Crazy Awesome Sex Montage!

Glee is back on the air again, which is always cause for feeling… uh, well. Gleeful.  As with many shows that have brilliant first seasons, the first episodes of its second season have been a little rocky.  Last week’s was particularly awkward. The first season provided satisfying closure to a whole bunch of narrative arcs, and without actually undoing any of that—well, most of it anyway—the writers had to work really fast to get some balls back up in the air.  So Rachel gets a vaguely sinister boyfriend, and Sue blackmails the principal and a bunch of people sing about stuff… it all feels a little forced and awkward.

Similarly awkward was the setup for tonight’s episode.  Those who choose to complain about Glee tend to complain about the lack of continuity, in terms of plot and character, between episodes.  Usually this doesn’t bother me…  but did we have any reason to suspect that Sue Sylvester was devoted to Madonna? Like, utterly, creepily devoted, to the point where she’s willing to blackmail her boss and wear a giant novelty bra outside of her clothes in order to try to remake herself in Madonna’s image?  Did we have any reason to think that she was trying to model her life after ANY celebrity?  It seemed a little odd.

Worse than the inconsistency between episodes, honestly, was the lack of direction within the episode.  

Saying that Sue wanted to remake herself as Madonna is a charitable interpretation:  based on what we actually see her do in the show, her motivation was… possibly nothing?  I mean, yeah, winning the national cheerleading championship and destroying the glee club, but the connection of Madonna to all of that was beyond tenuous.  Sue is simultaneously the best thing about that show and one of its main weaknesses.  As a performance, and as a collection of zippy one liners, she’s one of television’s all-time greats.  But as a character, there’s not much there.  She works brilliantly as an ogre in the background, but if they want to give her more depth, they need to do a better job.

But let’s be charitable:  sometimes you need to do something, anything, to motivate the plot.  And once the Madonna episode got underway, it really cooked.  As you can guess from the title of this post, the defining moment was the crazy awesome sex montage, where three of the main characters lost their virginities in elaborately choreographed sex scenes set to Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.”  I mean choreographed here in at least three senses:

a)  In the sense of actual dance.  What we see is not actually sex, but an interpretive dance version of sex. The choreography was indeed elaborate, and from this non-dancer’s perspective, fairly awesome.

b)  In the sense of filmmaking technique.  When you watch this sequence, it’s not always super-easy to tell who is singing at any given moment.  There are six singers, but what with the standardization of tone that comes with a trained voice, and the additional standardization that comes with autotune, and our tendency to associate words with the moving mouth that appears to speak them, it all just sort of blends together (although Santana did have one little mini-solo, which I think was her first chance to sing on her own in the show thus far).  Similarly, while you would never actually lose track of who you’re watching, all three of the couples were noticeably dancing the same choreography, and the cinematographer and editor did a great job of emphasizing this via match cuts, so that Santana leaps forward to straddle Finn and then when the motion ends we’re watching Ms. Pillsbury straddle Mr. Schuester, and so on.  From the point of view of film aesthetics, this is basically choreography, c.f. Maya Deren, here.

c)  In the sociological sense.  Notice that all of these sex acts are planned.  In each case, the virginal partner approaches their more experienced counterpart at school and sets up an appropriate time and place for the carefully orchestrated—nay, choreographed!—freak-on-getting. More generally, this episode portrays sex (and especially defloration) as a kind of social choreography, a ritual that you go through in order to position yourself within society.  And that’s really the point that the more traditional forms of choreography mentioned above are trying to get across.  Having sex for the first time is not actually about a magical moment between you and your one true love—it can’t be, because the ritual of the “first time” is enacted by thousands of people all over the world literally every day. We can experience it as magical because it’s so universal:  it only has meaning as a private moment because we share in its public meaning. (This also ties into what I think is one of Glee‘s perennial themes, which is the way that pop hits too are both private and public.  Part of what makes someone like Madonna important is that, for a minute, when one of those songs is really working, you feel like she’s talking directly to/about you, capturing your pain, your joy, your faltering teenaged concupiscence. And yet, if she was only talking to you, she would not be a pop star, and she would have only one friend on Facebook.)

I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that Wrather and Sheely will be picking this up on their These Flamboyant Teenagers podcast, so I don’t want to steal their thunder too much.  But let’s at least scratch the surface.  Sex as it is generally portrayed in movieland is about love or lust (most typically male lust).  When it’s shown to be anything else, this usually serves as a token for the audience that the characters involved are evil.  Cruel Intentions, for instance, is all about this.  Seduction is rarely portrayed as a good thing in any context, but to seduce someone as an ends to some other goal is reserved for the truly vile.  Ryan Phillippe’s redemption in that movie is basically the moment where having sex with Reese Witherspoon becomes an end in itself.

So the interesting thing about this sequence in Glee is that none of the sex acts in this montage have the “right” kind of motivation.  Emma wants to follow Madonna’s example by “taking charge of her body.”  For her, this sex is basically an attempt to defeat her obsessive compulsive disorder, and the fact that she is in love/lust with Mr. Schue is just icing on the cake.  Finn wants to have sex because he feels weird about not having had sex.  (The scene where Santana seduced him by complaining that his obvious virginity was “exhausting to look at” was brilliant, by the way.)  Rachel’s motivations are a little harder to figure out, but they probably have to do with keeping her new boyfriend happy—or perhaps with the idea that people in serious relationships are supposed to have sex, so if she doesn’t have sex it’ll be a sign that the relationship isn’t serious.

And what’s really notable about this is that Glee doesn’t portray any of these sex scenes as evil.

On the face of it, this seems like a pretty radical position.  Go a little deeper, and those patriarchal power structures commence to reassertin’ themselves.   Because as those of you who saw the show know, the giant sex montage was actually just a dream sequence.  Just as things were gearing up towards a climax, we suddenly pull back to reveal that this has been what the virgins were imagining immediately before they do the deed.  And then Emma and Rachel wave off at the last minute, while Finn goes through with it, reinforcing the pernicious old chestnut that virginity only really matters for girls.  And this—trotting right up to the edge of a controversial position before falling back to the least controversial position imaginable—in itself is a kind of choreography, and although I would have been much more startled by an episode in which these three characters actually did have casual sex, I suppose the dance the show runners are doing with the sensibilities of middle America has an interest all of its own.

17 Comments on “Crazy Awesome Sex Montage!”

  1. Tomomi #

    I agree about the awkwardness about this episode. They really forced Madonna into the plot so that they could advertise that this was going to be THE Madonna episode. I would start questioning the show’s merit if they continue along this line of force-fitting songs in just to make a big media splash at the sacrifice of plot and character development. What makes a great show at the end of the day? What will make a show memorable in 20 years? I think it’s more plot/characters than Madonna. I do hope Madonna will still be around in 20 years… with Jesus #2 on her arm at the age of … 70?

     
  2. Robert #

    Ryan Murphy unashamedly forced a whole lot of Madonna into this episode. However, to complain about this we would then need to go back and complain about all the other narrative non sequiturs (and not just Brittany’s weekly non sequitur of blonde cheerleading nonsense).

    In a way, I’m saying if you love Glee you accept it’s ways and you accept that it doesn’t always have to make sense as it isn’t exactly high drama. It’s fun, campy and should be accepted that way.

    HOWEVER, it would have been nice to have it not been so unashamedly forced. I still like to see a bit of thought from writers.

    As a side note. I began watching the remake of The Prisoner last night and 5 minutes in the main character buries a mysterious old guy he meets (and then promptly dies) in the desert. The main character doesn’t seem to know how he got in the desert, where he is, where his next food or water is coming from and the old dude was on the run from a group of people hunting him with dogs. So why would he take the time to bury the old guy?

    It is that kind of narrative nonsense that turns me off shows. With Glee I have learned to accept it. The Prisoner will hopefully the burial but I doubt it.

     
  3. Casey #

    Even though it was Finn who, ‘went through with it’ whilst Rachael and Emma did not; I felt that his disillusionment with his actions, whether just with losing his virginity or with sex in general, subverted the trope that, “virginity only matters for girls.”

    This, I felt, was the episode most poignant comment on casual sex. Not necessarily to appease those in the audience who support abstinence, but rather examining the importance of people’s motivations for sex, both men and women, and how they can affect a person’s self view and self esteem, which tied in to the episode’s themes of equality and self respect.

     
  4. stokes #

    @Tomomi – It is kind of a trend too! The first episode was “hey, let’s do a bunch of songs with ‘hello’ in the lyrics! And one that has ‘hell,’ because that’s basically the same thing!” And this one was “hey, let’s do a bunch of Madonna songs!” If it’s a different theme every week from now on, I might get a little bit annoyed, especially if – as you suggest – they try to use the themes for marketing. But I think I’d only get a little bit annoyed… it’s still a great show.

    @Robert – I’m not sure if we need to be *quite* so rigorously evenhanded in our criticisms. Usually the narrative non sequiturs on Glee don’t bother me. This one did. It doesn’t make me a hypocrite to point that out, as long as I try to figure out why this one was different. (Which I did: it’s because it didn’t even make sense on the small scale. Apparently that, for me, is the line.) But just in case I wasn’t clear in the post itself, I do agree that Glee is not fundamentally about coherence, but rather about cinematic excess (color, music, energy, one-liners, melodrama, Bruckheimer Night). And I still think that it’s tremendously successful on that front.

     
  5. stokes #

    @Casey – yeah, that’s definitely true. I should give more credit where credit is due. And there was also something interesting about both Finn and Rachel lying about it afterwards, right?

    But I think the show is sort of trying to have it both ways. It wants to say that people need to consider their motivations for sex, and that everyone needs to take charge of their body whether that means having sex or not having sex, and that it’s important to foster an atmosphere of mutual respect, and all that sex-positive jazz. But then how does it actually play out? The women are set up in the classic 19th-century Madonna(Ha!)/Whore dichotomy, with Rachel and Emma on one side and Santana on the other. Finn, on the other hand, can have meaningless sex – maybe it’s not ideal, but it doesn’t make him damaged goods. (Santana, on the other hand, is most definitely damaged goods – unless they decide to radically alter her characterization, she’s not going to be a viable romantic partner for anyone on the show.) Perhaps most damning, Will decides that he himself is an asshole for agreeing to have respectful, affectionate, consensual sex with Emma. We’re told that if he really respected her, he would have realized instantly that she wasn’t coming at it from a healthy place… and that either means that sex is never healthy, or that Emma is too, like, I don’t know, hysterical flighty and uterus-having to be able to make the decision for herself? Paternalistic, is what I call it.

    Look, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that we will see both Rachel and Emma cash in the ol’ V-card somewhere down the road. Here we saw both of them give it some thought, make a rational decision, plan out the event, presumably in a safe, sane, consensual fashion, and then decide not to do it. And that’s fine! The last thing I want to suggest is that deciding not to have sex is bad in itself. But I am sure, SURE, that when they actually do the deed at this point, it will be either

    a) a harlequin romance swept-up-in-the-moment wine silk sheets and roses scenario

    or

    b) presented as a god-damned shame.

    Which is not the sexual politics I’d like to be seeing.

     
  6. Brimstone #

    “As a side note. I began watching the remake of The Prisoner last night and 5 minutes in the main character buries a mysterious old guy he meets (and then promptly dies) in the desert. The main character doesn’t seem to know how he got in the desert, where he is, where his next food or water is coming from and the old dude was on the run from a group of people hunting him with dogs. So why would he take the time to bury the old guy?”

    i haven’t seen either show, but A. isn’t The Prisoner all about surrealism? and B. It’s a decent, humane thing to do

     
  7. Pasteur #

    I’d just like to point out the possibly-brilliant generational commentary in Kurt’s reference to “Madonna”‘s hit-single, “Magic”. Seems to me that sotto voce Olivia Newton John slight made the whole episode worthwhile.

    This was my first episode of Glee, and I’m so looking forward to similar lines in the future.

     
  8. Fitcher's Bird #

    On the face of it, this seems like a pretty radical position. Go a little deeper, and those patriarchal power structures commence to reassertin’ themselves.

    This sentence could be applied to nearly every episode of Glee. I can forgive narrative incoherence, but my main problem with the show is how they present themselves as so progressive (look how diverse our cast is!) but are actually pretty conservative (look at us focus on the white straight able-bodied folks).

     
  9. stokes #

    But isn’t lip service to diversity preferable to no service to diversity? I don’t mean to present a false dichotomy where those are the only two options. Still, I feel like Glee‘s united-subalterns-of-benetton approach is a step up from, say, Friends.

     
  10. Gab #

    I’d like to suggest something I’ve suggested before, that while it may seem to be “reassertin’ the patriarchy,” Glee is actually doing the opposite. Think about your reaction to the sex (and not-sex) in the episode (and I had the same one, basically): it made you uncomfortable. If it was trying to say the patriarchal tropes depicted as winning were okay, wouldn’t it be more likely that they would feel “right” or make the most sense to the audience? By setting it up to make the audience feel unnerved or however you wish to put it, the script is given wiggle room and enables the claim for *either* side- that it’s asserting patriarchy, etc., as good OR the opposite- to have tons of legitimacy.

    I see this as a way for the show/writers to try and please everybody: they can say, “But look! We’re still asserting traditional values!” every time said values reign or are what get selected by the characters (because these are ultimately Good characters, and they always make the right decision in the end!); but they can also claim, “See, we’re subverting traditional values by showing them as totally sucky!” and use how awkward it always feels as evidence (because none of these characters are Good and they don’t always make the TRULY right decision).

    Re: Diversity- Glee is better than most shows, certainly better than friends, although I do think it’s sometimes used as an easy way to bring in the melodrama. I actually thought this week’s diverse characters were treated pretty kindly, though, meaning not just as token minorities: the little subplots involving Kurt/Mercedes and Artie/Tina were presented as legitimate concerns anybody could have isntead of the struggles of the underprivileged. And while the first did seem a bit forced, it had nothing to do with Kurt being gay or Mercedes being black (or a woman, really), but was instead about a real concern, that they’re talented and always get shafted; and Artie/Tina’s little thing fit in quite nicely as an example of a female character coming out of her shell a little and the male caring for her having respect for it.

    And to tie it back, I think the last point is a possible (but no, not necessarily THE) point of the episode. The women in the episode were doing most of the asserting, and the men went along with it. Even in Finn’s case, it can be taken this way (CAN be, but I admit not necessarily) because while Finn may not be “okay” when it’s over, he certainly doesn’t seem to place any blame on Santana- his discomfort is with the act itself, not her as a person. Rachel and Emma say no in the end, and the men involved say they’re okay with it (we’ll ignore the underlying treachery of Jonathan Groff’s* character for now); and the more subtle version in Tina’s case makes sense, too.

    *Btw, while I haven’t seen it, (but have listened to the soundtrack), Groff and Rachel starred opposite each other in _Spring Awakening_, so my meta-knowledge gets pretty squee-ish whenever they’re onscreen together, and I’ll admit this may be impacting my interpretations of their actions and motivations with regards to each other…

     
  11. Robert #

    @Brimstone – I can’t really comment on the surreal factor yet as I haven’t seen enough but looking from the main character’s point of view regarding the burial, he would have pulled the guy into the shade and left him, not took hours to dig him a grave with a stick. If the character is supposed to be a smart government agent I would expect him to carry this out.

     
  12. stokes #

    @Gab – You know, that’s an interesting thought. Given the degree to which the show wallows in cliché (“you the hot male lead, and me the stunning young ingenue that everyone roots for”), it’s entirely possible that they’re just poking fun at the stuff I pointed out above. But when every other joke is SO broad, why would this one be done so subtly?

     
  13. Gab #

    Because it’s sex.

     
  14. Jon Eric #

    I started loving Glee a lot more when I realized that the plot, the characters, and the themes on this show don’t matter. Or maybe they do, but only insofar as they are devices. Means to an end. In fact, the elements that make or break any other show are, on Glee, merely mannequins on which to hang a wardrobe of huge production numbers, snappy dialogue, and huge dramatic moments of awesomeness.

    Shu discovering the pregnancy pads in “Mattress” – Awesome. That part in “Sectionals” when Puck says to Finn: “Are we cool, man?” and Finn says: “No” – Awesome. The crazy sex montage in “The Power of Madonna” – Awesome. And made even more awesome when we’re estranged from the moment and realize that that whole montage was a fantasy.

    I called early on that the episode was headed to exactly such a set piece (and that it would set to that exact song). I also called that of the three couples, only one would actually go through with it (but I incorrectly called which one – giving the writers a bit too much credit for being progressive, I suppose). This montage had me fooled for a little bit, so when the fantasy ends and they’re all still staring into the mirror, it reaffirmed my initial expectations, and was filmed artfully enough (and the silence used effectively enough) to evoke a visceral reaction in me.

    Now, that’s not to say that the writers don’t paint themselves into corners a lot. Will goes from being passive-agressive sexist to being Madonna’s version of sexist (you can only take control of your body by doing what Madonna tells you to do). And then, at the end of the episode, he’s right to acknowledge that choosing not to have sex counts as “Taking control” too, but then he takes it a step too far, by saying that he should have stopped her, instead of letting her make her own decisions, and then he shoves a bunch of pamphlets in her face, all white-knight like. Feh, I say, and if that plan backfires, I will watch with a keen sense of Schadenfreude.

    Meanwhile, stokes makes a prediction up in comment #5 up there – that when Rachel and/or Emma actually do lose their virginity, it will either be Hollywood’s version of romantic first-time or it will be presented as tragedy. I pray that this prediction doesn’t come true, but if past performance is any indicator…

    *le sigh*

    At least the music numbers and huge melodramatic moments are still entertaining.

     
  15. Jon Eric #

    OH, AND:

    Whenever an important sociopolitical event or decision happens in Glee, I do think it’s important to determine whether the show is endorsing the behavior or not. When Will gives that stupid speech to Emma at the end, is it because his motivations are aligning with those of the creators (i.e. a happy ending)? Or is he making yet another stupid decision that will come back to bite him?

    I think the jury might still be out on that one.

     
  16. cat #

    “Finn goes through with it, reinforcing the pernicious old chestnut that virginity only really matters for girls”

    I had to rewatch this part of the episode to make sure (not a chore) but while when they discuss it, while Rachel tells Finn that she and Jesse were intimate and she doesn’t know why she was so worried…he tells her “Yeah, I couldn’t go through with it. I guess I’m just waiting for the right person”

    and when talking to Santana afterwards he says “I thought I’d feel different. I don’t feel anything. Because it didn’t mean anything.”

    Instead of reinforcing patriachal power structures, it seems to contradict them. Virginity doesn’t seem to just matter for girls because Finn doesn’t judge Rachel, saying “I’m happy for you” and although he probably isn’t, nothing suggests that he thinks less of her. Finn is the one asserting that nothing happened.

    Also, it seems to reinforce ideals. It’s a very idealized, true love sort of girlish fantasy to think that if you aren’t in love with the person you won’t feel anything. Finn is the one reinforcing this ideal though, and from his comments, it seems like he was expecting the ideal, like he wanted the true love/magical moment.

    Maybe I’m overthinking it…but hey, I have quotes!

    @stokes Just listened to the midi for the song from the unfinished zombie musical. Some of the scoring is really lovely. Would you ever write a Glee-inspired song?

     
  17. Mark #

    I disagree with the assertion that this episode returns to the patriarchal norm (“that virginity only really matters for girls”). In fact, I think the opposite is true. While literature usually typifies casual “defloration” as a thing that the insensitive guy does to the innocent female, in Finn’s case the traditional gender roles are reversed. After Santana steals (and I do think “steals” is the right word) Finn’s virginity, it is made abundantly clear that Finn is in a state of emotional shock/trauma.

    The disgust with which he says that he feels no different and the guilt with which he lies about it reveal his emotional damage. To say that loss of virginity in this episode is only meaningful to girls is, to my way of thinking, mistaken. Finn exits the episode with his fundamental innocence/naiveté profoundly violated.