Sophie and Emilie. Hollstein. Brittana. Naomily. Jemma. Many of the most popular lesbian pairings on TV have been teenage characters. Although this makes sense if the audience is also teenagers, the fact that many of their most ardent fans are out of their teens presents an interesting question: why are adults drawn to these couples? To be clear, this isn’t just a queer issue at all. Adult consumption of media ostensibly intended for a young adult audience is an accepted and even commercially encouraged part of society: think of all the adult women who saw “Twilight” multiple times in theaters, or the adults who watched “The Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter.” The drivers for adults, including lesbian and queer women, to watch YA-themed TV or movies almost certainly is universal: the enjoyment of the highly emotive and compelling storylines given to YA characters, and the thrill of living vicariously through these characters.
Edward Cullen is over 100 years old and he still has not figured out how to operate a hairbrush.
Any children’s librarian knows that for a book to be successful with children, it must have an interesting plot and tight pacing that keeps the reader engaged. For example, the “Goosebumps” series of books, by R. L. Stine, is one of the most successful franchises in children’s publishing, selling over three hundred and fifty million copies worldwide. To quote The New Yorker: “neither marketing nor publicity nor movie tie-ins can move three hundred and fifty million copies.
The only way to sell that many copies is if millions of kids actually and truly want to read the books.” The same is true of visual media like TV and movies, both for children and teenagers. Shows oriented towards teenagers often function to help teenagers sort out their emotions, express an understanding of their fears, dreams, and challenges, give a nod to their perceived individualism, and offer some sort of solution to their problems. In the meantime, the show must remain quickly enough paced that its young viewers don’t lose interest.
Adults, too, enjoy those same themes, and yet “adult” shows, in contrast, at least in the last few decades, seem to have moved away from these themes. Instead, they seem to be more focused on trying to play up the messy lives of adulthood. There are no answers, only the potential for more misery and uncertainty (“Game of Thrones”). They often forgo a fairytale aspect in favor of a brutally hard-nosed realism. The shows become more about plot (for example, “The Fall”), and much less about the rich internal emotional lives of characters as revealed by direct interpersonal interactions. In consequence, some storylines for teenage characters on tv subjectively feel more emotionally fulfilling than many storylines for adult characters. These teenage-oriented shows inspire empathy and emotional attachment from viewers in ways that “adult” shows do not. Why was season one of “Orange is the New Black” so popular and considered so innovative? One could argue it was in part—though not entirely—because the show was about the colorful emotional lives of the distinctly individual women at Litchfield Penitentiary.
Also worth noting is that teenage characters seem to be written with more of a “One True Pair” (OTP) orientation than adult characters (perhaps in part because in real life many teenagers often think they, too, are in OTP relationships, while adults are much more jaded about the potential of relationships). Although not all adult viewers are looking for OTPs, based on the outcome of years of AfterEllen polls it seems informally that they tend to be popular in the lesbian community. Shows with teenage protagonists are likely to conclude before the characters become adults, allowing the viewers to imagine that the lesbian couple lived happily ever after. Conversely, for adult shows, happily ever after is significantly less certain and viewers may be disappointed and rate the pairing lower in the long term if a couple does not end up staying together or one of the pair is killed (for example, if this theory is true, the popularity of Calzona will decline with time time relative to Doccubus).
We as humans all live vicariously through fictional characters. Living vicariously is literally the basis for all storytelling. Psychologically, it’s a benign form of escapism. Neurologically, the brain processes imagined experiences the same as it does real experiences. This means that stories prompt genuine emotions and behavioral responses to what we’re hearing. We become subconscious physical participants in the narrative, but we’re also conscious to some degree of our emotional and intellectual involvement. Put plainly, we are interested in the things that we’re watching because for whatever reason, it is a vicarious experience that we would like to have. If we didn’t want the experience, we wouldn’t watch.
When it comes to the lesbian community, although a surprisingly large number of girls have experienced some sort of same-sex contact by high school graduation, probably a fraction of that number actually were in romantic relationships, much less the emotionally rewarding ones depicted on TV. Although proving it would take a study, it seems logical to suppose that some queer female adults enjoy living vicariously through fictional teenage lesbian couples because it enables them to enjoy an adolescent experience they might not have had. This also ties into the appeal of OTP pairings: queer women who weren’t able to date in high school might enjoy living vicariously through characters who not only did date, but found their “soulmate,” someone who enabled them to grow and experience love and affection in a supportive environment.
The theory of vicarious viewing has also been used to explain the borderline obsession of some heterosexual women with the character of Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” movies—to these women, he represented the idealized version of an attentive, romantic partner. More so even than college, the high school setting can be particularly attractive for adult viewers because for many those years represent when they felt the most alienated and lost. Fiction offers the chance to see those years end differently; life as it could have been, had circumstances been different.
All high school dates look like this. Not.
These two drivers—good storylines and a subliminal desire to relive experiences differently—are not mutually exclusive and adult queer female viewers almost certainly enjoy teenage couples because of a combination of both. Another factor, one that differentiates minorities from the white, heterosexual majority, is the absence of minority representation on TV. Historically, there have been so few lesbian couples on TV that it is probable that teenage couples represent a large proportion of them. In fact, fictional lesbian couples mostly only date back approximately twenty years, and until the mid-2000s could all but be counted on two hands. Therefore, when considering potential favorite couples, the selection is highly limited for queer women.
Conversely, the straight majority have innumerable adult couples on hundreds of shows a year, dating back decades to choose from. Therefore, while it makes sense that adult queer women would have a few favorite TV couples that were teenagers, it would be much more uncommon for adult heterosexuals to also have favorite couples that were teenagers. As a side note, it seems likely that other minorities, such as people with disabilities, would have a similar tendency to enjoy teenage couples because of their also circumscribed pool of couples.
Finally, if all else fails, it is important to remember that the actresses in teenage roles almost always are a bit older than the character. With notable exceptions such as Lily Loveless (Naomi Campbell) and Kathryn Prescott (Emily Fitch) (“Skins” cast young actors match the characters’ ages), it is not unusual for actresses to be up to a decade older. Bianca Lawson was already 31 when she played 15 year old Maya St. Germain on “Pretty Little Liars.” Even when we intellectually understand that the character is supposed to be a certain age, our brains are programmed to subconsciously respond to the actual age of the actress. Therefore, at a subliminal level we understand that we are watching not teenagers, but two women in their twenties enact a relationship.
There is a lesson to be derived from adult viewership of YA media: based on the previously identified drivers, we can calculate that a character pairing is most likely to be successful when their storyline is written with emotional depth, the couple is given adequate screen time, and the partnership has strong overtones of OTP—the viewer understands the couple is “destined” to be together by the time her storyline ends and remain together after the curtain closes.
Not coincidentally, this same formula also probably applies to successful heterosexual pairs. The difference is, writers find it easy to apply these traits to straight characters, but for some reason struggle to add dimensionality to queer adult characters. As a result, the queer characters are given significantly less screen time, contributing to the erosion of their personality and a minimal role on the show. To reverse this trend, writers and directors need to commit to equal screen time between gay and straight characters and to storylines of equal complexity.