By Steffi Achilles
Translation by Elena
What kind of rolemodels exist for non-heterosexual youth in US Television? How are young queers represented there?
The ability for underaged people to decide what gender they identify with, which sexual orientation they have or what kind of relationship they want, if they are cis or trans*, gay or lesbian is often under discussion. Within these public debates young people are portrayed as too young, too immature, too unexperienced . Some people even think that having contact with non-heterosexual people can be dangerous for young people, or thinking about it: for everyone.
The other side of the debate claims that young people are capable to decide on their identities and bodies. Kids are already raised in heteronormative structures, where the logic dictates that they are only two opposite genders that are romantically and later also sexually attracted to each other.
There is no uprise against the heterosexualisation of young kids, because it is seen as normal.
What kind of young people are portrayed as gay, lesbian, bisexual/pansexual, genderqueer, transgender or inter(sex) in current US-Television?
Gay boys were starting it off
Young, non-heterosexual main characters are relatively new in mainstream television.
After seeing Rickie Vasquez (played by Wilson Cruz) in the Series ‘My So-Called Life’ (ABC, 1994) it took 10 more years for me to stumble upon Justin Suarez (Mark Indelicat) in the show ‘Ugly Betty’ that was screened from 2006-2010 on ABC. Shortly after that we could see Eric van der Woodsen (Connor Paolo) in ‘Gossip Girl’ (2007-2012 The CW) and Marshall Gregson (Keir Gilchrist) in ‘United States of Tara’, which was screened 2009-2011 on Showtimes.
Justin and Marshall are portrayed in a similar way: young, skinny teens, shy and ‘unmanly’ in a way that gave the viewers a chance to interpret them as queer right from the beginning. Both of them do arty activities (editing films & fashion design) and are from less privileged families.
Like ‘Ugly Betty’, ‘Gossip Girl’ is also situated in New York but in an upper class setting, meaning that Eric is part of a rich and influential family. In all three shows the characters main topics are coming out, their first samsex kiss and relationships. Another interesting show in this contest is ‘South of Nowhere’ (The N – Teen Nick) in which a lesbian and a bisexual teen are portrayed. The Show ran from 2005 to 2008
Looking for an Identitiy during High School
The Fox-show ‘Glee’ that started screening in 2009 features 5 main characters that are LGBT*. Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) is bullied by his peers for not presenting as heterosexual from the very beginning of the show. In Season 2 he is joined by, his later romantic relationship, Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss), who helps him stand up to the abuse he endures in school.
The two cheerleaders Brittany Susan Pierce (Heater Morris) and Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera) start off as close friends, that are revealed having a more complex relationship to each other later in the show. After a lot of struggles they start leading a more or less monogamous relationship.
The Show ‘Pretty Little Liars’, that runs since 2009 is evolving around four girls that share a common friend Ali, who disappears and whose corps is (presumely) found.
The main story line is the detective work that the friends do in order to find Alisons killer.
One of the friends is Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell), whose lesbian relationship is part of the storyline from day one. Emily experiences a difficult coming-out in the first season, where her parents are not ok with her relationship with Maya and her identification as lesbian.
This being said, the romantic lifes of the four friends take less room in the show than their relations with each other, which makes the show even more interesting.
The Show ‘Faking It’ exists since 2014 and portrays Amy Raudenfeld (Rita Volk) and Karma Ashcroft (Katie Stevens), who are faking to be lesbians and are couple in order to be more interesting in their progressive high school. While Amy is starting to think that she might be in love with Karma for real, Karma is trying to catch the attention of boys at their school.
A lot of storylines in ‘Pretty Little Liars’, ‘Glee’ and ‘Faking It’ discuss finding an identity and words for young people to explain themselves.
Santana experiences a big break through when she finally self-identifies as a lesbian and comes out to her religious latina family.
Santana, Brittany, Amy, Karma and Emily are TV-figures that are portrayed as equally feminine to the other girls in the shows. Emily is a swimmer and while her other friends also do sports, like running or tuning their bodies, Emily is always seen as the sporty one or as a tomboy. Amy is also portrayed as less feminine than Karma, altough this distinction within the show is not visible for the viewers on the first glance.
Trans & genderqueer as a sidenote
In Season 3 of ‘Glee’ the young transwoman Unique Adams (Alex Newll) enters the Glee Club. In the Musical-Club which gives the show its name, the young people cover rock and pop songs, often in order to work through conflicts or share personal thoughts and emotions. Unique sings the song ‘If I were a boy’ by Beyoncé in episode 05×05 after being harassed by cis boys while trying to use the bathrooms.23
‘House of Lies’ (Showtime) is, as far as I know, the only show in US-Television portraying a genderqueer person as a lead character: Roscoe Kaan (Donis Leonard Jr.). Their Father Marty is sometimes overwhelmed, for example when Roscoes wants to try out for the female lead in ‘Grease’ or shouts at museum visitors because they stare at them. In general he is very supportive towards Roscoe and is the only one who believes them when they are accused to having kissed a schoolmate against their will.
Sex, Drugs & religious media campaigns.
The show ‘Skins’ (MTV, 2011) who is a remake of a British show with the same name features the student Tea Marvelli (Sofia Black-D’Elia) who first appears having romantic relationships with girls but later on has a long affair with a boy called Tony. Sex with him is weird for her at the beginning, but this changes quickly. Tea is portrayed like most of the current LGBT*IQ characters as having high self-esteem, honest, witted and determined.
Sadly the show was stopped after the first season by MTV.24 One of the main reasons was that the ‘Parents Television Council’ 25 called the show ‘child pornography’ which had a huge impact of sponsors who withdrew their investments.
The fact that alcohol and drug use were also part of the storyline probably didn’t help the reputation of the show in these circles.
The Show ‘Shameless’ who started 2011 in the US brings sexual activity and drug use by minors to the screens aswell. Ian (Gerard Kearns) is a gay teen who is part of the Gallagher family around which the show is centered. He wants to enter the US-Army and spends a lot of time training for this. After a short affair with a married man he starts a not-monogamous on-and-off relationship with Mickey Milkovich (Noel Fisher), an aggressive and violent boy from his neighbourhood. When Micheys dad finds out about their relationship he beats up his son and makes him having sex with a woman while he stays in the room and makes Ian watch aswell.
So far as I now the ‘Parents Television Council’ hasn’t issued a statement concerning ‘Shameless’, maybe because the show is not directly targeting teenagers as ‘Skins’ does or because it is screened on the Pay-TV channel Showtime and not on public television.26
Showtime also features shows like ‘Queer as Folk’, ‘The L Word’ or ‘Nurse Jackie’ who are probably not ‘family-friendly’ from a Christian perspective.
Supernatural is the new queer
The fantasy show ‘True Blood’ not only portrays a lot of queer characters but also plays with the similarities between real LGBT*QIA movements 27 and the struggle for rights for vampires, who in the most cases are not strictly heterosexual. I would also argue that supernatural characters in fantasy shows very rarely go through the same process of finding an identity and coming out as their human counterparts do. The status of supernaturals seems to give them more freedom and power over their bodies. Queer youth is not part of the main cast in ‘True Blood’.
In contrast, the fantasy show ‘Teen Wolf” (MTV, since 2011) has a gay werewolf since 2013: Ethan (Charlie Carver), whose identical twin Aiden is heterosexual. In this show the sexual identity of Ethan is not a big topic and he has more or less an equal amount of affairs as his twin. This could also be because the twins stories are anyhow overshadowed by the heterosexual (ex-) relation between the two ultimate main characters.
Since a couple of years young queer characters are part of US-Television. These shows are rarely criticized by conservatives if they don’t target directly young people and show youth doing drugs or having sex.
The LGBT*IQ characters are mostly portrayed as powerful and often work through finding and identity and coming out. Only supernatural characters do not have to come out, because they are apparently able to self-define their sexual preferences and act outside of anti-queer structures.
In US-Shows we most often see gay boys/man, followed by lesbian girls/woman and very, very rarely also transgender or genderqueer people. Inter(sex) characters haven’t been main characters and the portrayal of asexuals is also a difficult topic that is worth an article of its own.
Steffi Achilles grew up near Bremen and is currently living in Frankfurt am Main (Germany). They mainly blog about queer characters in US-Shows on www.queersehen.de [german]
The „Parents Television Council“ (www.parentstv.org) is a fundamentalist christian lobby organisation in the USA who claim to be active for the ‘safety of children’. Their mainly talk about being ‘family-friendly’ which means holding up their christian ideal of heterosexuality, monogamy and sexual abstinence. Everthing that they see as not ‘family-friendly’ is being targeted by media campaigns and attemts of censoring.