By Guest Contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from What Tami Said
I’m not quite a Gleek, but I do regularly record and watch Glee. It can be treacly and inconsistent, but I live for the moment when Chris Colfer busts out a Broadway classic like last night’s “As if we Never Said Goodbye.” The song occurred in the middle of the show’s much-hyped “Born This Way” episode, centered around the Lady Gaga song. The episode, which found the choir kids battling their insecurities, led to a denouement where they sang the Gaga anthem while wearing tees emblazoned with the natural traits they wrestled with most.
Rachel’s shirt read “Nose.” She had earlier decided against getting rhinoplasty that might erase one marker of her ethnic heritage. Kurt’s top read “I like boys.” And, in this episode, we saw the close of a storyline where he is bullied at school because of his homosexuality. Britney’s read “I’m with stoopid”–a nod to the running gag that is her questionable intellect. Mercedes, the sole regular black character on the show, wore a shirt that said “No weave.” I’m not sure exactly what her insecurity is. Does she hate that she wears a weave? Does she not wear a weave, but thinks she should? In this (customary) ignoring of Mercedes’ character development, Glee missed a chance to provide a window into what it’s like to be one of a very few students of color (particularly a black girl) at a majority white school.
When I’ve complained in the past about Glee leaning on the fat, black and sassy trope for Mercedes, someone reliably counters that all of the show’s characters are stereotypes. Except the show has bothered to explore the real people behind “the gay kid,” “the pretty, blond cheerleader” and “the tough guy,” etc. Not so with Mercedes. And not so with the other characters of color, save Santana. As far as we can tell, Mercedes has no family or home life. She has no friends outside of glee club. She has no ethnicity, but for what can be demonstrated by Aretha-style wailing and that one trip to “the black church.”
And, on a show full of teen-aged hookups, Mercedes is alone among all the glee kids in having zero love life. It’s not because she is a geek, because all the main characters are geeks. It’s not because of her weight, because Lauren has shown that a girl can be big, bad and beautiful and has won Puck’s affection. So….what is it about Mercedes that makes her particularly undateable at McKinley High School? Being “the only” or one of a few in school has unique challenges, not the least of which is dating. I am reminded of my experience being one of very few black students in an overwhelmingly white college, and the stories my friends told of being one of a handful of black girls in high school. And just this week, my stepson and nephew were explaining to me how the few black girls at their schools “just stick together” and “don’t really date.”
I suppose Glee has got the marginalization of black girls and women down, except that the show never addresses it. That makes me think Glee is not building up to deeper exploration of Mercedes, but simply treating black female characters in the way they are always treated–as hook singers, as comic relief, as funny sidekicks, as advice givers, as checks on the inclusiveness scorecard, but never as fully-actualized human beings.
Glee, like most other shows, presents the experiences of white America and assumes that those experiences represent everyone. I suspect that the writers of Glee believe that in our post-racial America, teens of color would face no unique issues in a happy, middle class high school in Ohio. We have progressed far enough that we can refer to two characters as “Asian and Other Asian” and everyone will get that it’s just a harmless joke from a clueless and cartoonish character. (Except that a friend of mine told me that, throughout high school, her fellow students really did regularly called her by the name of the only other Asian student.)
I realize the implications of Mercedes performing the closing number with “Black” emblazoned on her shirt. I’m not suggesting that…or maybe I am. I suppose I’m saying that in an episode where the main characters are exploring the things that make them different, having the only black girl NOT mention what anyone who has ever lived through the same situation knows damn well would likely be a way bigger insecurity than hairstyling seems a cowardly and clueless move from writers who have been smart and aggressive about tackling other topics.
Glee‘s writers owe it to the Mercedes character to learn how to write a black, female teen. Surely both the viewers and the wonderful Amber Riley deserve more than another sassy cipher.