• Thu, Apr 29 2010

The Ladies in Your Box: Sue Sylvester

Welcome, ladies, to the Ladies in Your Box, where we explore the women you see every day on TV, what relevance (if any) they have to your life, and what the mean to the world at large. Here, the second installment…

When it comes to this column, there really are fewer specimens worthy of analysis than Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), who makes an appearance in your box as the ultimate antagonist every Tuesday night on Glee. Last week, the core greatness of her character was summarized as she stood in front of Principal Figgins (Iqbal Theba) wearing a cone bra over her tracksuit.  “You’re an original, Sue,” he said.

And indeed, she is. It’s not so much that the idea of her character is original — after all, the female phys-ed teacher with an overbearing and somewhat masculine presence and an ambiguous sexual orientation is hardly a new stereotype. But what’s so genius about the way Sylvester is written and played by Lynch is twofold. Number one, unlike other unfortunate gym-teacher caricatures, Sue is not the loser, and she never loses. She doesn’t even coach traditional high school losers. No ugly-duckling softball players for her (and believe me, I was an ugly-duckling softball player in high school, so nothing but love for my fellow large-ball slingers) — she coaches, and is given the utmost respect by, the most popular girls in school (and if you think it’s easy, as a teacher, to command the respect of ANY high school student, let alone the popular ones…you don’t reach high school). So we’re starting off with a stereotype that defies stereotypes.

But number two is the way that Jane Lynch plays the character. We all know from her ridiculously fantastic turns in Christopher Guest movies that you just can’t fuck with Jane Lynch. But playing comedy so seriously isn’t easy. How many other actresses would have done the Vogue video with such deep-seated conviction, with no Clooney-esque wink and nod to let the audience know that they’re in on the joke, so as not to be laughed at, but in part, to laugh along with? No such cop-out for Lynch. It takes balls for anyone to wear a lace bodysuit with a straight face, but particularly for someone portraying a vicious, bitter and angry middle-aged cheerleading coach with an unexpected reverence for Madonna.

At the end of the day, Sylvester represents highly eccentric, unapologetic strength. Yes, she’s a character. And yes, in real life, most therapists would say that her attitude is her armor. But somehow, in the most unlikely way, Sylvester is still likable. Would I want to be her friend? Probably not. Actually, I suppose the question is, would she want to be mine? I’ll say no. But unlike the rest of the girls on Glee, Sylvester isn’t swayed by anyone’s pretty-boy looks or falsetto charm. She’s not intimidated by the cattiness of her students. And she’s fucking funny, and one gets the sense that she cracks jokes just for her own amusement. (“I just lost my train of thought because you have so much margarine in your hair.”) It wasn’t even until this season that Will bested her, for the first time, in a verbal showdown. And what did she do to get revenge? She starred in her own version of Vogue! There is no vengeance sweeter.

So Sue Sylvester, I welcome you into my box. I can’t wait till next week.

The Ladies in Your Box will be back next week. Stay tuned.

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