Riddle Me This, Riddle Me That: Addressing Glee’s Discomfort With Race

May 26, 2011  |  

By Marcus Scott

The second season finale of the teen musical soap “Glee” aired, and after a year of neglect from her acne-factory show tune ensemble members, the brassy Mercedes (as played by Amber Riley) developed a relationship with peroxide blond iron man Sam (as played by Chord Overstreet). The buxom bombshell and the trout-mouth jockey have both been in two destined-to-destruct flings, with Mercedes in a shorter-lived one episode pillow talk with sweetheart sociopath reformed juvenile delinquent Puck (as played by Mark Salling). However, the recent pairing seems only a bit glamorized for the show of sultry jazz-hand, fist-pumping show people.

According to Clutch editorial “A Different Type of Brown Girl: Where’s our Liz Lemon?” the show inefficiently converses (and perhaps evades) the topic of race and ethnicity. Granted, the character types do stereotype their character’s quirks based in part on their cultural descent: For Jacob Ben Israel, the over-sexed creepy tabloid-spinning yellow journalist, the audience is presented with the archetypal Woody Allen caricature that can only be described as a hyper-sexualized, but still neurotic, real-life Mort Goldman. Tina and Mike, who have not been truly fleshed-out as well, bicker about their family, prices and their distinctiveness as the only Asian-American couple at McKinley High School. For Barbara Streisand and Bruce Springsteen ersatzes Rachel Berry and Puck, viewers are treated with the debates of faith and conflict over their Jewish identity.

Even if you were to ask the guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury—the virginal ingénue overcoming her crippling mental handicap—she’d probably say that the gospel-infused songbird doesn’t have an identity of her own. Perhaps that’s because Mercedes was written to be exactly what we feared she’d be all along: the feisty, eye-rolling, rubber necking, finger-snapping black girl.

That’s what writer Tami Winfrey Harris addressed on her blog “What Tami Said,” and various critics are coming to the same conclusion. At the close of the show’s critically-acclaimed “Born This Way” episode, the glee kids don emblazoned shirts that speak to their individual identities ( for better or worse). Harris notes: “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?” Harris has a point, being the only black regular on the show; writers missed a window of opportunity to provide the perspective of a teenage girl attending a majority white school in the Midwest America. So what is Mercedes?

For a show that is written with characters designed to be transcendent of race, one can imagine that in this “post-racial” Obama age, it’s no surprise that black actors are still cast to type. In this case, they are either hired as thugs and criminals, servants, comic relief, snarky sidekicks, mother superiors, nurses or brutally honest story-tellers.  Mercedes does not have the culture or the mother hen qualities of Joan from “Girlfriends,” or even the headstrong independence of “Moesha.” In other words, there is no depth and therefore, zero likelihood of becoming a role model to young black women.

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