How Popular Culture Can Combat Bullying

Published in: January-February 2011 issue.


THE FALL OF 2010 saw a number of widely publicized teen suicides linked to anti-gay bullying across the country. The national GLBT community responded with candlelight vigils, “die-in’s,” and heartfelt homemade videos promising at-risk young people that “It Gets Better.” Kudos to Dan Savage for launching this project; still, it is difficult to lay healing hands on an isolated population through YouTube.

Another approach might be to reach young people via television programs watched by them. The Fox TV series Glee, a runaway hit with GLBT viewers, undoubtedly draws much of the elusive, artistically inclined demographic that’s the subject of urgent health and safety concerns. Set in Ohio, Glee features an ensemble cast as a high school glee club with impressive talent but low social standing. The show appeals with a gay creator and executive producer, a gay male character, another character who’s the daughter of a gay male couple, an openly lesbian actor, and a rollicking gay sensibility.

Bullying figures prominently on the show. Caricatured jocks regularly concoct felonies and misdemeanors to remind the performing arts students of their social status. The Glee musicians admirably weather the abuse to perform outstanding covers of popular songs. Yet none of the show’s dysfunctional regulars offers much constructive insight into the lived experience of being bullied. Young victims of bullying might find Glee’s light-hearted but evocative portrayals of bullying distressing—and giving little in the way of practical advice. The subject matter can conjure dangerous emotions, but the narrative has tended to leave at-risk youth to cope with them on their own.

In one episode, “Never Been Kissed” (aired November 9, 2010), a promising storyline began with the debut of a gay friend and mentor for Kurt, the show’s only regular gay character. Kurt visits a private all-boys school and meets winsome, confident Blaine. With dazzling charm and helpful knowledge on how to deal with bullying, Blaine takes Kurt under his wing, comforting him after he’s repeatedly thrown into lockers (by a student athlete so nondescript we don’t even hear his name). Blaine gives support and models healthy responses to bullying.

With Blaine set to reappear in future episodes, Glee’s creators have provided a promising context for addressing the hard-hitting realities they so vividly depict. Blaine is well-positioned to confront the teen suicide crisis if, as expected, he becomes a regular next season. One hopes Glee’s creators manage to work into the character’s lines some simple but scientifically sound anti-bullying advice. This fictional character may be better able to comfort the afflicted multitudes than anyone in real life.


Don Gorton is co-author of “Direct From the Field: A Guide to Bullying Prevention” and chairs the Anti-Violence Project of Mass.