After six seasons on the air, FOX’s landmark musical series Glee aired its final episodes on Friday, March 20, 2015. The show broke ground in numerous ways–such as proving that the musical format could succeed on network television and breaking the Beatles’ record for most songs in the Billboard Hot 100–but its most lasting legacy is its positive impact on society. Throughout its run, Glee devoted scores of episodes to issues relevant to young people, sparked renewed interest and participation in arts education programs across the country, and remained committed to featuring those who had traditionally been underrepresented on television, including multiple LGBT characters, people of color, and characters with physical or mental disabilities. Ryan Murphy, who created Glee along with Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, has been outspoken about this aspect of the show: “I wanted to talk about the underdog element in society: the pregnant girl, the gay kid, the kid in a wheelchair, the African-American girl who’s one of five black kids in their school,” Murphy told USA Today. “I wanted to give voices to people who don’t have voices.” With this mission in mind, Glee became an inspiration for viewers around the world to embrace their individuality, express their creativity, and be proud of who they are.
At its peak, Glee regularly drew more than 13 million viewers each week, and the cast and creative team took this opportunity to discuss some of the most pressing issues relevant to young people, such as bullying, teen pregnancy, alcohol abuse, texting while driving, school shootings, suicide, domestic violence, and physical and mental disability. Darren Criss, a regular cast member since the show’s second season, considers this ability to start conversations to be one of the show’s most meaningful contributions to society: “Whether people agreed with them or not, or whether we executed [these stories] in a way that people vibed with or not, that’s irrelevant,” Criss told The Hollywood Reporter. “The point was we brought it up. And that is a really cool legacy to be a part of.”
The two issues Glee addressed most often were the value of arts education and LGBT rights and inclusivity. Murphy and his writers portrayed McKinley High’s glee club as a place of welcoming and acceptance for students of all races, social spheres, and sexual orientations, which not only helped viewers feel free to express themselves creatively but also, according to GLAAD representative Matt Kane, gave LGBT youth “a place to feel accepted and celebrated.”
Throughout its run, Glee remained determined to address and explore important issues and themes, prompting conversation and raising awareness in a way that was unprecedented for network television. Among its most potent episodes are the following:
- Preggers (Season 1, Episode 4) – Glee‘s fourth episode tackles two issues that would become major storylines in the first season: Kurt (Chris Colfer) coming out to his father and cheerleader Quinn (Diana Agron) discovering she’s pregnant.
- Wheels (Season 1, Episode 9) – The first episodeto prominently feature Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale), a New Directions member in a wheelchair, “Wheels” addresses handicap access in the public school system. The episode also features the introduction of Lauren Potter as Becky Jackson, a young student with Down Syndrome who joins Sue Sylvester’s (Jane Lynch) cheerleading squad.
- Never Been Kissed (Season 2, Episode 6) – The second season continued to highlight the show’s LGBT characters. “Never Been Kissed” introduces Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss) as a love interest for Kurt, whose longtime bully Dave Karofsky (Max Adler) is revealed to be gay, as well, starting his long and difficult path toward self-acceptance.
- On My Way (Season 3, Episode 14) – Inspired by Oprah Winfrey’s anti-texting and driving campaign, Murphy and the writers penned season three’s “On My Way” to address the issue of texting while driving. The episode ends on a cliffhanger as Quinn, distracted by a text message, speeds through a stop sign and collides with a passing truck.
- Transitioning (Season 6, Episode 7) – Following her gender reassignment surgery, football coach Shannon Bieste (Dot Marie Jones) returns to McKinley High as Sheldon Bieste, who struggles to adjust to his new life as a man. He finds support from Wade “Unique” Adams (Alex Newell), a transgender student who leads a 200-person trans choir in a performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been” from the musical Hairspray. FOX worked with GLAAD to assemble the choir.
- A Wedding (Season 6, Episode 8) – After confronting the homophobia of Santana’s grandmother, Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris) and Santa Lopez (Naya Rivera) move ahead with their wedding, which becomes a double wedding when Kurt and Blaine decide to tie the knot, as well.
Building on the pro-social content of the show, Glee‘s cast, crew, and creative team became involved with a wide range of causes and nonprofits, organizing fundraisers, performing at benefits, and making donations. In the words of Variety‘s Carole Horst, the cast and creative team consistently found ways to use the show as a platform to take meaningful steps toward social change: “While Glee has certainly raised the consciousness of primetime [audiences] regarding the importance of music programs in schools and acceptance of LGBT teens, the Gleeks in the cast and behind the scenes live those beliefs off screen, supporting music education, theater nonprofits, and organizations in the LGBT community.”
In 2011, Glee and Fox Home Entertainment partnered with the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) to launch the Glee Give a Note campaign, a national program that distributed $1 million in grants to struggling music and arts programs at 73 high schools across America. “Glee has always been about the importance of arts education, and Brad, Ian, and I have felt strongly from the beginning that the show has a responsibility to give back,” Murphy said at the time. “Music programs were incredibly important to me growing up, and we hope that our show and initiatives like ‘Give a Note’ continue to demonstrate how much they mean to our kids.” Watch the video below for a recap of the Give a Note campaign:
21st Century Fox built on this partnership in 2015 by working with the Give a Note Foundation to establish the <a href=”http://www.nafme.org/teachers-say-give-a-note-grants-are-a-blessing-for-their-music-programs/?utm_source=hootsuite”>21st Century Fox Give a Note Grants, which supported 16 under-funded music education programs at schools across the United States. The partnership was launched to commemorate the Glee series finale, as well as the show’s impact in triggering renewed interest and participation in school music programs throughout the country. “This tremendous act of generosity on behalf of 21st Century Fox brings much needed attention and resources to school music programs,” said Give a Note Foundation President and Board Chair Beth Slusher. “For many of these schools, these grants will represent their entire school year budget. Give a Note Foundation is proud to work with partners like 21st Century Fox to nurture, grow, and strengthen music education opportunities–every student, every school, every community.”
Glee cast members have also appeared in a number of national campaigns throughout the course of the show, including Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks. to combat texting while driving; Get with the Program to support the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program; It Gets Better to reach out to LGBT youth suffering from bullying at school or in their communities; Spread the Word to End the Word, encouraging viewers to stop using the word “retard;” and Green It. Mean It., FOX’s annual Earth Month PSA campaign.
In addition to these national campaigns, Glee organized both financial and in-kind donations to dozens of leading nonprofits, such as the Trevor Project, Education Through Music, the Young Storytellers Foundation, Invisible Children, the Grammy Foundation, the Box Scene Project, Project Limelight, the Nature Conservancy, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles, Heal the Bay, The Band Aid Trust, and the Give a Note Foundation.
Numerous thought leaders, including mainstream journalists, academic researchers, and representatives of prominent NGOs, have commented extensively on the effects the show has had on American society, especially in terms of promoting access to arts education and supporting LGBT rights. In the case of arts education, the show began to have an impact as early as its first season. A 2010 study by the National Association for Music Education found that 43% of high school choral instructors in the U.S. credited Glee for the surge in interest in school music programs, and initiatives such as the Glee Give a Note campaign established school music programs that continue to reach thousands of students every year.
Glee was also recognized consistently for its impact on LGBT rights and inclusivity, both in terms of representing its LGBT characters in positive ways and driving mainstream acceptance of LGBT communities around the world. Ryan Murphy took the opportunity to speak about these effects at a 2015 event hosted by the Family Equality Council, a leading LGBT advocacy organization. The Council honored Glee, along with fellow Twentieth Century Fox Television production Modern Family, for its role in advancing the national conversation about LGBT families. Murphy remarked: “I have always believed in the ideology of one of my friends and idols, Norman Lear, that the way to acceptance is understanding. You have to see it, experience it in your house and life to empathize. I think the success of Glee and Modern Family brought gay kids and gay families to millions of people who think they didn’t know those kinds of people, and then suddenly literally in the course of one month they did. To me, that is the great legacy of these shows and is why public opinion, I think, has changed so radically and so quickly.”
The changes he mentions have been well-documented. For example, GLAAD, America’s foremost LGBT advocacy organization, has been one of Glee‘s most vocal champions. The show was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for each of its six seasons, winning both in 2010 and 2011, and in 2015, just after the series finale, GLAAD gave Glee a Special Recognition Award for “consistently over six seasons introducing groundbreaking LGBT characters and storylines.” Matt Kane, Director of Entertainment Media at GLAAD, has praised the show since its first season: “GLAAD applauds Glee… Given the show’s enormous audience among adolescents, Glee is in a truly unique position to make an impact and give hope to millions of young bullying victims, perhaps by simply giving them a truly unique young hero to root for.” The cast have also attested to this message of hope. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Chris Colfer said, “I get the letters that not only say ‘I’m your biggest fan’ but also ‘Kurt saved my life’ and ‘Kurt doesn’t make me feel so alone…'”
In addition to GLAAD, Glee has been recognized by a number of organizations specifically for its social impact, including the following: the American Association of People with Disabilities, the American Latino Media Arts Awards, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, the Humanitas Prize, the Imagen Foundation, the NAACP Image Awards, the Prism Awards, and the Women’s Image Network. The series also won six Primetime Emmy Awards, four Golden Globes, and a Peabody Award.