BY LESLIE PITTERSON
Even if you are not an avid watcher, there’s no ignoring the fact that Glee has become a pop culture phenomenon. It’s easy to see why: the show combines popular songs, from both the past and present, while tapping into a life stage that everyone has distinct memories of- high school.
Every character on Glee speaks to a specific archetype that resonated with audiences in their own unique way. The geek, the ditz, the jock- it’s not rocket science but with great writing and the shows equal dose of charm and snark, Glee has struck a chord with viewers.
In a post on her blog, What Tami Said, writer Tami Winfrey Harris addressed Glee’s surface painting of Mercedes, the character played by actress, Amber Riley. Referring to the show’s recent “Born The Way” episode, centered around the Lady Gaga hit, where the shows cast don emblazoned shirts that speak to their personal identity, Harris writes:
Rachel’s shirt read “Nose.” She had earlier decided against getting rhinoplasty that might erase one marker of her ethnic heritage. Kurt’s top read “I like boys.” And, in this episode, we saw the close of a storyline where he is bullied at school because of his homosexuality. Britney’s read “I’m with stoopid” — a nod to the running gag that is her questionable intellect. Mercedes, the sole regular black character on the show, wore a shirt that said “No weave.” I’m not sure exactly what her insecurity is. Does she hate that she wears a weave? Does she not wear a weave, but thinks she should? In this (customary) ignoring of Mercedes’ character development, Glee missed a chance to provide a window into what it’s like to be one of a very few students of color (particularly a black girl) at a majority white school.
Harris’ piece points out exactly the reason why I find it hard to connect with Mercedes. About a year ago, I noted that it seemed Riley’s character was cast to be simply the sassy, eye-rolling black girl. There was no depth to her character and even as the show winds down its second season, there still is nothing about Mercedes’ character that feels authentic.
As Harris points out:
As far as we can tell, Mercedes has no family or home life. She has no friends outside of glee club. She has no ethnicity, but for what can be demonstrated by Aretha-style wailing and that one trip to “the black church.”
So why is it that Glee’s black character has not been truly fleshed out? While some would say she is meant to be transcendent of race, I think the bigger issue that Mercedes’ character exposes is that most Hollywood writers, even the greats among them, are not used to going further in depth to develop a black character.
Glee’s head writer Ryan Murphy is known as the creative voice behind hit series Nip/Tuck and Popular, both well-written shows with cult followings that never featured a developed black character. Even Sanaa Lathan’s stint on Nip/Tuck presented an odd dynamic for the show because it was clear that her character did not necessarily have to be played by a woman of color. And on the one hand that is a post-racial compliment, I guess. But on the other hand, it also shows that there is a major barrier for Hollywood writers seeking to develop roles that reflect racial diversity.
That said, writers can turn a corner. Case in point: ABC’s Modern Family. The hit show, with witty sharp writing had hit a flat note when it came to writing in Mitchell and Cameron, the show’s gay dads. After months of receiving criticism from viewers, the writer finally let the two have their first on screen kiss. Since then, the writers delved even further into their storyline as the two figure out who to appoint as godparents for their adopted child and who should be the “mom” on mother’s day. Writers may not know how to write authentically for a character that lives in a different skin, but they should know that digging deeper is what keeps viewers engaged.
Glee has often been compared to Murphy’s first big hit sitcom, Popular, a show that ran between 1999 and 2001 on the WB. And while that main cast was completely whitewashed, Murphy new high school cast reflects greater diversity this time around. But if Mercedes lack of depth shows anything it is that diversity in display is not enough. Glee has put faces of color on the television screen and made them sing- but when will it begin to tell their stories as well?