The Lesbian Teen Formula


South of NowhereBuffy the Vampire Slayer

The number of lesbian and bisexual teens on TV and film has increased significantly since Picket Fences featured its controversial lesbian teen kiss in 1993, and The Incredibly True Adventures of 2 Girls in Love was a film-festival hit in 1995, but their stories haven’t changed much.

The portrayal of teenage lesbians and their relationships on TV and film continues to adhere to the same basic rule: the plot must be about sexual discovery or coming out. While adult lesbians on film seem to always be dealing with pregnancy, custody battles, and infidelity (and occasionally, coming out), teenage characters appear to only face questions of orientation and the repercussions of coming out.

In other words, they’re all variations on The Truth About Jane.

Films like Two Girls in Love, But I’m a Cheerleader, Show Me Love, and D.E.B.S. are basically the same movie, despite being superficially about other things, and most TV shows with lesbian teens–like Once and Again, One Tree Hill, Rescue Me, and South of Nowhere, have followed the same formula:

1. Seemingly straight teen meets rebellious lesbian/bi teen.

2. Outwardly straight girl struggles with questions of sexuality while tentatively entering into a relationship with lesbian/bi teen

3. Recently outed girl faces shocked and disappointed family/friends

4. Newly formed couple overcomes a separation to live happily ever after, or at least the teenage version of that (which means, happily together for at least a few months).

The names may change, but the story stays the same.

Even exceptions to the rule are not much more original. In Lost and Delirious, for example, the girls are a couple when the movie starts and they certainly do not live happily ever after, but in the end it is still a story about teenage sexual discovery amidst a forbidden relationship. Indie film All Over Me focused more on the deteriorating friendship between a lesbian and her straight best friend, but the lesbian’s storyline was still ultimately one of coming out.

There is nothing wrong with a good coming-out story, and none of the previously mentioned films or shows are bad because they adhere to this formula (some are quite good, in fact).

But when every lesbian teen story is almost identical to the others, it tends to make for predictable viewing. If you know what happens to Randy and Evie in Two Girls in Love then you know what happens to Megan and Graham in Cheerleader and to Amy and Lucy in D.E.B.S., and so on.

Same goes for the TV shows: while extremely progressive in its execution, TV’s most recent queer teen show, South of Nowhere, follows the same basic formula as its predecessors, just over a longer period of time.