Saturday, 1 May 2010

Glee, Madonna and Like a Virgin

Get yourself ready to cheer for the underdogs!

I'm visiting my friend, Francesca, and we've settled down for a glass of champagne in the room where her huge flat screen television acts as a wall. Suddenly, her son appears from his homework and asks, "Can I watch Glee?" Pause. "Martin's here," she says and encourages him to return to his homework. Homework vs. Glee? His shoulders sag and the disappointment is palpable. He vanishes downstairs. Smart Kid! There's a a tv in the playroom there. He gets to watch Glee along with millions of others. In the United States, almost 8 million people watched the season 1 Glee finale and there are some 2,280,136 Glee fans (or "Gleeks") on Facebook. Glee, as the marketing men say, is a phenomenon.

Glee is set in William Mckinley High School where a fresh faced Spanish teacher, Will Scheuster, creates a show choir: the Glee club. This choir becomes a refuge for the cultural outsiders in the school: the nerds, the geeks and the Losers. The choir includes a disabled person, a fat black girl, a gay teenager, a bullied girl who has "two daddies", a handsome quarterback jock who likes singing and dancing. These misfits find a solidarity in singing pop songs as if they were big musical numbers and as in a musical, the songs advance the narrative. Glee is a hybrid with its genetic roots in Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge, the Porky's films and Benetton adverts. The Glee choir sing their secular songs with such religious fervour and belief that, no matter how corny the lyric, how banal the melody, they convince you that this song could potentially shape their personal lives. In cultures where traditional religious symbols have been abandoned by young people, Glee's central conceit becomes emotionally powerful and attractive.

If T.S.Eliot is right and "humankind cannot bear too much reality", then Glee is the place where it escapes to for an hour of camp relief and entertainment. Show hands and singing provide the Glee club members with a new community where they can feel secure. Where many people live lonely existences, outside supportive communities, this reassuring vision of community life has a psychic gravitational pull. Glee is driven by flick-knife bon mots, boldly drawn characters and pantomime antics. It's smart, it's sassy, it's feelgood. But is it anything more than that?

Spoiler: the following considers some of the ideas in the "Madonna" episode of Glee and may spoil your enjoyment of it.

Glee, although appearing sexually confident, is burdened by moral incertitude and confusion. Demonised by some in the States as being a force of moral corruption, Glee is, in fact, something more interesting. Glee reflects an increasingly ambivalent response to the philosophies of "sexual liberation", where the sexual act is largely reduced to a pleasure principle. Watching the episode of Glee based around Madonna songs exposes the prevalent moral sense in its mutilated form and the raft of ambiguous, nervy responses to hyper-sexuality.

But, first, a word about Madonnna. In 1990, the commentator, Camille Paglia wrote that Madonna "has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives" and that the overt sexualisation promoted by Madonna was a direct assault on "the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism." Madonna was, according to Paglia, "the real future of feminism." Therefore, for some people it is not enough to enjoy the pop songs, one has to buy into the whole idea that sexual activity is where one is most liberated and oneself. According to Malcolm Muggeride, it is the philosophy that says, "I screw, therefore I am." Yet, as brand Madonna has grown middle aged and sinewy, so the philosophical premises upon which it was conceived are being slowly called into question. Here is Camille Paglia on the sleeve cover of Madonna's 2008 Hard Candy "with that ostentatiously exposed crotch and hard-bitten face lolling its tongue like a dissolute old streetwalker...still hammering at sex as if it's Madonna's last, desperate selling point." Suddenly, the type of sexuality that Madonna has made her own, looks less like something that liberates and more like something that repulses.

The writers of Glee recognised that Madonna's back catalogue of hits were the perfect musical fodder for their programme, but what about the Madonna philosophy that is intertwined, like bindweed, with her music? Would they be willing to promote the promiscuous in-your-face sexual posturing of their pop heroine? This particular episode dealt with different characters choosing whether to lose or keep their virginity - a staple theme in many contemporary teenage dramas. Although, the mere fact that it is a question for the characters in Glee recognises it has a significance beyond, for example, losing your first tooth. Losing your virginity, Glee concedes, is more than an inevitable expression of biological determinism. It is a choice (of import) made by a moral agent.

In one scene, Finn is approached by an attractive cheerleader who says, "Let's do the deed and I'll get promoted to head cheerleader." "And what do I get out of it?," Finn asks. "You get sex...," she replies bluntly. So far, so Madonna. Yet, when Finn does sleep with her, he analyses the experience by saying, "I don't feel anything because it didn't mean anything." Finn intuits that sex does have a meaning beyond physical activity. His moral understanding is that, for human beings, sex is supposed to be meaningful. Rachel, on the other hand (although being pressurised by her Lothario boyfriend), does not loose her virginity. "I'm not ready to do this, I'm betraying myself," she says. But in a Madonna universe, sex could never be a betrayal of oneself, because the relationship between the body and the self has been severed. The body is an instrument of pleasure, the self exists apart and in isolation from it. Rachel suggests the contrary. For her, what she does with her body is intimately bound up with her sense of her self - she recognises that she is an embodied person.

Glee wants to mock the Chastity Club with its motto, "It's the teasing, not the pleasing" (for all its high-sounding ideals of inclusivity, the Glee club is as exclusive as any other) and to make light of "losing the big V". But, this isn't the dawning of the age of Aquarius and time has shown that living in the sexual pleasuredom manufactured by people like Madonna has been, at the very least, a dubious experience for many people and society. "Given the characteristics of the modern era, love can scarcely manifest itself anymore," observes Michel Houellebecq, the author of Atomised, "Yet the ideal of love has not diminished. Being, like all ideals, fundamentally atemporal, it can neither diminish nor disappear." Curiously, Glee agrees.


  1. "It was the simple desire to reach out and touch someone, to be held lovingly in someones arms. Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction which is why it is so difficult to give up hope" also Michel Houellebecq .Atomised.

  2. Amen!

    This post was good for the following reasons:

    1. I learnt a new phrase I can use and seem intelligent with (bon mots - but I'll pronounce it wrong and reveal myself to be the dunce I am).

    2. It's provided a break from my final proofreading of dissertation.

    3. It's given me an opportunity to say, yes that's a very good point about sexuality etc.

    4. It's given me an opportunity to tell you that I've had a hair cut, and a very short hair cut at that.

    5. It's given me an opportunity to tell you that High School Musical 1-3 are vastly superior to Glee (and I'm not even joking).

    And with the benefit of hindsight, I think we can smugly agree that Madonna is/was the future of feminism.

  3. 1. A new phrase, especially one in French, could make you sound intelligent or it could make you sound pretentious.
    2. Glad dissertation is at the last stages.
    3. I think there are lots of good points to be made about sexuality.
    4. Good news about the you'll be telling me you're clean shaven.
    5. High School Musical? You can't be serious...can you?

  4. Bring back Fame any day!

  5. I can!

    I won't be clean shaven but - and I can't believe I didn't mention this to you - I'm doing a St Philip Neri with a friend of mine for his British Heart Foundation fundrasing - here's the facebook:!/group.php?gid=117949481557996&ref=mf