I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, it seemed like everyone on the shows I watched was straight. This was treated as a fact, with no reason to question it. When a character did have a relationship with someone of the same gender or “realized” they were gay, it was either treated as a big “coming out” event or “very special episode” [think Kurt Hummel’s first-season arc on Glee] or as a “teenage rebellion” or “phase” [think Marissa Cooper in Season 2 of The O.C.]. It wasn’t until I left my small, moderately conservative New England hometown for my very liberal, progressive college and met students from all different backgrounds that I began to understand that like gender, sexuality exists on a spectrum.
This will likely come as no surprise to teens today because they are likely watching shows like Youngeron TV Land and The Bold Type on Freeform (the network formerly known as ABC Family), which are inclusive of these kinds of characters and narratives with little to no fanfare. I may not be a teen myself, but these are some of the only shows I watch live!
Now in its fourth season, the TV Land breakout comedy starring Sutton Foster and Hilary Duff, Younger, features the character of Lauren, a twentysomething who works in fashion and identifies as “sexually fluid.” This means that she is as likely to be attracted to a man as she would a woman — or, just as likely, someone whose sexual identity falls somewhere other than one of the ends of the sexuality spectrum, i.e. genderqueer or transgender. “Lauren is a fluid pansexual female,” actress Molly Bernard explains in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s no preference. She doesn’t skew gay or straight, she just skews Lauren.”
On a less self-assured show on perhaps a different network, Lauren may have had an arc in which she “discovers” herself and her sexual identity, and talks about it with other characters ad nauseum, culminating in a scene where she tells her parents. Younger is not that show because its fans are not those teens. Not feeling compelled fit in a box, millennials and Gen Zers operate on spectrums, not in absolutes. They don’t feel pressure to choose to be “in” or “out’ but rather explore and evolve. Lauren’s dating history is as diverse and colorful as her wardrobe. Her friends and family know this about her, understand it, respect it, and never attempt to put her in one category.
Similarly, Kat, one of the main three characters on Freeform’s new summer dramedy The Bold Type, about friends who work at a fictional Cosmopolitan-esque magazine, does not discount her feelings toward someone just because of their gender. In the pilot, she meets “proud Muslim lesbian” artist and photographer Adena, and while viewers can see the sparks fly between them from the get-go, Kat tells Adena that she is most definitely heterosexual. As the season goes on and their relationship deepens, however, she realizes that her feelings for the artist go beyond that of friendship — but doesn’t dwell on the fact that she is attracted to a woman for the first time in her life. Adena’s gender isn’t a factor in her internal exploration of her emotions. On the other side of the relationship, Adena understands what Kat is going through, and while she knows what her feelings are, she lets Kat sort hers out herself, without pushing her into something she knows she may not be ready for. It also certainly helps that the actresses, Aisha Dee (Kat) and Nikohl Boosheri (Adena), have excellent on-screen chemistry, which not only makes viewers root for them, but makes viewers identify with their romance, even if they themselves have never had that specific experience.
When Kat tells her best friends that she “kissed a girl,” they don’t give her a patronizing response like “I thought you were straight.” (They do, however, ask “And…?” to which Kat replies “…and I liked it!” but that’s likely because it’s low-hanging fruit that begs to be acknowledged on a show with a millennial target audience.) They are just excited that their friend has found someone she really likes and cares about — because ultimately, that is all that matters.
And it really is all that matters.
Younger and The Bold Type deserve praise from critics and viewers alike for many reasons, but their depiction of fully developed characters outside of the standard sexuality binary is certainly one of the biggest reasons to check these shows out. And if there are teenagers or young people in your lives, you may want to recommend these shows to them as well. Conversations about sexuality may be difficult to have, but as Lauren and Kat show, people are people, and not everyone fits neatly into one little box, regardless of what media may have had us believe in the past. It is encouraging to see stories like theirs on our TVs, and bodes well for the future, as younger generations become more and more accepting of everyone, regardless of their background or identity.
Younger is currently airing its fourth season on TV Land on Tuesdays at 10/9c. The Bold Type just completed its first season on Freeform and is awaiting news regarding a renewal. Both series are available on demand through your cable provider. Seasons 1-3 of Younger are also available on Hulu, as is The Bold Type.