GLEE: Propaganda or Art?

Yes, I love the television show GLEE. What’s not to love…

It embodies fun, happy-go-lucky times, teenage angst, coming of age, a celebration of the arts and cleverly rearranged songs from our high school days.

But every once in a while, and ever increasingly, as I watch GLEE, I feel like I’m being preached at.

Watching this week, yet again, I had the distinct feeling that the writers were trying too hard to defend social questions from a particular viewpoint that they believe to be the correct one.

On one hand, I find myself laughing, weeping, and learning to love life as I watch.

On the other, the writers of the show cause me to reflect, wrestle and react to their particular viewpoints on social, moral and religious questions.

As Philip Yancey says in his brilliant essay Art and Propaganda, “like a bipolar magnet, I feel the pull of both forces: a fervent desire to communicate what gives life meaning counteracted by an artistic inclination toward self-expression, form and structure that any “message” might interrupt. The result: a constant, dichotomous pull toward both propaganda and art.”

Is GLEE art at its finest? Clever writing, stirring music and dancing, people of various ethnic groups and well developed characters (who will ever forget Sue?) combine for a work that seems to stand Plato’s test.

Is GLEE propaganda? It provides a powerful platform from which to spread doctrines and principles propagated by particular social movements.

Question: Do you think GLEE is propaganda or art?

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54 Responses to “GLEE: Propaganda or Art?”

  1. Unfortunately, I would not know as I have never seen it. It’s a musical and I don’t do musicals. That includes ‘West Side Story’, ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Chicago’ etc. I guess Disney movies are the closest.

    But there is one musical I do like. ‘The Blues Brothers.’ A friend once said, “That’s absurd. The Blues Brothers is not a musical!.”

    I said, “The people in the movie at times spontaneously break into song and dance. That’s a musical.”

    He said, “Shut up.”

    That being said, I think many shows put in their own dose of propaganda. I happened to be watching a ‘Law & Order’ episode from about 2 years ago. It started off so well. The mystery was intriguing and the show was gripping right up until the point where it turned into a diatribe against “greedy” pharmaceutical companies.

    It’s why I prefer to watch shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ Just give me the laughs.

  2. I’m not sure there’s a difference. I think every artist wants to send a message or convey an idea with his or her art…and that message is, obviously, something they believe in. Whether that’s gay rights or God’s sovereignty or anything in between, it’s the artists choice. It’s also OUR choice to view the art or ignore it.

    • @Tim Sinclair, Hmmmm. I suppose I feel there is a difference, Tim. Art created simply for the sake of beauty is a noble thing.

      Aquinas also had some great things to say about beauty and a standard thereof. Things like symmetry, balance and radiance all combine for great art.

      But I agree, it is our choice, whether we view (or in this case watch) it.


      • @Randy Elrod, I agree that art created for the sake of beauty is a noble thing. I also agree with Tim that art is an expression of the creator’s idea — whether that be his personal concept of beauty OR his personal concept of a particular message — and sometimes those two things are indistinguishable. Art is always an expression of its creator; it is a personal interpretation. Does an interpretation always equate an agenda?

        The artist may choose to create art for the sake of beauty or to create art to promote an agenda, but he or she does not always have the opportunity to choose the viewer’s interpretation of the art. A viewer can – and often will – identify a message within the work that may or may not have been the intention of the artist. Is the work less valuable to either the artist or the viewer because they look at the same work and see two different things?

        Beauty lives in art because we each see and express life and our experiences differently. A painter may color a canvas because she desires to celebrate the obvious beauty of flowers springing forth, while a viewer of the same painting may call it beautiful because the work invokes an emotion of hope that did not exist in him before.

        Whether our interpretations of life are expressed for beauty’s sake only or for the sake of making a statement, the expression is still art.

        • @Hope, Hope, your statement, “Whether our interpretations of life are expressed for beauty’s sake only or for the sake of making a statement, the expression is still art” is worthy of serious conversation at a salon over great wine. Powerful words, Thanks!!!

  3. My husband and I have been having the same conversation. At one point, we had our DVR set to record Glee every week, but once the story lines became more skewed in one direction, we deleted the recording. We’ll catch it here and there, but for the most part, we really don’t watch anymore. I just feel like we’re having someone’s agenda shoved down our throats. Just let the kids sing & dance and be entertaining!

    • @Tara, Yes, Tara, it seems as if the coming of age stories, the music, the dance and the great story lines would be enough. They certainly would for me! Thanks for joining in!

  4. I have seen it once or twice and I feel like I am having the viewpoint of the writers thrown on me. Like you said being preached too. However, the show is catchy and they do a good job of drawing you in with the entertainment and then planting their propaganda, and they are doing a very good job at it,

  5. I find myself leaning more towards propaganda, and less art. My own personal opinion though.

    • @Adam, Thanks, Adam. Yes, that’s what I was asking for-your opinion. I greatly value it. Thanks!

  6. Interesting article Randy. I would tend to swing towards the side of saying that it is propoganda.

    My wife and I used to watch Glee every week and we quit watching it because we felt like we were slowly but surely being indoctrinated into a way of thinking that is in opposition to how we actually believe.

    I view art as the act of expressing a thought or idea in a way that influences the senses which in turn can influence beliefs or values. Propaganda does influence the senses in most cases but the main objective is first and foremost to influence beliefs and/or values. I could be wrong but I get the feeling that the main objective of the writers of Glee is to influence our beliefs/ values before influencing our senses.

  7. I think this raises a great question. I think as a writer it would be hard to ignore your own feelings on certain topics. I haven’t watched glee lately, but when it first came on I loved it. I find the more platform an artist has the more pressure they feel to propagate. For example, I loved Lady Gaga’s first record. It was fresh, fun dance music, but her new stuff to me is straight propaganda. it’s definitely a turn off! Maybe with Glee’s growing popularity they feel pressured to “send a message” instead of just telling a great story and producing great art.

    • @Annie, Great quote that deserves further thought, “Maybe with Glee’s growing popularity they feel pressured to “send a message” instead of just telling a great story and producing great art.”

      thanks, Annie!

  8. I feel the same way about how preachy it has become. I really enjoy most of the music. However, at times it is a challenge for me to watch the story lines. I will continue to watch it because I have a middle school daughter who LOVES to sing. Her choir teacher asked the kids to watch it and then they discuss it in class the next day. I preview it and let her see the music. I also feel that it is my job as a parent to keep an eye on what the culture is preaching to my kids and then have conversations about it. Thankfully my daughter is also part of a classical choir and even likes opera. At 12 she has performed Carmen, Mahler, and will perform Carmina Burana in the fall, so a little GLEE in the mix as a way to talk about cultural issues is ok.

  9. Virtue. Even propaganda can provide virtue. I enjoy very much art that comes from minds very much apposed to my.

    That said I think true art is best when the artist is not concerned with the user but rather just creates what is inside themselves. A designer, on the other hand, creates entirely with the user in mind. I think propaganda falls somewhere in between.

    When an artist is forced to be a designer or when a designer tries to pass themselves off as an artist is when we get crap.

    The objective of a tv show is first and foremost to make money. Out of the gate glee or any other show is artistically doomed. At the end of the day they are simply trying to get us to not change the channel….not our paradigms.

  10. My wife loved the show in the first season but I just had no desire to watch it. (Not a big musical fan.) One night she forced me to watch it and when I saw how one of the characters was being presented I knew the show was trying to push a certain social position on it’s viewers. Then when I heard about the incident between Kings of Leon and the show’s creator I knew there was more going on with Glee than just wanting to do a “great” show.

    But, it is “art” in the pure sense of the word. So to answer your question…it’s both. Art to push propaganda.

    • @Jason, Hmmm, Jason, I don’t know anything about the Kings of Leon incident…what happened?

      • @Randy Elrod, the show wanted to use KOL’s “Use Somebody” in the show and the band said no because they’d never seen the show. They also said they don’t like to license music because they don’t want to “sell out.”

        Then Ryan Murphy told the Hollywood Reporter: “”F**k you, Kings of Leon. They’re self-centered assholes, and they missed the big picture. They missed that a 7-year-old kid can see someone close to their age singing a Kings of Leon song, which will maybe make them want to join a glee club or pick up a musical instrument.”

        And it just went downhill from there. They’ve apparently made up…but that being Murphy’s initial reaction told me the people behind Glee aren’t doing it for pure art.

  11. Hm. Well, now that I think about it, yes, there’s definitely a sense of an agenda being pushed on “Glee”, so much so that it seems to be competing with the music as the primary theme of the show…not that there’s anything WRONG with that…

    I still love the show – and you’re right, Jane Lynch is fantastic. Been watching her since “A Mighty Wind” (Now THERE’S a musical to watch if you love music and absurd ad-lib comedy!)

  12. I believe Propaganda is in the eye of the beholder. For example, if you believe that homosexual relationships are cute and normal, then at times Glee simply reflects your world view.

    If you don’t believe that to be true, then you may feel that their worldview is being forced upon you.

    I feel that Glee can be preachy with issues sometimes, but I think it’s more of an issue with story development where they’ve come to rely too heavily on the “theme” episode and there has to be some kind of lesson in Mr. Scheuster’s assignment for the week.

    I would appreciate a return to earlier episodes where it seemed to be about students finding themselves through artistic expression, rather than singers who happen to be students when it fits the storyline. Still, my wife and I tune in every week because we enjoy whichever kind we get.

    • @Brandon, Thanks, Brandon, love your quote, “I would appreciate a return to earlier episodes where it seemed to be about students finding themselves through artistic expression, rather than singers who happen to be students when it fits the storyline.”

  13. Can’t it just be entertainment? Art seems a bit too high-minded for a goofy musical TV series and propaganda is one of those emotion-laden words that implies some sort of organization behind the message. I think the creators use the show to illustrate their world-view and have started taking themselves WAY to seriously. I have seen it a few times and kind of like the music part, but find the other stuff too preachy. I also find the story lines inappropriate for my younger teenagers, who, surprisingly, agree with me.

  14. Honestly, I think it’s both, much like my all-time favorite show “M*A*S*H” offered a commentary on the Vietnam War (though the show takes place during the Korean War). I mean, throughout history artists of all mediums have found ways to comment on the happenings of their world through their art and perhaps the world inspired their art–think of Van Gogh painting churches without doors because he felt unwelcome or even Cervantes who used Don Quixote as a vehicle to communicate things he saw wrong in the “government” and the church (using a madman who thought he was a knight and chased windmills was brilliant on Cervantes part, though I argue that perhaps Quixote was living his dreams and couldn’t see what everyone else saw because they were closed-minded.)

    I really appreciated “Glee’s” take on Emma’s mental illness last week in particular because I suffer from mental illness as well. Perhaps we can be entertained and “preached at” all at once. I mean, isn’t that what some churches in America do anyway? The church that did a rodeo service from last year comes to mind….

  15. I have only seen Glee one-and-a-half times. I cannot stand it, but didn’t know why and didn’t want to invest the time in figuring it out. You have put words to my problem, thanks Randy!

  16. My two cents… I love some of these replies. For me personally, I find Glee to be art with a message. Do they overshoot the runway at times, yes I believe they do. However maybe we need to do that sometimes when trying to get people to see a point. Propaganda to me implies agenda and I’m not willing to go so far as to accuse the writers of that.

    Sometimes as Christian’s Randy, I’m embarrassed by how quickly we label messages we believe in as a message or point, and messages we don’t believe in as propaganda.

    For me, they’ve hit on important issues that are relevant today like teen pregnancy, feeling like an outcast, bullying, homelessness, dreams, mental illness, race, and yes even sexuality which makes some people uncomfortable. I loved the story line on Curt, the bullying, the impact that had on him (which was drawn from his real life experiences) and the need to set up zero tolerance for bullying in in our schools. That to me was a message and not propaganda. Those things really happen today and kids are dying because of it – and it’s being reinforced by parents which I find sad. They even dug into faith with Sue praying that God change her developmentally challenged sister and when he didn’t , she lost hers and sought to find it again. The reason behind her being a bully – she was bullied.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have my shows that I like to watch because they let me escape with no emotional attachment or mental challenge – they are simply written and kinda brain dead and I can laugh without thinking, but I also like shows that make me think, dig deeper, and either reassess how I view the world, or reaffirm what I already believe. Glee offers that for me.

    • @Deana, Thanks, Deana. I value your point of view.

      • @Randy Elrod, as I do yours Randy. This one is tough for me. Mainly because my artist child is not what you would call stereotypically masculine and he has been on the receiving end of such hatred and abuse as what they’ve shown on the show. What I do like about the show are the stronger realities that sex has consequences, as does breaking the law (Juvie for whatshisname) bullying is wrong, rumors can destroy lives, mental illness can be over come, people die, families blend, disabilities don’t have to limit you – those things are great messages. And for families dealing with homosexuality – I believe the writers have handled that with tenderness – at least in regard to Kurt’s story line and his dad. Even if you or I do not deal with that in our personal lives, there are families that do – parts of this show speak to them in what I believe to be productive ways. I relate to the show because of my years in drama – this show hits about all the issues we did. We had every stereo type in our drama – every last one randy. Those things were talked about 30 years ago – and today someone is trying to. I think that’s good in a lot of ways. Great post btw. Good conversation here.

  17. Disclaimer: I DO like musicals, a lot, and I’ve attempted to write a few as well. I’m also a committed Christian and local worship pastor.

    I think the answer is “all of the above”. I was thrilled when GLEE began, and have loved some episodes and thought they had a good message to boot (I really anjoyed their episode about religion when Kurt’s father was ill). Then the next week, I felt like I was being preached at with a decidedly gay agenda. This agenda has been occasionally given the “hard sell” with guys kissing guys and the like.

    It is a mixed bag for me. I love some of the music, the comedy, the characters and storytelling. But it is clear the agenda shows through as well, and because of that I can’t really say I’d recommend it to folks. It makes me sad it has to be so pushy about sexuality.

    My analogy is that it is occasionally like a bad Christian movie. One minute you’re being entertained, but then suddenly you see “the man behind the curtain” and the true agenda becomes clear. The forcefulness of the message doesn’t fit the material, so you feel insulted and tricked by it.

    That’s where I am with GLEE – I guess it’s just pay back for al those bad Christian films I forced on my youth groups!

    • @Dave, Oh.My!!!

      “My analogy is that it is occasionally like a bad Christian movie. One minute you’re being entertained, but then suddenly you see “the man behind the curtain” and the true agenda becomes clear. The forcefulness of the message doesn’t fit the material, so you feel insulted and tricked by it.”

      Thanks, Dave!!

  18. Randy,

    Simple terms it is choreographed propaganda.
    The frog in a pot of water slowly coming to a boiling comes’s to mind.
    That can be said of shows that we saw growing up also.
    What can the re:crete group do to counter this trend?


  19. Stephanie Tanner May 5, 2011 at 16:50

    I have to say I’m intrigued by your use of the word “propaganda.” I find that people are quick to label any message that doesn’t fit their particular belief system as propaganda.
    I don’t know the motives behind the writer’s choices but I do know that real high schools are full of teens who get pregnant, have sex, are gay, and experience all of the social issues I have seen demonstrated on Glee. I have never felt pressured by this fictional program (or any work of fiction for that matter) to change my beliefs but I do feel that the writers promote an attitude of kindness and acceptance toward all. I don’t see how anybody, regardless of religion or background, could think that was a bad idea.

    • @Stephanie Tanner, Thanks, Stephanie. I feel propaganda is propaganda, whether it is against your beliefs or not. When artists prefer preachiness over beauty, truth and goodness, things get screwy.

      But what you say has much merit!!

  20. I do believe that it is propaganda, and have remarked on it serveral times to my young 20 something son. When Glee first started, I didn’t really like it, and then I watched a little more and decided I did like it. Then it seemed like all of a sudden, for several episodes, that Kurt and his sexuality were being pushed to the forefront and the show became all about him. And then he was virtually phased out of the episodes- now we have a return to the homosexual agenda being pushed on us in the form of Britney and Santana. I am uncomfortable with some things in it, but I still watch with my son, just to keep a finger on the pulse of the show, and to offer my .02. :) I’d love to see a return to the balanced feel of the show where they expolored Everyone’s lifestyles, not just the gay characters.

  21. I didn’t start watching Glee until the end of the first season. My wife and I then had it set to record every episode on the DVR. It seemed each episode pushed an agenda much further than they just pushed the goal of entertainment with music and dance. The message being sent in these shows seemed to quickly outbalance their entertainment value. In the period of a week (or a couple of nights) we went through our DVR series recordings and started deleting episodes like Glee, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy is on the bubble. If our goal is to be entertained, we have plenty of other options that don’t push the envelope of the bold contradiction of our own values and beliefs. We’ve even gone so far off the wacky edge cliff of just turning the TV off and doing other things instead.

  22. I love the show. I have always enjoyed it for its sensitive, yet matter-of-fact treatment of controversial topics. I think the use of the word “propaganda” carries with it a negative connotation, or at least it does for me. defines it as deliberately spreading falsehoods to harm a group, or to promote a doctrine. I don’t think it’s doing either of those. I don’t believe the writers have any other “agenda” than to bring to light subjects that either teens currently deal with, or issues that older viewers had to deal with as teenagers. However, I certainly don’t view it as “artform” either. It’s an entertaining show with ridiculously talented people both in front and behind the camera.

    As for the sexuality that a lot of folks here are commenting on, sex is a fact of life. I, for one, am relieved to see that the treatment of gays in the show is about the relationships and the difficult time that a lot of gay teens experience when realizing they’re gay and when coming out.

    I don’t feel they’re trying to push an agenda, but rather portray some really difficult situations that young adults face… and we can’t forget about Emma and Will, and Sue… and Coach Beiste. I love how they weave multiple storylines to which both YAs and adults can relate. Of course it’s hyperbole at times, becasue, after all, it IS a show. :-p

    BTW, I love your last name. It’s a mashup of my two dogs’ names.

    • Sorry, one last thought… just the mere fact that we’re having this discussion, and others like it, is wonderful. Making people think, talk about things, and question/reinforce their beliefs is a good thing!


  1. Friday Faves:: Round Two « Backseat Writer - May 6, 2011

    […] of “Glee”–to entertain or push its social opinions on viewers in his post, “GLEE: Propaganda or Art?“  I even left this highly intelligent comment on his post: read Amy’s comment. (Did […]

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