‘Glee’ vs. ‘90210’: A Tale of Two Closeted Gay Teen Storylines

Chris Colfer in Glee, Trevor Donovan in 90210 (The CW)

Chris Colfer in Glee, Trevor Donovan in 90210 (The CW)

Tuesday night, ‘Glee‘ aired its big sectionals episode.  It continued what has been the season’s only reasonably well developed story arc, the bullying of McKinley High’s only openly gay student, Kurt (Chris Colfer).

After being tormented by the hulking jock Karofsky (Max Adler), Kurt was every bit as shocked as the audience when Karofsky planted a kiss on him.  Kurt has fled McKinley high school for the anti-bullying paradise of the Hogworts-like Dalton Prep, where the glee club is the coolest activity on campus.

Kurt’s storyline has generated a lot of attention, in part because it happened to coincide with several real-life suicides by gay teenagers and the subsequent “It Gets Better” video campaign.

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Some critics have found the storyline a much-needed look at an often ignored subject, while others feel the once edgy show is veering into after school special territory.

Many gay viewers have embraced the rare television portrayal of a gay teen as a lead character, enjoying seeing all of the standard teen romantic tropes, such as Kurt swooning as his love interest Blaine sings “Teenage Dream,” played out between two boys.

As the website Tom and Lorenzo put it, “Giving a young gay boy the dream that someday Prince Charming will come and sing a love song to him? You cannot imagine. You simply cannot imagine how revolutionary such a thing is.”

Others feel that Kurt has gone from the likable but flawed character that he was in season one, to a saint and a martyr.  Gawker’s Bryan Moylan was particularly galled by last week’s Furt episode, in which Kurt’s father’s wedding became a tribute to Kurt. “Each character on Glee has a serious flaw that makes us hate them a little bit just as we are charmed by their quirky individuality. That is except for Babygay Kurt. He is bullied and that makes him a saint with absolutely nothing wrong with him at all.”

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The difficulty with this storyline is that up until now, ‘Glee’ treated bullying as a joke. The members of the glee club regularly had Slushees tossed in their faces, were thrown in dumpsters and called insulting names both by their classmates and by members of the school’s faculty.  Suddenly, Sue Sylvester, who is the most gloriously mean and cruel person on the show, is declaring to Kurt that she will not allow a student to be threatened on school grounds.  Given that she started the season by waging a harassment campaign designed to get her rival Coach Bieste to quit that included serving her cookies made out of excrement, the show does seem to be setting up a double standard: it’s okay to bully someone as long as it is not about his or her sexual orientation.

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Where was Sue’s compassion when she was kicking Quinn off the Cheerios because she was pregnant? This week’s episode, “Special Education” continued this trend.  When Puck set out to recruit a new member of the club to replace Kurt, his fellow football players, including Karofsky, locked him in a porta-potty for 24 hours.  It was played as a comedic beat. Until ‘Glee’ explains how what Kurt is experiencing is different from what the rest of the unpopular characters endure, it will continue to come across as hypocritical.

There is another show that is telling the story of a teenage jock who is secretly struggling with his sexual orientation. ‘90210‘ exists at the polar opposite of the television spectrum from ‘Glee.’   It hovers near the bottom of the Nielsen ratings.

Unlike its lead-out ‘Gossip Girl,’ it has never had any pop cultural buzz due in large part to an incredibly boring first season.  It has developed into a trashy, hilarious guilty pleasure that is not aiming to win Emmys or inspire viewers.  The show is as far from reality as ‘Glee,’ but in the opposite direction.

It’s uniformly wealthy characters live a glamorous life in a progressive city.  Teddy (Trevor Donovan), a womanizing tennis star, hurls an ugly slur against an openly gay student Ian (Kyle Riabko) who, like Kurt, is a flamboyant theater buff.  It turns out that he is lashing out because they got drunk and slept together.

Watch Full Episodes Of ‘90210’ On XfinityTV

Over the course of a few episodes, Teddy has visited a gay bar, and lived in fear of his friends finding out his secret, before acknowledging to himself that he had fallen for Ian, and giving him the prototypical CW teen kiss, complete with a swirling pop music soundtrack.

It’s a vastly different television universe, where teens are too busy becoming pop stars and worrying that they have accidentally destroyed their father’s multi-million dollar porn empire to stress about being about being a part of the in-crowd.

If there are nerds at West Beverly, they are off-camera because the popular kids have better things to do than mock them.   Being gay is no big deal.  Teddy was condemned by the other characters for his homophobia.

Last season, aspiring pop star Adrianna (Jessica Lowndes) briefly dated a girl. Her friends were supportive.

This is a storyline about Teddy’s self-acceptance.  It reflects the real life Los Angeles, where a far less affluent public high school just elected a transgendered student prom king, just as ‘Glee’ attempts to mirror many small towns where gay students are bullied.

The difference is that ‘90210’ is consistent within its own shallow universe. Everything is equally ridiculous and overwrought.  Teddy’s struggles are treated with the same glossy tawdriness as Naomi’s (AnnaLynne McCord) rape by her teacher. Both are distraught for a few episodes, then are magically fine. It’s really not the show to go to for sensitive explorations of any serious issues.

By treating Teddy’s gayness as no more or less important than anything else that happens on the show, ‘90210’ is quietly making as much of a statement as ‘Glee’ is by shouting at the top of its powerful lungs.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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