Gleek Religion

Originally posted on USC’s now-defunct TRANS/MISSIONS: Media, Culture, Religion, Society blog.

by Judith Weisenfeld

Glee, Fox’s award-winning series about a high school glee club, returned on April 13 after a mid-season hiatus, crushing its competition and posting impressive ratings among viewers across the 18-49 age range.

The sense of anticipation greeting the show’s return had been boosted by the buzz surrounding the upcoming Glee concert tour and the frenzy about open auditions for new cast members, as well as by cast appearances at the White House Easter egg-hunt and an hour on Oprah.  The extent of Glee’s cultural power might be measured by the fact that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently named the show as among his favorites–perhaps, some reporters noted, in an attempt to improve his election chances.

Critics have located the show’s appeal in what many have called an endearing rendition of the awkwardness of high school and in its revival of the possibilities of the television musical.  When it honored Glee in February of 2010, Catholics in Media Associates (CIMA) noted that “the show demonstrates how the arts integrate life and learning in a joyful way, tinged with humor and sometimes pathos.”

A shared belief in what CIMA called Glee’s “beautiful and kind heart” has resulted in organizations like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) joining the Catholic organization in honoring it.

Predictably, attention to religion in Glee has focused on its representations of Christianity because Quinn, the only prominent character who identifies as Christian, was president of the high school Celibacy Club until she becomes pregnant within the first few episodes.

Embedded within the show’s multicultural grab-bag of stereotyped characters is also a broader vision of American Judaism than television generally puts before viewers. Alongside conventional background characters like the nerdy Jacob ben Israel, who lusts after the ambitious central character Rachel Berry, Glee includes a mohawked Noah “Puck” Puckerman, whose family eats Chinese food and watches “Schindler’s List” each year on Simchas Torah.  Responding to his mother’s teary assertion during one year’s ritual that Noah is “no better than them” for not dating Jewish girls, Puck pursues Rachel (spurred on by a dream he believes was a message from God) and woos her with a tribute to the “musical Jewish icon,” Neil Diamond.

Rachel is marked as Jewish, but the show’s creators made her Jewish family consist of two fathers, one of whom is black.  In having her assert that either man could be her biological father, the show gestures at the possibility of Jewish racial diversity.

Perhaps only true Gleeks will know that the background character Tina, known only for being Asian (alongside a male character referred to as “other Asian”) and for faking a speech impediment, bears the surname of Cohen-Chang, another nod to uncommon configurations of religion and race in the world of television.

Unfortunately, the show’s failure to use characters of color other than as props for the white characters gives little hope that details of their lives will move beyond esoteric Gleek knowledge.  Nevertheless, Glee might yet give media watchers the opportunity to do more than follow predictably-politicized representations and to turn instead to more complex racial and religious terrain.

This post was featured in an article by Cathy Lynn Grossman in USA Today: “Glee Mashes up God, music, religion — and Satanic Sue.”