How Young Adult TV is leading the way on representation by LaurenWritten by Lauren Carter Allan
A follow up to How Young Adult fiction Is leading the way on representation.
My venture into Young Adult television started fifteen years ago, and as if cosmically aligned it was also the year that I became a teenager.
To set the scene: the year was 2003, to some a handful of years into childhood, to others the year their own childhood heroes died. To me it was the year I faced the now foreign concept of choosing the one television show I would watch – online streaming, digital recordings, Netflix, none of these at my disposal – it was either The OC or One Tree Hill. Not both.
In the end the decision was easy. I was a basketball-playing tomboy, choosing the former would have been self-sacrificial. But it was also a decision that, chosen differently, would have deeply impacted my life, today and yesterday.
And it’s why, even now, I feel drawn to and invested in the ideas and morals that Young Adult television is instilling in its viewers.
Young Adult television, or the Teen Drama, is often misunderstood as a genre classified by soap-like traits of unrealistic ideals and stereotypical characterisation. And though that definition may be true of its origins, it can’t be said of its modern day offerings.
Today, twenty-four years since the first teen focused network in the United States launched (The WB) the landscape has improved significantly. Currently in the US there are two dedicated networks catering purely towards a Young Adult demographic – two networks that are not only expected to, but successfully produce content that represents the diversity of its audience without being patronising or undermining the weight of the stories being told.
A rebrand of Disney’s ABC Family, Freeform in my opinion leads the two by self-directing its focus towards a Young Adult audience, and leaving behind its family friendly reputation for a more culturally progressive image.
The new focus not only allowed for ABC Family originals The Fosters, Pretty Little Liars and Switched at Birth – already forward in their thinking – to mature into the network’s signature of candour and inclusion, but opened for a new wave of diverse, and thought provoking content.
The Fosters, ending its five year run this summer, brought to the screen the story of a lesbian couple raising their multi-racial biological, adopted, and foster teenage children. The series delved deeply in to issues faced within the foster care system, and broke new ground with the youngest same-sex kiss to be shown on television, and one of the first on-screen kisses between a young trans man and cis woman.
In Switched at Birth, through the premise of two teenagers discovering that they were – yes – switched at birth, we are educated in the life and culture of the deaf community through the eyes of one of the switchsters. American Sign Language (ASL) plays a prominent role throughout the five seasons, with one episode, Uprising, using almost no spoken word.
Pretty Little Liars (hear me out) brought murder, elaborate stalking strategies, and questionable relationships, but throughout all of that, one of its four main characters was a gay woman of colour. Emily had multiple relationships that were on equal footing to her heterosexual counterparts.
PLL had the biggest social engagement of any television series, changing the game of how entertainment utilised social media to connect with viewers – thereby bringing the normalisation of gay and bisexual characters to an even wider audience.
And in 2017, Freeform made its most audacious move yet with The Bold Type. With a Rotten Tomatoes 100% rating, it Dared To Defy (the Freeform tagline) its predecessors, taking the “twenty-somethings in New York” trope and turning it on its head to offer a socially conscious response to a world where Donald Trump is President.
With one of its three central characters a bisexual woman of colour whose romantic interest is a Muslim Iranian lesbian, the series doesn’t shy away from addressing serious subjects, from the unfairness of the immigration system, to breast cancer, to online bullying. It’s basically Teen Vogue in TV form, and you don’t need to be a teenager to want more of that in the world.
Unrefined in its progressiveness, The CW, when compared to Freeform, has only now started to carve out its own niche, and in doing so has opened up its traditional teen drama façade to a feminist world.
In 2014 The CW became first network television series to feature a bisexual lead character, and four years in it seems that she is actually still bisexual (amazing, right?). The 100 prides itself on the equality and diversity of characters, with female characters who lead, who have strength and weakness, characters of different ethnicities, and a prominent character with a disability. Adapted from the dystopian young adult novel of the same name, The 100 envisions for itself a world in which its characters survive and die with no regard to the inequalities of our own world.
Following The 100’s lead, The CW made a name for itself as the Netflix of DC, translating five individual comics for screen, actualising what its competition Marvel has been negligent in embracing – diversity and inclusion. Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and Black Lightning all have prominent lead or supporting characters who are women, including women of colour and queer women.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
One Tree Hill, the WB original, wrapped its nine-year run on The CW in 2012 after nine seasons of rivalry, love triangles, car crashes and stalkers, but it wasn’t these elements that shaped, or surfaced, parts of my personality.
This, a teen drama, critically acclaimed or not, was the reason I discovered my taste in music, my confidence in being different. It taught me the heart of basketball, a sport I would play for six years, and it expanded my imagination through creating worlds and characters, to writing songs.
I’m not naïve enough to think there were no faults. In 2004 it was still a risk to tell the story of a bisexual character of colour, and OTH did it, but its depth was too shallow and the show’s attempt at diversity started and landed with that one character. I will always argue that OTH is in part a feminist show, but had it been produced today, with The CW as it is now, it could have been very different and in turn could have influenced how I and many other people saw our placing in the world.
Maybe if I had seen a realistic portrayal of a lesbian or bisexual character in my favourite show as a teenager it wouldn’t have taken me until the age of twenty one to realise who I was. Because if you see yourself on screen, if who you are has real, positive representation, then you can open yourself to every possibility of who, and what, you can be.
Young people will change the world – that’s why it’s more important than ever that Young Adult is at the forefront of visual entertainment and of pushing the boundaries on representation. And in my opinion, television is right there at the forefront of that progress. Mainstream film still has too far to go, although independent movies are making waves, but that’s worth an article all of its own. The rest of the television landscape is only a few steps behind.
Pictures courtesy of Freeform and The CW.