In his inauguration speech earlier this week, President Obama did something that many did not expect, something that in one small moment shifted the historic narrative when it comes to civil rights. What he did mention was Stonewall: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall…”
With the mention of Stonewall, President Obama explicitly linked the gay rights movement to the larger historical narrative—announcing that these are equal citizens of our country who deserve the same rights as everyone else. Stonewall was an unlicensed gay bar in New York City that was frequently raided by police, arresting its patrons in their wake. In June 1969, when another raid happened, the bar patrons fought back and rioted for five nights. Stonewall served as the catalyst for the gay rights movement, spawning activist groups and the first gay pride parade in 1970.
Since 1952, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—the industry’s primary authority for defining and categorizing mental illness—had defined homosexuality as a personality disorder. It wasn’t removed until 1973.
Whether it’s good or bad, we look to media at times to reinforce our own images of ourselves, to find a representation that we can relate to, especially in our teen years. But what happens if representations of a familiar identity are scarce at best, horribly portrayed at worst, for decades? You have to look to the subtext.
At the time when The Facts of Life aired in 1979, few, if any, gay or lesbian characters on television were portrayed in any positive light. They served as vehicles for murder plots, targets of unabashed homophobia, or catalysts for other characters to deal with their own feelings about homosexuality—only for those gay ciphers to never return again. And of course, representations of gay characters on teen shows were nonexistent.
The Facts of Life, a spin-off of Diff’rent Strokes, focused on Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae), the former housekeeper of the Drummond family now serving as a house mother for an all-female boarding school. In the pilot, “Rough Housing,” we are introduced to the girls of the house; the two standouts are the mean girl, Blair (Lisa Whelchel), and the tomboy, Cindy (Lisa Ann Haddock)—mostly because the two are automatically at odds. Cindy loves sports and is completely uninterested in boys, and Blair is her complete opposite.
At one point in the episode, after Arnold (Gary Coleman, reprising his Diff’rent Strokes role) says he’s not interested in kissing, Cindy replies, “You don’t have to worry about me, Arnold. I don’t like kissing either. I’m into sports.”
Cindy’s tomboy appearance and interest in sports don’t seem to make much difference to anyone, except for Blair. She accuses Cindy of “pawing” at her and repeatedly calls Cindy “strange.” She goes on a boy-and-dance-heavy diatribe about what is important to GIRLS, with the emphasis on what constitutes a real girl and what doesn’t.
Since Cindy isn’t a “real” girl, it completely sparks Blair’s anger when another housemate nominates Cindy for the title of Harvest Queen. Despite Cindy’s lack of party dress and unawareness of what to do at the dance, she agrees and hugs the girl who nominated her.
After this seemingly innocent hug, Blair yet again confronts Cindy, asking her what’s wrong with her and why she’s always hugging girls. Cindy doesn’t mean anything by her actions, but Blair leaves a deeply barbed thorn in Cindy’s mind: “You better think about what you mean.” After this, Cindy drops out of the Harvest Queen race and retreats to her bedroom.
The rest of this episode goes down exactly as you’d expect. Cindy has a heartfelt conversation with Mrs. Garrett, who compares Cindy’s lack of interest in boys to a time clock (at least she didn’t use the word “blossoming”) and insists that she’ll get there eventually. Blair is put in her place by Mrs. Garrett (in an extremely uncomfortable slut-shaming way) and apologizes to Cindy, realizing the error of her ways. Everyone is friends again. The highlight, though, is that Cindy is ushered into heterosexuality by a wink from a hot dude at the dance! Everything is fine!
While on a surface reading all this is merely a comedy of errors, the subtext in Cindy’s responses during her heart-to-heart with Mrs. Garrett speaks loudly:
“She was right about me. Hugging and touching girls all the time, not caring about boys. Mrs. Garrett, maybe Blair is right. Maybe I’m not normal.”
Throughout the episode, “normal” and “strange” are the code words for “‘lesbian,” which is never actually uttered. But in this moment, Cindy’s discussion of her feelings felt heartbreakingly real, an admission that was automatically swept back into sitcom convention. The Facts of Life ran for eight seasons; Cindy was written out after the first.
While, of course, we are never led directly to believe that Cindy is a lesbian, all the coding is there—most of it largely based in stereotype. This got me to thinking about TV post-The Facts of Life, and post-blatant gay coding. Where are the lead lesbian characters on teen shows?
Off the top of my head, I could think of teen gay male characters on teen specific shows—Ricky from My So-Called Life, Jack on Dawson’s Creek. But a lead lesbian character on a teen show, one who wasn’t merely going through a “phase” or sharing a sole drunken kiss with another girl, was a complete rarity within my research. Over a decade after The Facts of Life ended in 1988, the first open lesbian character in a teen show that I found was Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Willow comes out in the late-season-four episode “New Moon Rising.” Oz (Seth Green), her werewolf ex-boyfriend, returns after previously devastating her and leaving town early in the season. Since then, Willow has been dating Tara (Amber Benson), a fellow witch, who she’s fallen madly for. She tells Buffy that her getting back together with Oz is complicated because of Tara. Buffy gets nervous but is supportive as Willow describes what she has with Tara as “powerful,” and unlike what she had with Oz.
As Willow and Tara’s relationship develops, it is shown as steadfast and complex; they love each other deeply and bring out the best parts of one another, but at times both falter deeply. Willow’s sexuality and her magic seem to be intricately tied, as the more sure of herself Willow becomes in both realms, the more powerful she is. It’s possible to critique the lack of physical contact shown between the two, but after Buffy’s move from The WB to UPN, this becomes much more explicit, especially in the fantastic season six musical episode “Once More With Feeling.”
Willow made history by being one of the first lead lesbian characters on a teen show. But the criminally underwatched South of Nowhere, which debuted on Nickelodeon’s teen-oriented cable offshoot The N in 2005, became the first (and still only) teen drama where both lead characters were lesbians, and the show illustrated the progression of their relationship. The series focused on Spencer Carlin (Gabrielle Christian) and her family as they move from Ohio to Los Angeles, where she becomes close friends with Ashley Davies (Mandy Musgrave), who is a lesbian. Their close, and at times extremely sexually tense, relationship leads Spencer to question her sexuality. Spencer had never felt comfortable in Ohio, and the questioning of her sexuality is apparent in the first season episode “The First Time.” Ashley asks Spencer to participate in a documentary she’s making about people talking about their first time having sex. Spencer is unsure at first, but eventually relates her story for Ashley’s film:
He was cute and I thought I was in love. I mean, aren’t you supposed to be if you go all the way? His family had horses and they lived on this really cool farm. So we went to the barn, and we were excited because we were both virgins and we knew it was going to be this incredible experience. I mean, it had to be, otherwise why would everyone be so obsessed with it? Right? Well, it wasn’t incredible, not even fun. It was over almost before it even began. And I cried. I don’t know if I was happy or sad or just relieved, but I cried. I wish I could have a new first time with someone I really do love, who gets me. Maybe I will.
The two eventually get together and have an off-and-on relationship. Spencer’s coming out is particularly nuanced as her feelings for Ashley develop, and her eventual coming out to her family is particularly traumatic. While South of Nowhere ended in 2008 (all the episodes can be found on Logo), it still resonates and stands as the only teen drama to explicitly focus on lesbian teen characters.
As teen television continues to develop with more nuanced portrayals of teen sexuality, shows such as Skins and Degrassi have offered additional representations of lesbian teen characters. For 2012, GLAAD’s annual Network Responsibility Index, which measures the portrayals of the LGBT representations on TV, was topped by teen networks—The CW was number one for network television, and ABC Family was number two for cable, behind Showtime.
However, GLAAD’s findings revealed that television still features more representations of gay men and bisexual women than of gay women, and this doesn’t begin to go into specifically teen shows. Still, current TV is including more and more portrayals of lesbian teens: Santana on Glee and Emily on Pretty Little Liars are two examples.
Teens who are gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual, and questioning all over the world saw President Obama speak out for gay rights. Unlike the climate of the 1970s, ’80s, and most of the ’90s, when teen media was shrouded in coded versions of sexuality, we need to have more teen shows that represent complex queer teen characters, ones that reflect this hopeful new narrative in the gay rights movement.
Previously on Teen Dreams: James at 15: Teen Boys, Masculinity and Raging Hormones
Kerensa Cadenas writes for Women and Hollywood, Forever Young Adult and Bitch magazine. She is the Research Editor for Tomorrow magazine. You can find her other published writing at her website. You can find her campaigning on Twitter for The CW to pick up Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23.