Images are powerful. This truism can currently be observed in the row over ‘seriously saucy’ photographs published in GQ Magazine depicting three cast members of the American hit TV show Glee. Importantly, Glee is a TV show about high school students, catering to children, teenagers as well as adults. In one of the photographs taken by the veteran fashion photographer Terry Richardson, the main actress Lea Michele can be seen, skimpily dressed, in a gym locker room. She leans into an open locker, exposing her white panties, and licking a red lollipop. The redness of the lollipop is mirrored by the interior of the locker also painted in bright red – a colour that signifies love and lust. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud would be quick to point out here that the lollipop, above all, signifies the phallus and that Michele’s licking is an obvious reference to oral sex. The scene played out in front of the viewer is that Michele, about to take her clothes off after gym, is sexually available. The locker room is otherwise deserted, except for you (the viewer) and the character played by Michele. Another photograph in GQ further heightens the sexual tension. Still in the locker room, Michele sits on a bench with her legs spread wide open. Her white panties are now fully on display to the camera. The open locker on the left is a visual play on Michele’s opened legs. While still holding on to the lollipop, Michele is now licking her lips instead. Maybe most significantly, Michele’s arms are raised in such a way that she appears to look defenseless against the camera, the photographer, the viewer, and the imaginative narrative unfolding in the locker room.
There is nothing new about these photographs of the body. Terry Richardson is utilizing photographic techniques that can be seen anywhere, from the internet to men’s magazines (and GQ is a men’s magazine). In their article, GQ made several sexual references, saying that the actors had a lot of T&A, that is talent and ambition – a reference to a common abbreviation for the physique of the female body. The headline of the article is ‘Glee’ Gone Wild – an even less veiled reference to the extremely popular franchise of quasi-porn movies called Girls Gone Wild. Despite the wide availability of this type of gender representation, the photographs caused a major scandal in America. The Parents Television Council (PTC) was most most outspoken in their criticism, by issuing a statement that read: “It is disturbing that GQ, which is explicitly written for adult men, is sexualising the actresses who play high school-aged characters on ‘Glee’ in this way,” … “It borders on paedophilia. By authorizing this kind of near-pornographic display, the creators of the program have established their intentions on the show’s direction. And it isn’t good for families,” it added. PTC’s statement points to an important issue in the debate about the photographs, and that is the dichotimization of myth and truth. It says that the photography spread in GQ “borders on paedophilia”, even though the main subject in the photographs, Lea Michele, is 24 years of age. In other words, because Michele plays a high school girl in the TV show, she was not supposed to be photographed in that fashion. The easy targets for the critics are the photographer Terry Richardson, and the subjects of the photographs Lea Michele, Dianna Agron and Cory Monteith. Agron in fact personally apologized to her fans by writing on her blog: ‘these photos do not represent who I am.’ Again, we have a clash between myth and truth. That all the subjects are professional actors, and that they are playing to the photo camera, as much as they do to the TV camera, appears to have been lost in the raging criticism against the GQ photographs.
By employing Terry Richardson to take the photographs, GQ knew fully well what type of photographs he would be able to supply them with. This is a man famed in the fashion industry for being a serial exhibitionist, taking his clothes off in front of his female subjects, while seeking to convince them to do the same. In a shoot for the fashion house Sisley, Richardson depicted his models as they suck milk from an utter (again signifying the phallus) of a live cow. My point is that long before the photos of the Glee cast were published in GQ, the scandal was already in the making. Richardson equals scandal and by employing him, GQ got what they asked him to deliver. GQ’s attempts of sexualizing the Glee cast also fits into a larger corporate strategy. GQ is run by Condé Nast, a powerful company with a long and legendary history of publishing stylish magazines and, more recently, websites. Since December 2009, Condé Nast is in a digital joint venture, which grouped together five of the world’s biggest publishing companies: Condé Nast, Time Inc., Hearst, Meredith and, importantly, the parent company of Fox Broadcasting, News Corp. Fox is the very same company that also produces Glee, and the clear implication here is that, GQ magazine also acted on behalf of Fox. The scandal surrounding the Glee photographs benefits everyone involved: Fox creates international awareness to their TV show, GQ increases readership of their magazine, and the internet has another scandal to feed off from.
The irony is that Fox is a right-wing propaganda machine and a beacon of Evangelical Christianity most prominently in the form of the commentator Glenn Beck. That Glee belongs to their most prized possessions is an apparent idiosyncrasy to begin with. The TV shows is filled with sexual innuendo, references to girl-on-girl action, teenage pregnancy, masturbation and so on. The so-called Celibacy Club in Glee completely mocks the preaching of Evangelicals as all its members are as promiscuous as any other teenager that is represented in the show. Nevertheless, the show seeks to contain it’s sexual undertone with a veil of innocence. With Glee, Fox has created a complex sign system that functions extremely well in the American market: on one hand sex is omnipresent, on the other, it’s never fully apparent and disguised by a veil of innocence. The GQ shoot breaks this apparent agreement between Fox and the viewer’s of Glee – a groups so powerful that they have their own nomenclature: Gleeks. The most common criticism by Gleeks and non-Gleeks alike is that the photos ‘go too far’. But was that not exactly GQ and Fox’s strategy to begin with: that the photos rupture the belief that the protagonists in Glee are innocent teenagers? The GQ shoot represents a coming of age of the Glee cast as signs in a complex and paradoxical sign economy. It’s also not the first attempt by the producers and makers of Glee to rupture this belief. In April 2010, the Glee cast member Naya Rivera, playing a cheerleader in the show, was photographed for the men’s magazine Maxim. The title of the article was ‘My First Time‘ as if to signify the sexual awakening of Glee’s cast members, but also of the show itself.
Here, Fox is entering well trodden territory. Various parallels can be drawn to Miley Cyrus, the main cast of the super hit TV show Hannah Montana, who, according to the Daily Mail “has gone to great lengths to shed her ‘good girl’ image”. The Mail calls her recent performance at the G-A-Y club in London, her ‘raunchiest’ yet. Before Cyrus, it was Britney Spears who signified the transition from ‘good girl’ to woman exerting sexual awareness, even dominance. The producers of Glee fully recognized the importance of Britney as pop cultural icon who has successfully made this transition by devoting an episode to her and her music. The episode, in which Britney Spears has a cameo appearance herself, aired in September 2010 and became Glee’s highest-ranking episode ever. From Naya Rivera’s Maxim photo shoot in April and the Britney episode in September, the ‘seriously saucy’ photo shoot in the November issue of GQ simply represents the logical progression of a corporate strategy that was long in place. One aspect in the infamous GQ shoot I have thus far not mentioned however: while the female cast members of Glee are seen in their underwear, their male counterpart is, at all times, fully dressed. The implication here is clear: the sexual coming of age of Glee is defined along strict gender boundaries. In other words, the sexual awakening of Glee is specific to the female subjects of the show. Of course the GQ photographs do not represent who the subjects in them really are. Nor do they represent the vision of a photographer making use of every toolkit in his box. Rather, the scandal surrounding the GQ photos is representative of a sexual sign economy in the mass media and culture that Fox/News Corp and GQ/Condé Nast have carefully nurtured and universally benefitted from.
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