A guest post by Lauren Herold.
Over the past few years, Glee has received criticism for tokenizing some of its characters, particularly the queer, disabled, and characters of color on its show. While some argue that any kind of representation of marginalized individuals on mainstream television is groundbreaking, others have criticized Glee producer Ryan Murphy and his team of writers for mangling the story lines of their minority cast members.
But what about the representation of diversity on The Glee Project? Now just starting its second season, The Glee Project is Glee’s reality TV spinoff: it’s a competition-based show on which young people sing, dance, and act their way to the top, vying to become a character on the next season of Glee. While The Glee Project’s cast is remarkably diverse, it too fetishizes the experiences of its cast members.*
The representation of Tyler Ford, a multiracial young trans man on the show, is a perfect—and troubling—example. Tyler’s treatment on the show smacks of tokenization. Time and time again, Tyler is reduced to his trans identity. The show’s producers, Ryan Murphy especially, tell him they want to highlight his “unique story” and “struggle” so that he can be a “role model” for other young trans people who might watch Glee. Accordingly, viewers of The Glee Project only see footage of Tyler in the context of issues relating to his gender identity: we watch as he discusses transitioning and how it affects his experience on the show. (We don’t, for example, learn about any other aspects of his life: his family, his friends, his interests and hobbies, his desires, his goals.)
When Tyler is reduced to his gender identity, his experiences (and by proxy, the experiences of all trans people) are commodified. In “The Affordable, Multicultural Politics of Gay Chic,” a chapter from Gay TV and Straight America, Ron Becker analyzes the emergence of gay characters on television in the 1990s. He proposes that gay characters became ubiquitous because “marketers quickly realized that multicultural difference could be profitably commodified, packaged, and sold.” Indeed, producers use the “allure of marginality” to attract niche audiences to watch their show. Multiculturalism—a progressive liberal value—sells to progressive liberal audiences. In The Glee Project’s case, diversity is crucial to its brand and to its viewers. Highlighting a trans character on the show fits within its marketing strategy.
Yet this strategy leaves trans people behind. It puts their experiences in the hands of privileged wealthy, white, cisgender gay men who ignore the realities of trans experiences. In the first two episodes of the show, viewers watch as Tyler is silenced by Zach Woodlee, the show’s choreographer. While Tyler repeatedly explains that he is uncomfortable dancing because his body is literally in transition, Woodlee reduces Tyler’s discomfort to internal confusion and claims that Tyler should just “get over it.” It’s as if Tyler’s problems must be in his head: he becomes inadequate and mentally unstable and he just need to “work harder” in order to succeed. In this framing, trans people like Tyler—and not the society in which they exist—become the (apparently easily fixable) problem.
This is not only a misunderstanding of trans issues: it is a reproduction of a power structure that gives permission to white cisgender adults to dismiss the experiences of a young trans person of color. It simultaneously reproduces the neoliberal ideal that minorities just need to “push themselves” to succeed beyond inequalities. Reproducing this power structure is dangerous in a world in which the experiences of trans people of color are ignored by the social, legal, medical, and educational institutions that should service them.
Becker concludes his chapter by commenting, “For the fiscally conservative cosmopolitan who wanted to be tolerant but who still believed in free market capitalism and the power of the individual to determine his/her own destiny, celebrating cultural difference was undoubtedly easier than facing the economic and structural inequities of a capitalist system grounded in inequality.” Reality shows like The Glee Project consistently depoliticize their minority characters. The producers of The Glee Project might reason that no viewer wants to discuss the structural and interpersonal ageism, racism, and transphobia that young trans people of color encounter in their daily lives, much less admit to how they collude with these structures. So they reduce Tyler and other minority contestants on the show to niche identity categories that can be marketed to attract specific audiences. They mask institutional and interpersonal experiences of oppression in a veneer of tolerance and multiculturalism. In the process, they reinforce the vary structures of inequality that their show claims to oppose.
*This season so far has received praise for its remarkable diversity in casting: multiple young disabled, queer, trans*, and people of color make up the talented cast. Dani is a Justin Bieber-look-a-like lesbian, Mario is a blind young black man, Ali is wheel chair-bound, Charlie has ADHD, Abraham is a queer and Asian, Aylin comes from a religious Muslim family. While most TV shows generally have one or two token minority cast members, The Glee Project emphasizes diversity as a key component of its brand.