less than 20 seconds. That means that during her one and only solo, Ushkowitz got less than 1/6 of the screen time.
During the most recent episode,” I Am Unicorn”, Kurt, a white, openly gay character on the show, voiced his frustration that he will never be able to play the leading roles he desires because he is unable to ‘pass’ as straight. This struck me as an interesting thing for Kurt to say, and for the writers to prioritise, as it’s a problem that most ethnic minority actors and performers face constantly. I’m pretty sure the emphasis put on a potentially ‘ethnic’ Maria as the lead in the school musical, West Side Story, exists mainly to place Mercedes in a position where she can legitimately rival Rachel for a role, thereby creating drama for the following episode, but even though I know this, I still find the willingness of the audition panel to consider a non-white Maria unbelievably refreshing.
The sad fact of the matter is that in the real world it’s doubtful that Santana, Tina or Mercedes would get the same consideration as Rachel. Not because they aren’t as talented, but because of ethnicity. I have heard the arguments for this treatment countless times, both in regards to the fashion and beauty industries, and the entertainment industry. I’ve heard many, many excuses, but I still find that whilst people are happy for a minority to take the supportive roles: the best friend, the sidekick, the wisecracking partner etc. people often refuse to consider a minority lead. From what I can understand some of the fandom have had a similar response to the idea of Mercedes as the lead in West Side Story, people seem quite happy for her to play Anita, but not Maria. In the film version a Puerto Rican actress, Rita Moreno, was able to play the supporting role of Anita (for which she won an Oscar), but when it came to the role of Maria the studio went with a White European actress (Natalie Wood).
The problem is that Glee constantly frustrates by bringing these issues to the foreground and then doing nothing about them, or worse, uses them to vilify, stereotype or make fun of its minority characters. Mercedes is often painted as irrational or a diva when she challenges the assumptions that Rachel will/should get all lead parts (although she is also not the only character to do this, I can recall Santana doing the same thing on occasion) and yet whenever she does so her behaviour is cause for people to dismiss her actions, and by the same token, the viewpoints that led her to those actions in the first place. This is similarly the case with Santana, although Santana occupies a slightly different space because of her homo/bisexuality.
Glee seems to treat homosexuality as a serious subject, but race as a cause for comedy. Let’s go back to Kurt’s comment about not getting lead roles, despite the obvious parallels between Kurt’s situation and that of the minority characters, the closest we get to seeing these parallels on screen is Artie’s throwaway line about wanting to play Porgy someday. The unlikeliness of which is so evident that it’s clear the audience is being invited to laugh at it. I could write a whole other post on that line alone so I’m going to stop before I get too carried away, but the implication is clear - race is funny, sexuality is not.It remains to be seen if the writers choose to address these issues with next week’s episode.
But Glee does not have the greatest track record with handling race. I take issue with the writers’ desire to prefix everything Tina and Mike do with the word “Asian”, although they did the same thing with Puck and Rachel (“Jew”/”Jewish”) and it looks as though they’re planning to do the same thing with Mercedes new relationship (“cocoa babies”) - the thought of which fills me with dread.
Aside from not understanding the need to distill characters that people have grown to love and relate to into caricatures and stereotypes, I also don’t really understand how it’s funny. What if it wasn’t a minority character saying it? What if Finn or Quinn went around prefixing everything they did with the word “White”? Would it be considered comedic then? Probably not. But you know what, that would never happen, because Finn and Quinn have both been written as multi-dimensional characters without requiring their ethnicity as a crutch. Many of the other characters have not been afforded that privilege.
I have difficulty with the idea that Glee purports to be a show about an ensemble cast where everyone is different but valued for who they are, while it continually prioritises the same few characters over everyone else. Which characters do we know the most about? Which characters have a family/home life that we’ve seen? Rachel, Finn, Quinn, Kurt and, while he was still part of the show, Sam.
The only minority character whose background has been explored in any meaningful way is Santana, and even then it has only been explored in relation to her sexuality.
There are notoriously few roles for minority actors in television, film and theatre, even fewer lead roles, and of that already diminished pool of opportunities there are even fewer for women. So, to viewers of Glee, these characters are not just characters, they have been transformed by their rarity into representatives of hordes of people who have not had the chance to see themselves reflected on screen before. It means something to a black woman who sees Mercedes, an Asian girl who sees Tina, or a Latina who sees Santana, because finally theirstories can be heard. Not only that, but these characters also serve as a barometer that shows how the rest of society views a particular minority, and therefore how society will view them. So when Glee pushes these characters to the background, stereotypes them and makes them ‘comedically ethnic’, the message is that these characters don’t deserve the spotlight, attention, love, respect, meaningful friendships or to be looked at as anything beyond their race. In fact, the message being sent out is that these characters do not even deserve characterisation. Can you imagine, never seeing anyone like you on the screen, and then when you do that is what you’re being told? That is what’s held up as an acceptable way to treat someone like you?
Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Glee, but I find it troubling that the show, however implicitly, claims to represent and celebrate diversity but then marginalises and stereotypes the majority of the characters it claims to be supporting. It’s come a long way from the show it was in Season One, and while it appears to be getting back on track I fear that the ideas of inclusion and diversity that were so prevalent in Season One have fallen by the wayside. I’ll keep watching, but I’m also hoping that the show will learn to treat its minority characters with more sensitivity than it has done thus far.
And, please, let poor Tina finish a solo!