“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.

America’s Weaponization of Social Groups

Angels in America uses the split-screen technique to illustrate how Americans have created intense political divides that pit our issues against one another when in reality we all share the same struggles. In scene 7 of Millenium Approaches, Prior and Harper overlap in one another’s dream/hallucination. Both of them commiserate about the issues they are facing — Prior gawks at himself as a young man left alone to die of AIDS, all dolled up in full drag; Harper grovels over being isolated by her emotional problems in a Valium-induced haze. When they dive into conversation with one another, Harper tells Prior that her Mormon church doesn’t believe in homosexuals and Prior retorts that his ‘church’ (the gay community) doesn’t believe in Mormons. Harper goes on to say, “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions […] So when we think we’ve escaped the unbearable ordinariness and, well, untruthfulness of our lives, it’s really only the same old ordinaries and falseness rearranged into the appearance of novelty and truth. Nothing unknown is knowable. Don’t you think it’s depressing?” (Kushner 33). Harper is describing a conundrum that impacts us all — that our struggles that present as uniquely painful every time they appear in our lives are actually just recycled core issues we have already experienced, to which Prior can wholeheartedly relate. In tandem with their interaction about Mormons and queer people holding the same valence of beliefs about the other group, this notion of everyone’s problems repeating and reworking under a false sense of novelty implies that the two of them are actually more similar than different.

The split-screen design when these two characters address their own unique issues simultaneously serves to exemplify a general disconnect in American society at large. Prior, a gay man, has a personal battle with AIDS and speaks to the AIDS epidemic in America as a whole. Harper, a Mormon, is battling addiction amongst other psychiatric issues, and speaks to a greater problem of internalized religious pressures and their impacts on mental health. They seem strikingly different and inherently opposed to one another, as their ascribed social groups are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Ultimately, both are fighting illness, trying to uphold their personal values, and sharing a profound sense of loneliness. This contrast is illuminated by the split-screen technique, as it places their independent issues side-by-side to illustrate that they are really similar in nature. Further, greater societal dilemmas mutually underscore Prior and Harper’s issues, as per their conversation about how misery is just a perpetual rearrangement of core problems (loneliness, disease, ostracization, etc.). Harper positing that “nothing unknown is knowable” in reference to her own depression, which Prior empathically confirms applies to his life as well, demonstrates a universal understanding that despite our opposing views, we are all bound to cyclical suffering. By shedding light on these two opposite-coded characters’ comparable struggles, Angels in America addresses how the pervasive “othering” by organized social groups prevents us from addressing the root of our problems, which can be mutually understood when the veil of politicization is lifted. 

Questioning Conventional Queerness

“Why does the money that creates Stonewall 25 and events like it rarely find its way to working-class and poor queers? […] Have we collectively turned our backs on the small towns in Oregon that one by one are passing local anti-gay ordinances?” (Clare 43)

This entire paragraph on p. 43 is much too long to fully type out for this post, but effectively serves as a prime example of how Clare evokes a lot of his own frustration/confusion/complex internal monologue of navigating our heteronormative, ability-normative, elitist world as a trans, queer, impaired writer that grew up in the working class. He gets the reader to question the perceptions of normalcy that show up in our lives as we live them through contextualizing his nuanced perspective by asking questions. As seen in the aforementioned paragraph, as well as many times throughout the text as a whole, Clare poses the questions he has grappled with so as to logically progress us through how he came to seek dismantling conventions of normal.

In the two questions I included from that paragraph, you can see that he poses a more broad question (which translates to: ‘why are we not equally distributing our resources/predominantly funding queer organizations that are already well represented?’) followed by a tangentially specific yet related question (translating to: ‘have we abandoned queer people in local communities because they don’t fit the metropolitan agenda?’). The other questions in this paragraph branch into various other relevant discourses. This not only paints us a clear picture of Clare’s inquisitive nature, but in doing so prompts the reader to recognize just how pervasive and far-reaching class, race, and ability are in the realm of queer issues. We can see that once he began to question the big concept, more niche questions about how our systems impact our daily lives arose. In doing this, Clare doesn’t just argue his conclusion that we need to dismantle the normalization of white, able-bodied queer struggles to include other intersectional factors, but rather leads the reader through how he got there. Clare makes abstract, complex concepts digestible by laying out his own thought processes, which makes what he is trying to say much more tangible to his audience.

This theme of systemic issues having nuanced local impacts for those left out of the majority in Clare’s work directly bolsters our class theme of defining queerness by its multiplicity. It is clear from this excerpt that people advocating for LGBTQ+ issues are finally garnering public attention, but a large portion (if not all) of this advocacy leaves out gender/sexual minorities of color, lower socioeconomic status, impairment, etc. We’ve discussed throughout this course how multidimensional the term ‘queer’ is as a facet of identity. The way Clare points to all of the far-reaching corners of other identities that conflate with queer identity reinforces our argument that queerness encompasses so many things beyond sexuality and gender identity.

Boy at Edge of Woods

I notice the mechanical descriptions of sex in this piece, the procedural description of finishing up their business. Jones says, “After his gasp and god damn, after his zipper closes its teeth, his tongue leaves its shadows” (8) — the gasp and dialogue insinuate that the speaker’s partner has reached orgasm, and the rest of the excerpt describes him zipping up his pants and ending their physical contact. As much as these lines illustrate the motions of finishing intercourse, they also allude to the sense of abandonment in the lines that follow. The partner’s “tongue leaves its shadows,” and proceeds to leave the speaker “alone to pick pine needles from my hair, to brush brown leaves off my shirt as blades of light hang from the trees” (8). Again, these lines are somewhat just describing the procedure of cleaning oneself up after sex, but they are also profoundly lonely. It feels as though this speaker being left alone to clean themself up is part of their routine, but the details in the following lines add much more weight to the idea of someone picking the pine needles out of their hair and brushing the leaves off of their shirt after a quickie in the woods. Jones says, “as I relearn my legs, mud-stained knees, and walk back to my burning house” (8). Relearning one’s legs adds significant gravity to this piece in the sense of this phrase being a double entendre — orgasm is a physical release of tension, in which one might be so wrapped up in pleasure that they forget their bodies. At the same time, having to “relearn (their) legs” implies forgetting the semantic processes of standing, walking, moving, something they would otherwise be able to do. This could indicate that this experience was so important to the speaker that it overrode their basic functional mechanisms. This gravity — the loneliness/abandonment, the seemingly procedural nature of the act contrasted with subtle cues to how significant it is — builds up to that last line, in which the speaker must “walk back to (their) burning house.” A house on fire alludes to the consequences of their actions, as houses tend to represent family or stability and fire is pretty synonymous with being an agent of destruction. Because Saeed Jones is a Black, gay author and I have read the other poems in Prelude to Bruise, I can deduce that his family condemned homosexuality. Every queer experience Jones engaged in brought both immense connection to his true self and overwhelming shame in the face of his family. I think “Boy at Edge of Woods” speaks directly to Jones’ plight throughout all of the works in Prelude to Bruise, and that this poem magnifies some of the aspects of wanting that can make human connection feel so lonely.