Popular: 1x18 Ch-Ch-Changes.
Short review for an okay episode (once again, an okay episode preceding one that I dislike a lot)…
A beloved shop teacher confronts the student body with the information that he would like to be referred to as “Miss Debbie” in the future, since fully transitioning requires her to live as a female for a year, and she is met with ridicule, outrage and disdain from both the students and, more importantly, the parents. She also doesn’t have any support from the school establishment. The one person standing up for her is Harrison, who is currently experiencing the horrible side-effects of institutional homophobia (and, more specifically the effects it has on an individual, when his mother insists that the price you have to pay for being yourself is sometimes too high) because his mum got fired for coming out of the closet (and was left by her girlfriend). Not even Sam and Lily manage to avoid the usual jokes, and Brooke initially reacts even worse than either of them: “I don’t think I feel comfortable in there anymore”, she says, and has the support of her father. Harrison decides to organize a student protest movement. My favourite aspect of the episode is how he convinces his friends, who don’t really seem to care about whether Debbie is going to stay or not, to join him in the fight, when he explains that this isn’t JUST about his mum.
Harrison: Yeah. No. I don’t know, it’s complicated. It’s about her, but it’s also about me, you know? All year long, all we’ve talked about is how we hate the popular crew for making judgements based purely on externals, for judging us because we’re not like them. And I realized that by doing nothing about Miss Debbie and making all the clever biting tranny remarks, I was everything I despised, you know.
Sam: You’re right.
Lily: Wow. I made fun of Miss Debbie the same way they make fun of me.
Carmen: Can you imagine being Miss Debbie right now, he must feel persecuted and hunted. Just like I feel with Nicole.
Nicole: Oh look, B. The wannabes have opened a transsexual sign-up booth. Hey Harrison, you little Rocky-Horror-you, can I borrow your fishnets?
Harrison: Wanna join us, Brooke? It’s the right thing to do, and you’re all about being politically correct, right?
Brooke: You know, Harrison, I have a right to be myself and choose who I wanna surround myself with. Just because we have a difference of opinion doesn’t mean that we can’t still be civil to each other. I respect your point of view.
Harrison: Hey, Brooke, do you remember at the Sadie Hawkins dance when you asked me if I’d still be interested in you if you weren’t pretty? You wanted to know if I valued what was inside of you as much as I did your looks?
Brooke: Harrison, what’s your point?
Harrison: What my point is: Every time Miss Debbie looks at your empty chair, she feels that exact same judgement from you.
Brooke has issues with Debbie. I wish that they were explored in more detail, because I can’t really figure out how they fit into her characterization. Brooke doesn’t appreciate people who stand out – this was probably her worst moment on the show before, when she asked Josh not to appear in the musical because it would damage their reputation. She is afraid to stand out, and she blames others for doing so. On the other hand – and I think that the episode conveniently disregarded this aspect of her character – she also has an incredibly kind an understanding side because she has gone through that kind of pain herself.
The McFamily household is divided over the issue: Mike argues that Debbie shouldn’t go through all of this in front of teenagers who are already facing identity problems, Jane points out that they are also confronted with people divorcing and re-marrying and remember back when women weren’t allowed near students when they were pregnant! Somewhere along the line, Brooke changes her mind and decides to join Harrison’s protest. I’m not going to question her motives or what exactly did change to make this possible, the important point is that Brooke comes around to Sam and Jane’s side (which isn’t Nicole’s). I think that Brooke cares about Harrison’s opinion of her. The boys come around when they realize that having a good teacher, regardless of their gender, is still preferable over having a horrible teacher – I suppose it’s debatable whether showing up in drag at the PTA conference is the right way to protest discrimination, but it is the kind of thing 16-year olds would come up with.
Debbie: I’m not here to ask for special treatment, I’m not here to bore you with the details of my journey, I’m here to tell you that regardless of what you decide, I’ve never been happier in my own skin. I’m not ashamed. I don’t regard being a woman as shameful. And I definitely don’t think it should prevent me from being able to perform my job. I know a lot of you feel differently. That’s up to you. But I’ll always remember that I stood up for myself when I had the chance, and I will never forget my students. Thanks to their love and their incredibly creative support I feel as though no matter what the outcome of tonight’s vote, I’ve already won.
And then, Debbie loses the vote. She has to leave because Popular isn’t a fairytale. She finally admits to Harrison that her family isn’t supportive of her transition at all, and that Harrison was the only person who stood up for her.
Meanwhile, Cherry Cherry has just lost her firm after a lawsuit and is now in the process of finding a new objective – she teaches a home ec class and uses it to educate a new generation of blood-thirsty capitalists – but at least they are blood-thirsty capitalists who care about equality. “Now we’re gonna learn a real woman’s work: The corporate take-over.” She directs her energy towards identifying a company that discriminates minority workers, and eventually finds out about what happened to Robin John, which leads to a beautiful revenge fantasy where the evil manager is sent to hell and Robin is reinstated with triple pay and the feeling that being yourself occasionally isn’t just difficult, but also rewarding. Robin realizes that she has a fantastic son, and that staying ashamed and hidden isn’t the solution to the problem; but Debbie leaves, never to be seen again. Sometimes you lose, too.
I’m a little bit conflicted about the fact that Sam and Lily initially deal with this really, really badly, because I think that, from what we’ve seen of their politics so far, they wouldn’t. But then, transphobia has the tendency to rear its ugly head in the most unexpected places, so maybe the episode doesn’t require that much suspense of disbelief.
I am also not really sure if the whole understated thing with Bobbi Glass is handled well or not…
Bobbi: Don, what the hell happened to you? We went fishing together, lifted weights, bowled in the same league.
Debbie: I can still do all these things, Bobbi, I’m still the same person. You turned Nancy on me, and we don’t think you should teach her anymore until you figured out who you are.
Like, I get that Bobbi Glass’ sexual identity is constantly in question and that she is the stereotypical “everybody knows she is gay except she doesn’t” character, but this rubbed me the wrong way in the episode (but then, I’m also not happy with the “every single person bullying gay people is secretly gay too” thing that Ryan Murphy pulls on a certain other show). I do however like that it is explicitly acknowledged in the show when Debbie asks Bobbi if her reaction is so severe because “all of this hits a little too close to home. You can make the leap too, Bob, but be aware of the consequences, like losing good friends.”
Harrison: I’m tired of people being punished just for being themselves and I’M not gonna stand for it anymore.
Robin: I will not have you screw up your education fighting for some hopeless cause. Harrison, you don’t know what you’re getting into. People really don’t like having their prejudices exposed.
Harrison: That’s too bad, mom, cause I’m not gonna stop telling the truth until somebody hears me.
Lily prepares them for the worst (“they don’t always non-violently”) but the establishment reacts by… doing absolutely nothing.
Carmen: What’s the official non-violent position on napping?
Mary Cherry takes pity on Debbie, who doesn’t really know how to style herself (ugh let’s not get into the stereotyping in the episode though, because that’s a different story…)
Mary Cherry: For the first time, my sense of style has to overwrite my Christian convictions. I would be betraying my oath as a Glamazon if I let you walk out of here looking like ten miles of bad road.
Mary Cherry: Joe, you hush your wet sexy petulant lipped mouth.
Jane: Look, Mike, I know that as a man when you hear that another man in a skirt, no less, teaches your daughter it sounds a little threatening.
Mike: It’s more than threatening, it’s…
Jane: Wrong? Who are we to judge that? You know, we had this exact same conversation with our parents that we are now having with out daughters, only back then when we were the righteous ones who knew everything, what were the causes? Feminism? Civil rights. As I recall you told me a story about a certain Thanksgiving where you walked away from the table and your grandfather’s house because he referred to a black person as the N word.
Mike: That is totally different from this situation.
Jane: No, what this situation is about, to me, it seems is very clear and very simple. I want my kids to judge people by what they stand for, and not what they stand in.
One of the frustrating conclusions from the episode is that it is now 2011, more than ten years later, and I don’t really feel like this whole debate is outdated at all. I’m not familiar with the specific laws in California (and other states) but I assume that there is still no legal protection in all fifty states against transphobic discrimination.
Obscure pop cultural reference:
Erik Estrada is introduced as the Erik-Estrada-lookalike cop who gets Cherry Cherry into trouble, and will later return as the Erik-Estrada lookalike cop lookalike, who will marry Cherry Cherry. Also, a couple of days after watching the episode, he randomly showed up during my Life re-watch. I'm too lazy to wikipedia him now but I guess he was a late 1980s TV star, yes?
Hedwig and the Angry Inch reference, naturally after everybody shows up in drag: good movie. Even better soundtrack. Even better "inspired by" soundtrack.
Obligatory movie reference:
A DAVID BOWIE SONG I GUESS?