Tuesday night, we watched the highly anticipated Glee episode “Blame It On the Alcohol,” expecting a show that would take a stance against teenage drinking and its consequences. What we got: just another TV show attempting to make teenage drinking appear humorous, lighthearted, and consequence-free.
In response to a record number of student suspensions for drinking, Principal Figgins organizes an Alcohol Awareness Week. Meanwhile, Rachel hosts an alcohol-laden party while her parents are out of town. Here’s where the lack of consequences begins: Rachel and her friends break into the liquor cabinet, but we never see her parents’ reactions when they return home. Do they talk to Rachel about the dangers of drinking? Or do they simply shrug it off?
This “shrugging off” seems widespread at McKinley High. On Monday, the teachers are oblivious as the hung-over, sunglasses-clad kids bust out a thermos of Bloody Marys for breakfast. Meanwhile, Mr. Schuester’s night at the bar with Beiste culminates in him drunk-dialing Sue, who later plays his embarrassing voicemail over the PA system. The downhill spiral is complete at the school’s Alcohol Awareness Assembly, where teachers and parents bob their heads to the music as the kids sing about “trying to get tipsy” and “everybody getting crunk.” Finally, many of the teens end up vomiting on stage mid-performance—the result of the liquor, Kool-aid, and cough syrup mixture they shared backstage.
Of course the kids (and their teacher) are humiliated: “Public humiliation,” announces Sue, “is the first step on the road to recovery.” But is this enough to deter them from further binge drinking in the near future? When it becomes clear that Mr. Schuester will keep his job and the teens will face no consequences, the odds are they won’t change their behavior. The comically oblivious Principal Figgins, who believes everything was a joke meant to highlight the hazards of alcohol, even rewards the glee club for their actions.
Still, attempts are made to use the experience as a teachable moment. The Glee writers are certainly in tune to the trends and hazards of today’s teen culture—the episode takes critical jabs at negative influences, from Ke$ha to FourLoko to beer commercials, and its depictions of the “drunk archetypes” (angry, needy, sobbing hysterical) are anything but attractive. Mr. Schuester, too, tries to set a good example; he has the teens sign a pledge not to drink, and he gives them his cell phone number so they can always call him for a ride home. All’s well that ends well, right?
Sadly, in the real world, we know that underage drinking doesn’t always have such a happy ending. Alcohol use among youth is associated with the three most common causes of teen deaths: accidents (such as car crashes), homicides, and suicides. Drinking also puts kids at risk for serious academic and criminal justice problems, assault, pregnancy, and STDs. Notably, not a single one of these dangers plays a role on Glee. Even its “happy ending” is ambivalent; Schuester’s pledge specifies that the teens must abstain from alcohol only until after the Nationals competition. Is this his way of selfishly getting what he wants (a glee club that’s sober enough to win) without making a long-term commitment to his students’ health and safety? “What about after we win?” the kids ask, and Shuester responds with resignation and possibly even sarcasm: “I’ll buy you sparkling cider,” he sighs. It’s clear that he doesn’t really believe the kids will engage in a sober celebration.
After their night of boozing, Beiste tells Mr. Schuester, “You can’t just lecture kids. All you can do is make them aware of the dangers and hope they’re smart enough to make the right decision.” Yes, it’s true that teens will inevitably make their own choices. But that’s no reason for adults to become ambivalent. It’s up to responsible parents, teachers, and mentors to send our teens the message that reckless drinking is dangerous and does have major consequences. Unfortunately, while the cast member’s voices were loud and clear on Glee, this message was not.
Emma Edelman and Kate Schmier
Blog Editors, Phoenix House