As usual, last night's episode of Glee was a mixed bag stuffed to the purse strings. Unfortunately, I was unable to watch with fellow Austin resident Sara Reihani while she live Tweeted for Bitch, but we've made plans to view next week's "Funk" together. Though I've been disappointed by the second half of the season, I side with Todd VanDerWerff, who believed last week's "Dream On" to be one of the strongest of the series. The cynic in me is quick to point out that basing an episode–a series, in fact–around the crushed dreams of young performers played by up-and-coming stars and Broadway veterans is fairly disingenuous. However, "Dream On" poignantly conveyed the gulf between these characters' aspirations and their realities.
"Theatricality" carries on with this theme to an extent. Primarily, though, the episode is about defining the word "performance." This term encapsulates the ways in which people announce gender identity, sexual orientation, and affiliation with marginalized social groups. It also suggests the employment of self-delusion and the need to put on a show at all costs to cope with loneliness.
Willing the show to go on bonds Rachel Berry and Vocal Adrenaline coach Shelby Corcoran, an otherwise-distant mother-daughter pair who broke my heart in "Dream On" with their rendition of Les Misérables' "I Dreamed A Dream." In "Theatricality," Berry confronts Corcoran while spying on a Vocal Adrenaline rehearsal, recognizing that the woman singing "Funny Girl" to her students is her mother. The affinity the twosome have for musicals contrasts with Glee's commercial song selections and gestures toward Lea Michele and Idina Menzel's (the actors who play Rachel and Shelby) Broadway pedigrees. But Corcoran also sees who she might have been in Berry, who in turn sees in Corcoran who she might become. Breaking from Broadway fare, the duo sing a jazzy version of "Poker Face."
While the song's subject matter may be questionable for most mother-daughter duos, the lyrics "no he can't read my poker face" and "she's got to love nobody" are poignant for both the dejected Corcoran and the ambitious Berry. To quote Chicago's "My Own Best Friend," "baby's alive but baby's alone."
Lady Gaga is incorporated into New Directions' repertoire after Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz) meets with Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba), who informs her that she must modify her goth appearance. Berry, Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron), and Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley) also spy on Vocal Adrenaline after discovering that all of Lima's red lace supply has been bought up. Their suspicions confirmed, they learn that the group is performing a Lady Gaga routine and director Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) decides the kids should use her work for inspiration.
Gaga serves as the embodiment of performance and a portal through which the characters can project themselves. It follows a logic that Madonna disciple Gaga is featured after the show devoted an episode to the Material Girl. However, I think the show improves upon the previous episode by foregrounding Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) in the episode, a missed opportunity commenter CL astutely noted in my entry on "The Power of Madonna."
Hummel's Gaga fandom is central to the episode's narrative. Indeed, his love of Gaga lines up with the pop star's considerable gay male following and may create parallels between the character, Colfer, and creator Ryan Murphy. I often question Gaga's politics and the potential divide between gay male Gaga fans and feminist critics on my blog Feminist Music Geek. However, I like seeing Hummel "express himself" with Alexander McQueen's armadillo heels along with the girls in their performance of "Bad Romance." I also appreciate him pointing out to a pair of jocks that their letter jackets are just as much a costume as his glitzy platforms.
Yet, I was disappointed by how obvious the episode was in using Gaga to juxtapose gay male fandom with straight male homophobia. The boys in New Directions hate Gaga. Noah "Puck" Puckerman (Mark Salling) isn't even sure what Gaga is, identifying her as a male David Bowie fan. They seem to bristle at Gaga's outlandish artificiality and fear associating with the pop star will threaten their sexuality. Thus, they strike a balance between her glam sensibility and rock's heavily constructed sense of authenticity by painting themselves up as Kiss and performing "Shout It Out Loud." (Note: Buddy comedy Role Models may be evoked here as well, as Seann William Scott shares top billing with Paul Rudd as macho Kiss fan Anson Wheeler. It also boasts a scene-stealing performance from Jane Lynch, whose Sue Sylvester was conspicuously absent from last night's episode.)
Pointedly, the guys perform as a band instead of a vocal ensemble, showcasing their phallic and technical mastery over traditional rock instrumentation and enforcing their heterosexual masculinity. Puck also uses Kiss's "Beth" to pledge to Fabray that he'll fulfill his paternal duties to their unborn daughter. Notably, Agron, who recently directed the music video for Thao with the Get Down Stay Down's "Body", (which Thao herself blogged about for Bitch) had more to do in this episode than she's been given on the show in weeks.
I'm also angry over the problematic racial dimensions of homophobia in "Theatricality." White boys like Hudson learn tolerance. Hudson's mother abruptly has them move in with Hummel's father Burt (Mike O'Malley), who she's been dating. Uncomfortable with Hummel's crush on him, Hudson lashes out about sharing a bedroom with Hummel by denouncing his defiant effeminacy as "faggy." Hummel's father sticks up for his son and ejects Hudson, who redeems himself by defending Hummel against two bullying jocks while wearing a rubber dress. However, black jock Azimio (James Earl) is depicted as hateful and violent, using homophobic slurs and referring to Hudson's interest in music and sports as an indication that he's "bisexual." YIKES.
At the end of the episode, the gleeks learn to stick together while still being individuals. Too bad Hummel and the girls come to this through Gaga while most of the guys align with hard rock to insure that their disco sticks point straight. Something tells me Gaga found her disco stick by studying both Madonna and Kiss.