The recent “Born This Way” episode of Glee, featuring Lady Gaga’s latest single of the same name, draws attention to the posited-as-postmodern fixation on so-called ‘body modifications’. The episode revolves around self-acceptance and, for the most part, asserts acceptance in opposition to body alterations via plastic surgery. That is, the fairly conservative view that plastic surgery and any desires for such are bad. In this way, Glee positions problems of self-esteem as individual and suggests they are to be conquered via changes to thinking, while plastic surgery is presented as self-hating and conformist.
Earlier in the series, Santana is vilified for having a boob job, and throughout this episode the gang rally to dissuade Rachel from having a nose job. There is no question that Rachel’s flirtation with plastic surgery is “a terrible idea” within the diagesis of the show. But while the gang all profess how much they love themselves, it is Santana — ‘the brutally honest bitch’ — who calls them out for lying to themselves (“As if there aren’t things you’d all change about yourselves”). Self-hatred is conveyed as highly unattractive and unfashionable in this hipster context (as opposed to self-hatred celebratory emo-culture).
The showchoir purport various reasons (other than self-hate) for their body modifications, such as the improvement of talent (Rachel) or trying to be in fashion (Tina), both of which are presented as highly unconvincing; mere excuses for a deeper-rooted and shameful self-loathing.
Rachel: “Look, I’m happy with the way that I look and I’ve embraced my nose, but say I wanted to have a slightly more demure nose, like Quinn’s for example. I would never change my appearance for vanity but the doctor said that it could possibly improve my talent…”
Glee sets up a dichotomy where self-acceptance is ‘good’ and conformity is ‘bad’ (in this case via plastic surgery). This has been the main aim of the show from its inception; the geeks and misfits of the Glee club are constantly juxtaposed to the bitchy cheerleaders and bullying footballers. This distinction is hardly complicated by a number of the popular kids joining the Glee club. There is also a reiteration of the idea that the misfits are ‘authentic’ and the popular kids ‘fake’ — referenced in “Born This Way” through Lauren Zizes comment to Quinn that she is “two different people”, as well as the character of closet-gay footballer Dave Karofsky. It is not coincidence that the two characters who are revealed to have had plastic surgery (Santana and Quinn) are cheerleaders: the archetypical high school example of popularity due to conformity.
With the exception of this one-liner,
Mercedes: “[T]he thing that makes you different is the thing people use to crush your spirit.”
the show really avoids the complications of trying to be different in an unaccepting social sphere; that there are costs to being different.
As Jack Halberstam reminds us: “the experience of transgression itself is often filled with fear, danger, and shame, rather than heroic self-satisfaction.” (Female Masculinity, 1998: 59)
Or, as Quinn puts it: “I pretty much have a warped sense of the world. Being a hot seventeen year old you can get away with or do anything you want, so I just kind of assume that people are always nice and accommodating.”
By revealing Quinn’s “size 2 teenage dream [body]” to be one obtained via various modificatory practices (rhinoplasty, extreme weight loss, acne medication, contacts, hair dye, as well as changing her name and moving schools), the show could be read as embracing both self-acceptance without plastic surgery and self-love via changing what you don’t like “when you look in the mirror”. When confronted with her ‘Lucy Caboosey’ past, Zizes suggests “So, you hate yourself?” to which Quinn retorts:
“No. I love myself, and that’s why I did all those things. I’ve been that girl and I’m never going back. I was a miserable little girl and now I’m going to be prom queen.”
Here, Quinn and Zizes offer a different reading of two perhaps similar looking people with starkly contrasted ways of living it. Zizes just gets off on her subversiveness (which is tied into her ‘badness’); that is, she embraces the ways she is different from dominant cultural expectations of femininity. Zizes clearly loves herself — which is highlighted when she is praised for it by the post-surgery, self-love professing Quinn. But, as Deb Jannerson remarks: “[it is troubling] that the writers didn’t come up with something other than ‘she used to be heavier and bigger-nosed.’ Don’t quintessential popular girls have issues with their appearances sometimes?”
This juxtaposition is perhaps more interestingly explored through the male characters Finn and Sam, each of which are often depicted as lacking in manliness because of their body mass; Finn not muscular enough and Sam obsessed with his musculature. These two can also be seen as representing ‘acceptance’ or ‘change’ in relation to body modification; Finn as self-conscious-if-not-hating of his flabbiness and Sam as obsessed with the constant militant eating and exercising regimes necessary for maintaining his stature. Hence, both ‘acceptance’ or refusal and change can be seen as ongoing systems of self-‘modification’. As opposed to Quinn’s which is seen as a classic before and after; that is, no ongoing work seems to be required.
“it is not enough to unquestioningly assume that conformity is bad and transgression is good or to presume that such categories are stable, discrete, identifiable, and unambiguous.” (Nikki Sullivan, “Transmorgrifications”, 561)
The overwhelming ‘lesson’ of the episode remains that self-acceptance is — if not necessary at least — preferable to other types of self-modification: Tina concludes that as there are no Asian sex symbols, she should become one. This idea is reiterated in the ‘Barbaravention,’ where Kurt reminds Rachel that Barbara Streisand “refused to believe that beauty could only be defined by the blonde chiselled faces of Hitchcock’s beauties, so she redefined what beauty was and became the biggest female star in the world.” This possibility of reform is highly optimistic, but is in keeping with the show’s feel-good, idealistic raison d’être.
Glee itself purports to be transgressive and celebratory of diversity, but it presents a fairly palatable — conformist — type of diversity (see, for example, nyx mathews’ article on Glee and disability): all of Glee‘s self-congratulatory diversity is sugar-coated (with the possible exception of Lauren Zizes). Furthermore, the purpose of presenting difference as a result of being “Born This Way” disavows other forms of cultural representation and body-modification, rendering desires for such as less, if at all, legitimate.
Quinn’s self-acceptance is side-stepped in the narrative. Or rather, it is only considered in her relation to others: after the publicity of her alter-ego Lucy Caboosey, she’s still popular, adored by the masses (represented by the three identically-dressed fat girls) and her boyfriend, Finn. How she feels about herself after this ‘outing’ is not depicted. And neither is the reality of the suffering endured by rebelling against cultural norms, as Professor Xavier remarks in X-Men: The Last Stand: “Is it cowardice to save oneself from persecution?”
Is Rachel still pandering to social pressure, just that of her friends rather than the greater school community? And where does that leave the characters who have undergone plastic surgery? While it is not highlighted within the text, I think both Quinn and Santana characterise a get-what-you-want attitude that challenges the timidity of refusing change. Quinn’s self-acceptance revolves around not hiding the fact that she changed a lot in order to get where she is, regardless of the stigma attached to cosmetic surgery. And I’m into that.
Glee cast perform “Born This Way”:
Lady Gaga’s original “Born This Way”:
Quinn and Rachel sing a mash-up of TLC’s “Unpretty” / West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty”: