Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Will Glee Maintain Rachel Berry's Relatability?

A few weeks from now, Glee's fourth season will premiere, and we'll finally learn how Rachel Berry's been doing since we last left her in New York City. Though I don't intend to follow the show as closely as I have in previous years, I'd like to address concerns I have about the direction in which Ryan Murphy may be taking the show, particularly as it regards Rachel's character.

When we first met Rachel, we knew she had a heart and dreams larger than her archetypal high school and town could contain. She wanted to be a star. So when a teacher at her school decided to revive the school’s Glee club, she jumped at the opportunity, yet still had a long journey through high school ahead of her. Rachel Berry demonstrated a longing for acceptance and success to which anyone can relate. She wanted to inspire people and feel that they cared for her. This passion I know too well can often be misunderstood for egotism, uptightness, delusion, overachievement, and flightiness in a world that doesn't always understand, and Glee, at its best, has captured this experience. Rachel was driven in her dreams of performing not only because the arts were something she'd loved since childhood, but because she wanted to escape the cutthroat high school social environment in which she was an outsider. That vulnerability and heartbreak are the very experiences that led us to relate to, fall in love with and root for Rachel throughout the series. I was a high school wallflower myself, as I suspect a lot of us were, and so Rachel is the character I have had the strongest emotional attachment to during most of my experience watching Glee, and certainly the one I've written about most. Despite Rachel's comfort in knowing she can build a life for herself outside of high school, she still wishes for a sense of connection with her classmates. In the show's pilot, she confides to Will, "Being a part of something special makes you special" - she wants to feel valued and appreciated, not only after she graduates, but at this very moment and in the environment of her present.

Three years later, Rachel has experienced heartbreaks and victories. She has won a National show choir championship, graduated high school and boarded a train to one of the most prestigious New York performing arts programs in the world. And, she has been in a very serious relationship with a boy who loves her so much he was willing to let her go because he views himself as a potential impediment to her ability to fully flourish on Broadway. Right away, we can see that the Rachel of “Goodbye” is very different than the Rachel of the Pilot. Her metamorphosis really has been something out of a fairy tale, and I know I’ve often found myself wondering, “Why her and not me?” And perhaps there is no answer to that question. Moreover, having seen how hard Rachel has worked to get to where she is today, and how happy she is, it’s hard not to delight in her triumphs.

But this season, which places Rachel in New York with a supposed whole new set of challenges, will be a test of whether we still view Rachel as someone to cheer for. What concerns me, based on what I’ve learned about the upcoming episodes, is that her character is becoming too sexy and could lose touch with the roots that made her the beloved underdog we initially connected with.

Lea Michele has done a great job of taking her media image seriously knowing how many people look up to her and her character. She uses social media to connect with us, speaking about her closeness to her family and enjoyment of staying in to watch TV herself. Her Facebook posts often reiterate points she’s made in interviews about being true to herself, following her dreams, and encouraging us to do the same. At the same time, Lea is clearly comfortable, and enjoys, being seen as sexy and desirable, both in photo shoots and character scenes like “Baby One More Time.” As she should. She’s 25, works extremely hard and has been able to balance her girl-next-door and bombshell personas really well - no easy task, particularly for a young Hollywood actress. (Coincidentally, she'll be covering another Britney Spears number in episode two. Wearing this.)

Sadly, we live in a culture that is still more interested in a person’s sex appeal more than their authenticity, and I’ve seen the impact these norms have made on Glee’s presentation of Rachel Berry. So far, we’ve learned that in season 4 Rachel gains the affections of a new boy, has a far-from-needed makeover, and lives in an unreal New York apartment with Kurt, who has somehow landed an internship at Vogue himself (x). While I understand that college is a time for experimenting and is often glamorized in the media, the transition seems a bit too seamless for me and not reflective of the typical freshman experience (certainly not mine!).

Glee showrunner Ryan Murphy has shown a love of pushing the envelope, and there’s a lot of merit in that. But I think he also needs to decide what type of show he wants to make – one that represents our fantasies or one that speaks to what we’re really going through. Because he built Glee on the latter ideal, and if he wants to continue to delivering that message, he needs to prove he’s committed to it 100%.

Related Reads:
Glee: Goodbye, for now.
How I Learned to (Sort of) Stop Worrying and Love the Monchele
First Times, on Glee and Beyond


  1. These are valid concerns--but I've been seeing Rachel's transition as being rewarded for always believing in herself and pushing herself. I loved college because I felt like I was starting to "come home," and that's what Rachel's perception of New York was in Lima. It won't be all it's cracked up to be, though, of course. While you can't expect them to show her being a starving artist (everyone has plenty of money whenever it's convenient), she'll have her struggles--and she will probably say something to Finn about how she doesn't feel home yet. She's been set back from being on her way to getting what she wanted because Finn isn't there. It's like, "Careful what you wish for," except I doubt Rachel will ever regret being in New York.

    Sorry if that came out as a rant, but maybe you can glean something helpful from that!

  2. I thought I heard that Rachel will have a dorm room before she'll get an apartment with Kurt... Of course the writers want to show that NY College life needs a mature attitude and implies a sort of independence (it's logical with the move-back of the broadcasting hour to 9pm and the fact that the show needs to grow up with its viewers). For Ryan Murphy this means the show is gonna be sexier and more controversial (like what he did with his others shows).
    In fact all Rachel what she is, it's relalable to find new struggles when you're growing up and (SPOILERS) the fact that Rachel is not the best student anymore in one subject (Dance) when she (and we) thought she was very good is pretty realistic... She's from Ohio and arrives in a Big City; this will certainly lead to prejudice from her NY school mates and a renewed status of outcast.
    Anyway interesting post!

  3. Thanks for your comments. Both of you made valid points and made me realize, as usual, how much I was really writing about myself, and how I want to feel accepted and validated. I guess what I need to decide is whether following this character is really worth it for me at this point, knowing how she makes me feel. Do I want to emulate what society finds as acceptable or do I not really care about that? And if I want to see characters that I can better relate to maybe I need to develop them myself.

  4. Sarah it's normal. You like Rachel because you have related to her at one point or an other. But if the character evolve in a way that is diverging from a person you can relate, you can find another relatable character. I think the best solution is to write your own novel/story around a character you can relate to: your very own character & you can make him/her does whatever you want!!! ;-)


    1. That made me smile. Thank you! Agreed.