Glee and Self-Acceptance

Artwork by Noah Franklin

Artwork by Noah Franklin

By Chris Donohue

The entertainment industry is one of the most powerful entities in our society, and recently I’ve been thinking about how it became so powerful. The service it provides is not necessary for survival, as enjoyable as it may be. Yet people still flock to it. The entertainment business derives its success from its ability to tap into the emotions of people, and to provide them with an escape from whatever they may be enduring in their daily life.

Simply put, people find comfort in seeing or listening to someone experiencing similar feelings as they are. This is how people become so emotionally invested in a singer, a song, an album, a TV show, a character, etc. The experience can be therapeutic, and even cathartic, and sometimes, it just hits you at the right time. Especially in difficult times, art can play a tremendous role in one’s healing process.

Sometimes all you really need is a good laugh or a good cry to feel better. People can become so invested in a TV show or an artist that the art goes from simply being an escape to becoming a part of one’s identity, and something one can use to become a better version of themselves.

Fox’s television show Glee played this role in my life. As lame as it may sound, I don’t think I would be half the person I am now had I not watched the show.

I’ve struggled with attention difficulties for my entire life, and they've made it hard for me to become invested in shows with episode lengths longer than 20 minutes. Pretty much the only exception to this rule is when a show incorporates music in some way. Surprisingly, Glee never really piqued my interest until I decided to watch the first episode on a plane ride home during my sophomore year of high school. Very rarely do I get hooked on a show the first time I watch it, but again, Glee was the exception. Even from the first episode, the bond that the characters shared with one another struck an emotional chord with me right off the bat, and I couldn’t stop watching it.

I discovered Glee at the perfect time. I started watching it when the pressures of high school were beginning to take a toll on me. While my freshman year kicked off decently, as time went on, I found myself feeling more and more like an outcast because I didn’t fit the norm. Even though, at the time I started watching, I was still in denial about my situation, hoping things might still improve, I saw myself in many of the characters, like the misunderstood Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz) who forces a stutter just so she can remain invisible, or the wheelchair-bound Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale), frustrated by how people define him as “the kid in the wheelchair,” and fail to look past the surface.

If I had to describe the universal high school experience in one word, I would choose “judging.” People will try to stick a label to you before they know anything about you, and that label can be hard or even impossible to shake off. What made Glee so powerful to me was how the characters were able to overlook these labels and come together in spite of their differences. Not only did they come together, but they developed a love for each other, something that I so desperately craved in my life at this time.

The feeling of having labels placed on you is more or less ubiquitous across everyone’s high school experience. It’s one thing when this type of branding comes from the students, but it can be even more damaging when this kind of language comes from adults. I actually had one teacher in high school who would tell me that I “wasn’t good enough” and that my personality was “wrong” on multiple occasions just because I was shy. This kind of relationship is especially painful, but it is one that often isn’t examined in a typical high school TV/movie drama. But then, I encountered Sue Sylvester, portrayed by Jane Lynch, the abrasive, menacing, and conniving cheerleading coach who would stop at nothing to destroy the glee club.

But although Sue Sylvester’s vitriol made her the show’s obvious antagonist, she wasn’t always the villain. Every so often, her stone cold heart would melt a little. The way she defended her sister and a student named Becky Jackson, both of whom were afflicted with Down’s syndrome, showed me that even the most vile people, and the people who are so easy to hate, have a soft side. Furthermore, the students in the glee club always remained forgiving towards Sue, and their resilience spoke to me. Even as she (literally, once) threw sticks and stones at them, they always took the high road.

This kind of response helped, and has continued to help me, in my healing process as I try to shake off the trauma of high school. Sue’s relationship with the glee club helped me to believe that, despite how people may appear, everyone has good intentions, and the glee club’s reaction to Sue’s repeated harassment taught me how to forgive. As I’ve grown older, this belief that human nature is inherently good and that we should strive to be as forgiving as possible is something that has shaped my identity, and I attribute a lot of this to what I learned from Glee.

This belief in the power and importance of forgiveness isn’t the only life lesson that I learned from Glee. In general, the way the characters were able to accept everyone with open arms, regardless of their background, sexuality, identity, or whatever other trait that others might use to discriminate against them, helped me become more accepting of others.

Glee was influential in breaking down so many pop culture barriers, and was monumental as one of the first shows to openly portray homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender identity. This shocked many critics initially, and created a slight controversy in my conservative Catholic household, but seeing this kind of open representation helped me confront my identity and come to terms with feelings I had been experiencing my entire life but had difficulty accepting due to the environment in which I was raised.

As I started to come to terms with my sexuality, Glee played a role in the healing process not just for myself, but for my family as well. Unbeknownst to her, I would have my mom watch Glee with me not just so we’d have something to talk about, but also as part of her sensitivity training. And while she still found it a little uncomfortable when they’d show a love scene between some of the show’s LGBTQ+ couples, she genuinely rooted for Kurt and Blaine as a couple, and shed some tears during some of their more emotional breakup scenes.

Glee also tackled issues like teen pregnancy, spirituality, eating disorders, and bullying in a way unparalleled elsewhere in media. The writers have a knack for effortlessly taking these hard-hitting and sensitive issues, and portraying them in a subtle way that makes viewers think critically about them.

During its run, Glee broke many barriers, but it also broke many records. The songs that they covered each episode were released on iTunes, and many of their songs subsequently charted on Billboard. Both their covers of songs like “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Teenage Dream,” “Forget You,” and their original songs such as “Loser Like Me” were met with significant commercial success and praise.

Glee released hundreds of studio versions of songs throughout the series, ranging from Barbra Streisand to Bruno Mars, Simon & Garfunkel to Sia, and everything in between. Because of this, anyone who watched could gain appreciation for a new song, artist, or genre that they hadn’t had much exposure to before. The younger audience gained an appreciation for the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac, while the older audience became familiar with names like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.

However, the most powerful takeaway that I gained from Glee was a rediscovery of my own passion for music. Music had always been a huge influence in my life: I listened to CDs constantly as a kid, and it was something that always remained a constant force in my life. I started taking piano lessons when I was little, but I never really developed a passion for it. But after watching Glee and seeing the community they were able to foster through music, my love for music was reignited. I joined the musical at my high school, and tried to get involved with chorus.

Although I was unable to find the community and support that I was hoping for, I still found music to be a mechanism for healing. As I reconnected with my love of music, I began playing the piano more, started singing, and even writing a few songs. Making my own music became a way for me to tell my story and work towards healing from the isolation that I felt for most of my adolescence. They say music is a cathartic experience, and it's true: while many of my friends don’t know anything about this side of me, music has been instrumental in me developing my own confidence.

Overcoming setbacks, needless to say, is not easy. It sucks most of the time. I went through high school believing that because I didn’t fit the mold, I wasn’t good enough. I felt like I was destined to live my life on the margins, and that an outside observer was the best I could ever hope to be.

I found Glee, the show, at a time when I was desperately searching for something in life that brought me glee, the noun. While I was unable to find a community in my high school where I felt truly accepted, Glee taught me how to accept myself. Over time, and especially after starting college, I began to realize that these aspects of my personality I had spent years hating myself for were beyond my control.

I want to close this with a statement that might sound generic, but is something that I think everyone who is struggling needs to hear: it does get better. Your past does not have to define your future, but channeling the difficult parts of our past is important for making a better future.

I firmly believe that I have become a better person because of this show. As I’ve become more accepting of myself, I also try to be more accepting of others. In everything I do, I aspire to create a community where people feel loved, accepted, and free to be themselves. I’d encourage anyone who is looking for a lovingly relatable set of characters, a complex yet relatable, multi-layered plot structure, or who loves music to watch this show and allow it to impact them.

Keep it up, and soon enough, you’ll figure out you want to be a loser like me. :)