I’ll be honest, I didn’t get into Glee until I heard that Darren Criss of YouTube/StarKid fame was cast to play a new character during Season 2. (As of today I still haven’t completed season one, mostly because I can’t stand the character of Terri, Will Schuster’s first wife.) An American musical dramedy, Glee aired on Fox from 2009 to 2015. The series initially focused on performing arts-loving Spanish teacher William Schuster reinventing the McKinley High School Glee Club, the New Directions, challenging outcast students to follow their dreams by taking part of the show choir competition circuit. While they work on their performances the members of the New Directions struggle with low self-esteem, relationships, race, sexuality, bulling, eating disorders and other social issues. Though working to present show had a lot of flaws (many of the serious issues and problems are resolved in a very ridiculous, unrealistic way) though that still doesn’t take away from much of the positive representation it brought on. Glee is rare in that it made a point to have racial, gender and size diversity with its protagonists, antagonists and supporting cast. They weren’t completely left in the side lines, and even better was the fact that the story lines of these characters rarely dealt with the fact that they were different. Note that I said RARELY, and I will get to that in a minute. As always we will start with the good by looking at four of the plus size characters of Glee.
Disclaimer: This review includes broad explanations of the series, its characters and the story-arcs in order to truly examine plus size representation in media. So I guess what I am trying to say is, SPOILERS AHEAD!
Amber Reilly/Mercedes Jones
So I joined the ranks of the Gleeks because of Darren Criss, but I stayed because of Amber Reilly and her character, Mercedes. Most of her story-lines deal with her racial and religious identity and how they are linked to her own personal ideals. I truly enjoyed the fact that she openly discussed the complexity of black hair even going as far as being honest about her using a weave, as well as how how her religious upbringing conflicted with her acceptance of gay couples. In addition, one of the major arcs for her character is her romantic relationship with jock Sam Evans. I will admit that I was ecstatic to see her not only in a relationship, but with someone not of her same body type and race. That was a major break from media common practice as it is usually male plus size characters that are paired with an attractive thin female partner so this was a very welcome change. (There are very few examples of the reverse version of this trope played out on screen and it is usually only for humor.) Their relationship is also not based off their looks (no fat fetishes here) rather it is built on their friendship.
Moreover, while she is depicted as clearly comfortable in her body, she is shown in one episode to not be comfortable showing more skin to present an overtly sexual appearance for a album cover shoot. Her refusal to do so costs her the record deal she had, yet it makes a subtle point about body positivity as most people equate the movement with showing skin, as well as wearing fitted and often times revealing clothes as plus size bodies have been pushed to be hidden under dark, loose,”unfashionable “clothing. Choosing to be modest in dress doesn’t make one less body positive just as much as choosing to be immodest in dress doesn’t make one more body positive. That said, Mercedes’s does have a very bold and fun sense of style proving that one can be fashionable regardless of their size. She is never shown wearing anything that isn’t bright and edgy. Granted there are a few outfits that fall flat in many of the earlier episodes of the series, but even so her style makes a clear statement of who she is. Throughout the series she remains the only main plus size character, yet she really isn’t treated like “the token fat person,” that unfortunate characterization goes to another strong and confident glee club member.
Ashley Fink/Lauren Zizes
One of the things that is very interesting about this Lauren is the fact that she was introduced as a very minor character who would only be referenced for humor. She joins the New Directions in exchange for 7 minutes in heaven with “bad boy” Noah Pukerman, who she rescued from a porta-potty prison, and a carton of Cadbury eggs. Lauren is a very interesting character in that she is a compilation of the common tropes attributed to plus size characters, though they all work to present a truly complex character. While she is an feared and confident athlete, she is revealed to be unsure of her singing voice and the very idea of performing in front of an audience makes her very nervous. In addition to that, though she is shown to be aggressively sexual, there are instances that she demonstrates that she has a soft side by being a little sensitive and hesitant with her romantic interactions with Puckerman. In her story arc in the series, Puckerman becomes her love interest though she mentions in one episode that she refuses his advances because he is a bad kisser. Yes, one of the conventionally attractive male protagonists actively pursues a plus size woman though admittedly there were many times in which he focused a lot on her size instead of treating her like a regular person. I especially loved the fact that she called Puckerman out for not wooing her that he probably would with other girls. In fact she made it clear that because she is bigger doesn’t mean that she is desperate, this of course was in response to the most insensitive serenade ever*:
The inclusion of Lauren not only expanded the line up of plus size cast in the glee club but she presented a plus size body that is not usually included in media, the non-hourglass shape. This was something that was criticized for the most part. Rosie O’Donnell famously stated in an interview that while she was all for diversity in size, Ashley Fink was “not pretty enough” to be representing that community. I remember getting so angry when I heard that statement that I wanted to drop kick my tv from my then second story window. Rosie’s statements revealed some very serious negative body image issues on her part, as she reflects society’s standards of beauty, as well as the notion that hourglass figures are the only acceptable plus size body types, both of which were not only challenged by Ashley Fink’s portrayal of Lauren, but also by characters that dealt with breaking gender norms.
Dot Jones/Coach Beiste
Coach Beiste is a very interesting character in that as Shannon she wasn’t conventionally feminine which is what made her a bit of an outsider, though her intense personality and preference for male fashion was very similar to antagonist Coach Sue Sylvester. Her appearance is what alienated her from her peers and made her the target of cruel jokes when she was younger and even among her co-workers as an adult. Her story remains to be one of the most inspiring as it deals with some realistic personal development that comes with issues such as gender and romance.
Her relationship with Cooter Menkins lead to one of the most powerful scenes in the series:
“Who is going to love you the way I loved you? Who is going to love you now?”
Now for a personal note: I grew up in a household where domestic violence was a part of our everyday lives. So this scene was refreshing for me to watch as its raw authenticity portrayed a very real issue that is often tiptoed around the few times it is addressed in media. Not only that but Glee decided to do it with a character that was not overtly feminine in personality or appearance, which demonstrated how anyone is and can be affected by this issue.
That said, her growth and journey to find who she is through self love was a great addition to the series. When Shannon came out as transgender and became Sheldon there were many people that cried out in outrage as they felt that this particular twist was a cop out for this inspiring story. I believe that a great actress and character was chosen to portray a journey of self discovery that is very real for many people. By the last season of the show we find that Coach Beiste is finally sure of himself, comfortable in how he looks and his identity.
Alex Newell/Unique (née Wade) Adams
With so many white queer characters on film and television it was great watching Unique on screen. Unique knows what she wants and who she wants to be which is why it was so easy to love her. Though she was born “Wade” she is quick to let everyone know she is to be addressed, as “she” and “Unique” making her the first openly transgender character in the series. She is also the person who helps Coach Beiste feel accepted at McKinley for who he is. I think one of the best things about Unique is the fact that her unapologetic self love and affirmation points out to the world that she doesn’t have to apologize for who she is rather the world should just accept her. She knows she’s talented and does not hesitate to demonstrate this fact. (She is described by Glee creator Ryan Murphy as the “love child” of Mercedes and her best friend Kurt Hummel, which is probably why she shares in their “diva” personas and style.) More than anything her membership into the New Directions reinforces the concept of diversity and acceptance on which it is founded and she becomes a champion for ensuring that it remains that way.
And now for the bad….
For a series that did so well in attempting to show the many different dimensions of a plus size person, they failed in having equal representation, by which I mean the series focused primarily on the thinner protagonists and their stories. For instance, Lauren only has one solo during her time with the New Directions, and was dropped entirely at the start of season 3, while Mercedes was demoted to a recurring character in season 5 and is only brought back to basically hang out with Rachel Berry and Kurt Hummel in New York as she preps for the release of her album, most of which is only mentioned in passing and rarely shown. Lauren and Coach Beiste both have stereotyped relationships with food, and are often seen either talking about food or eating something; in Sheldon’s case that includes an ENTIRE chicken for lunch. In addition, when the New Direction plus size ladies perform they are often seen in variations of the performance dresses, often with sleeves, if not bolero jackets. It is never made clear if this wardrobe decision was done for the comfort of the actresses, and their characters or if this choice was solely based on their size.
They are protagonists in the show, but in the musical numbers, that are the very backbone of the series, feature them singing back up instead of being front and center. Mercedes has an incredible voice, powerful enough to rival protagonist Rachel Berry, yet she was regulated to belting out the high notes at the end of songs, something that she points out on more than one occasion during her time with the New Directions, however, nothing is done about it even then. Sadly even some of their story-lines are left without any resolution if they were not dropped entirely. In fact, I recall that there was an interview with Ryan Murphy and a separate one with Ashley Fink in which they both hinted at Lauren having a story-line with Kurt in season three yet it was never realized. Unique’s catfishing plot, that culminated with the reveal of her crush on the very heterosexual Ryder Lynn, is never resolved though they both continue on with the glee club as friends in the following season. Yet, even with this long list of negative elements from the show, I believe that the effort put on challenging stereotypes and tropes definitely make it worth watching, well… at least the first three seasons.
Have you watched Glee? What do you think about how the plus size characters were portrayed and developed on screen? Is there anything that you would have liked to have seen done differently?
*I love this song and Queen, but the context in which this song was used just made my stomach turn.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Whether or not we are conscious of it, what we consume as entertainment has a great impact on our personal growth and identity. In many cases media literacy has been dismissed to be unnecessary, yet the truth remains that media influences social ideals and constructs of such concepts as gender, race and body ideals. Disregarding the significance of media in turn promotes the continuation of stereotypes and fosters a negative self-image especially in girls and women. Critical media consumption aids the fight against the over-sexualization, and under-representation of women, that can lead to the creation of works that aid female empowerment. It all starts with us. With that in mind, “+ Size Matters” will analyze past and present plus size representation in media as doing so sheds light on the beauty/body standards and stereotypes that still need to be broken.
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