Popular TV show Glee has had a tendency to go off the rails when it tackles serious issues. The show's irreverent, ironic tone had led them to strike occasional false notes when they address issues of disability and discrimination in the past. Last night's episode, framed as a response to the rash of gay suicides early this year was extraordinary counterproductive.
When Mr. Schuester, the glee club advisor, sees Kurt being hit by a member of the football team, the teacher does not discipline the bully himself or go to the principal's office to make sure the bullying is resolved. He accepts at face value Kurt's statement that Mr. Schuester can do nothing to help him. Once Schuester feels like he is off the hook, he reframes the problem as Kurt's responsibility, asking him why Kurt is "letting it get to you" and rebuking him for becoming withdrawn and belligerent.
Depression or anger is a reasonable response to abuse. Although Kurt would probably prefer to be less upset by his bullies, it is unfair for Schuester to frame Kurt's response as the problem, rather than the abuse provoking his response.
If Glee had set up Mr. Schuester's response as a reflection of the lapses of some teachers and districts and had provided a better model later in the episode, his counterproductive message could have been redeemed. However, the mistakes of Mr. Schuester were repeated and amplified a few scenes later by the episode's unambiguous 'good guy.'
Kurt meets Blaine, a gay student at a more tolerant school, and turns to him for advice. Blaine was also bullied at his old school before he transferred to his new, zero-tolerance private school. Since private school tuition isn't an option for Kurt, Blaine tells him he should "refuse to be the victim."
Prejudice is just ignorance, Kurt, and you have a chance, right now, to teach [the bully]... Confront him, call him out. I ran, Kurt. I didn't stand up. I let bullies chase me away and it is something I really regret.
This advice to gay teens is misleading and dangerous. It is ridiculous to say that bullied students need to "refuse to be the victim." No one consents to assault. Kurt is not allowing or condoning bullying because he is upset by it. No one should feel ashamed that they could not stop a bully on their own or that they had to withdraw from a painful situation.
I hate to imagine a queer student living in a bad school district who watches Glee and decides that s/he has a responsibility to confront his/her tormentors. Children, particularly children already being target, do not have a duty to put themselves in danger to try to be an object lesson. People who are abused or harassed do not have an overriding responsibility to redeem their abusers; they have a responsibility to protect themselves and flee if necessary. Telling them that they have a responsibility to confront students who have threatened them puts them at risk for serious injury.
A case can be made that queer adults do have an obligation to come out and confront bigots. This is the goal of National Coming Out Day, which tries to undermine harmful perceptions of queer people by reminding straights that there are gay people in your everyday life, and they do not match the slurs. In the Gus van Sant biopic Milk, one of the most powerful moments was when Harvey Milk forces a volunteer to come out to his homophobic family, telling the volunteer that he needs to set an example by outing himself and showing his parents that queers are people.
Given the terrible homophobia in many parts of the country (exemplified by the Arkansas school board member who declared he wished more gay students would kill themselves), it remains important to give queer teens help resisting bullying and to encourage them to persist long enough to escape their abusive homes and communities if necessary.
Dan Savage's It Gets Better project has helped provide support to gay teens at risk, and Savage has been emphatic that, while teens at risk should focus on surviving, adults have a responsibility to make things better by standing up and speaking out. Glee put the onus of intervention entirely on the victim, letting Mr. Schuester and other school administrators off the hook for their passive response to beatings and sexual assault in the hallways.