By Joyce Yin
New Organizing Project blogger
An open letter to Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, creators of the television show, ‘Glee.’
Tina Cohen-Chang & Mike Chang (Photo Credit: aa.theory.com)
Dear Ryan, Brad and Ian,
Hi, guys. You don’t know me but over the last few weeks, I’ve become an avid watcher of your hit television show, ‘Glee.’ I like that it’s not just another predictable drama about doctors, lawyers or cops. It’s pretty witty and I’m a a sucker for musicals. Singing and dancing on a network television show? Love it. I’ve especially enjoyed your exploration of the character Kurt’s sexuality, being gay and out at school and his relationships with his father and friends; his journey has been complex, multi-faceted and used as more than just a punchline. It’s been refreshing to see this storyline evolve over the course of the two seasons of the show and I can’t wait to see where you take Kurt next.
Which brings me to my next point: what exactly is going on with the people of color on your show? Why is it after two seasons, I still don’t have a sense of who these people are? Why is it that none of them, save for Santana recently, are involved in any major storylines or are allowed to have any multiple-episode character development? For a show that outwardly prides itself on the diversity of its cast and does a pretty good job of exploring LGBT issues and sexuality, your inclusion of people of color in your cast seems to border quite heavily on tokenization.
A few weeks ago, I saw the movie ‘Bridesmaids’ and I’ll admit I enjoyed it. But one of my qualms with the film was that while everyone was heralding it as a smart female-driven comedy, no one was really talking about how white the casting was in the film. People used the excuse, ‘the movie is supposed to take place in Milwaukee’ as a potential explanation for the lack of racial diversity but I wasn’t having it. Our country is diverse and our pop culture mediums should reflect that. But there’s also a fine line between representation and merely being background pieces and used for laughs.
I’ll admit, when I first heard about Glee when the show initially debuted, I’d heard about the diversity in the cast but was skeptical. And now, having watched the show, well, I’m still skeptical. Let’s be real here: there may be people of color on the show but the white characters get the most interesting and complicated storylines while the people of color remain in the background, i.e., Rachel wants to be a star and will do almost anything to get there, Quinn became a teen mom, Kurt is coming to terms with being out and proud at school, Finn is learning how to be a better leader, even new kid Sam got a major development when we found out his family was homeless. But what about the characters of color?
Let’s take the two Asian Americans Tina Cohen-Chang and Mike Chang, for example. First off, there’s been no mention on the show that they’re related to one another (I hope they aren’t seeing as how they’re dating….) so why couldn’t y’all come up with different last names? Come on now. Not every Asian American’s last name is Chang, just sayin’. Secondly, why is it that almost 80% of all dialogue either Tina or Mike gets is somehow related to their ‘Asian-ness.’ Let me be clear, I wouldn’t mind this as much if they were actually having critical, insightful discussions around being Asian American but instead, we’re getting pieces of writing like, ‘We met at Asian camp,’ ‘Asian kiss?’ and ‘Why does the couples therapy have to be Asian?’. Or else they’re in situations like when the Glee club is drawing names to be paired with someone for a duet and Tina draws ‘the Other Asian’ in reference to Mike. Their Asian-ness is only used for laughs.
Yes, we get it. They’re Asian, haha. Now how about some depth? Some complexity? I’m not saying that every word that comes out of their mouths needs to be an exercise in analyzing their racial identity but why can’t they have intricate, developed plotlines like Kurt’s? I understand that certain characters are only meant to be secondary and therefore won’t get such wide story arcs like him but you’ve managed to take Santana, a non-main character of color who could very well have remained the one-note, mean-spirited cheerleader, and make her three-dimensional with the realization that she’s queer. This plotline has become something that Santana has explored and struggled with through multiple episodes in the second season and it looks something like you’ll continue to explore in season three. By doing this, you’ve shown the ability and willingness to give the characters of color on the show something more to do than sing and dance in the background but what about everyone else?
I got my hopes up when Tina had some dialogue in the ‘Born This Way’ episode where they talked about her wearing blue contacts and how she hated her eyes. But the conversation ended with Mike calling her a ‘self-hating Asian’ (don’t even get me started on Mike who barely talks). No discussion around why Tina felt this way, how Asians will often get surgery to make their eyes look bigger (and more ‘westernized’) or the stereotypes that come with how mainstream society deems what is beautiful and what isn’t.
Fast forward to the end of the episode with the Glee club singing ‘Born This Way’ while wearing t-shirts emblazoned with natural characteristics about themselves that they initially despised and have come to embrace. We see Tina with ‘brown eyes’ on her t-shirt but we get no kind of examination as to how she came to that and why she changed her mind. I can’t lie, I was a little upset about this. For a good chunk of the episode, Rachel went back and forth about whether or not she should get a nose job which would erase a physical marker of her Jewish ethnicity. We got to see her go through her own mini-journey and come to her own conclusion that she loves herself and won’t get the nose job. Look, I’m glad Rachel didn’t do it but I wanted to know more about Tina’s own struggle! I felt a little robbed that Rachel would yet again be the focus of the episode and Tina would yet again be little more than a sidenote.
Bottom line, I’m glad to see a little bit of diversity on a major network television show but if you’re only going to use them as punchlines or as after-school-specials in discussions about marginalization (did anyone else cringe in the episode when Mr. Schue had all the youth spend a few hours in a wheelchair so they could know what it ‘felt like’ to be a person with disabilities?) without being critical in talking about systematic oppression, then you’re not much better than other television shows that are cast with all white, straight, able-bodied people. A tad, but not by much.
So as you gear up for season three, could you please stop ignoring the complexities of race and using it as an easy punchline and put as much thought and dedication into exploring the characters of color as you do into LGBT issues? That would be rad because you and I know that pop culture matters in the grand scheme of things. Thanks.
From a fan,
Dude. Chill. While I appreciate your adamant opinions aimed to better our culture, they are misplaced. This is Hollywood. Not even just Hollywood, but Hollywood and HIGH SCHOOL. Together. The fact that one Asian couple doesn’t get as much attention as the Jewish girl should not be at the top of your list of concerns. Come on. Santana is absolutely a minority in the spotlight. For that matter, so are Rachel and Mercedes. So redirect your anger towards something useful instead of blogging about a show that’s about as diverse as any shows get. As for Bridesmaids, I urge you to rethink your entire statement… You speak as though all-white movies shouldn’t exist. WHY NOT!? Casts are frequently all-black, all-Asian and all-Indian. Are you telling me whites do not have those same rights? Think about it. Then contemplate how it feels to be racist. Do not seek “equality” by glorifying any one race. Instead, embrace our differences, love everyone you meet with all that you have and try to relax and giggle next time you watch primetime TV. Don’t over-analyze; just enjoy.