Glee and Social Issues (Part One): Kurt, Santana and Mostly Karofsky

Glee has an interesting history of how it attacks social issues prevalent in today’s society. 

If I can say a positive thing about this…these issues do need to be discussed with the audience that watches glee, which are mainly teenagers and young adults. Hell even the older sect do need to discuss these issues.

Now with a weakness of fantastically horrible TV primetime soaps of the early 90’s that I have. Well…the issues were tackled (not well but were tackled) and you really don’t see it much these days on television shows. 

Now since glee tackles a variety of different social issues, I’ll be splitting this series into parts.

Part 1: Kurt, Santana but Mostly Karofsky-Bullying and LGBT issues
Part 2: Mercedes, Sam and Marley-Body Image
Part 3: Brittany and Unique-Bisexual and Transgender Depictions
Part 4: Terri and Quinn-Mental Illness and Teen Pregnancy (along with other things)
Part 5: Finn, Puck and Rachel: Peer Pressure and Reputation

I will like to take a moment to point out that the following is opinion based on my own observations from rewatching glee. 

Now let’s take a retrospective look at how glee tackles issues of the day.

(From this point I will be spoiling up to episode 14 of season 3 “On My Way”. So if you don’t want to spoiled then well get caught up and come back. If you do hey I can’t stop you.) 

From the beginning, there have been two overreaching social issues tackled in glee: bullying and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues. 

The best example of it being tackled early on is Kurt. He was a fey, slim boy who was more interested in fashion and music then sports. Even though he didn’t officially come out until episode three of season one (“Acafellas”), Kurt was living in what TvTropes calls a “transparent closet”. A “transparent closet” is well everyone knowing a person is gay through preconceived stereotypes of what gay is even though the person themselves say that they are straight.

Kurt coming out officially to Mercedes started a seasons long chain of focus on LGBT issues and the bullying that stems from those LGBT issues with Kurt as the center focus. 

Over the course of Kurt’s three seasons at McKinley High School, we have seen him been slushied, threatened, called names, physically assaulted just to name a few. These actions against him stemmed from just being who he is and refusing to change that.


Most openly homosexual teens in high school who watch glee say that Kurt’s storyline reflects what they themselves face day to day.

However, Kurt’s storyline as an openly homosexual teenager does coincide with another who is in the closet, David Karofsky.

Karofsky’s storyline I have to admit is on of the more interesting things that glee has produced. For the entirety of season one, he was a side one-dimensional villain. He threw slushies at the glee club. He made fun of Kurt for being himself and of Finn for going outside traditional gender stereotypes and going a singing and dancing club. In season two, looking back, we all probably expected much of the same.

And we were wrong.

Yep.

This is the kiss that EVERYONE was talking about. Why? No one saw it coming. I remember seeing this and emailing my friend being like ‘did that seriously just happen?!’ 

It was out of left field. It was insane. And it was just a brilliant move looking back on it. What better way to subvert the bully then by having the bully be what he lashes out against? It’s a stereotype but glee loves their high school stereotypes and subverts them (most of the time) beautifully. In an instant, a lot of people who previously hated Karofsky (me included) were on his side.

Unlike Kurt, he wasn’t in a “transparent closet”. He was in a closet that was all too dark, too real, and too terrifying. He was available to those kids who were in their own closets and were terrified of coming out of them. Glee might not be much on plot sometimes but when it comes to (most) of their characters they’re people that we can connect with which adds to the tone of the show.

Looking at Karofsky’s storyline from all three seasons (sadly there are no current plans for him to come back), it is something rather heart wrenching to watch. However, it’s consistent storyline. We establish him as a one dimensional character in season one. We then subvert that character and watch him struggle in season two. We get a (somewhat) open ended conclusion in season three to what happened to him or rather what’s going to happen to him. 

Throughout season two we see Karofsky struggle with his sexuality and hating himself for it. The last time we see him in season two is in “Prom Queen” (episode  twenty of the season) where he is named Prom King and titular Prom Queen ends up being Kurt as a cruel prank. Karofsky is terrified of even dancing with Kurt less his sexuality come out and runs out of the gym.

Looking back at the series, there were clues that Karofsky would attempt what he attempted in season three, episode fourteen “On My Way” and before I discuss that, let’s look over these clues.

The most obvious one is that between seasons two and three, Karofsky transferred schools. Doing that right before senior year only happens if you have to move or if you want to escape something from your past. This transfer signifies that there was fear after the Prom Queen incident that he may be outed. Nothing really stays secret in McKinley for long. Then there is the fact that Karofsky…was very much one step forward three steps back. He kisses Kurt and hates himself so much that he actually threatens Kurt’s life (“The Substitute”, episode seven of season two) if he tells about the kiss they shared in the locker. He even rewrites it as it being Kurt’s fault that they kissed. 

In “Furt” (episode eight of season two) we see Paul Karofsky has noticed something is bothering his son. That Karofsky has been becoming more violent and his grades have been dropping, which are warning signs. It’s apparently a radical personality change that Paul, who does love his son but has no clue how to deal with him, notices but does not know how to act on.

However in episode eleven of season two “The Sue Sylvester Shuffle”, we see Karofsky’s inner conflict more. Finn calls him out on calling everyone else gay while he never has a girlfriend himself. Finn is much more perceptive then we give him credit for if he picked that up. However, it is also a direct threat against Karofsky’s image of himself and his closet. 

The course of the episode, you see Karofsky waver from being in glee club (watch the first walk in of the football team he’s holding the slushie cup like a security blanket) to actually singing and dancing during a football game. It’s almost like if he does it and likes it then everyone will make the connection that he is gay. 

At the end rather then confronting his own fears of his sexuality and apologize to Kurt, he reverts back into his closet. His mask of heterosexuality is safe. Riiiight up until Santana threatens it in season two, episode eighteen “Born This Way” when she herself finally makes the connection that Karofsky is gay. Santana, also in the closet, uses this material to blackmail Karofsky into being her beard and she doing the same for him. “Born This Way” is an interesting episode for Karofsky as he starts to peel back and we see a guy genuinely terrified of sexuality and the implications there are from coming out. 

Kurt, ever since that kiss, does make his attempts to reach out to Karofsky. He attempts to convince him to come out, to speak to someone, to do something that doesn’t bottle it up inside of himself. However, Karofsky is too terrified to do it.

In season three, we see two characters outed before their time. Santana in season three episode six “Mash Off” was the earlier example. It was also accidental on Finn’s part (more on Finn getting angry and mouthing of in another entry for another day). Santana, who was not ready to be open about herself, had to deal with the sudden jarring adjustment of her sexuality being known to the state of Ohio. However, she also had a support network of people (even though they hated each other at the time rivalries were forgotten to help a comrade) to help her through this difficult time.

In season three episode thirteen “Heart”, Karofsky admits he has feelings for Kurt. Then some guy from his new school overhears him. In the next episode, season three episode fourteen “On My Way”, we see the fallout of this for Karofsky in one of the most powerful song sequences that glee has ever produced. Karofsky with no support structure, with everyone knowing his sexuality before he was ready to come out, with everyone around him hating him makes the ultimate decision of attempting to take his own life. Before this he does make attempts to reach out to Kurt, who ignores his calls out of embarrassment of not returning Karofsky’s feelings. 

(Warning: The following video shows a suicide attempt. Please don’t watch if you are easily disturb.) 

This still leaves me crying.

Just…everything. 

Cough Syrup with the imagery of the slow preparations. It depicts possibly the strongest sequence glee has produced in any capacity. Ever. It is treated delicately and with clear respect that yes this is going to be hard to watch but dammit people need to see this. This is something that people need to talk about. I still can’t listen to the Glee version of Cough Syrup without getting teary eyed. This is something that stays with you long, long after the episode ends.

It was something that no one saw coming. 

However, this is not as sudden as everyone who saw the episode said it was. With evidence gathered and subtle hints, a case could be made that this was something that was building up quietly inside of Karofsky for a long time. No one was looking for the clues because no one thought glee would go there. 

Oh but it did go there. While I do commend Max Adler and Chris Colfer’s acting in this…I wish it was given more of a focus. Everything in “On My Way” felt shoe-horned in there while I think it should have been separated. They should have gotten rid of a useless episode like “The Spanish Teacher” (apologies Ricky Martin) move “Heart” up into that slot and then have an episode dedicated to Karofsky’s suicide attempt and the fallout explored in said new episode and Regionals.

If you are going to tackle an issue as sensitive as LGBT teen suicide then you need a whole lot more time on it. Would it have been a depressing episode? Yes. But it would have been a more genuine episode if just focused on that. “On My Way” fails because nothing in that episode feels…real or organic. It feels like there are three different plotlines cobbled together. Though the scenes with Max Adler and Chris Colfer feel like they were from a much better episode (seriously Max Adler was snubbed with no Emmy nod for that comedy or no that was some amazing acting).

This has been building for awhile and with as big of issue as it was this should have been given more attention. If you made the decision to go this route as a story then you have to realize that this should stand alone and not be mixed in with Regionals or a don’t text while driving plot. The inspiration theme from Regionals should have come from this attempt rather be something that was going to happen anyway. We should have had a scene with Karofsky and his Dad post attempt. There just should have been more done to give this story the respect that it deserved!!

Because it deserves respect. Glee‘s audience could have used this episode as a starting point with discussing suicide and isolation and bullying in all its forms with each other, if it was done well. Instead we get this mess with moments of absolute brilliance but that at the end leads a viewer of the show feeling a little dirty and shocked. If there intent was for there to be a discussion well…that did get a dialogue started but it shouldn’t have been the kind of dialogue that they wanted.

Karofsky’s story ends with him in the hospital. Kurt there besides him walking him through a vision of a future with him as a sports agent, a husband who loves him, and a son of his own. And I sincerely hope that with therapy and love and support and time that one day Karofsky will find that future.

Glee has always tackled social issues in on capacity or another. But the two strongest the tackle or LGBT issues (Unique, transgender, and Brittany, bisexual, are for another installment) and the effects of bullying in conjunction with this. From not just bullied side of the fence but also from the point of view of the bully. These plot points show how strong of a force that glee can be with tackling relevant issues of the day: well handled or not. It happens in the world and it is unpleasant and uncomfortable and it mostly happens when we’re young. The big news is the education of these issues and I can think of worse places to begin your education than by an episode of glee that makes you think. 

Sources: luisgleeperforamces at Youtube “Glee Performance-Cough Syrup”
Dragondude2525 at Youtube “Kurt’s first kiss ruined”
Character pages and episode summaries at Glee Wiki (glee.wikia.com)
GleeSeason 1, Season 2, and Season 3 on DVD

NEXT ON GLEE REWATCH PROJECT: After tackling the heavy subject matter from this week and to give myself a breather, a list of the top ten mash-ups Glee should have done but didn’t.

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One comment on “Glee and Social Issues (Part One): Kurt, Santana and Mostly Karofsky

  1. […] going back to Karofsky’s suicide attempt from my first installment of Glee and Social Issues , that storyline would have been fine if they had an episode or two with it building. Marley’s […]

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