Gay and lesbian characters are popping up on shows for young people
As it becomes more common for teenagers to realize — and then tell others — that they are gay or lesbian, there is also a growing number of teen characters on TV programs geared toward teens going through the same thing. The CW’s “90210,” which returns on Jan. 24, joins the ranks of shows like “Glee,” “Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “Hellcats,” “Greek” and the new MTV series “Skins” in showcasing young, gay roles.
“I felt like the world of ‘90210' was missing the gay characters that it would realistically have,” said Rebecca Sinclair, the CW series’ show runner and executive producer, on the writers’ decision to show teen character Teddy Montgomery’s coming-out process. “If I had created the show, I would definitely have made one of the main characters gay. . And honestly, in a genre that depends on the coupling, decoupling and re-coupling of its characters, it behooves us to find the most diverse ways to do that.”
So it was that Teddy — a “90210" character most fans had written off as a rich playboy whose latest infatuation was ex-girlfriend Silver — hooked up with classmate Ian at the beginning of this season and slowly admitted the truth about himself. And Adrianna Tate-Duncan ( Jessica Lowndes), another of Teddy’s exes on “90210,” experimented with bisexuality last season.
“Coming-out stories are standard, almost a cliché of television stories dealing with gay characters and this goes back to the ‘70s and the ‘80s,” said Larry Gross of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, who specializes in lesbians and gays in the media. “What’s probably different now is that the age is becoming younger and I think this reflects the fact that the sort of battleground for gay people in society includes high school and probably even includes middle school. It’s moved younger in the past decade or so, I think in part … because younger people are becoming more aware of their identities.”
This phenomenon can be seen in “Degrassi,” the Canadian teen drama whose current version is in its 10th season and airs on TeenNick in the U.S. The show has existed in various iterations and over the years has moved from having a main character with an older gay brother to covering two male coming-out story lines, a lesbian and a questioning character. It currently features a transgender teen figure named Adam, played by actress Jordan Todosey.
Teen coming-out stories seem especially relevant, after reports of physical and cyber bullying reached a boiling point last year with a number of gay teen suicides. “Hellcats,” a new CW series about college cheerleading, tweaked a plot line this season after it ended up too closely mirroring the events that reportedly led to the death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. Shows like “Glee” and “Degrassi” have presented intense story lines about bullying, while “Pretty Little Liars” and “Gossip Girl” — both based on young adult novels in which every character has something salacious jangling in his or her closet — have included “I know your secret” cyber threats.
“The idea of taking Eric’s sexuality and be able to tell that story in the language of the show” was important, “Gossip Girl” executive producer Stephanie Savage said of a story line in Season 1 in which Serena’s younger brother publicly revealed that he had been kissing the handsome blue-blood who ladder-climber Jenny Humphrey was passing off as her boyfriend. “We didn’t want to stop ‘Gossip Girl’ and have a ‘very special episode’ about Eric.”
The takeaway in these shows is typically consistent: that you will be accepted for who you are. Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, pointed to the example of Kurt coming out to his dad in “Glee.” “We see in ‘Glee’ in the father’s response a very important role modeling on how to show your love for the child who just came out. In a way, [his father] is coming out too — as a relative of someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”
But does this mirror the responses of these shows’ viewers?
“I’m often delightfully surprised at how unshocked young people are,” said Oliver Goldstick, an executive producer on “Pretty Little Liars.” “They just move on. It’s like: OK.”
Goldstick has experience in this area, having previously worked on “Ugly Betty.” One of the main characters on that show was Betty’s often-speculated-about, eventually confirmed young gay nephew, Justin. “Justin was a pre-pubescent [when that show started],” Goldstick said. “We weren’t playing him as a sexualized character. He was accepted in his home for who he was, and it was a joy.”
On the other hand, Emily on “Pretty Little Liars” is older and so, said Goldstick, “It’s more a high school experience. It’s more forging an identity.”
It was also important to the “Pretty Little Liars” staff that Emily didn’t have “any stereotypical look or vibe for a gay woman,” creator Marlene King said. “She’s a pretty little liar just like any other pretty little liar on the show.”
Veering away from stereotypes, several of these shows boast LGBT jocks — along with “Liars’” Emily, there’s “90210’s” Teddy and “Degrassi’s” Riley. Said “Degrassi” co-creator Linda Schuyler, “That whole jock mentality in the locker room — the male bonding — that’s a really tough environment for a gay guy.”
Although homosexual characters continue to proliferate, one of the biggest hurdles on shows geared toward adults is showing them kissing on screen as their heterosexual counterparts would. Teen shows don’t seem to have the same problem. Gay TV youths have been kissing since the days of “Dawson’s Creek” and " Buffy” — and King estimated that on “Pretty Little Liars,” Emily has kissed more people on the show (including love interest Maya) than any other pretty little liar. “Gossip Girl,” “90210,” “Degrassi,” “Skins,” and “Greek” haven’t shied away from the subject either.
“Who’s in a relationship with someone, man or woman, and doesn’t kiss them?” asked Trevor Donovan, who plays Teddy on “90210.” “It’s real.”