Interested in an exemplification of the identity crisis that’s tearing American liberalism into disjointed bits? Look no further than Fox’s once popular television show about high school misfits — pardon me, courageous “nonconformists” — united by song and dance: Glee, which recently entered its sixth and, revealingly, final season.
The musical comedy-drama is — as is so commonly the case with popular culture — a microcosm of a wider socio-political phenomenon. In this instance, not only the spectacular ratings decline of Glee, but also the stormy unraveling of the left is attributable to an imperious didacticism that beats progressivism over your head.
Believe or not, once upon a time, conservatives watched Glee. Religious members of the right were the first to depart. While perhaps charmed by the show’s (then) central themes — teamwork, independence, and self-confidence — they swiftly turned to other programming after it became clear that Ryan Murphy, Glee’s creator, loathed the Christian Right. Any opportunity to portray observant Christians as heartless brutes due to divine tenets involving homosexuality and abortion, he took it. (It’s worth noting that the Jewish characters on Glee are überchic. That’s because they’re reflections of their real world mainstream counterparts, wholly secular, their “religious knowledge” limited to a few horrendous Hanukkah ditties. No risk of a theological crusade here!)
What are often described as “mainstream” conservatives — those less concerned with social issues — stuck around just a bit longer. But they rapidly tired of the force-fed “diversity” diet, not to mention the incessant lampooning of the Republican Party. As for libertarians, they too fled as soon as Murphy rendered the tea party into another one of his punching bags.
It’s not unreasonable then to posit that for the past several seasons, the only individuals faithfully tuning into Glee have been in the middle of the political spectrum or, more likely, off to the left. So that being the case, to what must we ascribe Glee’s catastrophic ratings crash? Why did the twinkling star in the eye of liberal viewers collapse into a black hole? My best friend, a genuine “Gleek” — I’m sure he resents the moniker, but he’s seen every episode, so too bad — contends that it’s nothing more than the writers’ inability to adapt the plot to the tragic loss of Corey Monteith, who played the role of Finn Hudson. But, as I have suggested above, it’s much more than that.
Progressives — like Glee’s writers — have failed (or is it refused?) to grasp exactly what their historical counterparts in the late-1960s and early-1970s failed to grasp: The overwhelming majority of Americans are situated in the “center.” Richard M. Scammon and Ben J. Wattenberg, two liberals, advanced this now-central political concept in their groundbreaking 1970 title, The Real Majority. In essence, they were trying to convince the Democratic Party to eschew, for electoral sake, the fringe radicalism of the New Left. Lo and behold, it spurned their guidance, paving the way to the re-election of Richard Nixon, the largest landslide victory in presidential history.
While progressives were defeated at the ballot box, they slowly but steadily gained on the cultural front. Over the past half-century, clutching a stick in one hand and a carrot in the other, they have trained mainstream liberals to obediently support their agenda. The carrot? The alluring promise of being regarded as “hip,” “cool,” and “forward-thinking.” The stick? The ugly threat of being branded “intolerant,” “bigoted,” and “prejudiced.” The fall of Glee is but one sign that progressives have gone too far, too fast, even riling the sensibilities of liberals. Ramming “identity” through the machine of partisan politics has produced a dizzying degree of polarization. Suddenly, if you don’t enthusiastically embrace blanket amnesty, you’re at risk of being stamped a xenophobe. If you don’t jubilantly embrace the practice of abortion, you’re susceptible to being labeled a religious fanatic. And if you don’t jump with joy at the idea of gay marriage, you’re in danger of being marked a homophobe. Centrism is no longer safe.
In Glee’s recent episode, “Jagged Little Tapestry,” Shannon Beiste (Dot-Marie Jones), the female coach of the high school’s football team, announced her decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery after being diagnosed with gender dysphoria. (Of course, not to stereotype female-to-male gender reassignment patients, Ryan Murphy had Beiste reveal that she’s still — and will remain — attracted to men.) “Like it or not,” Jones, told The Hollywood Reporter of her character’s odyssey, “it’s real life.” True, but not every American lives in West Hollywood or Chelsea. And look, for all I know, there is in fact a high school head football coach in a Midwest town that has undergone gender reassignment surgery. But to imply that this (hypothetical?) person’s situation characterizes America today — that’s just disingenuous.
The arguments in this piece do not comprise a value judgement of the issues Glee has chosen to dramatize; rather, they simply form an explanation for why the show no longer holds the attention of even liberals. I know tons of people on the left in both American and Europe who are fully supportive of gay marriage and gay rights and used to look forward each and every week to the newest episode of Glee. At the same time, they are not keen to slather themselves with rainbow body paint and run out to the next gay pride parade to prove their solidarity. In other words, just because they are supportive of gay rights, does not necessarily mean they wish to watch underage kids get it on in the back of a car, let alone permit their own children to watch kids do the horizontal polka.
Frequently, slow and steady rather than brute force wins the race. Before Glee premiered, Ryan Murphy claimed that the show was “designed for families to watch together,” appending, “It’s sweet.” Since then, Glee has styled a gay relationship as “a symphony of self-congratulatory sodomy,” undoubtedly a description that raised more eyebrows than chuckles even within the GLTBQ community. If Murphy was indeed hoping to capture the hearts and minds of most Americans with respect to gay rights, he should have borrowed a page from the playbook of Modern Family. The highly successful ABC sitcom, now in its sixth season, consistently scores strongly among conservative viewers despite featuring a gay couple with an adopted Vietnamese daughter.
Interestingly, one member of the couple, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), is also the head coach of a local high school football team. Apparently, Americans on both sides of the aisle and of all ages are more entertained by “Coach Cam” than “Coach Beiste,” who expresses her intention to have her breasts removed. Is that so surprising?