If there is one thing that the world at large is terrified to talk about but television seems obsessed with exploiting, it’s teenagers having sex. It’s something that adults — namely parents — prefer to ignore, while TV series — namely cheesy dramas — put it front and center, often in a shameless play for ratings. There are only a few stories about the topic that TV has historically deemed important enough to tell: If teenagers were having sex, the girl immediately got pregnant; virginity was put on a pedestal, so much so that losing it never just happened, but was instead an episode-long event promoted in advance. Everything that falls under the umbrella of teen sexuality tends to appear in frustrating extremes on television, and this is especially true when it comes to teen LGBTQ narratives. Traditionally, if a teenager came out of the closet, they were swiftly ostracized by their parents and peers. Teens were either strictly gay or strictly straight, with no room for ambiguity. For a while, TV had no interest in murky gray areas or sliding scales of sexual attraction. But in 2014, there were a number of refreshing programs that aimed to tell more unique and nuanced stories.
When MTV’s Faking It premiered in April, the half-hour comedy series seemed both doomed to fail and destined to offend everyone, not just the Parents Television Council. Developed by Carter Covington (creator of the television adaptation of 10 Things I Hate About You and a writer on Greek, an underrated program that introduced us to one of the most well-rounded young gay characters in TV history), Faking It’s was sold as the story of two teenage best friends who pretend to be lesbians so they can become popular within their progressive high school.
The announcement of the series was understandably met with hesitation — “problematic” might be a word that has lost all meaning this year, but it’s still the best way to describe this premise — because how could any network, let alone the often-exploitative MTV, pull this off without feeling like a mockery of the lives of actual queer women? We’ve seen narratives like this played for laughs before, in terrible movies like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and the current season-long arc on Two and a Half Men in which two straight men pretend to be gay and get married. Then there are the countless moments in pop culture when two straight women kiss for the benefit of men, to turn them on or get something out of them, or just as a show for the audience. Was Faking It just going to be an entire series of this?
While Season 1 of the show was shaky at best, the series did quickly move past stereotypes by having one-half of the couple, Amy (Rita Volk), realize that she actually does have feelings for her best friend Karma (Katie Stevens). Subsequent episodes mostly involve her dealing with these feelings: Are they real? Should she tell Karma, or will that ruin their lifelong friendship? Does this mean she’s a lesbian? Or is she bisexual? Amy, a high school sophomore, grapples with her sexuality in every episode.
What saves Faking It from being an offensive, sensationalized show is that Amy is real and representative of the journey that so many teenagers go through. She does not come out of the closet and suddenly start hanging out exclusively at gay bars after being kicked out of the house by her parents. Instead, she questions and fluctuates. She tries to understand whether she’s truly attracted to Karma or if what she’s feeling is just the closeness of their friendship. She attempts to go on a (pretty awful) date with a girl; she later loses her virginity to a guy; she eventually ends up in a healthy (and “educational,” as she puts it) sexual relationship with another woman. Nothing is ever set in stone with Amy, because the show makes it clear that sexuality is fluid and confusing, and even more so when you’re barely old enough to drive.
Faking It also deserves praise for its supporting characters: Shane (Michael Willett) is openly gay and the most popular guy in school, but he’s no saint — he has the occasional habit of dragging people out of the closet, especially when it benefits him. His friendship with straight Liam (Gregg Sulkin) is a highlight of the show, one that never gives in to the tired trope of Liam insecurely questioning whether his gay best friend has feelings for him. Meanwhile, Lauren (Bailey De Young) starts off as the uptight blonde bitch of the teen drama but sometimes softens, and reveals in Season 2 that she’s intersex. For once (or at least the first time since Freaks and Geeks), an intersex character is well developed and has other things happening in her life, rather than just being the unnamed child in a medical drama who serves to push forward the doctors’ plot, not the intersex character’s.
Faking It isn’t the only show that has tried to make strides this year in terms of teen sexuality. ABC Family’s Chasing Life is, at its core, the story of a 20-something battling cancer, but one of its most engaging storylines belongs to the protagonist’s younger sister, Brenna (Haley Ramm), a 16-year-old who doesn’t “define” herself when it comes to sexual orientation. In the beginning of the series, she’s non-exclusively dating a boy when she begins to develop feelings for her friend Greer (Gracie Dzienny) and goes on to date both of them. What’s refreshing about Brenna’s story is that viewers are learning about her sexuality at the same time she’s learning about it. When her mother asks if she’s always been into girls, Brenna responds, “I don’t know. I’ve never been before.” There is also no big, emotional coming-out scene for Brenna. She casually mentions it during a party game of “Never Have I Ever,” and her sister barely shrugs at the news. In the recent Christmas special, “Locks of Love,” when she gets sick of her grandparents questioning her about whether or not she has a boyfriend, Brenna finally just yells, “I’m bi!” But there is no huge surprise or disappointment; her grandparents don’t care that she’s bisexual, only that she took so long to tell them.
ABC Family has been pretty solid, for several years, in its LGBTQ representation. The aforementioned Greek, which premiered in 2007, explored both sides of queer/questioning collegiate sexuality: Calvin (Paul James) was a gay fraternity member wholly accepted by his friends; Rebecca (Dilshad Vadsaria) was a straight woman who temporarily experimented with the same sex but then decided it wasn’t her bag. But ABC Family surpassed even its own high standards for representation in 2014. (This is notable for a network with strong Christian ties — it was founded by Pat Robertson as the Christian Broadcasting Network and still plays The 700 Club every weekday morning.) Currently, its dramas include The Fosters, about a lesbian couple and their blended family, which features a recurring transgender character (the show has won the GLAAD media award); Pretty Little Liars, which, for all of its ridiculousness and plot holes, features Emily, one of the most prominent (and shippable) lesbian teenagers on TV; and Switched at Birth, which has a handful of lesbian characters, including teenage Natalie (Stephanie Nogueras), a deaf, Latina lesbian who is out in school.
It’s impossible to discuss queer teenagers on television without talking about Degrassi (especially the current iteration) because, despite all of its silliness and faults, it has always been dedicated to portraying every type of character and to exploring the full spectrum of sexuality. A brief, though definitely not exhaustive summary: Ashley learns her father is gay in the very first season; Marco comes out to his best friend in Season 2, the rest of his friends in Season 3 (after he’s the unfortunate victim of a hate crime), and his mother in Season 4; Paige and Alex, originally written as straight girls, begin dating in Season 5 (oddly enough, at the encouragement of Kevin Smith); Fiona is seen in relationships with multiple men and women throughout her four seasons on the show; Season 8 features Riley, the openly gay captain of the football team; and so on and so on. One of the most popular characters in Degrassi was Adam Torres (Jordan Todosey), a female-to-male transgender student whose storylines included dealing with everything from pronoun problems to being forcibly outed and subsequently bullied by classmates — yet he also had an endlessly supportive family and a few successful relationships throughout the series, including one with Degrassi’s strictest Christian girl.
Currently, Degrassi features a range of characters who are out and proud, and who fall into varying categories. The quirky and confident Imogen (Cristine Prosperi) is currently in a relationship with Jack Jones (Niamh Wilson), a relatively new student who has been publicly out since her introduction. In a recent episode, the two discuss whether or not polyamory is for them — Jack has a distaste for monogamous relationships because they are a “heteronormative idea of romantic love.” Even more complicated is the relationship between Tristan (Lyle Lettau), another character who has always been unapologetically out, and Miles (Eric Osborne), who was originally positioned as the rich, bad-boy player of Degrassi. After several relationships with women, Miles is now dating Tristan, though he seems just as confused about it as everyone else. Miles doesn’t claim to be straight, gay, or bisexual. He is Degrassi‘s greatest example of the fluidity of sexuality, and the show’s apparent belief that gender is a social construct. About his relationship, Miles basically says that he just “needed someone” and “likes hanging out with [Tristan].” When questioned about the kissing, he shrugs and replies, “Well, I like that, too.”
Outside of these shows, there were plenty of other queer teenagers to be found on television, from Danny on MTV’s Teen Wolf, who is smarter than the vast majority of characters on that show, to Sammy on Tyrant (it’s a shame he’s not on a better show), to even, possibly — definitely — Korra and Asami on Nickelodeon’s animated The Legend of Korra; the finale ended with the pair holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes before teleporting to a spiritual world, a powerful scene that hinted at more than just friendship between the two. What could have been seen as ambiguous was later confirmed by the show’s creators. “Korra and Asami have romantic feelings for each other,” writes Mike DiMartino. Co-creator Bryan Konietzko added, “You can celebrate it, embrace it, accept it, get over it, or whatever you feel the need to do, but there is no denying it.”
It’s interesting that the strongest queer narratives on TV are found on shows about and for teenagers, rather than the adults, but it’s easy to understand why: the target demographic. Teens flock to these shows not just for the fun of watching, but also because of a desire to find someone who resembles themselves on TV. Being a teenager, especially a queer teenager, can be often lonely and confusing, so it’s natural to seek out ways to feel less lonely and confused — like music, Tumblr, and definitely television. On the other hand, of course, younger generations tend to be both more accepting of different sexual orientations (and races, etc.) than older ones and the loudest in demanding representation. (Let’s not forget how many young adults in their 20s are watching these shows, either).
Television, even teen-oriented TV, isn’t totally inclusive yet, but 2014 was definitely the year of strong teen sexuality narratives. There were queer, transgender, and intersex characters who all had other storylines happening besides just their sexuality. If there was one thing that television made clear this year, it’s that teen characters are always more than just the sum of their labels.