Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Amplification Through Simplification"

I was so excited after watching the first episode of Glee a month ago that I immediately started brainstorming for reasons or excuses I could use to justify writing about it. Needless to say, Glee is my favorite new show of the season. It’s off to the most promising start of any major network show since Friday Night Lights debuted a handful of years ago. Luckily for me, only five episodes into its run (six if you count the pilot episode that aired early in the summer), Glee has given me numerous reasons – so many, in fact, that I’d be remiss if I didn’t write about it (or so I tell myself).

Glee’s main strength is that it is an effective pastiche. The show mixes and mashes generic teenage television show and movie conventions (and the stereotypical stock characters that populate these shows and movies) with musical theater tropes like characters bursting into song during moments of spontaneous emotional expression.

But unlike the High School Musical’s of the world, Glee refuses to downplay dark undercurrents that affect both the teenage characters and the adults that surround and influence them. In fact, the show revels in its darker elements in a unique way. The more edgy and serious a moment becomes, the more likely bits of wry, pointed humor will be layered in, at once undermining the drama of the moment and, interestingly, enhancing it. When Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron)—captain of McKinley High School’s Cheerios cheerleading squad and the leader of the school’s Celibacy Club—becomes pregnant and is confronted by the father, Puck (Mark Salling), she tells him matter-of-factly, “I only slept with you because you got me drunk on wine coolers and I felt fat that day.” It’s a funny moment, and it’s played that way. But it’s also heartbreaking because, with all melodrama and lofty explanations removed, the fact that the honest truth as to why Quinn slept with Puck (and thus severely altered the course of her life) can be whittled down to one line is brutally clear. Quinn really did sleep with Puck because she got drunk and felt insecure. It’s really that simple, that sad.

In the second chapter of his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes how abstract cartoons are often better able to focus a viewer’s attention on an idea than, say, realistic presentations like photographs or live-action films:
Why would anyone, young or old, respond to a cartoon as much or more than a realistic image? Why is our culture so in thrall to the simplified reality of the cartoon? … When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential “meaning,” an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t. … Cartooning isn’t just a way of drawing, it’s a way of seeing! The ability of cartoons to focus our attention on an idea is, I think, an important part of their special power…
“Amplification through simplification” is how McCloud sums up the power of cartooning. It’s a brilliant deduction and one that is clearly at work in Glee.

Though it is a live-action program, Glee works in cartoon-esque contexts. Much like the MTV cartoon series Daria, the Cheerios in Glee are always dressed in their cheerleading outfits and the football players look and behave like the simpleton jocks we remember from ’80s teen films. Similarly, the glee club is a collection of misfits, openly mocked and ostracized, the lowest of the low. But rather than parade around such stereotypical characters only to thrust them in predictable and contrived situations—in other words, rather than do what nearly all teen-driven television dramas do—the producers of Glee amplify the show’s emotional resonance by making conscious use of the simplicity of these stereotypes.

Using this method, the show’s take on teenage masculinity is fresh, moving and, yes, accurate. The two males lead characters I find particularly interesting and, well, just damn awesome are Finn (Cory Monteith), the stud quarterback and budding glee star, and Kurt (Chris Colfer), a gay glee club member and fashionista who lacks the confidence to come out to all but a couple of people. Both Finn and Kurt embody well-established teenage stock roles: Finn the time-tested jock, Kurt the twenty-first century flamboyant gay teen. As well, both are subjected to the obstacles and anxieties offered up by the modern American high school.

But beyond the clichés, the producers of Glee ratchet up the depth of each of these characters by exploiting the stereotypical, one-dimensional facades that seemingly define them. Kurt, for example, flaunts a stunning array of designer outfits, showing up in Marc Jacobs one day, Dolce & Gabbana the next. His manner of speech and use of make-up, as well, leave absolutely nothing to question: this guy is gay. The interesting twist here is that Kurt exists in world of (for the most part) acceptance. It is clear that nearly everyone at McKinley High knows that Kurt is gay. And the surrounding high school environment is not hostile about this fact. Really and truly, it just doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. This set of circumstances amplifies Kurt’s internal struggle, his own coming-to-terms with his sexuality. When Kurt asks Finn for a favor during glee rehearsal and Finn says “Thanks, but I already have a date to the prom. But I’m flattered. I know how important dances are to teen gays,” Kurt immediately and instinctively responds, “I’m not gay,” which leaves Finn with a confused ‘Huh?’-look on his face. This simple use of stereotypes highlights the struggles of gay teens like Kurt. Even in safe environments of acceptance—Finn is Kurt’s friend, as is all of glee—Kurt still is unable to come out. Kurt’s apparent one-dimensionality is actually crucial to his pathos.

Finn, like Kurt, has hard time reaching a comfortable level of self-definition. He negotiates the customary struggles of the high school star being pulled in various directions—is he a football jock or a glee star or both? In many ways, Finn is like the Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) character from Alexander Payne’s film Election: hard-working, naïve, heart-of-gold, almost too good to be true. Finn, unlike Paul Metzler, is not spared his fair share of faults, be they hilarious, devious or a combination of both. He may date the cheerleader, but he has a very real problem with premature ejaculation. He may truly like Rachel (Lea Michele), the glee club’s resident star and erstwhile diva, but he’s not above manipulating her talents to help him potentially earn a scholarship.

The point is that the producers of Glee thrive on locating chinks in Finn’s armor. And by exploiting these flaws in comedic ways, Finn takes on a very human, very sympathetic character. He’s not the hypermasculine jock with “a problem” that exists solely for purposes of moving a plot forward. While Glee does not deny that Finn is a football star, that he is a male who embodies masculinity in a very traditional sense, the show successfully humanizes him by keeping him so aligned with the stereotype.

I feel bad not speaking about the girls of Glee, especially the wonderful and complex Rachel. That analysis will be coming shortly, I’m sure. Suffice it to say, Glee is a breath of fresh air for network television which, at least at the moment, lacks in programming that attempts to explore emotional ambiguities and resonances of American high school life honestly. By successfully applying the “amplification through simplification” edict, Glee adds a little heart to the predictable lives of its teenage characters and a little bit of flavor to the predicable social, gender and sexual dynamics of high school.


Anna said...

I think this post might demonstrate everything I dislike about Glee. Because you manage to make the whole thing without refering to the other "lead" male teen, even obliquely - Artie.

I am so looking forward to a single episode of Glee not treating Artie like a prop. Even in an episode where he finally got to sing, and had five lines, he barely existed. And some of the promotional material for the show doesn't even picture him.

I'm really surprised to see a discussion of masculinity in Glee without talking about how Artie isn't allowed to be sexual in the way Kurt, Finn, Puck, Will, and Ken are.

Tyler said...

There are many male characters on Glee; I only chose to write about two, Finn and Kurt. I didn't discuss Artie--just as I didn't discuss Will, Puck, Ken, Sandy, etc.--because they were not as relevant to the main idea of this post.

I happen to agree that Artie is a severely under-utilized character on the show. What I'm confused about is how this post is somehow complicit with this under-utilization.

Had you asked my opinion about the use and characterization of Artie, I'm sure my response would have aligned quite well with your feelings. Why not just ask? It's a lot more constructive than damning an entire post that, frankly, was about something else entirely.