Glee: Opportunity Lost
June Wilson, PhD
Programs designed to inform, educate, entertain, and promote health are called entertainment education (Kincaid, 2002). They use a combination of narrative and visual images to increase knowledge, raise awareness, and create favorable attitudes which may result in behavior change and viewer’s responsibility to take control of their lives (Singhal & Rogers, 1999).
Theoretically, entertainment education is grounded in Bandura’s (1997) social learning theory that through role models, individuals learn by observing others. Viewers learn that they too can perform the observed behavior. According to Bandura’s social cognitive theory, observational learning and vicarious reinforcement encourage the transmission of knowledge, values, cognitive skills, and new styles of behavior (Bandura, 2004).
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC; 2012), 88% of viewers learn about health issues from television. Entertainment education has raised awareness of substance abuse, immunization, teen pregnancy, HIV and AIDS (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2004), and cancer screening (Howe, Owen-Smith, & Richardson, 2002; Wilson, 2007).
Glee, a popular prime-time television show, explores the trials and tribulations of young adults as they transition through high school and beyond. Never a show to shy away from controversy, it has effectively dealt with such topics as homophobia, gender identify, teen pregnancy, bullying, suicide, and mental health issues. Sadly, Cory Monteith, who played one of Glee’s main characters, Finn, recently died from an unintentional overdose. For the show’s creators, this tragic reality provided the perfect opportunity to address the problem of drug addiction, but they failed to seize the opportunity.
In the most current episode, “The Quarterback” (Murphy & Falchuk, 2013), Glee’s cast paid tribute to Monteith primarily through songs dripping with raw emotion and grief. However, the storyline was glaringly silent about the basic facts of drug addiction. In one opening scene Finn’s stepbrother stated, “Everyone wants to talk about how he died too, but who cares about one moment in his whole life. I care more about how he lived.” This statement emphasizes the denial and stigma that accompany drug addiction, but conveys nothing of substance that might help viewers understand this growing epidemic.
According to the CDC (2000), 48% of television viewers took action after learning about a health topic on a television show. These actions include discussing the storyline with others, actively changing behavior, visiting a clinic or physician, or calling a health provider or hotline for further information. A public service announcement (PSA) aired at the end of the show for American viewers, where one cast member stated, “Our friend Cory didn’t look or act like an addict, he was happy, successful and seemingly had it all.” Another stated, “Addiction is a serious disease that can hide in plain sight but no one needs to fight it alone.” This was followed by a link to a federal substance abuse and mental health service referral service. Since this link was federal, Canadian viewers did not see the PSA.
Reactions to the episode were mixed on social media. The hashtags #Glee, #Cory Monteith, #RIP (or variations of the above) all trended on Twitter for 48 hours after the airing of Glee. Many wondered why the storyline of substance abuse was not addressed, particularly in a show that has directly addressed many similar issues.
If the show’s goal was to provide a tribute, then job well done. “The Quarterback” (Murphy & Falchuk, 2013) did elicit the complexities of grief; yet its silence on an important public health issue remains a missed opportunity to illuminate the struggles of addiction.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
Bandura, A. (2004). Social cognitive theory for personal and social change by enabling media. In A. Singhal, M. J. Cody, E. M. Rogers, & M. Sabido (Eds.), Entertainment-education and social change: History, research and practice (pp. 75-96). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erbaum.
Center for Disease Control (2000). Entertainment education: 2000 Porter Novelli Healthstyles Survey. Retrieved October 8, 2013 from http://www.cdc.gov/communication/surveys/surv2000.htm
Center for Disease Control (2012). Gateway to health communication and social marketing practice. Retrieved October 10, 2013 from http://www.cdc.gov/healthcommunication/toolstemplates/entertainmented
Howe, A., Owen-Smith, V., & Richardson, J. (2002). The impact of a television soap opera on the NHS cervical cancer screening programme in the north west of England. Journal of Health Medicine, 24, 299-304.
Kaiser Family Foundation (2004). Entertainment Education and Health. Retrieved October 9, 2013 from http://kff.org/other/issue-brief/entertainment-education-and-health-in-the-united/Kincaid, D. L. (2002). Drama, emotion, and cultural convergence. Communication Theory, 12, 136-152.
Murphy, R. (Writer) & Falchuk, B. (Director). (2013). The quarterback [Television series episode]. In J. Dickerson (Producer), Glee. Los Angeles: Fox Broadcasting Company.
Singhal, A., & Rogers, E. M. (1999). Entertainment-education: A communication strategy for social change. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Wilson, J. (2007). The relationship between media, behaviors, and attitudes towards breast cancer screening. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (UMI No. 3300316).
This review is submitted on behalf of the Media Watch Committee, which is an active group of Division 46 members who focus on educating professionals and the general public about the portrayal of psychology and mental health professionals in fictional media (e.g., movies, television, theater, video games).