Blair: "Glee"-ful Naturalism

by Peter Blair | 5/18/11 10:00pm

Like most people of my generation, I have not managed to escape Fox's popular TV show, "Glee." Despite myself, I continue to watch it, mostly because of the music and Sue Slyvester's wicked humor. Though I usually find the show's plot and attempts at social criticism to be predictable and insipid, I actually found last month's episode "Born This Way" both interesting and thought-provoking, largely because it highlighted the tension between acceptance of oneself and self-improvement.

The episode centered around the theme of self-love. The faculty advisor for the Glee Club (Will Schuester), inspired by a student (Rachel Berry) desire to get a nose job, decides to teach the kids a lesson about accepting oneself. To accomplish this, he has them write on blank t-shirts the feature of themselves that they are most embarrassed by or that was hardest for them to accept. They then sing Lady Gaga's song "Born this Way" while wearing the shirts. By the end of episode, Rachel has decided not to get a nose job and many of the other Glee Club members have become more comfortable with themselves.

All these plot pieces are par for the course in much of contemporary teenage entertainment, and are admirable as far as they go. Nobody wishes to deny that self-acceptance is important. However, the "Glee" episode itself introduces a sub-plot that complicates this theme. One of the main characters is a guidance counselor (Emma Pillsbury) who has severe OCD but refuses to admit or seek help for her condition even though it is destroying her happiness. By the end of the episode, Will's lesson with the Glee kids has convinced her to accept her OCD. However, unlike the students, who are encouraged not to change themselves e.g. not get a nose job Emma's decision to proudly embrace her condition causes her to seek professional help. As the episode draws to a close, she is seen discussing her problems with a psychiatrist, which the episode seems to promote as an admirable move.

What we have here, then, are two different models of self-acceptance. The episode's mantra was, in brief, "embrace who you are," but it put forward two different ways of doing this. The first way is what I call "static naturalism" taking pride in one's own nature as it statically happens to be at any given time. This model rests on the belief that self-acceptance entails staying the same, and that you should be proud of who you are at any given moment without feeling the need to change to please others. This model is exemplified by Rachel's abandoned effort to get a nose job. She thought she needed to change in order to conform to external standards of beauty, but her friends convinced her that she was beautiful just as she was.

The second model is what I call "dynamic naturalism." This is the model at work with Emma. She realizes that her current state is actually hurting her, and so her acceptance of her condition impels her not to a defiant and joyful celebration of her current state, but rather to an effort to change it. Moreover, this attempt at transformation is a deeper affirmation of who she is, a way of being truer to herself than merely accepting how she contingently happened to be at that moment.

Both the static and the dynamic naturalist agree that individuals ought to love their own nature. The latter, however, believes that one's true nature is not necessarily limited to the way it happens to be at any one point in time, and that personal change can actually be a way for an individual to more deeply realize their true nature.

What this all means, then, is that although there are certain things about yourself that you need not change, loving yourself often means changing those things that are holding you back from realizing your fullest happiness and potential. Therefore, the static model of "be who you are," while obviously appropriate in some situations, is positively damaging in others. "Be who you are" is entirely valid, but sometimes the statement means to summon some deeper part of your nature to the surface. Perhaps St. Catherine of Sienna, whose feast day was last week, said it the best: "Be who you were meant to be and you will set the world on fire."