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Glee Photo Flap: Lea Michele Is Not Actually Rachel Berry

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Our friends at the Parents Television Council have lodged a complaint about a racy photo spread in GQ featuring Glee stars Dianna Agron, Lea Michele and Cory Monteith in which, in a nutshell, Monteith plays the drums while Agron and Michele wear skimpy outfits and grind up against things. The PTC said the feature “borders on pedophilia” (a pretty broad border, seeing as how—in the grand tradition of high-school-series casting—Agron and Michele are both 24 and Monteith a creaky 28). Even Katie Couric has felt compelled to weigh in, commenting in her online video notebook that “these very adult photos of young women who perform in a family show seem un-Glee-like.”

My take? Well, yeah, number one: Lea Michele, put some freaking pants on. The spread—um, so to speak—seems like a desperate attempt to sex up her image in particular, and it’s a typical example of young women in entertainment being expected to skank it up for the cameras (while Monteith remains chastely clothed). But as for the shoot being out of character and beyond the pale—Katie, are you sure you watch Glee?

For starters, if your child is too young to understand the difference between a fictional character and the actor or actress who plays that character, I would submit that your child is too young to be reading the men’s magazine GQ. [Update: Or, for that matter, watching Glee.]

But leaving that aside, what we have here is the classic argument over whether entertainers who appeal to teens (or tweens, or younger kids) have a responsibility to their audience beyond their entertainments. Another classic example was Miley Cyrus’ sexy Annie Leibovitz photos. There, at least, there was an argument about context: Cyrus was the star of Hannah Montana, a wholesome show aimed at kids, in which she played a character (“Miley,” a pop singer) whose identity was intentionally blurred with her own.

I have a hard time seeing the argument, though, that Glee is anywhere near a similar example. For starters, the stars are clearly actors playing characters whose identities are entirely separate. [Update: To be fair, the photo shoot plays on their characters with its naughty-schoolgirl getups and setting, but again see fiction/reality distinction, above. Also: any “sexy pirate wenches” you see this Halloween? Not actually pirates.] But Glee is also entirely different from a show like Hannah Montana in its themes. And I think the issue behind critiques like Couric’s is that there’s a disconnect between the show some parents want Glee to be and the show that Glee actually is.

Is Glee a “family show,” like Couric says it is? Well, if families watch it together, then I suppose QED. But in the sense that it’s innocent and unsexualized? We do all remember, don’t we, that Agron’s character Quinn got pregnant and had a baby last season? That the last episode included, among other things, a character losing his virginity and a reference to “scissoring”? I’m not going to dispute that kids under 18 watch Glee and that their parents watch it with them, but that doesn’t change what it is: a TV show very much about sex and its consequences, emotional and practical.

The PTC, at least, seems to get this, because its full statement about the GQ photos indicates that the root of its objection is that it doesn’t much care for Glee at all, period: “Parents need to be on guard as we expect the show to push the envelope even further. Unfortunately, it seems ‘Glee’ is only masquerading as family show and is far from appropriate for young viewers.”

Which is the group’s prerogative, but it also means that its statement here is only masquerading as concern about the photos; it’s really about a show that it doesn’t want parents choosing to let their own young viewers watch.