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.