2008 also marked the end and near-end of two of the most
popular cable programs with lesbian characters for several years running.
South of Nowhere ended its three-year
run on The N last week, and The L Word is set to wrap-up its unprecedented six season run in early 2009 on Showtime.
South of Nowhere
broke some much-needed new ground with its portrayal of a teen lesbian
relationship when it debuted in 2006.The coming-out storyline for
teen Spencer Carlin (Gabrielle Christian) was included as part of a larger
family drama that included issues of racism, marital fidelity, religion,
addiction, violence, and teen sexuality.
The show was rewarded with immediate devotion from lesbian viewers of
all ages who found Spencer’s coming out story and subsequent relationship with
young lesbian rebel Ashley Davies (Mandy Musgrave) to be both realistic and
romantic in its tentative beginnings.
Ashley (Mandy Musgrave), left, and Spencer (Gabrielle Christian)
Season two, however, was a different story. While Spencer and Ashley finally consummated
their relationship, it quickly became clear that when it came to displays of
physical affection, lesbian and heterosexual relationships on SON were held to vastly different
Despite protestations from the The
N to the contrary, viewers couldn’t help but notice that Spencer and Ashley’s
chaste kisses and hugs were frequently interrupted, while heterosexual teen
romances were allowed a fuller range of physical expression (one of those
relationships even resulted in a pregnancy).
To make matters worse, by the end of the second season,
Ashley was reconsidering her feelings for former boyfriend Aiden, which would
leave Spencer to weather the difficulties of coming out to a homophobic
Catholic mother largely on her own.
The N stole much momentum from the show by
splitting its third and final season into two parts, airing the end of the first
half of the season airing in September 2007, and the second half over a
year later in October 2008.
While the first half of the third season offered
over-the-top dramatic situations that tested the limits of viewer imagination
(Ashley’s father dies and she inherits his millions, Spencer’s brother Clay is
gunned down and his grieving girlfriend Chelsea conveniently loses their unborn
baby), the second half seemed somewhat boring in comparison and the series
finale ended with more of a whimper than a bang.
But for all of its faults, South of Nowhere stayed true to the coming out story of its lead
character, Spencer Carlin.
Whatever temptation there might have been to have
her question her sexual orientation, once Spencer came out, she stayed
out. And she continued to come out to
the people around her, including interested male suitors and her
ultra-conservative grandmother. Perhaps her greatest obstacle, her homophobic
mother, Paula, had her own gracefully-plotted arc of coming to love and accept
her lesbian daughter.
Paula (Maeve Quinlan) with Spencer
The character of Ashley did not fare quite as well. The
character ostracized for being gay in the first season turned out to not be
into “labels.” Essentially coded as bisexual, Ashley stereotypically ran back
and forth between her girlfriend (Spencer) and boyfriend (Aiden) for much of
the series, and was clearly labeled as sexually promiscuous.
In addition to being saddled with some
bisexual stereotypes, Ashley’s
poor-little-rich-girl-turned-rockstar-in-the-making storyline made her less
sympathetic and believable than Spencer, and her character’s actions (romantic
or otherwise) often read as opportunistic.
Ultimately though, the show’s greatest success was its
ability to allow its lead character to transcend the often one-dimensional
coming-out story arc in favor of allowing her to fully integrate her new
identity into every aspect of her otherwise common teen existence.
Spencer wasn’t just a lesbian teen, she was a
lesbian teen who fought with her mother, bonded with her father, grappled with
the loss of her brother, struggled to find stability with her fickle
girlfriend, agonized over which college to attend and tried to figure out what
she wanted to be when she grew up.
For all of those things, South
of Nowhere will not only be missed, but also difficult to replace. If
nothing else, the show set a new standard for just how complex the portrayal of
a teen lesbian character can be if both the series creators and the hosting
network are willing and able.