Why Teen Dramas Are the Most Radical Shows on TV

The CW, the network known for bringing us tales of wealthy white kids and high-school vampires, has made a bold programming decision: it’s developing a series about a transgender teenager. Titled ZE (a reference to the gender-neutral pronoun), the show has been described as “a raw, quirky family drama about a FTM (female-to-male) teen and his family” that casts the transgender boy as the most “well-adjusted” character of all.

Trans characters aren’t entirely new to television, but for decades they appeared almost solely as prostitutes, murder victims, and punchlines of the “It’s a man, baby!” variety. That’s beginning to change at the fringes of the medium, with acclaimed shows like Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, in which transgender actress Laverne Cox brings empathy and nuance to her portrayal of a incarcerated trans woman. Across the pond, Chloë Sevigny (whose controversial comments about playing a character with a penis illustrate why it’s important to have more transgender actors in these roles) starred in Sky Atlantic’s 2012 series Hit & Miss as a pre-op MTF transsexual who also happens to be an assassin.

But shows aimed at teenagers have perhaps played the most visible role in increasing and — vitally — normalizing trans representation on TV. For the upcoming season, Glee has promoted Alex Newell, who plays a transgender girl named Unique, to its main cast. And for many years (until the character was killed off, alas), the Canadian teen-drama institution Degrassi included Adam Torres, an FTM teen who struggled with his gender dysmorphia before embracing life as a boy. By making a transgender high schooler its protagonist, ZE represents yet another big step — and a gamble it’s hard to imagine a major network making on a show intended for adults at a time when CBS is still scoring big ratings with retrograde, sometimes outright bigoted sitcoms like 2 Broke Girls and Two and a Half Men.

In fact, despite the horror of hysterical right-wing types who believe children should be protected from the corrupting influences of queer and gender non-normative people (as well as, in the recent past, interracial couples), teen shows have long been among the most progressive programming on TV when it comes to representing a broad range of characters. One of the first teen dramas, the Degrassi franchise has featured a racially diverse cast since its 1987 premiere; its current incarnation, Degrassi: The Next Generation, has arguably included more substantive LGBT characters than any show not specifically aimed at an LGBT audience. In 1994, the game-changing (if also short-lived) My So-Called Life introduced America to Rickie Vasquez, a major character who wore makeup to school and self-identified as bisexual.

rickie

Beyond his sexual orientation and the amount of screen time he got, though, Rickie was notable for being a complex human being whose personality and story lines didn’t necessarily revolve around his identity. A few years later, the same went for Willow Rosenberg, a popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer character who realized midway through the series that she was attracted to women — but whose biggest problems in life tended to revolve around a self-destructive addiction to magic.

In the 21st century, the increasingly popular same-sex marriage movement coexists, bafflingly, with the disappointing gay stereotypes that populate supposedly progressive TV shows like Modern Family and last year’s mercifully canceled The New Normal. Outside of premium cable, truly multifaceted queer characters are still most often found on shows for teenagers. As the LA Times observed a few years back, gay and lesbian kids have become obligatory on teen TV. The article’s most telling quote comes from Gossip Girl executive producer Stephanie Savage: “We didn’t want to stop Gossip Girl and have a ‘very special episode’ about Eric [van der Woodsen].” Criticize that show all you want, but — as with Pretty Little Liars‘ Emily Fields, Calvin Owens of Greek, and a handful of Skins characters, among others — you can’t accuse it of defining Eric by his sexuality, or turning him into a sideshow.

This is almost too obvious to point out, but the discrepancy between the way queer characters are depicted on shows meant for teens vs. adults is a clear reflection of the dramatic generational divide on issues of gay rights. When nearly three-quarters of your intended audience already supports same-sex marriage, you don’t have to go to great lengths to warm them up to queer characters or fit these characters into narrow notions of how these teenagers should act; you’re free to give them personalities and story lines that have little to do with who they choose to date.

switched at birth

But millennials’ progressive views on a single issue doesn’t explain away their embrace of other kinds of diversity on TV. Though we can’t seem to shake the consensus that teen girls are the most shallow and judgmental citizens of this planet, about twice as many of them have been watching ABC Family’s Peabody Award-winning Switched at Birth — a show whose main characters are a multiracial high schooler and the deaf girl with whom she was, yes, switched at birth — as tuned in for the final season of Gossip Girl. As The New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum notes, what’s especially impressive about Switched at Birth is that it doesn’t gloss over its deaf characters’ experiences for its young audience, capturing their sign-language conversations in long scenes of silence, while exploring their divergent disability politics and attitudes towards the hearing world.

TV’s primary purpose is to entertain, but a good teen drama does more than just that; it also educates its young viewers about the wide world around them and the many different kinds of people who populate it. A truly great teen drama such as Switched at Birth or My So-Called Life or Skins avoids tokenism and stereotyping in these depictions, painting its outsiders and minority characters (and its jocks and cheerleaders) as complex individuals. These series, which have helped shape the values of their generations and made TV a more inclusive medium on the whole, are among some of the most progressive, important, and era-defining show of all time. ZE‘s creators and The CW have the opportunity to add their show to that distinguished list. Here’s hoping they run with it.