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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Glee’ raises suicide awareness in season finale

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

We don’t always ask or expect TV shows to consider serious topics, looking instead for easy entertainment that makes us laugh or cry, but afterward sets us back on our feet to go about our lives. So when a TV series does take on a current and significant issue it’s commendable, especially if it’s one that has previously escaped a mainstream spotlight. Fox’s TV show “Glee” did this recently in its season finale episode, casting a light on cyber-bullying and homophobia in high schools.

It’s especially timely for “Glee” to have brought these issues back to the forefront, as the trial against former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi currently proceeds. In September 2010, Ravi and a friend covertly watched through a Webcam while his roommate Tyler Clementi was intimate with another man in their room. Three days later Clementi committed suicide, bringing international attention to cases of cyber-bullying and LGBT suicide in the United States. Jury selection for the trial began Feb. 21, the same day this episode aired. Also, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, referenced in the episode, was officially launched a week later on Feb. 29 at Harvard University to help prevent bullying and empower youth.

For those who need a reminder, “Glee” is the musical-comedy-drama that features students at McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio. They join their high school’s glee club New Directions, finding support, friendship and belonging despite their different backgrounds, and compete in show choir competitions.

Faithful “Glee” followers will recall David Karofsky (Max Adler), a student at McKinley High who bullied Kurt for being gay, only to be revealed as a closeted homosexual himself. Eventually he begins to come to terms with his sexuality, though it’s a slow process. In the season finale episode, titled “On My Way,” he’s at a new high school where he’s remained in the closet. He’s shown discovering his locker with the word “faggot” graffitied on it, and goes home to see further hateful messages posted online by other students. After a week of this, he decides to take his own life. Preparation for the Regionals competition is overshadowed as students and teachers question their actions, wondering if there was more they could have done, and determining to make new decisions to appreciate themselves and each other more fully.

A review of “Glee” wouldn’t be complete without also examining its music choices, and the scene where Karofsky realizes he’s been outed and prepares for suicide is juxtaposed with a cover of Young the Giant’s “Cough Syrup,” as sung by Blaine (Darren Criss). While some people take issue with “Glee” for changing the songs they love, Blaine’s voice is perfect in this song, having just the right inflections of desperation and exhilaration to accompany the scene.

It’s a song about the feeling of losing control and taking measures to reduce the pain temporarily. Ingeniously, however, a line from the song, “Life’s too short to even care about,” is transformed into a motto by characters Rachel (Lea Michelle) and Finn (Cory Monteith). The two characters say “Life’s too short” in order to justify their decisions to show their appreciation to each other and their competition, and “live every day like it’s our last,” though the message also comes with a warning not to dive into things too recklessly.

The rest of the song selections for the night are neatly re-appropriated into the themes of “Don’t let things get you down” (such as Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger”) and “Let’s appreciate each other” (“Here’s to Us” by Halestorm). It’s difficult for “Glee” to go too far in-depth with the issues that arise around suicide, especially when 13 minutes of the episode are devoted to music performances. They make the point that gay people can be bullies too with Sebastian’s character (Grant Gustin), and Quinn (Diana Agron) questions the selfishness of suicide. Some of the issues they highlight—for example, the role of teachers and administrators in helping to curb bullying—have no easy answers. But beyond the witty banter there are some poignant moments, and the overall message against bullying, and encouraging respect and appreciation, is clear.

According to Entertainment Weekly, after this episode aired, The Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to providing suicide prevention services to LGBT youth, experienced three times as many phone calls and more than six times as much online traffic as usual. It’s a stark reminder that what is reflected on the television screen is still true in real life. LGBT high school students are nearly five times more likely to attempt suicide than straight students, according to the Massachusetts LGBT Youth Commission, and a survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reported that 84 percent of LGBT students experience harassment at school.

Some argue that the very presence of shows like “Glee” is evidence that conditions have improved for LGBT people in the United States—and that’s partly true—but there’s still plenty to do to improve the safety and acceptance of LGBT people and to stem the tide of bullying among youth, and this episode was a strong reminder of what needs to change and what people can do to help as well.