(This post originally appeared on blackbookcv.com)
This season, Glee has focused more on the love lives of guidance counselor Emma and Coach Beiste. At first I was glad that two of my favorite characters were getting more screen time. I’ve always been thrilled that Glee included both a main character with OCD, and a badass female football coach. Mentally ill characters on television are few and far between, so it was encouraging to see a mentally ill character on a show as popular as Glee. But the more I watch Glee develop Coach Beiste and Emma’s romantic relationships, the more I find myself cringing.
When it comes to dating, both characters are portrayed as naïve, completely inexperienced, and very very insecure. The root of their lifelong dry spells, according to Glee? Emma’s mental illness and Coach Beiste’s appearance.
The desexualizing of these competent adult women comes to a head when, during the preparation for West Side Story, Artie announces that Blaine and Rachel’s virginity is limiting their performance, believing that they need real life sexual experience to do justice to the musical. This pronouncement causes Coach Beiste and Emma to act awkward and flustered, prompting Artie to ask them if they’re virgins. Both of them mumble something under their breath and rush away. Seventeen-year-old Artie is portrayed as comfortable with his sexuality, while these twenty-or-thirty-something capable women are fearful and juvenile when it comes to sex. Why?
Beiste has long been portrayed as someone who sees herself as too much of a misfit to date anyone. In a Season Two episode, she confesses to Will that she’s never been kissed. In Season Three she tells Cooter, her love interest, that men like him don’t date women who look like her. And Emma’s OCD has always been mysteriously conflated with a fear of sex, although fear of sex is certainly not a symptom of OCD. Emma’s fear of sex/OCD ended her marriage to Carl the dentist.
What’s especially problematic is that Beiste’s appearance and Pillsbury’s individual struggles with mental illness are presented as the source of their extreme sexual immaturity. It’s fine that Glee recognizes that women do struggle with body image and mental illness. It’s good to include characters with these issues. What’s not okay is to suggest that women who live with these realities are pretty much not able to have sex. Women who suffer from mental illness date people. Women who don’t look like models date people. To portray Beiste and Pillsbury as basically infantilized by attributes that are abnormal to Glee, but pretty common in the world at large, does a huge disservice to the many real life women who look Beiste and have OCD like Pillsbury.
And so, Glee takes part in pop culture’s tendency to desexualize the mentally ill when it’s not excluding them altogether. (Or portraying them as hypersexual.) The show makes it clear: women with attributes the rest of the world sees as “issues” are romantic outcasts. Lucky for Emma and Beiste, on Glee there are white knights in the form Will and Cooter Menkins, benevolent men of integrity willing to rescue Emma and Coach Beiste from exile. Since Glee doesn’t realize that butch women and women with OCD date and have sex like everyone else, when these “troubled” ladies date on the show it’s an overwrought tale of overcoming. Will dramatically promises to stick by Emma until her OCD and fear of sex are more under control. Then he sings Coldplay’s “Fix You” to Emma, perhaps to reiterate his noble commitment to saving her. Glee is a self proclaimed advocate of acceptance, and the plotlines with Emma and Beiste are probably meant to be taken as encouraging inclusiveness. But it’s not inclusive to simply fall back on tired old stereotypes that make it some kind of unusual triumph for anyone with mental health concerns, or anyone outside of narrow definitions of attractive, to have romantic relationships. By actively introducing stereotypes (and perhaps, with Emma, creating new ones), Glee seems to buy into the very ideas it seeks to refute.
Having poor body image can certainly impact relationships. Mental illness can certainly affect intimate relationships. It would be nice to see an actual exploration of these issues, instead of patronizing faux-acceptance.
Aside from their love lives Emma and Coach Beiste are strong and multifaceted characters. It would be great if Glee would stop undermining their strength and complexity by suggesting that their mental illness or appearance makes them emotionally and sexually stunted.