Last night, the search for the next adolescent who'll pop up occasionally on Glee, The Glee Project, returned to Oxygen for its second season.
It's quite a crop that Ryan Murphy and his lackeys have to choose from this time around. The forced diversity reads like the worst-case-scenario Girls antithesis. There's the big girl Lily Mae, the paraplegic Ali, the autistic Charlie, the trans Tyler, the blind Mario, and the Turkish Muslim Aylin. And then there's Dani, who maybe belongs to the most maligned group of all as a lesbian who looks like Justin Bieber. Seriously, who cares about lesbians who look like Justin Bieber anymore? Dani also appeared on last season of America's Got Talent, so she probably receives double the scorn, double the disadvantage.
Just as Glee purports to be, The Glee Project is a supposed celebration of uniqueness, often sung in unison. The kids were given "individuality homework," the task of performing Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" ("I'm beautiful in my way / 'Cause God makes no mistakes / I'm on the right track baby / I was born this way") and a pep talk from Glee's Leah Michelle, who patted herself and her co-workers on the back by saying, "None of us are afraid to show all the sides of us." There are not enough roses to pin on their collective noses.
This show represents a new phase in the blogification of culture, where everyone's encouraged to display their special-snowflakeness in a Care Bear stare of peace and equality. It merely inverts the idea of the outsider with inclusiveness based on the same traits that would make these kids outsiders in the first place. It's a nice idea that the 14 contestants on The Glee Project, in all of their forms, are the cream of the crop and "deserve" to be competing for the prized role. It would be comforting to believe that we have at last reached a moment where all the minorities of the rainbow can comfortably sit alongside the straight-up attractive kids who pad out the cast. But we know better than that. We know that reality TV is based on finding those with extreme lives and putting them together in half-assed social experiments that yield few conclusive results beyond, "I'm not here to make friends."
I hate to use the word "exploitation" when discussing the treatment of reality TV "talent" by the powers that be because it insults the intelligence of said talent — by now everyone knows what they're getting into, and the majority of the hundreds of people on reality TV that I've talked to were just as interested in what could be termed the exploitation of their temporary employer. That said, this seems like the instance where the label of exploitation is most appropriate. Who'd feel good about being thrown on TV because of what they represent besides semi-talented youths who know no better? The show's repeated highlighting of difference comes off as the crass spreading out of a bunch of tokens for some tiddly winks plot. The lives of most of these kids could make for fascinating individual documentaries that paint pictures of life experiences that don't get talked about enough. Meanwhile, on The Glee Project, these individuals are trapped like crayons in a box.
Via the cynical world of reality TV and pop culture in general, the idea of "good DNA" expands while creating another potential hierarchy. The utterly unremarkable — those of average looks and competent ability and no major hardships to lament — become the new disadvantaged. Where's their show?
However, that's only if you consider a life without mass scrutiny, where self-esteem doesn't come from the roar of a crowd but intimate sources or (gasp) oneself, as a source of disadvantage. Others might call it a blessing.