‘Glee’-ful Conversations With Our Children About Diversity

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The television show Glee does something radical in how they depict the diversity of their characters. As such, parents can use this show as a way to connect and communicate with their kids about difficult subjects.

As someone who enjoys musical theater (I was raised on Rodgers and Hammerstein productions), I’ve been a fan of the show Glee since it started. At first, I simply enjoyed the darkly comedic aspects of adolescence and the incorporation of music and dance as a way to emphasize the feelings and struggles of the characters. It started out as something light, but somewhere along the way Glee became a little more radical, and I began to appreciate it even more.

What they did that was so radical was depict students in all their glorious diverse forms. Unlike other teen shows, Glee characters included Asians, African Americans, people of size, Asian Indians, Jews, homosexuals (both lesbian and gay), Latinos, and people with disabilities, including a girl and a woman with Down’s Syndrome, a boy in a wheelchair, a girl who stuttered, and a woman with a severe mental illness (OCD). But it’s more than just having a diverse cast of actors. Indeed, the radical part is not so much that they’re there, but more in how they’re presented. Characters with diverse backgrounds and circumstances are depicted like they’re natural, like it’s no big deal that people with such differences are all interacting together. You know, like real life. It’s kind of sad that such a depiction is radical, but it is.

Recently, Glee did it again with the introduction of a transgendered character. Just like they regularly do, the show took a hot button topic and presented it so that the character was sympathetic and relatable. In the episode, Wade, a member of the rival glee club, Vocal Adrenaline, confessed to Mercedes and Kurt (two of Glee‘s main characters) that he actually feels more like a woman named Unique. Mercedes and Kurt give him some high-heeled shoes and Wade uses them to transform himself into Unique for a wonderful rendition of KC and the Sunshine Band’s Boogie Shoes. It’s a great performance, and after watching it you suspect that Wade is now well on the way to transitioning into Unique permanently.

Although I must say that Unique’s plotline came out of nowhere, it was a nice story. Wade had clearly given his identity a lot of thought, and he showed great courage in his decision to come out as a trans woman in such a public way. Unique’s performance was energetic, fun and fearless, plus it seemed like the rest of the Vocal Adrenaline members (except for the director) were fine with her presence. I’m not sure that I buy how effortless Unique’s coming out appeared to be, but it was lovely to see the warmth, joy and acceptance depicted in the storyline. This is an area in which Glee excels because it leaves you wishing that tolerance were the norm for all people dealing with such difficult concerns.

However, as you might expect, there was pushback. Transgender issues are quite controversial, so there was an uproar from a few conservative media pundits. In particular, Fox network’s Bill O’Reilly and Gretchen Carlson complained that such sympathetic depictions of transgendered people will encourage children to experiment with their sexuality, and not follow the rules (they neglected to explain what these rules are, or who gets to make them). Ms. Carlson also objected to what a transgender TV character would mean for her as a parent: “Now I get to explain this to my 8-year-old if I just want her to see a nice family show with nice music.”

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Ms. Carlson’s comment made several things clear to me right away. First, if she sincerely believes that Glee is “a nice family show with nice music” then she has not watched it. Glee regularly deals with mid-adolescence problems like extreme bullying, mental illness, suicide, sex, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse. It fully deserves its FCC TV-14 rating, and watching even one episode of Glee would cause you to realize this. The musical numbers are often acceptable for younger kids (although this really does depend on the choreography), but the vast majority of the storylines are not.

The second point is more serious, in that it sounded like Ms. Carlson may not know how to have difficult conversations with her child. She is not alone in this. Many parents find that they are too embarrassed, ashamed or just plain scared to engage in such challenging dialogues. Frequently, this discomfort results in parents ignoring the topic, pontificating on it (so much so that the kids quit paying attention), or sometimes just providing a book and a directive to read it. While the lecture or book may be better than nothing, ideally parents would be able to talk with their kids about their values and fears, yet a lot of us struggle with this.

Part of the problem is that a lot of people think that these conversations should be accomplished via The Big Talk. Our culture has put so much pressure on parents that we often believe we must set aside a time, deliver our prepared monologue, and then, once finished, never revisit the subject again. It’s almost as if the big talks are mini-seminars with an end date, instead of ongoing family discussions. But what if we took the pressure off? Instead of gnashing our teeth when a television show like Glee causes us to address hard topics, what if we use it as a fun way to start a dialogue?

For example, I used Glee as a way to introduce my 9-year-old son to identity politics. While I do not allow him to watch Glee episodes in their entirety, I do let him watch some of their musical performances. Unique’s rendition of Boogie Shoes was one I let him watch. I fully anticipated having to explain about transgendered people and I showed him a little of Unique as Wade. His response: “I think he looks better as a girl.” My response: “I think he thinks so too.” And that was it. My son did not then run out and try to wear high heels and a dress (the aforementioned “experimenting” that Bill O’Reilly and Gretchen Carlson seem to fear); nor did he ask any other questions about it; he simply went about his business. However, the conversation was started and his world got a little more inclusive.

Do I think my son will ask more questions later? Yes, and that will be fine because these tough conversations tend to go better when they are done in piecemeal fashion. Kids do not like being overloaded with information, and they prefer for their questions to be answered when they have them. Thus, when working with families, I often encourage parents to address the tough topics briefly, and then let the kids come back to them later if they have questions or want to talk further. That takes the pressure off parents, and it lets kids process things in their own way and in their own time.

For all its faults (and there are many), Glee is a show that isn’t afraid to take chances. It does not shy away from controversial topics, nor does it depict an unrealistic view of who comprises our population. Instead, it showcases diversity of all kinds in a natural way, versus presenting it through Very Special Episodes. As such, it can be an ideal vehicle for parents to talk with their kids about issues that matter. I hope more parents take that opportunity. If nothing else, they can enjoy the music.

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