Part II in a series on Glee
When I teach Media Effects, one of my favorite examples is the Glee/GQ controversy. The story broke just as I was teaching that segment of Intro to Media Studies for the first time, and I’ve continued to use it. Partially, this is because it’s pretty much the only show my students and I have in common. But it’s also so utterly textbook that I can’t pass it up.
For one promotional photo shoot among the dozens that the cast has surely done by now, the appearance of Glee’s actors in GQ was sure a big deal. Even now, 6 months later, I can pull up fifteen Google News results for “glee gq,” because it gets mentioned any time they talk about how the show is a criticism magnet or how Dianna Agron is more demure than her castmates or, most importantly for this blog piece, the way that Lea Michele is often considered to be overly sexy. Any excuse will do to bring it up, really. It even made the show’s Wikipedia page! (See the third paragraph of this section.)
Here again, it was Isabel Molina-Guzmán’s take on Ugly Betty in Dangerous Curves: Latina Bodies in the Mediathat let me put my finger on what was going on. Molina says that actress America Ferrera “embodies genuine and wholesome ‘American’ values,” which “makes it easier to promote Ferrera, Betty, and the program” (131).
This is all fine and well to the extent that it holds, but when Ferrera proves to be different than Betty’s self-sacrificing femininity things get shaky. “Consequently, among fans there is a careful filtering of information about Ferrera that might work against their readings of the character and actor” (ibid).
More than just selective attention to information that complies with their desires, “fans wanting to maintain the suspension of disbelief that character and actor are one sometimes police Ferrera for actions that do not fit their assumptions” (ibid.). And that’s where Lea Michele comes in.
As the Jocelyn Noveck of the AP put it:
“You’re a couple of great-looking, talented young actresses on the hottest show on TV. You’re adults. So why NOT pose for some seriously saucy photos in GQ, a magazine for adult men? Well, it gets a little thorny when the show is “Glee,” beloved by 8- and 9-year-olds, and when you’re posing as a high-school girl in nothing but skimpy panties, spreading your legs sky-wide on a locker room bench. Or suggestively licking a lolly as you lean — in the same skimpy panties — on a high-school locker.”
What do we learn here? Michele and Agron have the right to be sexy if they’re so inclined, but they are imagined to have abused that right by making bad decisions about it. Michele is particularly often policed for this, with the complaint that her photo shoots are too sexy for children coming nearly as regularly as there are stories about pictures being taken of her (though, tragically, I can’t find them now).
The absurdity of this is perfectly captured by Agron’s retort to the outrage over the GQ shoot: “If you are hurt or these photos make you uncomfortable, it was never our intention,” she said. “And if your 8-year-old has a copy of our GQ cover in hand, again I am sorry. But I would have to ask, how on earth did it get there?”
That is, kids might love Glee, but on no planet is it really for them. Similarly, no matter how much children love the show, promotional materials appearing in disparate locations like men’s magazines aren’t for them either.
But this doesn’t stop the perpetual-outrage machine, which, oddly, is not outraged at the magazine industry or the photographer or the people who buy GQ. Instead, it’s the person in the photos who is imagined to be at fault.
No one would deny that Michele sluts it up on a regular basis (which is to use “slut” in a sex-positive way, btw). Indeed, someone (can’t remember who) quipped that she discovered that she was hot recently and is making the most of it.
However, her decisions to appear all sexed up are a) probably at the behest of photographers, though clearly she does go along with it; b) her own business because it’s her body; and c) not necessarily indicative of any propensity to have sex at the drop of a hat, which would d) not be anybody’s business anyway.
The fact is, if she wants to enjoy being young, good looking, and famous, she can, and it’s really not her fault she plays a high school character on a show kids love. People make fun of fans for their supposed tendency to collapse the actor and the character, yet here organizations like the Parents Television Council are doing that very thing in the mainstream media.
It’s totally reasonable to critique the system that has made this a standard mode of celebrating one’s own attractiveness. We can think the photographer who made the GQ shoot look like 70s faux-high-school porn is skeezy, sure.
But to accuse Michele of being the amazing corrupt-o-matic simply for appearing in some photos—which were (admittedly) ill-advised and did specifically play on the eroticization of underage girls—is so outdated and anti-woman that I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.
Didn’t we have a movement about this already? You know, the one that urged us to look at the structures that produced particular possibilities and outcomes for women?
It’s called feminism; look it up.