Wednesday, November 9, 2011

First Times, On Glee and Beyond

As I’m sure many of you know by now, last night featured a Very Special Episode of Glee. Yes, every Glee episode is Very Special, but this one in particular centered around the stories on four characters, three of them virgins, considering the decision to be intimate with their partners for “The First Time.” As the show tends to do, it got me thinking about my own identity and values, and so I'm back again with another blog entry.

The show has addressed sex previously, most notably in the first season’s “The Power of Madonna” and the second season’s “Sexy”, and more generally, the role exploration and experimentation play in growing up (“Blame it on the Alcohol”). Of all of these, “The First Time” was the most emotional and presented a viewpoint on an adult issue the most effectively.

In writing about this show, I’ve always connected it back to my own experiences - namely, as someone in my twenties, far enough removed from my high school experiences to reflect on them objectively but close enough to remember how I felt going through them. In watching “Blame It on the Alcohol” for example, my view of the episode was shaped by my own views of and experiences with alcohol consumption. In the case of this episode, I’ll just say there are other things I didn't experience while in high school and maybe still haven’t. But that’s not my point. How I have grown up is in my evolving ability to accept myself and make choices based on what I think will impress others.

Returning to the episode, its premise revolved around the school’s upcoming production of West Side Story with director and self-perceived relationship expert Artie suggesting that perhaps Rachel and Blaine should consider exploring their sexuality in order to more effectively convey the yearnings of Maria and Tony. I find this idea a little disturbing, if only considering that I first saw the 1961 film version of West Side Story when I was four. More seriously, Glee continues to present this problematic idea that we need to experience rites of passage with sex, drugs, and rock and roll in order to become credible artists and, worse still, well-rounded individuals. This message is nothing new in the media but definitely worth pointing out whenever possible. I’ve told you a bit about my experiences, and I know they’ve shaped my voice as a writer and a person. I’m sure you’ve picked up on that. I also know that if my life experiences do change, my writing will likely evolve too. That said, just because my life doesn’t always resemble a story from Catcher in the Rye, for example, doesn’t mean I don't have stories worth telling. I relate to Holden Caulfield, and Rachel Berry, and many other characters in complex ways.

I’m also a little bothered by the fact that basically all of the major (student) characters on the show have lost their virginities now. Though I didn’t have a lot of friends to speak with about these issues with in high school, I don’t buy the notion that all everyone has their first time before graduating high school or college or any time after that. As I've gotten to know the people in my life, I have some ideas of what types of experiences they've had, some of which I'd actually prefer not to know about. Because if those people are truly worth having in my life, those experiences won't take anything away from their relationships with me.

These feelings expressed, the show made a decision, and I understand and respect that choice. Moreover, given the creative choice made, I think “The First Time” handled that very topic well. In the end, Rachel and Finn and Kurt and Blaine made decisions about what felt right for them as individuals and as couples, even if they came to those revelations conveniently in the last minutes of the episode, and in parallel with Rachel’s and Blaine’s moving rendition of “One Hand, One Heart.” Notably, I interpreted Rachel and Blaine as having performed the song before their real life moments of intimacy - they ultimately drew on their experiences with their loved ones - not the experiences society expected them to have - as inspiration for their art. And while the final shots basically implied that both couples had sex, we honestly don’t know for sure, which ties back well to my earlier comments about how what actually happened actually shouldn't matter to the audience. I’m happy to read that several critics and fans were pleased with this depiction as well. Best of all, I came away the episode feeling comfortable with the choices I’ve made over these years, even if they haven’t necessarily unfolded the way they did in the story.

I’m not quite sure what the long term implications of this episode will be. I’ve considered ending my run with the series here, with my own conclusions about what has happened and will happen in the future. Yet it’s exactly episodes like these that remind me of why I keep coming back every week - I wouldn’t want to miss out on another experience like this one. As for my own life, I guess I can say the same.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Sarah. It's pretty much how I feel, but I have tons of homework and don't have time to produce a post that would undoubtedly take a full day to perfect. :)

    I am likewise troubled by the attitude Glee has consistently put forth on these issues. I feel like they have a certain amount of responsibility toward their audience, and they do not take it seriously. They KNOW that young people watch, but instead of encouraging careful, wise decision-making and applauding those efforts, characters who attempt restraint in any form are mocked by students and teachers alike. It's true that parents are responsible for teaching their children, but when it comes down to it, kids worship these characters because they relate to them on some level, and many of them want to emulate their actions because they are smart/funny/talented/brave characters. To insist repeatedly that these characters who so many identify with are not complete until they accomplish certain "life experiences" just seems reckless to me. Because in reality, it takes a great deal of strength to resist the supposed "norm" and stand by one's convictions, and it's a shame that personal conviction in all forms is not equally valued.

    Now, I get that teenagers are impulsive. I'm a lot older than you, and I STLL remember what it felt like! Things happen sometimes, but telling kids that they shouldn't, or worse, CAN'T control their impulses is just not okay.

    I'm unbelievably sad that none of our Glee kids are virgins anymore...except for Rory, and he's already working on that.

  2. Thank you for reading! Even though I'm happy for Rachel and Finn, I'm a bit sad too, because it is an end of innocence. (Song idea!?)

    A common point I hear about the show is that it divides girls into virgins and whores, so showing that experiences with intimacy like Rachel's and Tina's can be handled maturely and have meaning are good messages. I understand that point of view, but the fact is not every teenager is going to be lucky enough to meet someone they feel comfortable sharing that experience with at such a young age, and even if they do they might not be ready personally. And while they may have enough self-esteem and strength to stand by their decisions, perhaps even more than their peers, they still also seek comfort in knowing there are kids out there like them, as you said.