Glee: Time Warp
In Glee’s “2009,” the first part of the two-part finale, Terri gives us this bit of wisdom:
Here’s what I learned in the years since I’ve left high school. There’s who you are—and there’s who you think you are. And your personal level of misery is determined by how big the gap is between them.
Terri’s comment is interesting, in that it speaks to the gap between our inside selves (what we think we are) and our outside selves. As far as outside selves, I think Terri is suggesting that “who you are” means how others perceive you, but we can also think about outside selves an additional way, as an expression of what we’re willing, or able even, to show the world. Either way, the concept of managing that gap between our inside and outside selves is, in my mind, one of the major themes of Glee. Certainly, it’s present in the pilot. In that first episode, Finn acknowledges the difference between who he is on the inside and what people see externally, and his story in that episode is about standing up not only for his internal self but for the others who just want to express their real selves, too. Will’s and Terri’s stories in the pilot are also centered around these notions of self, as Will struggles with balancing what he desires for himself and what others expect of him, while Terri struggles to negotiate conflicts between her personal desires and Will’s.
One of the aspects of the larger identity theme “2009” explores is the idea of controlling what others see (or don’t see) about your true self—and the kind of misery that accompanies that kind of management. After becoming friends with Kurt, for instance, Mercedes tells him, “I see the way you slink around this school. It’s time for your attitude to match your outfits.” Kurt replies, “I guess I just feel safer if I let all the clothes do the talking. In a way, it lets me feel invisible.” It’s an interesting statement, because Kurt’s outfits definitely stand out—his clothing choices are certainly a way for him to let his inner self and personality “speak.” He hasn’t yet found his own confident and true-to-self voice, though, and that’s exemplified in his audition choice of “Mr. Cellophane.” We don’t get to hear the entire song, but the full lyrics repeat the theme:
A human being’s made of more than air
With all that bulk, you’re bound to see him there
Unless that human bein’ next to you
Is unimpressive, undistinguished you know who
He wants to be seen, and not just physically. But without confidence (and with a fair amount of fear), the prospect of letting people in is terrifying.
In wonderful, very different ways, the other characters confront these issues too. Will tries to hide his real passion for glee club and helping the team. In one moment, he keeps the vacuum cleaner running to conceal from Terri what he’s really doing—examining song choices for the group. Rachel, too, tries to hide her inner self. That self wants to be part of something special, and wants to be accepted as part of a team (and as a friend, too). Externally, Rachel keeps busy. Too busy, in fact, for anyone: we see her making posters, making videos, working out, rehearsing. Her outside self has no time for friends, and is a tough, independent competitor. Mercedes, interestingly, seems to present herself as herself. She’s confident already, and doesn’t hide what she thinks. And yet she knows she’s a star at her church, but not at school. “The white girl always goes first,” she says. “No one in there [glee club] is gonna see me the way I see myself.” As for Artie, he seems to be himself, too, but that self isn’t seen because of his wheelchair. He’s thankful for Tina, and even describes how she touches his shoulder sometimes, and how welcome that is. Meanwhile Tina tells us that “true power comes from nonconformity,” so her external identity is one that’s aggressive and suggestive—and trying hard to the point that she comes off fake as her stutter (and everyone seems to know it). I’m appreciative for all of these stories, and all the variations on the same theme. Even the tiny inclusion of Blaine in the episode points to it, as he tells his friend, “It feels so nice to not be living a lie anymore.”
The other aspect of managing internal versus external identity that’s explored in “2009” and elsewhere, I think, is this idea of challenge. After Rachel shows up at Mercedes’ church to hear her sing, Rachel’s comment that she sees in Mercedes a “future R&B star” pokes at Mercedes’ frustration. She counters, “Wherever your voice can go, mine can, too.” Later Mercedes’ mother gives her daughter a pep talk, since Mercedes is certain that she will never get the spotlight—not as long as Rachel is around. Her mother says, “Part of the responsibility that goes along with being a star is learning to share the spotlight . . . Maybe she’s gonna get the solos because she needs it more than you do right now. The truth is, Mercedes, Rachel will make you better. Her drive and ambition will help you raise the expectations you have of yourself, and you can use that to become great.” Her comments echo Will’s to Rachel, earlier this season, regarding Sue and the role that she’s played with Will over the years. Will had told Rachel that having an adversary is helpful—that being challenged by someone can help you grow.
In the original pilot, I think most of us viewers simply assumed Kurt, Artie, Tina, and Mercedes all simply wanted to join the glee club. Does knowing that Artie and Tina joined on a dare, and that Kurt was forced by his dad to join something change our perspective? In a way I think even these plot details point back to the inside/outside identity issues. For all of Artie and Tina’s attitude in front of their bullying friends, it’s clear that they enjoy performing. Kurt not only lights up at being a part of something he’s interested in, but he immediately seeks out people like Mercedes to join, too. Very quickly, the club members seem to recognize like minds, and as Mercedes’ mother says, “Stars have a way of finding each other.” And by episode’s end, the characters, having acknowledged the importance of including Finn, seem to find a kind of peace with each other. Rachel says, “I made some friends, and that’s always been really hard for me.” As a viewer you get the feeling that they can all just breathe, that they’re not having to manage, manage their internal or external selves so aggressively, at least in the choir room.