“Pretty Little Liars,” “Glee” and other shows with gay teens are are aiding acceptance

The year 2010 was plagued by an unprecedented number of highly public suicides committed by young queer teens across the nation. Let’s hope that 2011 is a year marked by greater societal acceptance, understanding, and support of LGBT Americans, especially those who are young and most susceptible to trauma and victimization. We’ve already gotten off on what promises to be the right foot, what with President Obama’s tougher anti-bullying campaign and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which suggests that perhaps this country has finally embarked on a quest to treat queer Americans as equal citizens.

In addition to these legislative victories, Whitney Friedlander of the LA Times credits the prevalence of queer youth coming-out stories on popular TV shows in promoting a safe environment for today’s youth. Although coming out stories are nothing new on television, there appears to be a trend of younger and younger characters identifying as gay, lesbian and transgender.

While the television industry is guilty of including gay content — especially when it comes to lesbians — for fleetingly salacious purposes, there exists a more evolved attitude of executives toward better representing the diverse identities of teens in sitcoms, as the “coupling, decoupling, and re-coupling” of teens is complex and not limited to heterosexual relationships. Characters like Emily Fields on Pretty Little Liars, Tea on MTV’s Skins and Teddy Montgomery on 90210 provide young people with often-times realistic examples of exploring sexuality, forging identity, and the struggle of being young and queer.

Moreover, scriptwriters have increasingly made a conscientious effort to combat stereotypes by portraying gay jocks in locker rooms (Teddy) and exploring masculinity and femininity in nontraditional ways, such as Kurt from Glee and Pretty Little Liars creator Marlene King’s emphasis that main character Emily looks like “any other Pretty Little Liar on the show.”

Oliver Goldstick, executive producer of Pretty Little Liars, tells the Times he has observed that young people are “unshocked” by the gay storylines, and still continue to watch the show. These attitudes toward diversifying young characters, if continued in a positive manner, could serve even more struggling LGBT youth as well as normalize homosexuality in the homes of American families.

Despite the positive trends in TV, there still remains much work to be done. While many executives reject the “stereotypical look” of gays and lesbians in their shows, this often results in the systematic rejection of butch lesbian characters on TV, in favor of more feminine characters that are also pleasing to male audiences. Furthermore, although shows like Skins and Pretty Little Liars have begun to develop the physical and romantic side of young homosexual relationships comparable to their heterosexual counterparts, portrayals continue to be unequal and short-lived, as evinced by the lesbian relationship on shows like 90210.

Friedlander theorizes that the growing trend of young, gay characters on TV reflects the greater prevalence in the real world of teens grappling with their identities and coming out. However, this poses a “chicken-or-the-egg” question: Do more teens feel comfortable coming out because of the positive portrayal of the growing number of queer characters on television, or are TV executives writing scripts to mirror what they’ve observed in society? The “which came first?” answer to this question is on the whole unimportant and the relationship is probably reciprocal, but in light of the spate of anti-gay bullying incidents and fatalities, the societal and media trends of increased visibility of young queer people comprise an essential element in eliminating homophobic hate crimes.

What are your thoughts on the TV industry’s inclusion of gay characters? What still needs to be done?

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