Thursday, August 30, 2007

South Girls Break Ground in Teen Programming

I first wrote about South of Nowhere back in December, after the Season 2 finale. I was a little riled up at that point because the events of the finale upset me and quite a lot of other viewers. I would suggest going back and reading that entry because I don't want to rewrite everything here, but I will try to summarize my points from December.

A speed recap of the first two season of SON: The Carlin family moves to L.A. from small-town Ohio. The family consists of mom Paula (a doctor), dad Arthur (a social worker), sons Glen and Clay and daughter Spencer. While the show follows storylines around various characters, the main protagonist of the show is sort of intended to be Spencer. When the sixteen-year-old starts at King High, she is a sweet, straight-laced, Christian girl from the Midwest. Then she meets Ashley Davies and everything in her life starts to change. A free-spirit and daughter of and 80s rock star, Ashley doesn't care what people think about her, cuts classes to go to the beach, and sleeps around ... with girls. But before Ashley discovered the ladies, she was with Aiden, the high school basketball star, and we see that there is definitely some history there. Anyway, since opposites attract Spencer and Ashley immediately hit it off. Pretty soon, her relationship with Ashley (charged with sexual tension, by the way) starts leading Spencer to question her own sexuality. She confides in Ashley, telling her that she think she might be gay. She then flirts around with Aiden a bit, trying to figure out what she wants. It turns out that kissing Aiden only makes her think about Ashley. But there are other forces at work -- namely Paula, Spencer's conservative and very Christian mother who constantly worries that Ashley is a bad influence, and Glen, Spencer's intolerant older brother. Troubled by her family's worries, Spencer turns to Aiden again to try reaffirming her heterosexuality. Even Aiden is not fooled, reminding her that she can't help who she is and that lying to herself might make things more comfortable for everyone else but not for her. The season ends with Spencer and Ashley (dubbed "Spashley" by fans) finally getting together.

Season 2 could be renamed the "Ashley is Scared and Insecure Show" because those themes seem to taint every episode. In Season 1, Ashley was portrayed as a pretty self-assured and confident person. But it turns out that a lot of that attitude was just a cover and a way for her to keep people at a distance (where they can't hurt her). Unfortunately, Spencer and Ashley's relationship immediately faces some hard times. Ashley's dad dies in a car accident and she puts up a wall between her and Spencer. Things are further complicated by Paula who continues to try diluting Ashley's negative influences by setting Spencer up with boys from church and flying out Spencer's old best friend from Ohio and by Ashley who is pressuring Spence to come out to her family. The much-anticipated "outing" occurs halfway through the season when Paula walks in on the two girls in a compromising situation. Things get worse when Paula tries to put Spencer through sexual reparative therapy to try "changing her back." This blows up in her face when the girls run away together for approximately one episode. After this Paula puts up with Ashley for Spencer's sake. Ashley, however, seems to be getting freaked out by the intensity of her and Spencer's relationship. Perhaps scared that Spencer will realize she is not worth it or will end up leaving her for some other reason, Ashley begins subtly pulling away from her girlfriend. Meanwhile, her and Aiden seem to be getting pretty chummy again. Spencer notices these changes and gets worried that the relationship that completely changed her life (and not in all good ways) is in jeopardy. She tells Aiden to back off. But at the prom (which Aiden is attending with Ashley's half-sister, Kyla) Aiden reveals that he is still in love with Ashley. Ashley, rather than immediately saying Spencer is the one she loves, hesitates just long enough for Spencer to run off in tears. Ashley runs after her, but they are interrupted by erupting gunfire -- a gang from some nearby school has shown up and decided to wreak havoc on King High's prom.

Now the finale was upsetting to me for various reasons, which I enumerated in my December entry. Mostly I was angered that the writers seemed to be toying with the idea of sending Ashley back to boys town, which I thought sent a bad message to viewers. Although when first asked so umm ... eloquently ... by Spencer, "What are you?" Ashley replied that she wasn't into labels. But other times she referred to herself as both "gay" and a "lesbian." She seemed to have been exclusively with women since her break-up with Aiden and frequently made comments such as "guys are so predictable", "boys are way too much trouble" and "I've already played that hand."

The prom incident came right at the end of a season that had been plagued with viewer complaints in regards to the double standard between Spencer and Ashley's relationship and the show's heterosexual relationships. While the various straight couples on the show enjoyed various make-out sessions, sex in the bathroom stalls, etc. the most Spencer and Ashley got was a couple of two-second pecks on the lip. The rest of the season viewers had to suffer through their lame foreplay, which consisted of brushing each other's hair, pats on the knees and lots of hugs. They seemed more like best friends than girlfriends. By the time the prom episode came, many were concerned that this was all leading up to a major "de-gaying" of the show.

That the show might be "de-gayed" was a legitimate concern, as lesbians have suffered a long history of poor representation in the media. Gay men, while still obviously underrepresented and discriminated against, have had Will & Grace, Queer As Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as well as unswayingly gay male characters in other shows, such as Sex and the City. On the other hand, ask any gay woman to name solidly lesbian characters on TV since, say, 1990 and she could probably name them all on two hands. Finally, in 2003, we were given The L Word, the first show that was actually about lesbians. If we take that away and look strictly at network television, there is virtually nothing. It wasn't until 1997 that network TV showed the first kiss between two lesbian or bisexual-identified characters in the show Relativity. In 2002 Buffy the Vampire Slayer had the first lesbian "sex scene" (in quotes, because it was so tame, it barely passes as a sex scene) on network TV. These little strides have seemed like nothing when compared to both the exploitation of the lesbian identity through a phenomenon known as "lesbian sweeps" and to the concept of the criminal/deviant/dead lesbian.

"Lesbian sweeps" is something that occurs often during "sweeps" time, when shows attempt to boost ratings. The lesbian sweeps moments typically include kisses or perhaps extremely short-lived relationships between normally straight female characters on shows. AfterEllen has a list of Top 10 Moments in Sweeps Lesbianism which include moments such as a kisses between Jennifer Aniston and Winona Ryder on Friends, Roseanne and Mariel Hemingway on Roseanne, and the short-lived relationship between Marissa and Alex on The O.C. One can imagine that it gets rather frustrating for queer women to see their sexual identities exploited for the sake of boosts in ratings and male titillation; to see their lives shown as something that can be briefly "dabbled" in before returning to the safe comfort of heteronormative existence.

The concept of the criminal, deviant, evil or dead lesbian is an extremely familiar and old cliché which basically insinuates that all lesbians cannot find happiness and are doomed to tragic ends. The evil lesbian or the dead lesbian often came up in early 20th century pulp fiction -- in fact, Radclyffe Hall's famous 1920s novel The Well of Loneliness was partially so controversial not because of the lesbian characters but because many did not feel the characters met the tragic demise necessary to show that lesbian sexuality was immoral. The archetype exists well into the 20th and 21st centuries, however. Sharon Stone's character in Basic Instinct (1992) is a murderer and her girlfriend ends up dead, Heavenly Creatures (1994) portrayed an obsessively intimate friendship between two girls that ended in murder, Lost and Delirious (2001) ended in the suicide of one girl after her lover denied their relationship. There are many more examples in both film and television. Many believed that the tragic death of Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer contributed to this discourse. Scholars believe that the theory behind this archetype is that gays and lesbians are immoral and deserving of hate or are tragic and pitiable and in need of conversion.

The point of all this is that South of Nowhere's Season 2 finale gave reason for concern. Would the first show aimed for a younger teen demographic to show a positive lesbian relationship be drastically changing its course? The answer turned out to be "no." And what I've seen so far of Season 3 shows that SON only continues in its groundbreaking portrayals of sexual identity among teenagers. The season opens with lots of craziness in a hospital ER. We learn that Aiden has been shot and that Clay, Spencer's brother, has been killed. Jump forward a couple of months and Aiden has made a full recovery. Meanwhile, we discover that Ashley freaked and got out of the country. Spencer understandably feels bitter that Ashley disappeared in her time of need and she is also still angry about the pre-shooting events involving the apparent love triangle. Ashley, however, comes back and tries to apologize, telling Spencer that she "chooses" her and that she loves her and thought about her the whole two months she was in Europe, blah blah blah. What follows is an astonishingly long smooch-session between the two girls. The show cuts to commercial break and when it comes back, they're still kissing! I cracked up during this part -- it was like the powers that be heard all the complaints and decided to try making up for the lack of Spashley action in Season 2 all in this one kiss.

Spencer ends up pushing Ashley away, however, knowing that the girl is confused and will probably only break her heart again. Sure enough, after being given the boot by Spencer, Ashley jumps right into Aiden's bed. But our little Spencer has grown a lot over the past two seasons and is now being portrayed as a strong, self-assured gay woman. This is nice to see. We have witnessed Spencer's full evolution from a somewhat timid girl who does whatever is expected of her into someone not afraid to be who she is. With or without Ashley, she seems to fully accept her identity. As the season has continued, Spencer seems to be starting up a new relationship with a girl named Carmen. This is also great because it shows that Ashley was not just influencing Spencer to adopt the "gay lifestyle." This promo for the show explores past and future parts of Spencer's life:

I feel mostly good about what the writers are doing with the character of Ashley. On the one hand, Ashley's confusion about what she wants could be seen as a negative portrayal of bisexuality, promoting the stereotype that bisexuals are just confused and are "fence-sitters." But knowing Ashley's background, this doesn't seem to be the image they are putting across. Rather Ashley's storyline seems to be an exploration of her own insecurities and fears as well as the struggle to distinguish between platonic and erotic love. Aiden is like Ashley's safe-zone -- they have this past together and she knows that he will always worship her. After she has been rejected by Spencer she goes to him. However, even while she is with him she continues to have long phone conversations with Spencer. On her dresser in her new apartment she prominently displays a photograph of her ex-girlfriend, while Aiden's photo is put in the background. Spencer is clearly the one that she loves while her love for Aiden is more a love for safety and comfort -- something that she didn't have with Spencer (she was always insecure, worried that Spencer would leave her, etc.) While her love for Aiden is of the platonic variety, she gives way to the erotic due to her fears of losing him as well. Here is the Ashley promo, which explores her character a bit as well:

The fact that this show is aimed towards such a young demographic is awesome. It is good for tweens and teens to see the multiple dimensions of sexual identity as well as the struggles that are faced by LGBT youth. And despite the outrage and criticism that the show has gotten from some Christian conservatives as well as the departure of one cast member for "moral reasons" the show's actors, while all heterosexual in reality, continue to embrace their roles as forerunners in this area: Mandy Musgrave (Ashley), Gabrielle Christian (Spencer), Maeve Quinlan (Paula) and others have sat on panels discussing the show and its implications, they have attended events such as the GLAAD (Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Awards and have been more than happy to be spokespeople for the gay rights cause. 21-year-old Mandy says, "I think it helps teens learn how to open up and express themselves. That it's okay to experiment if that's what they're feeling inside. A lot of people have been saying we've been turning viewers gay and I'm like, "No. They're just finally fed up and finally trying to be more open." I am proud of that. It's taken a lot to portray a bisexual or a lesbian; whatever you want to call Ashley. Some of my closest friends now are lesbians and I can't believe I am fortunate enough to have them in my life. I do this role for them because I want other people to know that it's okay."

Next step -- get a show like this on network TV!

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