Hate on them

We’ll get to our regularly scheduled installment of the Seinen Alphabet tomorrow, interrupted by me ranting about all of the things I didn’t like about last night’s episode of Glee, “Grilled Cheesus,” which you can watch on Hulu for the next month or so. In it, young, gay, atheist Kurt is faced with a major life crisis, and his Glee Club comrades try and help him through it, but many of them do more harm than good, or at least show creator Ryan Murphy did. Episode spoilers after the jump.

Here’s how Kurt’s friends tried to help: by persistently disrespecting his atheism and trying to impose their spiritual responses to grief and distress onto him. Kurt is no prince in the episode, and his dismissal of spirituality is inconsiderate and tactless, but he clearly establishes his boundaries, and that should have been that. One of my closest friends in high school was a born-again Christian, very devout, but absolutely able to respect people’s religious boundaries. She was always able to comfort and advise people during difficult periods while still respecting their religious and spiritual boundaries. Nobody in New Directions manages that, and their advisor and instructor doesn’t insist they back off and find ways to support Kurt that respect his position. Nobody is shown as inviting Kurt, a 16-year-old with no parent at home, to stay with them. They just want to drag him into their prayer circles. (Well, idiot cheerleader Brittany does do something at least theoretically helpful when she offers Kurt a book report she wrote on heart attacks. Brittany is my hero. And thuggish Puck at least manages to offer Kurt and his father his prayers without dragging Kurt into it. Puck is hot.)

In fact, the only person to take up for Kurt is the show’s ostensible villain, Sue, whose atheism is ascribed to unanswered prayers. It’s the “bad breakup” school of atheism, which also applies somewhat to Kurt. Religious institutions, he notes, not unreasonably, generally reject him on the basis of his sexual orientation, so why shouldn’t he reject their doctrine? Of course, it would be nice if one of the characters was an atheist for the simple reason that they find the idea of a supreme being implausible rather than driven by anger or disappointment, but that’s not a part of this episode’s specific cosmology.

But, alas, all of the glee clubbers seem to view Kurt’s lack of spirituality as just not having found the right god yet. The only means of comfort they seem willing or able to offer is prayer, which is the one strategy Kurt has said offers him no comfort at all. Kurt is the bad guy for his close-mindedness, and he eventually is driven to the position of humoring his friends, because their intentions are good. He attends church with Mercedes, who never reassures him that her church is inclusive or gay-friendly, in spite of Kurt’s very reasonable reluctance on that front. Nobody needs to humor Kurt, the one in crisis, because his non-belief can’t possibly be as sincere as their faith.

The glee clubbers aren’t obliged to respect the non-religious Kurt or help him on his terms, in spite of the fact that the group is routinely portrayed as offering each other support through song, which never occurs to anyone. Understanding only really needs to go in one direction in this episode’s construction. It’s infuriating and, in my opinion, awful. Kurt is still an atheist at the episode’s end, and that’s apparently fine with his club mates, as long as he doesn’t make a big deal out of it or bring it up with the same confidence with which they discuss their religious beliefs. To be sympathetic, he has to keep his mouth shut.

Today, the United States Supreme Court will likely support the rights of religious people to say the most horrible things in public, and I believe in freedom of speech, I really do, even if it’s speech I find profoundly offensive and hurtful. But it has to extend in both directions. Atheists don’t need to pass or apologize for their lack of a religious component to their lives, and it offends me that this is the takeaway message from last night’s episode of Glee. And looking at the recent rash of suicides by gay or perceived-to-be-gay kids bullied to conform with the values of the majority, it’s even more offensive.

36 Responses to Hate on them

  1. Thank you for this.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I was just infuriated by this episode.

      • I haven’t yet watched the episode, but yours is the second post I’ve seen this morning on this exact topic, and I am really not sure I *want* to watch it now. One of the things that has been most frustrating to me as an atheist, is how few people are able to conceive of a lack of religious belief that is anything but pessimistic, cynical, or sad. Is it so difficult to imagine that some of us might not perceive a world without a god as an unfortunate thing, and in fact may feel exactly the opposite? Probably I should just write my own blog post about that. But. Ugh. I really appreciated this post.

  2. Indeed, thank you. I hadn’t seen the whole episode when I mentioned on Twitter that parts of it made me verklempt, but I should specify here those parts were about young Kurt (what great casting!) and his dad, not about religion.

    I love what you say here about simply finding the concept implausible. I’m sure faith is a great comfort to many, but I just can’t make myself believe. It sure would’ve helped when my grandmother recently died.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      When my mom was passing a couple of years ago, even the most profoundly religious people involved in the process were able to “read the room” and respect individual spirituality (or lack of same) and boundaries. It was one of the most reassuring things I took away from the process.

      • People weren’t exactly pushy with religion at Grandma’s funeral, but it was very clear they all were taking comfort from believing they’d see her again, whereas I knew we never would. Hence, I was probably more upset than anyone else. Sometimes I wish I could buy into the delusion.

  3. Shawn says:

    So, you’re mad because the show was less reflective on how you want society to be (or how it should be), and more on how society actually is? In America, atheism is generally seen to be the deviation (much like homosexuality) and is at best tolerated as long as it isn’t openly discussed. Many (most, in my experience) religious people treat atheists in the way you describe.

    Caveat: I didn’t see the episode, and haven’t watched Glee enough to pass judgment on how the show generally handles “real world” issues, all of which may or may not render my comment meaningless.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      The thing is, Glee normally errs on the side of inclusion, presenting the world as more open or kind than it actually is, so I was distressed to see this particular portrayal.

      • Shawn says:

        I see. Could be a case of the writers trying to expand the scope of the show – giving the group and individuals more complexity by showing that their inclusiveness and tolerance isn’t as all-encompassing as thought. Or, it may be that they’re just losing the thread.

  4. gia says:

    Note: did not read all the way through as I haven’t seen the episode yet.

    But Kurt is such a difficult character for me sometimes! In the episode last season where he and Finn moved in together, I really thought the show completely disregarded what a jerk he was being trying to force his style on his reluctant crush/’brother.’ What Finn said was completely out of line, of course, and it makes sense to focus on that, but Kurt was being such a twit and I really wanted them to show a sign of seeing that also, and that it didn’t really frustrated me.

    I guess this probably isn’t all that related to the topic at hand, in retrospect, except in that the show often waves to the side issues of some importance, I guess whenever they have time issues and/or it makes it easier to throw a musical number in if they don’t bother.

    …Though it’s not hard to imagine Rachel not giving a damn about Kurt’s boundaries. Man, she’s being pretty impressively awful this season, at least compared to the latter half of last season (where I first started watching).

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I completely agree with you about that whole Finn issue. Finn, as I saw it, was responding (rudely, badly) to behavior on Kurt’s part that didn’t respect Finn’s boundaries even a little. Maybe that’s the trend on the show that bothers me: not everybody who needs to apologize and accommodate is required to do so.

      Also, yeah, Rachel is really creepy. I blame the bangs.

  5. Eric Henwood-Greer says:

    Very well said, and I had a similar problem with the episode. However, I’ve just started to kinda accept that this is an issue I’ll always have with Glee (indeed, with any tv show Ryan Murphy is showrunner for–I actually found Nip/Tuck got so mean spirited in its need to shock by the end that I just gave up on it). I think he meant well by this episode (and Kurt did have Finn’s mom looking after him I assume, since her and Finn moved in last season–although the way Murphy randomly drops story points and changes characterization to serve the individual episode, who knows).

    I admit there was an episode last year that many gay sites applauded where Finn was forced to move in with Kurt and Kurts dad heard Finn use the F word and blew up at him, threatening to kick him out. It was a great speech and I knew the writers had good intentions, but, as most of my friends gay and straight pointed out, it seemed misguided in an episode that showed Finn dealing with the loss of his own dad, being forced to give up your room and share a room with the kid whose father your mom just started dating *and* who is constantly scheming through the episode to come on to you. I dunno–my point is that Glee seems to screw up a number of these more emotional plot points.

    The recent increasingly over the top bits with JewFro (the only name I know the character by), particularly in the Britney episode just showed to me once again that Murphy’s biggest weakness, after character inconsistencies (why has Rachel actually *reverted* from any growth last season?) is in overall tone. It doesn’t seem to be the best at handling complex issues in a complex fashion (maybe that’s too much to ask for). I wish they’d take better advantage of the fact it’s a serial and not deal with and resolve most issues in just one episode, with the next episode nearly like nothing ever happened–something like this (Kurt’s lack of faith and why that’s ok, tolerance for all beliefs, etc) could be dealt with better over several episodes, not simply a 41 minute themed episode (with probably about 20 of those minutes given to song–which I thought this week weren’t integrated very well at all. It’s kinda boring when most of the songs are just the Glee kids performing in rehearsal hall to essentially give Kurt a lecture on why they like religion–at its best Glee uses the numbers in clever ways that truly reflect the plot and action, but I’ve found it lacking here both this week, and last week when half the numbers were stand alone, slavish Britney Spears recreations done as dream sequences…)


    It’s been mentioned that they will have an episode that will fairly directly address the horrific recent gay suicides (well and the issue in general). I have to say, I’m kinda worried myself, but I suppose with a show that’s so well watched and loved, it’s good they’re even doing something.

    • “…randomly drops story points and changes characterization to serve the individual episode…”

      Yeah, that was my main problem with the Finn/Kurt moving-in-together storyline. Kurt wasn’t chastised for his behavior there, it’s true, but I was also peeved that the writers made him act that way for the sake of the episode. They’re besmirching my Kurt!

      Also, egads all that stuff with Jacob (I think his name is) in the Britney episode was beyond disgusting.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I think Ryan Murphy’s relative attention span is the biggest problem here. It always was on Popular, at least as far as I remember, and it’s worse when he tries to go out of what can be reasonably considered to be a show’s tonal comfort zone. He tends to fail utterly when confronted with “the very special episode,” but he also has a congenital weakness for them.

      And yeah, it’s kind of terrifying to imagine the ways a head-on address of the recent spate of suicides might go wrong, because it’s easier to imagine awkward failure than thematic success.

      • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

        Michelle, that was a big part of my problem as well. I welcome a gay character who can be self absorbed and even mean just like anyone else (and I mean we are talking about teenagers here), but in that case it was out of character and fuly to facilitate the Kurt and his father story “big moment” end game, with the writers not seeming to realize how wrong headed much of it was.

        Even this week, I don’t buy that Mercedes would be so insensitive to lecture Kurt about accepting religion (and then practically bribing him to go to her church, at his most vulnerable time, with talk of a fancy hat ^^;; ). Maybe if it had been Quinn who we’ve seen lie about aspectsof her life for her religion, it would make sense for her to make Kurt her new project, but not Mercedes. It’s, again, writing plot first and then slotting the characters in.

        (On the other hand it’s merely annoying, not offensive, when we have story points like Mr Shuester suddenly being someone who apparently only really knows or likes early 80s MOR pop music, like on last week’s).

        David, that’s a great, and spot on point. Ent Weekly, in fact, I think just had a short blog post about an upcoming Murphy show, and suggesting that if his past shows were any indication it should be limited to only one or two seasons… It seems awkward to have an “all religions are good” themed episode a week after they particularly featured Jacob (thanks Michelle for his name), who is basically solely defined by the fact he’s always refered to as Jewish and he’s incredibly unpleasant. I wonder why he didn’t pipe in on trying to convert Kurt?

        I think the episodes penned by Ian Brennan have been stronger than Murphy’s, and I was hoping (perhaps naively) that Murphy would become a bit less involved in his own show, now that he had a hit with Eat Pray Love. (Apparently next he’s doing the long delayed film version of Larry Kramer’s controversial play The Normal Heart, which I just hope Murphy doesn’t try to force his vision onto… Maybe he learned from Running With Scissors–but I have my doubts).

        I feel like I should point out that there’s a lot about Glee I honestly do love. 😛 But it’s undoubtedly the most frustrating tv show that I still can never miss an episode of that I watch.

  6. Erica says:

    I don’t watch Glee, but can’t avoid seeing comments on Twitter and Facebook. This is the atheist equivalent of “lesbian because of abuse.” I reject it.

    Many years ago, someone close to me became a vegan and immediately started with the “you know what they do to that?” I finally put my foot down and said, “Look, I have never once tried to convert you to my religion, you will NOT try to convert me to veganism.” She stopped, but only in a specific way. Generally she kept on about it.

    That there have been a rash of deaths from bullying makes this seem worse and more offensive that it was intended to be. It’s still the wrong message.

  7. JRB says:

    I don’t watch Glee, but this sounds like a disaster. I share your fury, if only by proxy. I also share your contempt for the “atheism as bad breakup” thing.

  8. […] sure whether to address this or not, but since the excellent blog, The Manga Curmudgeon, provided one point of view, I thought I’d chirp […]

  9. Charles says:

    I definitely agree with at least one point you bring up. The show seemed to settle on the idea that one has to believe in SOMETHING. I think, perhaps, the idea was that this theme would be palatable to both atheists and believers. And maybe it is for some – but for many, it’s infuriating.

    Atheists certainly don’t want to hear they have to believe in some higher power. And Christians don’t believe that any higher power will do. In fact, the Bible stresses the idea of the One and Only God and that no other gods exist.

    Anyway, thanks for your post. I wrote a post about the episode because of yours’! 🙂

    • davidpwelsh says:

      I enjoyed reading your post! And thanks for commenting. You also remind me that Glee neglected some other positions: agnostics and people who place their spirituality outside of conventional religious structures.

  10. Aaron says:

    I gave up watching T.V. months ago so I havent watched this episode without turning this into a Theological discussion I don’t consider Homosexuality to be approved of by God par what The Bible says. I really have no other answer The Bible doesn’t approve of it and I’m beholden to follow Scripture then .

    However being mean-spirited or overbearing accomplishes nothing and only further coarsened what is an already “touchy” subject with many.

    As far as atheism goes I would say there’s really no such thing as an Atheist. Only people who to quote from Romans 1 “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” and deny a God that they know inatelly exists from the evidence of creation among other proofs.

    Well that’s all I ahve to say not trying to preach at anyone just stating how I see things in a (hopefully) cogent and sensitive manner.

    • Aaron, forgive me, but in what way are you displaying sensitivity by coming to a gay man’s blog and telling him that you think homosexuality is not approved by God? That’s just about as insensitive as you could get.

  11. John Jakala says:

    Just watched the episode and I was actually quite pleased with it. It’s certainly the best portrayal of atheists / atheism I can think of on TV in… forever?

    I thought Kurt got in the “implausible idea” angle when he talked about the unreasonableness of the elf on the other side of the moon. Granted, he was a bit angry and sarcastic at that moment, but he was upset about his father. (I thought a better response would have been for Kurt to retort that they can’t prove their beliefs either, but that probably wouldn’t have been as snappy.)

    And, yes, all of Kurt’s friends were obnoxious and pushy, but it didn’t seem all that far-fetched to me. Ideally, it would have been better for his friends to realize that all Kurt really needed was support, not prayers. But for some believers support does equal prayer / religion. I know that I’ve often been confronted with the attitude of “you just haven’t had that special religious moment yet” when people learn I’m an atheist.

    Really, any TV show that doesn’t end with the atheist finding Jesus at the end counts as a win in my book.

  12. Ahavah says:

    (full personal disclosure: I was raised an Orthodox Jew, and consider my race to be Ashkenazi-Eastern European Jewish origin)

    I really disliked the message of this episode, but I took it in a different way: “All religions are basically the same.” Only a certain form of secular humanism with spirituality attached is okay on this and most other shows, which is incredibly frusterating. I wish “Little Mosque on the Prarie” had become a hit just so people could get a glimpse of what people living true to a religious doctrine that they believe in is like. How about an episode in which a Muslim girl decides to cover her hair because of her faith? Religious orthodoxy is no more tolerated in popular culture than atheism. Well, okay, maybe it is respected more, but the only show on TV that I can think of that has a character wearing a yarmulke is “Children’s Hospital” on Adult Swim, which speaks volumes to me about how much actual *religious* people who don’t happen to be Christian are portrayed in popular culture.

    And bashing Jews on every other episode is [i]not[/i] okay. Why are the three most annoying and insensitive characters on the show Jewish (Jacob, AKA “JewFro”, Rachel, and Puck), and how is it okay that they are the butt of so many jokes because of their religion/ethnicity?

    *Sigh* But the basic problem with Glee is that it got too popular for its own good and is on a downward spiral of “special episodes” and “themed musical episodes” disreguarding most of its plot and established character development. I was expecting this, but it still is frusterating to watch it go down. The most frusterating part is that Murphy won’t have any motivation to fix the writing and plotting problems as long as the music is still selling on I-Tunes.

    And those kids are such darned good singers! Grrr! (The most frusterating show I can’t stop watching, indeed!)

    • davidpwelsh says:

      You make a number of excellent points, but I think I’ll just focus on your overall take on the show. I agree with it entirely, as it sums up Murphy’s willingness to sacrifice coherence and continuity for momentary flash. It’s too bad, because he makes better, smarter points when he isn’t catering to some random whim or pop-culture fancy.

    • Eric Henwood-Greer says:

      Great points (and living in Canada, where Little Mosque *is* a hit, I feel bad that I’ve never even bothered to watch a minute of it). The one thing I don’t fully agree on is, while I do think the depiction of Jacob is offensive (more and more so) and the fact that he seems to be defined by his Jewishness makes it even more so, it doesn’t bother me as much with Rachel or Puck, partly because I prefer both characters (particularly Puck, since Rachel seems to be getting more and more extreme). The way it’s used for humour with both of them seems more in fitting with the general over the top, broad humour each character has (Artie and his disability, the constant mention of “the Asians”–and Quinn’s own hypocritical Christian beliefs).

      I wonder, though, if Murphy, since he was raised Jewish feels he’s somehow more “allowed” to do that kind of Jewish humour (and similarly there’s a bit of the gay humour too that I wonder if he thinsk he’s more allowed–although it’s not shown to be something to approve of, they do have the jocks, and Sue refer to Kurt as lady or worse constantly and it’s done solidly for laughs).

      It’s a complicated issue (although I am often shocked when I’ve read Murphy say that the strength of his show is it’s for all ages–and a 7 year old could happily watch it with their grandma and neither get embarassed or be offended, which just seems a bit clueless). That said I think “JewFro” Jacob needs to be gotten rid of the way Murphy seemed to finally realize the pedophile-“doesn’t know he’s gay” teacher who popped up way too much last year has been.

  13. Ahavah says:

    Oh, and I love the name of this post! “Hate on Them” is a play on the song “Hate on Me” that Mercedes rocked last season, isn’t it? 🙂

  14. Caddy C says:

    I gave up on Glee long, long ago. And I just keep finding new reasons to be glad I did! It’s so disappointing because the show has a lot of potential, but squanders it in such a way as to make characters that could and should be likable do and say horrible things. It’s treatment of female characters was atrocious, and although the episodes I saw of Kurt were generally good, he got shifted to the background too much and so became the sortof token “gay chime-in” character. When I saw that your post was about how Glee handled religion, I literally groaned.

  15. Jade Harris says:

    I have to admit that most atheists I meet tend to have this pushy, smug streak that I can’t stand, but I hate the worn-out story of the jaded contrarian only choosing it because they’re butthurt over religion. My own faith in the spiritual world tells me that an atheist has to come up with some pretty solid logic to be able to refute it. Conversely, if they can just refute religion and spirituality based on the most juvenile whim, how strong are those spiritual beliefs? Aside from what offensive messages it may send out, I just don’t see why this view of atheism is entertaining or informative.

    You know what I want to see? A gay catholic character who is denied communion despite their total acceptance of the church, or someone being derided as a Unitarian or Pagan because one of the few faiths that accepts them is apparently faker than atheism. That’s more my real life experience than the quaint little parables showing why atheists are babies or how the GLBT community reconciles how ‘sinful’ they are.

    • davidpwelsh says:

      Have you ever seen “Saved!”? I’d be interested in hearing what you think of it.

      • Jade Harris says:

        Sorry, I haven’t seen it and I don’t think I’ll get the chance any time soon. I tried to read a quick synopsis, but I can’t really get my head around it enough to comment.

        What the Dean character experiences from the religious types reminds me of that guy from the Shield though. Ironically, Dean probably comes off more realistically since Julien was so drenched in shame he came across as more of a caricature than even Jack from Will and Grace.

        Between both examples, being sent to camp to be de-gayed I think is also a bit too much of an exaggeration to really make an accurate observation of the sort of shunning people can face in a religious community. Like your original post illustrated, if Kurt weren’t the antagonist here, this Glee episode would have been a perfect example of real ostracisation.

  16. davidpwelsh says:

    Jade: You’re right, in terms of the gay character, that’s probably too exaggerated, but in terms of the movie as a whole, I thought it was a pretty interesting look at a community of faith with differing degrees of adherence to dogma and acceptance of difference. Anyway, just thought it might be a movie that you’d find interesting.

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