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television: why i’m pro-pregnant teenage backup dancers

The penultimate episode of Glee, “Funk,” is already widely agreed to be one of the worst of the season. The songs weren’t funky, the tension wasn’t there, and the continuity was all over the place. However, there was one little gem, hidden away in this otherwise disappointing episode: Dianna Agron’s powerhouse performance of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.”

Glee copped a lot of flack for this song. Critics (and fangirls) generally agreed that Agron’s performance – as pregnant cheerleader Quinn Fabray – was beyond reproach. Her soft voice was stretched to its emotional limits, but she pulled it off.

However, the choice to have Agron flanked by eight heavily pregnant teenage backup dancers has been called everything from “absurd” to “icky.” I’ll admit at first I was pretty wigged out by the contorting and gyrating of those rotund bellies.

Then I watched it a second time. Once you remind yourself that those girls are actresses, not actually pregnant young women (and that no foetuses were hurt in the making of this TV show) it’s actually a stroke of genius.

What makes Argon’s performance really land is the emotion. The way she sings it, it’s the cry of a caged woman, the prisoner of patriarchy. The modern world was made by man: ‘Man made electric light to take us out of the dark/Man made the boat for the water, like Noah made the ark.’  And after he’s made all these human inventions, ‘Man makes money to buy from other man.’ But Quinn’s rotund belly reminds us of what man can’t make: babies. Man is only as lasting as his own short life. Woman is humanity’s conduit to immortality. ‘This is a man’s world /But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.’

This is a powerful reinterpretation of this classic song. It’s been reinterpreted before (by the likes of Christina Aguilera and others) to make it seem less sexist. But I’ve never seen it done so strikingly.

There is something wonderfully base about this performance. It cuts through our constructed society, of romance and power and patriarchy, to the core of human relationships. It goes to the enduring strengths of generations of women that survived in a man’s world. It speaks of the struggle for women today, against the expectations that still bind them.

Which is why, I’m taking a stand against the tide of “weird” and “icky” reviews, and saying I thought the pregnant teen backup dancers were beautiful. Their bellies are so huge, we can’t look past them. They are a glaring physical representation of that special sphere of womanhood: pregnancy. The choreography is inspired: it uses, rather than works around, the rotund stomachs. There’s even a clever musical use of Lamaze breathing techniques to provide a chorus for Argon’s solo.

It’s confronting imagery. I think that’s why critics and fans have been turned off the performance. Pregnancy, birth, breast-feeding, etc., are becoming hidden and embarrassing topics again.  So having pregnant bellies shoved in our faces is a bit of a shock. But I for one am applauding Glee for trying something different. Even for a show that is getting a reputation for tackling the big issues, the pregnant dancers were a big statement. One that, unfortunately, most of Glee’s audience wasn’t ready for.

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