The Greatest Crime In Television
Sometimes I think the greatest crime in television is caring.
Giving a damn is already practically illegal anyways, so it makes sense. A lot of the time, in fact, giving a damn is actually more of a punishable offense than anything actually offensive. I get yelled at for organizing books too efficiently, for Chrissakes. It doesn’t even stand imagining, what happens when we say stop it, don’t call them that, you’re talking about another person, do you mean to, do you understand, you can’t do that. When I ask someone to please don’t say “retarded,” it hits me, you’re working in a fucking special ed classroom for crying out loud, your student is three feet away, what are you thinking, it is agreed that the problem is that I can’t take a joke.
I cried for ten minutes when they said “the ayes have it” last night and New York got marriage equality, and Dad told me to quiet down, he was trying to sleep. I didn’t know what was worse—not being able to tell anyone about the results, not being able to tell anyone about the newest cut that barely even stings anymore, or being so fucking grateful that at least I wasn’t called dyke, because we know how that one goes.
(My brother gave me a sarcastic thumbs-up, and my sister told me that she’d known it would pass, and she’d give the rest of the country ten years. I wanted to congratulate her on being so blithe, I wanted to ask if she knows how long a wait ten years is, I wanted to remind her that at least mom would go to her wedding, I wanted to ask her if she’s ever watched people vote on her right to make a family and if she’s ever seen them vote it down. But that’s not funny or neat or easy and thus allowed, that’s messy and hurt and I would mean it, and so I kept quiet.)
I was at the White House conference on bullying in March, which framed violence, in all forms—physical, sexual, emotional, verbal—against students as a civil rights issue. In a group discussion, some immigrant students from the Chicago public school system told us, in excruciating detail, about the physical, racially-based violence they experienced every day. They said that, whenever they tried to report this violence to a teacher or administrator, the same response would come back:
“Why are you telling me this? You’re making me upset. You’re hurting my feelings.”
(The students are being beaten, are failing classes because of chanted racial slurs whenever they sit down, are afraid to come to school. The teachers feel bad because the students are implying that perhaps, if they are not safe at school, the teachers are not doing their jobs properly. The teachers’ feelings are hurt. So the students, the victims, get punished again.)
It’s not a racial thing. It’s not an issue of Teh Gay, or of cripples and madmen and fools. Strip away the aesthetic revulsion, the fear and the ignorance, the complicated socio-economic histories and the familial scars, and people still like to treat other as disposable objects, good for entertainment and not much else. We’re each other’s toys, and if we don’t amuse sufficiently then we probably need to be whacked a few times, the way you hit a CD-player when it skips. Maybe we need new batteries. Probably it’s easier to just throw us away.
(Some people say we evolved the way we did because we’re so good at killing, and we certainly killed off our preceding species quickly enough. It’s a quick hop-skip-jump from amusement to mascot to mystery to menace, and broken human playthings seem to implicitly threaten that we’ll steal, or at least break, all the other toys too. Loss and sacrifice and discomfort and fear we might be next can all trigger our kill-switches, apparently.)
Perhaps I’ve lived an exceptionally awful life, but I find that hard to believe when I watch flocks of smiling, popular people being silently unhappy together. There are reasons people lie about and keep secret how they feel and what they think, and I’ve seen one too many terrified college girls fighting and drinking and cutting all their hair off and then going to class the next morning with bright, store-bought smiles to believe that it’s just me.
True, I get furious, sometimes, when I tell someone about being mistreated because of my autism and they respond with a tale of their own frustration at the hands of some cruel peer or unnecessarily draconian teacher or boss. One of these things is not like the other, and the whole thing never reads as anything other than the familiar “that never happened, that story isn’s allowed, let me show you the script, let me show you the acceptable ways to be and get hurt, too bad they’ll never apply to you.”
Sometimes, though, these things are almost exactly the same in all the ways that viscerally matter. I’m abused because I’m a not-person. To hurt someone without using your fists you just make them feel like a not-person, or, at the very least, a not-okay-person, and you can do that to anyone. Everyone suffers because, as humans, we’re just naturally very good at hurting each other.
Which is not to say that we aren’t also very good at making each other feel incredible, or at least happy, or even just warm and safe for an hour, and that can be enough. We have families and stories, and these are not only terrifying weapons, but also powerful things that can create a lot of good—and when they don’t, we can make new ones. There’s joy and beauty in the world, and sometimes another human seems to hold it all in the spaces between their joints.
Maybe that’s why we hurt each other so very well.
It’s all very stark and dramatic, and that’s a useful way to make a point, but life doesn’t come with points. Life comes kind of blurry and murky and bled-together and wonderful, and maybe looking back you can scoop some of it into a coherent narrative, but the words are never quite sufficient. After all, they said I could get married means something bright and happy, but there’s also something angry and resentful and undefined, because they never asked if their marriage offended me. And then we have to think about all the things marriage means and represents, and what it means for the couples who, watching the votes be counted, whisper that they’ll still love each other just as much if it doesn’t pass. Life is just too big for the words we have and the stories we learn, except for when it’s the other way around.
Most of us don’t go around slaying dragons and going on quests of many miles. Happily-ever-afters are unsettlingly complicated, and the problem with slaying one Evil Overlord is that another always pops up. Curiously, Evil Overlords like to disguise themselves as people we rely on and must be polite to, and quests of many miles tend to consist of driving oblivious children to and from soccer practice, piano lessons, and gymnastics every day for ten years and never driving over and off the bridge.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation is a truism, but no one ever asks why, and if maybe it’s because we think we missed the train to something spectacular years ago and there’s no honor in what we have left, and so we don’t claim the words and stories we were taught to dream as our own. We grow up, and we stop reading children’s literature and picture books, and we’re told that archetypes and mythos are something besides history and biography, and we lose our sense of importance and solidity and any sense of ownership of our own story or right to any words which might mean anything.
Stealing a person’s words, their ability to look clearly at something and see it and know that they do, is the smallest and easiest way to kill someone.
What I mean is, I say child abuse, and people think of my student, caged and beaten and raped and made to eat out of the garbage for nine years. Well, yes and no—yes, because if anyone deserves those words, it’s him, and no, because things are rarely so harsh and vivid and obvious. There’s a reason children like him are so rare and his situation comes up in textbooks as a Worse Case Scenario, one of the Worst in the History Of Our State. Life is a game of ripples and things adding up and subtle variations.
My student will never be the same because he never got to be not-afraid for his first nine years, until eventually he just couldn’t feel fear anymore. I will never be the same because they made me take my clothes off in the car once because I’d drooled all over them, and because I only had to be hit a couple of times before a raised voice was enough to have me looping those experiences and hitting my self, all on my own. His father hit him in places no one could see. I wished someone would just hit me one more time, now that I knew what I could do, so someone might believe me and maybe it would stop. One of those experiences is stark and dramatic and mercifully rare; one is quiet and common and so easy to justify, overlook, pass over. People see my student’s misshapen collarbones and fall silent in horror; no one notices that after a lifetime of being slapped and grabbed for flapping I can’t raise my arms from my side, because the whole point was to make me unnoticeable.
Our situations are different, and so it gets decided that one of them doesn’t count. Similarly, people who have never had the horror of growing up in a community where you get taken away if you’re not good enough declare that since my student’s institutionalization was stopped at the eleventh hour, it doesn’t count. (Just like, if you run away fast enough from the homophobes on the street corner, somehow magically nothing could have happened. Just like if you never say no, you must mean yes. Just like, if they don’t put a gag in your mouth or knock you out, you should be able to fight them off.) I’m glad the world is so very tidy and convenient and adjustable that knowing you were supposed to spend the rest of your life somewhere unspeakably horrible because you just aren’t good enough has no effect on a thirteen-year-old boy. I mean, clearly someone needs to tell him this, as he for some reason feels otherwise. Someone should also probably tell his classmates, who now know—and who always knew, but now it’s reconfirmed and a little more fresh in their minds—exactly how unsafe they are.
It doesn’t count because he doesn’t (we, they, you, don’t) count.
There aren’t any stories about that.
I have this niggling suspicion, though, that there are an awful lot of people in the world who have been told that they don’t count, don’t get to be in the stories, things were never quite bad enough, or maybe they were too bad to be real. I have this feeling that there are an awful lot of us, and that if we just stopped keeping ourselves a secret, we might blow that lie out of the water.
This is where Glee comes in.
Glee tells you, right in the pilot episode, that it’s about not-people discovering that they’re people. Oh sure, there are layers and complications and distractions and other features and a million different ways to say the same thing, but it really does come down to that. It always surprises me, because since when is that a story I see on my TV?
We consume media in a context of constant, casual violence against some and dismissal of everyone else. We expect to be entertained in the middle of an environment in which no one, no matter how skinny or blonde or popular or perfect, can expect to be safe and happy for long. If our television program is going to do anything besides lie to us about following our hearts and happy endings, we’d rather it at least didn’t mean it.
So Glee gets sneaky about it. They give us Bryan Ryan, a Special Guest Character who gets an entire episode devoted to what it is to be a closeted gay American without every actually showing any icky attraction to men. They delve down into layers of nuance and complicated human relationships and the terrible compromises we make and they talk outright about being closeted and cutting yourself off without ever pulling a visceral homophobic reaction from the audience because Neil Patrick Harris (and can we talk about that casting choice?) kissed a guy.
That same episode we have Artie, our wheelchair-using character, learning how to tell people that he doesn’t care about his legs, he doesn’t need to be fixed, he’s got other things he’s worried about. Difference is, he’s not some sort of coded metaphor. You see his chair before you see him. And so all the other characters (and the audience) see is a poor, suffering boy (in a wheelchair, just a cripple bound to his chair) miserable because he can never achieve his dream of being a dancer. Artie spends the entire episode negotiating what all of that means, and how to make himself heard and believed through all the other noise, while, yes, getting a little sad that he can’t just get out of chair and make the entire problem go away. But the episode is called Dream On, and being able to walk doesn’t change the people around you.
The point these two intertwined storylines make is that it doesn’t matter how badly you want people to hear your own voice, they much prefer the dream they have of you in their heads. It’s an entire episode, on the heels (and a continuation) of the similarly-themed Laryngitis, devoted to showcasing that on every level, from casting to costumes to musical numbers to the actual lines delivered, Glee plays around with metaphors and story-telling and scale and variations on an idea and performance versus experience to look at how humans negotiate the space around each other.
(There’s very little joy in the Glee Club, sometimes, if that gives you an idea of what they mean.)
We start out with the writers taking a complicated, unjust experience, stripping away the salient, fundamentally other part of it, and delving waaaaay down into it and all its complexity and nuance. It becomes a story about the fucked-up ways people treat each other, and the fucked-up consequences that has. The audience, to some degree, gets it, and likes it, because it’s not ANGRY, it’s not about TEH GAY, it’s not scary and divisive and other. We don’t have to change the way we treat whole classes of people because of this now, do we?
(I think the point being made is that yes, we do, but it’s entertainment so if you don’t want to hear that, you won’t.)
Probably the most frustrating part of Glee is that the show focuses on universal problems of human relation, but it’s aired in a world where only a few characters out of the oversized cast are universally regarded as human. The only two characters played and seen straight-away as human, right from the start, are Finn and Will. Besides being straight white middle class males, they have two other very important, tightly-linked things in common:
- They’re allowed to rage.
- They don’t hurt people on purpose.
Kurt (gay) snarls in his songs, Quinn (teenage pregnancy) yells that she’s furious, Puck (juvenile delinquent and Lima Loser) explodes and punches people and gets sent to juvvie, and those are all Bad Things. Finn kicks over a chair, Will terrifies his wife, and those things are fine. Those things are natural, healthy, human reactions to the (not-) people around them being awful. Kurt and Quinn and Puck learn to be angry quietly, to smile through their teeth, to take names and social security numbers and sometimes just to wait. Finn and Will are allowed to feel, and show, their hurt.
Their rage is safe and predictable and about socially sanctioned things and won’t ever shake anything up. Kurt, Quinn, Puck? They might hurt someone’s feelings.
They might make someone uncomfortable.
They might ask someone to risk something.
Kurt and Quinn and Puck can hurt people just by breathing, just by being there, and it will always, always, be deliberate. Finn and Will only ever hurt people by accident, and that’s the catch. Finn and Will are people. Good people. Good people don’t, can’t hurt anyone, and since Will and Finn are Good, and since they didn’t mean it to hurt, didn’t even know it could, it doesn’t.
(They’re not like my student’s father, so obviously intent on destroying people, and so their actions have no consequences. They’re good, and if we feel hurt by them, then that’s our fault, and if we argue, then we’re bad, bad people, trying to sully their goodness. That’s just not who they are.)
Isn’t that a cool trick?
(That is the real reason my phobia of lifting my arms, and my student’s near-institutionalization, and so many other things, Don’t Count—what was done was never meant to hurt, and the people who did it don’t hurt, that’s just not who they are, the whole thing is really just better off forgotten, it doesn’t ever need to feature, it doesn’t (we don’t) count.)
But what Glee does such an uncannily good job at showcasing is just how, exactly, anyone can make anyone else Not Count, and what that does to all involved. Simultaneously, it fleshes out people we see first through Will and Finn’s eyes—because we can’t see not-people through their own eyes—and turns them from cheap and easy stereotypes into painfully real, immediate, people. The process is messy and long—two seasons in and it’s still not quite complete—and it’s complicated by the fact that it happens with an audience going through the same process. People laughed at Bryan Ryan’s quips and cried at Artie’s tears and didn’t quite put the pieces together. The cast donned shirts stamped with their shame and sang about baby I was born to survive, and it wasn’t quite obvious enough to change everything.
(It’s entertainment, it’s not supposed to mean anything, and it has to be packaged such that people can ignore the real parts if they don’t want to see them. It’s not allowed to count.)
But a few of us get our words and our stories back, and if they were any more obvious about it, it wouldn’t work at all.
It’s (we’re) all the same, you see.