Searching for Truth in Teen TV

January 11, 2010 at 9:30 am (Analysis) (, , , )

I’ve been meaning to make this post for ages. It first popped into my head when I watched the phenomenal Freaks and Geeks over the summer, a new entry on my list of shows I’ve come to love ages after they were cut short by the whims of TV execs. The idea found a resurgence in my brain early this fall when I tried to watch Glee, a show that turned out to be very much not my thing, all expectations to the contrary. But it’s taken me until now to finally put it into words:

I yearn for a TV show that will reflect my own high school experiences.

Now, by “reflect,” I don’t mean that I want to watch my own biography play out on the television screen. That would be creepy and unsettling. But much as I love shows about teenagers, and much as I tend to overidentify with all characters who remotely resemble me in fiction, I’ve never found a show that speaks to my own history, to teenagerhood as I knew it. And I don’t think my group of high school friends was particularly anomalous. Despite not being TV pretty (and, really, who is?), we were, in many ways, the outcast underdogs everyone loves to root for, the weird kids and the musical kids and the smart kids who band together in the face of their own unpopularity – just like the characters on Freaks and Geeks, or Glee, or a dozen other shows past and present. But we didn’t fit the picture of normalcy that TV is so concerned with portraying, for two major reasons.

1.) My group of friends was too culturally diverse.

I adore Freaks and Geeks, but it’s hard not to notice, when watching it, that the cast is… extraordinarily white. I realize this is partially due to the setting (the Midwest in the early 1980s, rather than the cultural hodgepodge that was my own early 2000s central New Jersey). But the fact remains that the cast was entirely white, and that this entirely white cast – with, at best, a couple of token non-white secondary characters – is the norm for TV. With the exception of Canada’s Degrassi, I can’t think of a single Western show about teens that breaks this pattern.

I, personally, am white. I’m used to seeing people who look like me on teen shows. But when I can’t see my friends surrounding those images of me, leading lives just as complex and important as my own, it’s hard for me to truly identify with those images. My high school friends were Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Peruvian, in addition to Russian-Jewish and Italian and Polish and Irish and Greek and a dozen other European mixes. And we didn’t cherry-pick one person of each ethnicity to be a member of our group. My friends were affected by their racial backgrounds on a daily basis, but they didn’t exist as stereotypes or satires (I’m looking at you, Glee), or model examples to teach the white kids about diversity. If I found a show that gave people who look like my friends the leading roles, and someone who looks like me a supporting role, I’d be much more able to identify with that show than I would with one that made me the protagonist and whitewashed the supporting cast.

2.) My group of friends was too gay.

Between 8th grade and my freshman year of college, all but two of my (numerous) male friends came out of the closet as gay or bisexual. So did two of my female friends. I acknowledge that this makes my group a statistical anomaly; the population percentages shouldn’t produce this effect, even in a group of outcasts, especially since most of these people were friends before any of them had come out, so they weren’t actively seeking out a group of other gay people. I’m not asking for a teenage Queer as Folk — in fact, that would be a terrible idea, because it would make the characters’ sexualities the entire focus of the show. But is it too much to ask for a show with two or more gay characters who are friends and aren’t romantically involved with each other?

Gay characters in teen shows tend to be saddled with a few stock storylines – coming out, parental disapproval, gay bashing – and are otherwise relegated to the background. These stories are important, certainly, and common to gay teenagers’ lives. But why can’t these characters also participate in narratives that have nothing to do with their sexualities? Why can’t they simply interact with other characters, straight and gay alike, in stories that are about them without being about the fact that they’re gay? I may be the protagonist of my own life, but my friends are the protagonists of theirs, and they deserve just as much variety in their stories as I do.

And what of those romantic storylines? Teenage shows – hell, almost all popular narratives – tend to deal with romance a large percentage of the time. As a straight girl, I see pictures of my own romantic ideals all the time, but I can’t help being indignant on my friends’ behalf that they so rarely get to see romances that resemble their own in mainstream media – especially mainstream media about teens. When teen shows have a gay character, that character tends to be little more than a token who never interacts with another gay person or has anything more than an unrequited crush (even in Glee, which is a show about a glee club, for God’s sake), and when I see that, I lose all ability to connect with that show. That’s not the world I know.


I desperately want a show to exist that would not regard these two facts about my group of friends as impossibilities for mainstream television. I also realize, whatever my personal desires, that these are not my triumphs to hope for. Should a show appear, and succeed, with an authentically diverse cast in both race and sexuality, my friends are the ones who will really reap the benefits. It will be their victory, not my own, because they are the people who are really being hurt by this lack of representation. I remain a straight white girl.

But I know that the networks avoid these kinds of shows primarily because they think they’ll alienate the straight, white, middle class young people like me who they (wrongly, but consistently) regard as their primary marketing target. And if my personal experience is anything to judge by, they’re doing exactly the opposite: alienating even the viewers they privilege by refusing to portray the world in which those viewers live.

Make better, truer shows, Mr. and Ms. Network Executive, and viewers across the cultural spectrum will follow.

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