Sue Giveth, and Sue Taketh Away: Glee and Matriarchy

Sue Giveth, and Sue Taketh Away: Glee and Matriarchy

The radical subversion of gender roles at the heart of Glee.

[In honor of the return of Glee later this month, enjoy this guest post from OTI stalwart Gab.]

The cast of Glee

It is true, that God is the Soveraign of all Soveraigns; and therefore, when he speaks to any Subject, he ought to be obeyed, whatsoever any earthly Potentate command to the contrary.

—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. XXXIII

“Women are passive-aggressive” is a longstanding commonplace about gendered aspects of social and power structures. And always implicit in it is the corollary that men are the opposite. If Alice pisses Becca off, Becca will make a comment about Alice’s shoes being out of style or sleep with her boyfriend or something; if Adam pisses Billy off, Billy will punch Adam in the face.

At first glance, this seems to be what is going on at William McKinley High in Glee, the hit teen soap which begins its second season later this month, in relation to the social hierarchy of the students. The football team, McKinley’s male elite, throws slushies, dumps people in trash cans, and basically stomps around campus in a hyper-masculine display of power and intimidation. Meanwhile, the Cheerios, the female elite, gossip about each other, sleep with different guys (and, we learn, with one another) for various purposes, and form alliances with each other to bring enemies down or to secure more power.

How do students become elite? For the football players, the answer is simple. A boy goes onto the football field and demonstrates his toughness and masculinity to Coach Tanaka, and if Tanaka is impressed enough, the boy gets on the team.

By analogy to a feudal society (an analogy that doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch for American high school), Tanaka is kind of like the king and the football players are like his knights. King Tanaka has his favorites, in some ways, but roles in the court (positions on the team) are based in a straight-forward way on the talent each player demonstrates—mostly brute force. Finn, Tanaka’s appointed Prince, isn’t quarterback because he’s smart, but because he can throw a pigskin.

Because the claim to elite power is based on qualities that are gendered masculine—strength and the potential for violence—threats to masculinity are threats to power and vice versa, and these threats must be overcome with force. This is why Finn being on the Glee club is a threat to the power structure of the football team—singing and dancing are deemed insufficiently masculine—and this is why he is punished with the sort of violence normally visited on a lower class of student.

By contrast, consider the Cheerios, their queen being Coach Sylvester. There are some surface similarities in the selection process for membership in the elite, though with the expected transposition of soft power—cajoling and politics—for violence and brute force. But the Cheerios have much, much more going on under the surface.

Finn’s membership in the Glee club is taken as a defection (and is the occasion of a confrontation between Coach Tanaka and Mr. Shue.) But Sue can send girls to do the same work that is intolerable for the boys, bribing three Cheerios to join New Directions as spies.

Not only is the social status of the girls somehow more secure than the boys—it is more difficult to threaten through alliance with the gleeks—and for that reason the Cheerios seem to have more latitude in wielding power, in the form of manipulation, than the boys have.

Quinn, Brittany, and Santana all appear to still do just fine once they join the glee club: Quinn still remains the Queen of the campus. And when Sue makes Mercedes the star of the Cheerios, she becomes the coolest girl in school (or something very close), yet she’s still eating lunch with New Directions members.

Her position is secure enough that when Puck needs a boost to his social status, he specifically attempts to date Mercedes. For the boys, all it takes is a bad haircut to get thrown in a dumpster, but Mercedes can “slum it,” if you will, and still be idolized by others. The transfer of power goes one way: Puck draws status from Mercedes, but her status isn’t thereby diminished. Indeed, all the Cheerios appear to have much more leeway in the boys they choose. For example, even though Finn’s social status had clearly taken a hit, Santana and Brittany plot to seduce him.

(It’s believed that the peasantry in any monarchy or empire has more opportunity to marry for love. Artie and Tina? Yup.)

This pattern of examples encodes a radical reversal of gender norms. Stereotypically, the star male athlete of a high school is the King of the student body, his closest friends on the team his advisors or royal council, and the rest of the team and the entirety of the cheerleading squad his royal court.

But at McKinley, the Cheerleaders are running the show. There’s a Quinn—excuse me, a queen (the name “Quinn,” for what it’s worth, is derived from the Irish Gaelic word Coinn, which means “chief”)—and a court of lesser cheerleaders, and they bestow power on the boys rather than the other way around

In metaphorical terms, it might fit better to call the football players a military rather than a monarchical organization, not only because they are specialists in violence but because of the emphasis on obedience. In other words, for the boys, the source of their power constrains their agency; not so for the girls.

From where does the Cheerio’s power flower? Ostensibly, Principal Figgins is in charge of the school, but in practice it’s pretty clear that the real power at McKinley is Sue Silvester. The feudal analogy leads us to assume we have a bunch of sovereign nations, ones with different amounts of authority and autonomy within the overarching structure of the global society entrenched within the high school.

But allow me to suggest a different interpretation. Sue isn’t simply another actor on the political stage; she is the source from which political power and the authority to wield it flow. What Glee portrays is a matriarchal monarchy with Sue as not the sovereign, but as the god bestowing the crown on the woman she deems most worthy.

The head of the Cheerios is made sovereign in the manner of medieval monarchies: through Divine Right*. Sue giveth, and Sue taketh away: Quinn is ousted by Sue because of her pregnancy (ironically, the capacity to bear children is what gets her ousted from the female elite); Mercedes, a girl that had just the day before been a loser, is suddenly accepted as the coolest girl around and head Cheerio when Sue declares it so, and the rest of the squad doesn’t question question her sudden rise to power. Sue’s divine reign extends to everyone on the campus, to student, teacher, and administrator alike.

What does this make Coach Tanaka and Principal Figgins, then? Well, perhaps high-ranked lords, or minor kings, but they aren’t as important to Sue as the Queen she selects, nor are they as influential on the students. The real power struggles are between the kids in and out of the uniforms of the elite, for what happens to and between or among them ultimately drives any conflicts Sue has with Figgins, Tanaka, or any other adult at the school. It’s the girls in the Cheerio uniforms calling the shots Sue herself doesn’t call, and everyone knows they are acting in Her name when they give an order. The other students, football players or not, are too terrified of Sue to question the Cheerios. So, for however crazy-evil Sue Sylvester may come across, at least she has female empowerment in mind—she doesn’t coach a boys’ team, after all.

*The concept of a political leader selected by the supreme deity of the land is not exclusive to Christianity, by the way. Gods and goddesses have been picking rulers all over the world since we first started speaking to each other in more than grunts.

Gabrielle Arrowood has a B.A. in politics with a minor in history. She has dabbled in group therapy and public education for children with special needs, as well as daycare and retail. She now gets paid to read geeky stuff in a graduate program for political science.

20 Comments on “Sue Giveth, and Sue Taketh Away: Glee and Matriarchy”

  1. Mark #

    Does the name ‘Cheerios’ itself reflect Sue’s divinity? Cheerios, like donuts, are defined by what they lack, i.e., the ‘o’ in the middle. By referring to her subjects as Cheerios, Sue is reminding them that they are incomplete; even the head Cheerio is only a partial being, serving as a vessel for Sue’s divine presence, or “holy spirit” if you will. Brings new meaning to the old cheer: “I’ve got Spirit, yes I do, I’ve got Spirit, how ’bout you?”


  2. Hailey #

    One of my biggest issues with Glee is what I see as sexism, and while this article is interesting, I don’t find it entirely convincing.
    What is subversive about portraying women as the manipulative, powerful, icy, incomprehensible queens of the school? I’m sure that’s how every high school guy who doesn’t actually know a woman sees them. They always seem to be unruffled, always in power, while he is scrabbling to keep his place on the football team or seem cool enough for his group of male friends. I would argue this is less a subversion than the continuation of women being portrayed as this mysterious, Other race rather than people just like the guys, who struggle to preserve their popularity and to be respected by their peers. I find it notable that the only Cheerio to fall from grace does so by way of a teenage pregnancy– a plot device so hackneyed and so cliche that even a man who doesn’t understand anything about women feels safe dealing with it, because one can just trade in the cliches and devices that have been used one hundred times before. And Sue, who wields true power, is not only almost completely a caricature (and I find the attempts to make her otherwise awkward and ham-fisted at best), she is also almost completely masculinized.
    The comment about peasants marrying for love was interesting, but I think also a misinterpretation. What does it say that the only young woman in Glee club who aspires above her “class” and reaches to love a member of the football team– that is, Rachel– is also the butt of everyone’s jokes and easily the most generally disliked member of the club? Rachel receives karmic retribution for her actions again and again and again, and her ambition to be famous is never painted as anything other than something to be mocked. From the next season preview, it looks like her relationship with Finn is going to be made a mockery of, too. As for Tina and Artie- who’s to say that’ a case of true love rather than a case of taking what you can get? Maybe it’s just me, but I never found that couple or their reconciliation for Artie’s completely asshole-ish behavior to be convincing.
    I feel like I should stress again, this article was very interesting and very well-written. :)


    • Gab #

      Quality of Writing: Wrather really cleaned it up for me. The draft I sent him was crap-tastic. The ideas were there, but he hashed them out. Thank him for that.

      I agree with you about Quinn’s pregnancy being rather cliched, but I also find it realistic. To make another pop culture reference, think of the movie Juno. Juno gets treated like a freak when she starts showing, but Michael Cera’s character (name escapes me) gets asked for sex advice. That’s sort of how it happens, or at least I’ve never heard of it going otherwise- the girl suffers because of the pregnancy. So it follows that Quinn would lose her position of power as a result of carrying a child while it didn’t appear to have any negative affect on Finn when it comes to the hierarchy at school.

      As for Rachel, are you saying she gets made fun of for being dorky or what-have-you because she likes Finn, or are they two mutually exclusive character attributes?


      • Hailey #

        That’s a very good point about the pregnancy. I guess what I really meant was that realistic or not, it’s easy to deal with because the tropes have all been previously established.

        They are separate characteristics, but I think it can’t be ignored that it is the awkward, abrasive girl who is in love with Finn rather than someone confident and self assured like Mercedes or even Tina, who has flaws and definite confidence issues but is portrayed in a more consistently positive light than Rachel.


        • Gab #

          Ah, okay, now I see what you’re getting at. I wonder how much of that comes from Rachel and Finn being the “leads” on the show versus intentional characterization. Let me try a different way: I’m pondering, now that you bring it up, whether the characters were developed separately and the “romance” between them has nothing to do with who they are as characters, or if Rachel was made annoying and such specifically to juxtapose her with “cool” Finn and thus make their connection all that more difficult for not just them to come to terms with, but also their fellow students and even us, the audience. What do you think?


          • Hailey #

            That’s a really good question. I would lean towards her awkwardness being an intentional contrast to Finn’s cool. That is one thing that I think Glee does right: one scene with Rachel, and you know exactly why she’s on the bottom of the social pyramid. So many movies and shows about supposedly ‘nerdy’ girls leave me wondering what exactly this girls’ peers are supposed to find so socially unacceptable (Gabriella from High School Musical and Emma Stone in the previews for that Easy A movie come to mind…). Since Finn already has the traditionally pretty, obviously cool Quinn as a girlfriend, dramatically it makes more sense that the romantic rival would be her polar opposite personality-wise, and would cater to the opposite side of Finn’s football/glee conflict.
            Honestly, I doubt the creators of Glee thought to themselves, “Hey, I know, let’s make this character really unpopular and a bit unpleasant to show that girls should never crush on guys who are above them socially.” It’s probably just an unfortunate unintentional implication, and one that I probably wouldn’t have even thought of if it weren’t for the interesting ideas about power this article posed. In actuality, I’m sure it’s due to what I said before, and also to the fact that there is a certain kind of girl who will pine after an apparently unattainable boy, even when he treats her like crap. Mercedes and Tina are not that girl. Rachel is.
            (And while I keep hoping her character arc will be her realizing that she has the power, drive, and confidence to get by just fine without a guy, especially a dismissive jerk like Finn, that’s looking increasingly unlikely. But I digress…)

          • Gab #

            Oh, Rachel. You make fabulous points again, Haily, but allow me to propose an alternate interpretation. I may be giving the writers too much feminist cred, but I have seen her as a girl with very large security and self-image issues. I’m no psych major, but I imagine they have something to do with an emotional problem she developed as a kid. She may be full of herself when it comes to singing, but she seems to really doubt herself in virtually everything else, and that includes inter-personal relationships. She isolates herself while vocally saying it’s because she’s better than everybody, but in reality she’s probably a very, very co-dependent person- or she at least much desires making personal connections with people. What appears like a constant struggle for a man is actually just a constant struggle to form a real bond with someone apart from her dads (whom I *really* wish we could see!). This is hard to back up because we haven’t really been shown any attempts at friendship with the other girls on the show, but at the same time, the “girl meets boy, girl dates boy” plot is so much more prolific in pop culture than any about just plain friendship that maybe it’s all she has been exposed to; so it’s no wonder she looks desperate for a man, for that’s the only way she has been shown a person becomes complete, finding their “other half” or however one wants to put it.

          • Hailey #

            It won’t let me reply directly to your last comment, so hopefully this works…

            I 100% agree! That’s what I meant by my last point, though I failed to put it as clearly. I think Rachel’s crush on Finn and her personality are inexorably linked exactly for those reasons.

          • Hailey #

            Oops, and meant to add: Now, I just hope the show subverts that social message, and shows her and the other characters learning that that is not, in fact, the only way to be happy. Though since one of the roles being cast in that open call they had was a boyfriend for Mercedes, that seems unlikely.
            (Another was a boyfriend for Kurt, but since that is a subversion itself of the trope of the gay (yet single and totally desexualized) best friend, I think it’s totally awesome.)

          • Gab #

            Hm, casting calls for boyfriends? I have mixed emotions about that one, so I’m kind of going to piggy-back a little (not really disagreeing, just expanding). On one hand, it’s doing what you imply, meaning it perpetuates the idea that the only way for a person to be happy is finding a significant other. However, perhaps it’s sort of like the Quinn thing we discussed earlier: realistic. Teenagers (and, actually, plenty of adults) are totally romance-hungry and crave finding love, making it a big focus of their lives. Whether this is a good idea for a person isn’t the issue I’m bringing up, but, rather, whether the show is being cliche or stereotypical because it’s the easy thing to do or because it’s approaching the kids with the goal of presenting the things they’d most likely prioritize in mind. Sometimes buying the “realistic” aspect is hard on TV, but it’s especially difficult on Glee because of the fantastical world being depicted. So, in this case, since people literally break in to perfect song-and-dance numbers all the time, it’s no stretch to wonder if it’s possible for a teenage girl to, gasp, define herself outside of who she’s dating.

          • Hailey #

            Plus, couldn’t you argue it’s the job of popular media to present an alternative to the (in my opinion, very destructive idea) that a boyfriend is the pinnacle of a high school girl’s life, rather than perpetuating it?

  3. Hazbaz #

    What does this article mean for Mr. Shue? A man attempting to wrest back patriarchal power using weapons that are traditionally feminine?


    • Gab #

      That’s actually a very interesting point. I’m reminded most specifically of the episode where he tries to seduce Sue. Seduction and sex in order to gain power within an institution, as opposed to over someone individually, are traditionally attached to female gender roles; so yeah, I definitely think you’re onto something there. And help me out- I can’t recall a time where he wins 100%, either.


  4. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Gab – Great article! Glee is still a show I find just entertaining enough to fast-forward through, but also obnoxiously two dimensional. But your article definitely makes me think twice – Glee might have a little more subtlety than I give it credit for. A little. I’m still going to bitch about it, though.


    • Gab #

      And I imagine others will bitch about your bitching. ;p


  5. McNeil #

    Great piece! As regards Mr. Shue in the power structure you’ve described, he’s playing the role of a heretic. Rather than seeking political power, he’s taking aim at the Divine Sue, seeking to offer the plebes another route to self-fulfillment. This is far more threatening to the established order than some princeling seeking temporal power, which is why Sue is determined to bring down Shue, but only taunts and humiliates the other princelings (the principal and football coach).

    Shue, therefore, is like an insurgent Christianity taking on the established pagan gods. Sue’s touchy pride and use of punishment to establish her will echo the Roman gods and deified emperors of the first centuries AD. Shue, meanwhile, seeks to lift up the lowest while the powers that be try to take away his power to attract followers (the choir room). His philosophy appeals to the lowest strata of society, meaning that the harder the authorities try to stamp it out, the more fervent his followers will become.

    Prediction for season three: Finn goes out onto the football field for the big game and looks up into the sky. There he sees a symbol of the glee club marked with the sign “conquer through this.” Wearing his glee uniform onto the field, he trounces the opposing team. A hero, he then demands that the whole school join the glee club and disbands the Cheerios. All is well for the next 12 seasons, when a hipster named Luthor starts an a cappella group, nailing the organizational flyer to the door of the glee club room.


    • stokes #

      “Shue, therefore, is like Christianity taking on the established pagan gods.”

      YES. And specifically Pauline Christianity: rather than construing gleekiness as a specific sect of geekiness, he also reaches out to cool kids like Finn and Quinn, i.e. the gentiles. Notice that these new converts to New Directions are allowed to skip the unpleasant ritual of getting tossed in the dumpster by the football team! Instead, they get slushies tossed on their faces: a getting-thrown-in-the-dumpster of the spirit, if you will.


  6. Timothy J Swann #

    Fantastic to see an article by you Gab… I’ve always been wondering when this has been coming! OTI may be the only reason I may ever watch Glee. As yet, it still hasn’t happened, but it might…


  7. rick #

    It’s actually really basic. The reason the Cheerios and Sue have power is because they win at their sport. The football team is not a good football team. If they and Tanaka were winners, his power would rival Sue’s and possibly eclipse it just by virtue of being the male sport the cheerios exist for. Though Sue bring more aggro and selfish than Tanaka might even things out.


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