“So you like show tunes. It doesn’t mean you’re gay. It just means you’re awful” – Sue Sylvester

The most revolutionary show in the history of American television, Glee, employs several devices and themes that we have examined in the context of this class. In and of itself, the show’s use of camp as a mechanism of relaying important themes parallels that of Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.'” In doing so, the show represents queer issues with both the gravity and celebration queerness deserves.

The premise of Glee revolves around a group of high school students in suburban Ohio who are brought together through show choir, despite their diverse social and interpersonal backgrounds. Show choir is camp on its own, involving synchronized song and dance routines that students compete against one another with. The characters perform on stage at various show choir competitions, but a bulk of the show’s musical numbers occur in more casual settings like during their rehearsals and walking down the halls. Sporadically bursting into fully choreographed musical numbers in a random Ohio high school speaks to one of the elements Susan Sontag posits as definitional of camp, “[…] Camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious” (Sontag, 6). Additionally, “Notes on ‘Camp'” describes the idea of camp as “art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much’ (Sontag, 7). Clearly, Glee‘s writers and producers intended on creating a musical show, which implies such theatricality is a conscious artistic choice. The characters, however, often perform these musical numbers as asides. They will often burst into song mid-conversation, as seen in this number and many others, suggesting they do so in a completely random, non-premeditated, and naive way.

These spontaneous performances in Glee are seldom completely random (though occasionally, they are… which is camp) — these characters break into song and dance as a reaction to the otherwise serious issues they are facing in their personal lives. Take this aforementioned scene as an example. Santana, one of the main protagonists, is being pestered by a guy on the rugby team to go out with him. Given she has recently come out as a lesbian, she declines, and the rugby player proceeds to make homophobic/invalidating remarks. Her female friends from the Glee Club gather around her with support, and together they perform a rendition of “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry. Through this interaction coupled with the song choice, Glee addresses several themes: the prevalence of casual homophobia, the hostile propensity of high schoolers, how unconditional friendship buffers against the isolating effects of interpersonal hostility, and most importantly, that queerness is valid and the right people will accept, support, and love you for your sexual identity. The use of “I Kissed a Girl,” a popular song about queer experimentation, serves to connect Santana’s fictional push-back against homophobia to the gradual normalization of queerness in real-life. Both “I Kissed a Girl” on its own and this Glee performance attempt to popularize and destigmatize queerness by conflating homosexuality, something often seen as divisive, with music, an art form considered to be largely unifying and accessible to all. Both address such serious constructs in a fun, lighthearted way, which “Notes on ‘Camp'” describes as a hallmark of campness. Sontag asserts that camp is “[…] the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling” (Sontag, 10). It is clear that these contrasting elements within camp work in tandem to foster empathy from the general public. Glee’s campification of queerness brings self-expression and social support into the national discourse around homosexuality.

It is important for queerness to be represented as both serious and theatrical — both worth defending and worth having fun with. Homophobia is inherently very serious; throughout American history and into the present day, queer people have been berated, tormented, and even murdered for their sexuality. Addressing how commonly and pervasively homophobia affects the LGBTQ+ population is integral to fighting against this robust stigma that can cost people their lives. Integrating peer-supported queer joy in the plight against homonegativity works to deconstruct the “phobia” element of anti-queer hate: it demonstrates that all people can share excitement and enjoyment and community, especially through culturally accepted and enjoyed entertainment like music. There are a lot of other aspects of Glee I could connect to camp and across other texts from our class (and I would do so happily but I am already way over the word count), but it is clear that its general campness can speak for itself.

2 thoughts on ““So you like show tunes. It doesn’t mean you’re gay. It just means you’re awful” – Sue Sylvester”

  1. Frequentcrier, I really enjoyed reading (and rewatching!) your analysis of Glee as camp. I agree wholeheartedly and was reminded of many interesting and subtle messages from Glee that went over my head when I saw it the first time. I think it’s important that Glee was accepted into mainstream TV on the Fox network, and was doing its best to represent minority voices – however problematic that was, in hindsight. I believe Glee was successful in its aim, because I watched it with my family when it aired and we all discussed the characters and problems they faced. If the goal was to expose some realities American high schoolers face, albeit very dramatized, and bring them into the living room of families across the country, then it succeeded. The issue Glee faced was catering to an audience that was not ready to accept and face many of the issues that the show brought forward. Every episode had to end with some positive spin or inspirational dance number, which is not the reality that queer teenagers experience in high school. In this way it was not a reflection necessarily but an ideal Ryan Murphy was trying to live up to.

  2. This is so well written and I fully agree with everything you’ve said here. After some reflection, I think that glee was a significant contributor to understanding my own queerness as a kid. While it definitely ingrained in me some unhealthy narratives around queerness that I had to unlearn, it also had a way of effortlessly normalizing queer identities, queer experiences, and finding support in queer spaces. I like what you said about queerness being important “to be represented both as serious and theatrical.” I think that is where camp plays a very important role. While Kushner did not intend for the AIDS epidemic to be portrayed in a lighthearted manner, he was able to use camp as a form of resistance against homophobic narratives around the disease. By showing both the seriousness and tragedy that the gay characters faced alongside moments of nonseriousness, pleasure, and joy, Kushner was able to use camp to resist the idea that all queer stories must be tragic and to celebrate queer joy even in dark moments. On a small level, I believe Glee does this too, allowing queer characters to be shameless in their queerness and share this joy as a community

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