Television’s Queer Teen Girls

 
 

From Gossip Girl to Degrassi, South of Nowhere to
the just-announced return to Beverly Hills, 90210, teens are more of a fixture on
television than ever before. And as more teen characters have become prime-time
regulars, there have also been more opportunities to find lesbian, bi and
questioning teens on TV as well.

Throughout
the history of queer teen girls on television, it has often been the case that
their sexual orientation has not been taken seriously (The Box, Degrassi Junior
High,
The O.C.), they are only
included as an issue rather than as ongoing characters (Neighbours, One Tree Hill),
or they face a double standard in comparison to heterosexual characters when it
comes to romantic relationships (Picket
Fences
).

However,
in recent years, story lines about queer teen girls have developed from
stand-alone "issue of the week" episodes to multi-episode
arcs that are integral to a series, such as on South of Nowhere and Sugar
Rush
.

The first
same-sex kiss on television involving a teenage girl occurred in 1974 on
Australian series The Box, when grown-up
bisexual character Vicki Stafford kissed 15-year-old Felicity in a stand-alone
episode. While this moment in many ways was used as a sensationalist tool to
grab ratings and position The Box from
its very first episode as raunchy and controversial, it did pave the way for
more to come.

In 1987,
Canadian teen series Degrassi Junior High
— known for its controversial story lines about issues such as teen sex and pregnancy
— took quite a different approach when it brought up the issue of lesbianism in
the episode "Rumour Has It."

In the
episode, rumours circulate that popular teacher Ms. Avery (Michelle Goodeve) may
be a lesbian. Recurring character Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn), Ms. Avery’s pet
student, initially defends her teacher against the rumours, but when she starts
having dreams about Ms. Avery, Caitlin begins to question her own sexual
orientation.

When
Caitlin confronts Ms. Avery about the rumours, the teacher insists that Caitlin’s
dreams are normal and do not mean anything in terms of sexuality. In other
words, they do not mean that Caitlin is attracted to women. It is then quickly
revealed that Ms. Avery is dating a male teacher, thereby confirming her
heterosexuality. Caitlin’s questioning of her own sexuality is dismissed with Ms.
Avery’s assertions that "of course" she must be heterosexual.

Caitlin in DeGrassi Junior High

The next
significant moment occurred on American television with the 1993 Picket Fences episode "Sugar and
Spice," written by the king of the one-off lesbian kiss, David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal). During this episode, teen
character Kimberley Brock (Holly Marie Combs) is attracted to her
friend Lisa (Alexondra Lee), and the two kiss. (The possibility of this having further significance
to the sexual orientations of either character is not explored past this
episode.)

Kimberley and Lisa in Picket Fences

The
episode had some positive moments, particularly when Kimberley’s parents are openly chastised for
their homophobic "bigotry." However, the network (CBS) was not
impressed by the scripted kiss scene between the two girls and insisted on a
reshoot. The new version of the scene was so dark that the kiss itself was not
visible, and this retake was used in the screening of the episode. The network
did, however, release the original take of the kiss scene to the media, and
this was then played in a decontextualized and sensationalized way in order to
promote the series.

With the
exception of a few other stand-alone episodes, television’s representation of
lesbians through the 1990s was largely focused on adult women, and it was not
until after the millennium that a significant number of queer teen girl
characters started to emerge on the small screen.

ABC’s All My Children has the distinction of
being the first daytime soap opera to introduce a teen lesbian character,
Bianca Montgomery (Eden Riegel), a longstanding character who came out on the show in 2000 at
age 16. Despite its initial promise, however, the series has been disappointing
in its representation of Bianca. Although All
My Children
‘s heterosexual characters frequently have romances and relationships,
Bianca has largely been prevented from exploring her lesbian sexuality.

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