We may be well into the 21st Century, but this week Ireland is being served an hour of television which appears to have come from the Dark Ages. Glee is generally regarded as enlightened, hip and forward-thinking, but I’ve found the way it portrays my native land in its latest episode to be either negligent insensitivity or wilful stereotyping.
The latest example of Oirishness, entitled Pot O’Gold aired on Sky One tonight (Thursday) and will appear on TV3 this coming Saturday. It’s likely going to resonate in this part of the world as it marks the series debut of Damian McGinty, a Derry native who won his spot in the series on a reality TV show. He plays Rory Flanagan, a newly-arrived exchange student whose brogue is a step removed from Darby O’Gill and has a dress sense taken straight from Emerald City.
Feel free to check off the expected Oirish labels as I go – Rory’s accent, to begin with, was last heard when Cork featured in that episode of Heroes. The dim Brittany believes he is a leprechaun, and offers her ‘pot of gold’ in exchange for three wishes, one of which involves Lucky Charms cereal. He’s forced to defend U2, he’s called a potato-eater and even sings Kermit’s Bein’ Green because, guess what, that’s the colour he wears throughout the episode (until the final scene, which features somewhat of a redemption, signified by a new red ensamble). Watch out for a re-appearance of Seamus McFly’s hat early on as well, among a host of other damning props, insults, jibes and digs all aimed at the Irish nation. There were no 'tops of the morning' but make no mistake, subversion and irony were not at work here. This hour of television can be classed as either laziness or casual racism, and was as subtle as a kick in the balls.
Glee is not the only television show to denigrate Ireland in this way in recent times. Oirishness did not die with The Quiet Man as alcoholics showed in Family Guy, while The Simpsons tried and failed to show a more modern Ireland in In The Name of the Grandfather. Obama became O’Bama when he visited Moneygall, but it’s not just the Americans who are guilty – Eastenders caused plenty of offence with a trio of Irish-based episodes in 1997 and from personal experience, sweeping generalisations are a regular feature of sports punditry here too.
Having said all this, I genuinely have great time for some aspects of Glee, especially the inclusiveness that it has often shown. The show has won Gay Media awards for the way in which it portrays homosexuals, and for the way straight characters engage with gay ones. I’ve also been impressed with the way in which those with physical and (especially) intellectual disabilities are central and equal at McKinley High. The crude representation of Irish people in this episode belies this, but is not excused as a result.
Great strides have been made in American race-relations in recent years but there is room for further improvement. Washington DC is home to an African American President, but also a team called the Redskins. Across the land, sport teams are referred to as Chiefs and Braves and Indians and Seminoles and the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame's logo is even of a leprechaun in a fist-fight. Casual racism can become more than that - there is still a lack of black Quarterbacks and coaches, and it’s only eight years since Rush Limbaugh claimed NFL Quarterback Donovan McNabb got an easy ride because of the colour of his skin. This episode of Glee has provoked little discussion stateside, at least in these terms, so I expect little rancour to emerge there, but in its own way this silence is just as troubling.
I don’t know why it is, but while racism is unacceptable in the Western world, mild forms of it exist in our media to this day. Sometimes, in Crash or Confederate States of America a spotlight is shone on the problem, but more often than not viewers are served tripe such as Pot O’Gold. I hope it does not represent the true thinking of those who tune in, but when such stereotyping is so regular, one must wonder why nothing is done. Are people blind to racism because a colour is not involved? Is it really acceptable to call an Irishman a potato-eater on television in 2011, 160 years after the Great Famine? Does society truly tolerate this, because I know that I do not. In the words of Santana Lopez, in this very show: “It’s mean, it’s bullying and I won’t accept it.”
I look forward to seeing what Irish critics and viewers make of it all. Tune in to one of it’s many airings in the coming days and form your own opinion. Tweet me on @gavingrace or leave a comment below.
Thanks to Gerard Cunningham for urging me to write this post, and giving me a couple of ideas for it as well.