“I think you need to stop doing this to yourself,” my therapist said.
My therapist is very avuncular. He leads a local men’s group. I find his presence immensely soothing even when he doesn’t say anything, which is most of the time.
“I don’t know if I can,” I confessed.
My face was still slightly blotchy from fury, and I was pretty sure that there was some clotted foam at the edge of my lip.
“I just don’t understand how something so awful is allowed to be,” I continued.
“But you don’t have to subject yourself to it,” he replied, calmly.
We were talking, of course, about hit Fox series “Glee,” which my therapist was encouraging me to stop watching. Unfortunately, at the time, watching “Glee” was accounting for a not insubstantial percentage of my income; I was being invited to conferences to speak on “Glee’s” numerous political and social problems, I was writing about it for numerous media outlets, I was going on the radio to talk about “Glee” in roundtable discussions and one-on-one interviews.
The only place I didn’t talk about “Glee” was on television itself, and that was probably only a matter of time if I’d kept going down that dangerous and self-destructive path. I needed to face facts and admit that watching “Glee” was bad for my mental health.
My therapist pointed out that I was getting burned out and this wasn’t very sustainable, and that if it was at all practical to diversify my work it wouldn’t just be better for my career in the long term, it would also help me, you know, be less crazy.
By bits and starts, we experimented. First I tried not watching an episode. Then the next week, everyone wanted my thoughts.
I tried to be strong but I gave in. Dabbled my toes in the pool again.
Eventually, I stopped watching “Glee” altogether, although every now and then I feel this little stirring to return to my errant ways. I hear people talking about the latest horrors and I think “Hrm, I would watch and pick up the keyboard one more time...” and then I call a buddy to talk me down.
This all sounds very droll, and I totally admit that I am absolutely playing it up for laughs. Because I mean really, a television series was destroying my mental health? It was that bad?
Well yes and no. Part of it was that I had a lot of other stuff going on at the time and “Glee” was the icing on the cake. Part of it was also the stress of producing sharp, insightful, fresh television commentary under deadline -- and let’s face it, some of the stuff I did on “Glee” was great, but some of it was also crap, a rehashing of what I’d already said spruced up with a fresh coat of paint. And part of it was the stress of being in the community of pop culture commentators in general.
Being a “Glee”-hater meant that I attracted a lot of attention from ardent and defensive fans, who were not at all complimentary about my commentary on the show’s issues. When I say “not at all complimentary,” by the way, I mean they phoned my home with rape and death threats and sent me Photoshopped images of my cats with horrible things done to them.
I really appreciated it when they rallied ‘round when Mr. Shadow was dying of cancer in 2010 to send me a steady tide of hatemail rooting for a painful and horrific demise.
So when I woke up this morning to find out that “Glee” had done a Very Special School Shooting Episode, my heart sank. Look, this is how deliberately out of touch with “Glee” I am: I didn’t even know this episode was in the works even though I’m sure it was blasted all over the trades. I don’t even know who’s on the show anymore.
I don’t know if the abusive Mr. Shue ever got together with TV OCD Emma, or if Artie was ever allowed to actually do anything, or if Ryan Murphy ever went to any of the numerous standards and practices panels he was invited to attend on including disabled characters responsibly and ethically.
I don’t even know which awards “Glee” has most recently won because apparently the groups claiming to speak for minorities are so desperate for any kind of representation on television that they’ll take whatever they can get and then issue an award for it. And yes I am looking at you, GLAAD, organization that gave “Glee” awards for the depiction of Kurt while ignoring the frequent inclusion of trans jokes on the show.
So, “Glee” did a school shooting episode. My first reaction was “Of course it did.” Of course you would do that, Ryan Murphy. Of course you would take recent pressing media events and use them for entertainment and controversy. Now, to be fair, all media creators do this and anyone who claims otherwise is totally lying, but some people do it better than others.
And I know exactly what to expect from Ryan Murphy because I've seen it before; poorly-researched, saccharine depictions of real-world experiences and events told without input from the people who actually experienced them. Followed by a claim that he’s contributing to the discussion and really doing something radical and important here.
Last night’s “Shooting Star” was discussed by an advocacy group in Newton, CT before it even aired; the group warned that the episode would depict a school shooting that might be unsettling to viewers. In an email, it told viewers: “I would suggest if you do watch this TV show to either not watch it tonight or watch with caution.”
Meanwhile, Ryan Murphy was Tweeting things like this during production: “Just saw the rough cut of next week’s “Shooting Star”. It is the most powerful emotional Glee ever. So proud of the cast & crew.”
For those who haven’t seen the episode, it revolves around a suspected school shooting; the choir students are practicing when they hear a gun go off, and they initiate the response protocol, locking the room and hiding under desks. They try to place calls and texts to reach the outside world, drawing on the infamous appearance of communications from the scenes of mass shootings on social networks like Twitter, until the school is secured by SWAT.
Ultimately Sue Sylvester ‘fesses up to being the gunwoman, saying that she brought the gun for security. Pitch-perfect for her persona, she went on a rant about how she thought bringing the gun would protect her and other students (a jab at the ridiculous “arm teachers” proposals from the right) and how those “gun yahoos” are a danger to school safety. But there’s a twist: Sue was actually covering for someone.
The real culprit was Becky Jackson, who brought the gun to school because she was afraid of what would happen after graduation and the larger world outside. When Sue tried to take the gun from Becky to secure it, it accidentally went off (this is why we leave guns unloaded, no round in the chamber, and on safety, people!), setting off the chain of events that unfolded over the course of the episode.
Becky has good reason to be afraid: as a developmentally disabled woman, she runs a significant risk of experiencing rape and sexual assault, not being able to access resources, and living in poverty for the rest of her life.
As her mother pointed out in a joint interview with the media, Lauren Potter, the woman who plays Becky, has the benefit of a supportive family and safe home environment, and isn’t one of the many developmentally disabled adults with a history of abuse by her own family. Becky doesn’t have these things, and it’s no wonder that she’d be frightened about the larger world.
But that’s not what viewers saw in this episode. They saw Becky specifically afraid of moving on, which while it is a common teen fear, and one shared by disabled teens as well as nondisabled teens, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the realities Becky will face in the outside world. Shying away from these issues doesn't negative them.
And it’s telling that when the writers made the decision to have a character bring a gun to school, they chose Becky in particular. Any student could have been in that situation, not just Becky; but they chose to link bringing guns to school not with ordinary teen life experiences, but with Down syndrome. While they may claim otherwise, it’s pretty inescapable when they’re using their high-profile character with Down syndrome to drive that particular plot.
That has real-world consequences; remember how quickly everyone jumps to diagnose mass shooters with mental illness, developmental disabilities, or both? Adam Lanza was immediately profiled as autistic, with the implication that he committed the horrific crime in Sandy Hook because he was autistic, that autism was dangerous, that autistics should be feared. So it matters a lot to me when a wildly-popular work of pop culture like “Glee” reiterates the message that disabled people are scary and should be feared.
I write about pop culture less than I used to, but it’s still a big part of what I do (fun xoJane factoid: I was originally brought on board to write a pop culture column). And people ask me why I write about pop culture and why I care so much: how watching and writing about a television show could make me literally sick, to the point that I was considering hospitalization. The very idea seems absurd to many people.
And the answer is that this stuff matters. “Glee” is not “just a show” any more than any other work of pop culture. Sure, people watch it for entertainment, and the vast majority of viewers aren’t there to meticulously pick it apart and analyze each scene. But when you’re being entertained by something, you’re also internalizing the ideas and values it’s putting forward, which is why pop culture is so powerful.
It’s why the right complains when a show depicts queer relationships in a positive manner. It’s why the left complains when a show trashes a beloved cause of theirs. Because behind pop culture lies real lives and identities and the way that people think about them, and pop culture has the power to shape minds. Why do you think social positions on so many causes have changed so radically? In part because of pop culture, people.
So when pop culture reinforces outdated social beliefs, it becomes dangerous, and television can be a weapon as well as a tool. Every time a work of pop culture says something harmful about a minority group, members of that group have to undo the damage done.
“Glee” tends to stray more towards the “weapon” end of the spectrum, and that’s why I cared so hard and so long that I made myself sick watching it.