“Glee” takes on disordered eating
I really enjoy the hell out of the show “Glee”, mostly because I love a good burn and Sue Sylvester pops off at least 15 per episode. A lot of the political hand-wringing over the show gets in my grill after awhile, mostly because it falls in to the “we ignore most of the media while demanding perfection from our allies” kind of thing. Posts like this one bother me, for instance, because a program that would set aside drama and humor in order to simply reaffirm how great my political views are sounds like the most boring thing ever to me. I do admit to some fascination with the struggle some people have with the show. To my mind, camp is clearly not for everyone, and I don’t really get why people who don’t like camp simply can’t just shrug it off and find something a little more earnest and a little less wicked, if that’s their speed. I can’t help but wonder if they just don’t get that it’s supposed to be camp. Maybe people will never completely accept camp on television, which is sad, because to my mind, it’s by far the campiest of media. Yes, more than musicals. They don’t have the Home Shopping Network or any televangelists, and so they can’t compete.
With that out of the way, I have to say that the recent episode “Home” had me worried that the show was moving towards mainstreaming its point of view and abandoning the camp. Like the commenters at Jezebel noted, there was a whiff of after school special to the whole plot where Mercedes tries a starvation diet to lose 10 pounds in a week, passes out, comes to her senses, and sings Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” to the entire school. Still, I enjoyed the episode, and want the writers to concoct a way for a piano to fall on Will’s head, so that we can just get rid of that character and have Kristin Chenoweth come in permanently as the new glee club coach. And for all the after school specialness of the episode, I thought the huffing and puffing from Jezebel commenters about the imperfect way the show addressed eating disorders was a little unfair.
The criticisms, if I understand them, are that Mercedes didn’t develop the disorder slowly over time, that it didn’t make sense for her to go from a confident person to so insecure in an episode’s time, and that it was upsetting. On the last point, I have to point out that they make channel changers for a reason. On the other two, I have more thoughts.
As for Mercedes’ confidence, I don’t think that’s actually how she’s characterized. The writers can be really inconsistent with a lot of characters—including her—but they’ve never dropped characterizing Mercedes as someone who has a lot of bravado to mask her inner lack of confidence. I appreciate that, in fact, because it’s true of a lot of teenagers. Plus, they set it up that Mercedes feels (rightly, in my opinion) that she’s being undervalued in the glee club, and that the Cheerios are her ticket to being treated like the star. I could totally see her falling straight into Sue’s trap, especially since they created an avenue for Kurt and Mercedes to align themselves more with Sue in the last episode, when they did “Vogue” with her.
Second of all, I don’t think they characterized Mercedes as having an eating disorder, so the criticism that this was unrealistic misses the mark. Quin’s speech to her makes it clear that Quin sees Mercedes as someone who is setting foot on that path. The intervention happens before the disorder really takes hold. In fact, before Mercedes encounters pressure from other Cheerios and Kurt about starving herself, her approach is standard issue super-healthy—low fat proteins and vegetables. We’re meant to think she knows what she’s doing until the other kids get to work on her. When she passes out from hunger, we’re to assume this is the first time in her life that this has happened. It would be depressing as hell if they gave Mercedes an actual eating disorder to work out over weeks or months of the show. I’m glad that they one-offed it, because the show’s at its best when it’s not dealing in super depressing arenas.
Here’s what I liked, and why I’m surprised not to see more enthusiasm from the feminist blogs: I liked that they came out hard against the way that fat people are encouraged to lose weight in rapid, unhealthy ways. I’m glad that they honored the idea that a fat person’s health matters, which is a rare thing on TV and in our culture. I’m glad they didn’t do what you see everywhere else, which is to imply that eating disorders are only bad for you if you’re skinny. They even noted that crash dieting always leads to the person regaining all the weight they lost!
Maybe it just really jumped out at me, because we turned on the TV to watch “Glee”, and the show that happened to be on the channel when we turned it on was “The Biggest Loser”. I have a major vendetta against that show, which I think objectifies fat people, glorifies unhealthy behavior in the name of health, encourages eating disorders, and promotes an all-or-nothing attitude that subtly discourages people who can’t just give up their lives to dedicate themselves to weight loss from making any moves in the direction of better nutrition and exercise. Before we flipped the channel, we watched in disgust as they showed a man on the scale who seems to have lost something like 100 pounds in just a couple of months, a task that’s out of the reach of most people and for a good reason, since that requires unhealthy behavior that can kill you. So flipping to “Glee” and seeing the message that fat people deserve to eat, that eating disorders are never cool, that one shouldn’t have to sacrifice health and self-confidence just because you’re fat? It seemed almost radical. It made the after school special aspects of the program seem minor in comparison, because the ideas being portrayed were so different than everything else you see on TV.