When Glee creator Ryan Murphy announced that the popular TV show would add a female Christian character in its second season, a "Carrie Underwood" type, I worried that she might be just another outrageous caricature representing the worst people think of us. But in the hands of a show like Glee, which combines choreographed musical numbers with high school drama and teenage self-discovery, this might just turn out to be a good thing.
"We've taken a couple jabs at the right wing this year, so what I want to do with this character is have someone who Christian kids and parents can recognize and say, 'Oh, look—I'm represented there, too!' If we're trying to form a world of inclusiveness, we've got to include that point of view as well," said Murphy. He insists that the character will "speak her mind and be listened to and respected" while refusing to accept one character's homosexuality and the glee club's sexually suggestive dance numbers.
Each of the characters on Glee is an intentionally exaggerated stereotype: the jock, the cheerleader, the diva. For all they talk about individuality and wanting to be accepted for who they are, the kids in the Glee Club, and the rest of McKinley High, look like the kids you would find in any high school across the country. They have an image they would like to project, and they carefully choose their clothes, their activities, and even their friends to reflect that ideal. But what the show tries to prove is that while you might know what someone values based on these things, you might not know how they will respond to another human being when they find common ground.
Take, for example, Mercedes Jones. Mercedes is "the sassy black girl," a plus-size soul singer who resents singing back-up for most of the club's songs. But when she develops a friendship with Quinn Fabray, the former head cheerleader and president of the Celibacy Club who lost her social status after an unplanned pregnancy, both girls demonstrate an empathy and loyalty that define them more wholly and more accurately than their prescribed social labels. While we might be able to tell a lot about a person by how they choose to present themselves, the show demonstrates, we can tell much more through their relationships with other people.
Despite all the emphasis on personal expression, most people—teenagers especially—tend to explore individuality only on a micro scale, within the safe boundaries of an established norm. We have an idea of who we want to be, and we try our best to dress the part. This reflects not only how we see other people, but how we see ourselves. Call it the Facebook effect: we tend to think in cultural shorthand. We have learned to communicate our identity in a list of interests, books, shows, and movies, and we carefully craft the image we would like to project. And this is nothing new. I think of my own middle school and high school years, when I refused to buy clothes anywhere but the same three or four stores every other person in my school shopped. Even more than I wanted to be different, I wanted to be the same.
By creating obvious caricatures, Glee moves past the superficial trappings of identity and shifts the focus to what actually matters—the desire to find and hold onto the things that make us the same without compromising the things that make us unique. The great thing about the Glee club is that it's okay for a jock to be a jock, and a diva to be a diva—through a common activity they develop respect for each other and begin to see the labels they have chosen for themselves and each other for the good things they represent. There is a reason, the show posits, that a jock wants to be a jock, and a diva wants to be a diva. These identities represent our values and our longings. In this sense, a stereotypical Christian character is a good thing—it demonstrates that there are real teens who desire first and foremost to pursue God with their whole lives. That's a pretty radical idea for a teen show.
I anxiously await Glee's interpretation of the American Christian teenager, having been one myself and knowing many who currently choose to identify themselves with Christ in the halls, and playing fields, and choir rooms, of their schools. If she can demonstrate Christ's love in her relationships with others without giving up the values and beliefs that form her identity, it will be a great success indeed—even if she hangs a Kirk Cameron poster in her locker or greets her fellow Glee Clubbers with a side hug.
What are your hopes for a Christian character on Glee? What shows or movies have depicted Christians particularly well?