Thursday and Friday afternoons, Canada’s teenagers can turn on their television sets and see something that is still rare on the small screen: A regular lesbian character on a broadcast TV show.
Even more unusual: she’s not white.
CBC’s Edgemont is an afternoon soap opera about a high school located in the middle-class Vancouver suburb of Edgemont in British Columbia, with an ensemble cast that includes Grace Park as one of the older and more seasoned actresses on the show.
Park plays serious student and socially-conscious “good girl” Shannon, a loyal friend who wants to have fun but also considers herself a Christian and a good daughter. In this respect, she’s just an ordinary Chinese-Canadian high school girl who wants to get good grades and fit in at school.
But these different facets to her personality begin to conflict as she comes to terms with her sexuality.
There were hints that Shannon might not be straight by the end of the first season,when we see her daydreaming about the beautiful new girl Laurel (played by popular newcomer and current Smallville star Kristin Kreuk), who has just moved to Edgemont from the big city of Toronto. Although Shannon started dating a nice boy named Craig, they broke up by the third season.
And at the end of this season, Shannon’s sexuality finally became clear to a few people at school who read a poem she wrote which said something along the lines of “we always see boy and girl but what if in our minds we see girl and girl? Confusion.”
Annika, self-appointed style arbiter at the school and Shannon’s rival for Class President, wanted to use the poem to out her as a lesbian, but was thwarted at the last minute by a boy in love with Shannon’s best friend Jen. Shannon decided that she had enough on her plate this year anyway, and gracefully allowed Annika to try her hand at being Student Council President.
Shannon’s sexuality is a fact that she’s only now coming to terms with herself and, like many gay teens, she can only barely discuss it even with her closest friends. While most of her classmates are tackling first love and Physics finals, she’s also grappling with coming-out issues and how that affects her friendships and future.
Factor in the added stress of conservative Asian parents who expect straight A’s, impose early curfews and
who would more than likely not approve of a lesbian daughter, and the series offers a realistic portrayal of what many young lesbians face as they deal with their sexuality and worry about other people’s reactions to the news.
The only other lesbian teenager on network TV in North America right now is Bianca on ABC’s All My Children. Unlike Bianca, however, Shannon has never had an explicit love interest — but this is normal for a young person still struggling with her sexual identity. Hopefully, Shannon won’t have to wait as long as Bianca did to find romance — and if she does, it’s highly unlikely that the Edgemont writers would resort to such a lurid plot device as rape to create dramatic conflict.
The character of Shannon is signficant in part because there has never before been a teenage lesbian of Asian descent on television in North America.
Although Edgemont features teenagers, it is clearly aimed at a teen and pre-adolescent TV audience. Although the series was originally shown during primetime, struggling ratings in the first season caused the network to move Edgemont to an afternoon time slot. But the move may have been prescient, because it seemed to help the show attract more teen viewers — in its first season, 75% to 80% percent of the viewing audience was over 18, but younger teens now comprise around 50% of viewers.
Because it comes on after school when most children are allowed to watch television, and at a time when parents are less likely to be around to censor their viewing, it promotes lesbian visibility among a much younger crowd.
Which means that although Shannon is only one out of many characters portrayed on the show, her storyline has the potential to influence and help Canadian teens — gay and straight — become more comfortable with lesbians. It provides young lesbians with a role model so that girls in remote parts of Canada don’t grow up feeling like they are the only ones who are “different” — which may ultimately prove to be Edgemont‘s most important legacy.
October 2003 Update: Season 4 of Edgemont premiered on Thursday, October 16th, and picked up at the beginning of a new school year. In this season’s first episode, and it was revealed that Shannon came out to her parents over the summer. It apparently didn’t go very well, since Shannon is no longer living at home (she’s now living with a cousin instead), and she didn’t attend church camp during the summer like she normally does.
Coming-out appears to have had a positive effect on Shannon’s self-confidance, however, as she is now sporting a trendier, slightly sexier look; she’s dropped all the classes she had only been taking to please her parents; and she finally developed a crush on a girl who liked her back: