Credit Where It’s Due: Glee Gets ‘Sweet Transvestite’ Right

By Arturo R. García

Long-time readers may recall that I was turned off to Glee pretty quickly. But this week’s  Rocky Horror Picture Show-centric episode piqued my interest. And, thankfully, nearly completely rewarded it.

You see, this ep reached into some personal history for me. That’s yours truly on the right a few years ago playing Brad Majors for the now-defunct Justice League of Denton in Kansas(!). Both of the troupes I performed with, the JLD and Crazed Imaginations, were safe spaces for me as both a POC and a geek.

But I only started caring about the episode when word got out that the lead role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter would be played in the show-within-the-show by Mercedes, who was relegated early on in the series to Sassy Black Diva status.Yeah, I know she got to sing Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” in an earlier episode, but, as she points out this week, she’d never gotten to play a lead before.

The music from the movie, of course, is just a backdrop for off-stage melodrama: Mr. Schu is putting on the show to stay close to Emma, who’s dating RHPS fan Dr. Carl; Coach Sue fakes supporting the show for the purposes of chasing a local Emmy; and the prospect of performing in their underwear stirs up anxieties for Finn and Sam. (Actually, the male body-image subplot might make for interesting stuff in future episodes, not to mention a welcome contrast to this kind of mess.)

SPOILERS AHEAD

As it turned out, another POC character, Mike Chang – whoa, two Asian-Americans on this show? And they both speak? – volunteers for the role first, only to have to leave the production because of his parents’ objections. And then, in a small but winning scene, Mercedes steps up. Not like “a diva,” but calmly and honestly. For her to get this moment of agency made me genuinely happy for the character. Whether the creative team intended it or not, for the two characters not to compete for the role helped the episode both avoid some potentially cringe-worthy scripting, and elevate both Mike and Mercedes’ character arcs going forward. Maybe.

I say “maybe” because, through no fault of her own, Mercedes is denied her opportunity. After learning a Life Lesson, Schu scraps the play, so nobody actually sees her in an actual performance. Which makes her rendition of “Sweet Transvestite” at rehearsal extra bittersweet, because she nails it. Vid is below:

Instead of treating the idea as a punchline, Mercedes’ taking on the role and costuming – a corset, short cape, mesh top, leather skirt and boots – are seen as honest interpretations on her part. And her “big voice” becomes an asset for this particular song, the show’s centerpiece. It would absolutely behoove the creative team to revisit her losing out on leading an actual show before the season is up, because this glimpse showed us a character who could take on that kind of responsibility.

At last month’s RHPS convention in Los Angeles, the hope was that this episode would spur renewed interest for the various shadowcasts around the country, and I certainly share in that. But if it also inspires some geeky POC kid to take a jump to the left every so often, then that might be the show’s greatest success of all.