The Fosters… or Holy Shit, Even I Can’t Find too Much That’s Problematic With This Show

Why isn’t everyone watching ABC Family’s The Fosters? Or am I the last queer studies/media studies/tv junkie to this game?

tumblr_static_the-fostersThis show blends my three favorite things: borderline over-the-top domestic drama (romance, scandal, awkward arguments about an adjustable bed), serial watchability (two seasons binged on Netflix), and accountability. That’s right, that last one was accountability.

The Fosters creators/writers/directors make a clear and conscious choice to spotlight a non-traditional type of traditional family. The parents are two queer women (Stef is a white police officer, Lena is a half-black vice-principle of a charter school). This isn’t the non-traditional part. Many queer TV families are what we in the biz call homonormative. Guillermo Avila-Saavedra (2009) has a awesome article that demonstrates how same-sex TV couples generally take on stereotypical gender roles, and their life goals adhere to and even bolster what is considered normal and ideal (legal marriage, 2.5 kids, home ownership). So they’re gay, but not really queer. Now enter the Foster Adams family. In addition to being an interracial same-sex couple, Stef and Lena have a child from Stef’s previous marriage (16 year old Brandon), they’ve adopted 15 year old Latino twins Jesus and Mariana, and they’re fostering our protagonist Callie (a 16 year old REBEL), and her 12 year old brother Jude. Callie was sent to Juvenile Hall after their previous foster father caught Jude trying on dresses and beat him.

There’s so much to say about how the show introduces issues that are generally applicable to many families (bathroom time, use of medication for ADHD) and also specific to interracial, blended, and or otherwise non-traditional families (Callie and her foster brother are attracted to each other; Mariana wants a quinceañera but then dyes her hair blond to blend in at school; Lena’s mother talks about how her lighter skinned, half-black daughter “doesn’t know what it means to be black in America.”) In fact, The Saucy Scholar is teaming up with superstar academic @RyanNoelle to write an article on this strange but needed TV jem.

But there’s one thing I’m dying to share with you all, and that’s how the show brings up and diffuses gender and sexual normativity. Jude is a bit of a non-conformer. He likes to wear nail polish. He’s unclear if his love for his best friend is a friend love or a romantic love. The show doesn’t completely address Jude’s gender variance and sexuality/sexual orientation because WE HAVE TO GET BACK TO THE CALLIE/BRANDON/WYATT LOVE TRIANGLE.

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But Jude does have two significant conversations with his Lena about this stuff. I don’t know who writes Lena’s dialogue, but that person should write a fucking parenting manual.

Season 1, Episode 5: Jude struggles with bullying due to his minor infraction of masculine gender roles (wearing blue nail polish). Callie orders him to take the polish off for his own protection. That is, she asks him to change himself to accommodate others who associate polish with femininity, and femininity with effeminacy, and effeminacy with homosexuality, and homosexuality with a person who should be abused.

Foster parent Lena to the rescue! First, she discusses her own fears about holding Stef’s hand in new places because “some people out there are afraid of what’s different, and they want to hurt people” like us. While her solution is sometimes not to hold Stef’s hand (ie change herself), she tells Jude “if you’re taught to hide what’s different, you end up feeling a lot of shame about who you are.” Changing to conform might temporarily deflect physical harm, but it’s also corrosive to the mental and emotional self. Her conclusion to Jude: “there’s nothing wrong with you for wearing nail polish […] what’s wrong are the people out there who make us feel unsafe.” And this is where the conversation ends! No advice about how Jude should carry or conduct himself, just a clear articulation that others’ prejudices are wrong, and anger should be directed outward rather than inward. This advice is, in fact, totally opposite from the majority of advice circulating in our culture. Telling victims and survivors to alter their behavior so as to avoid the seemingly uncontrollable reactions of others is standard rape advice (don’t go to frat parties) and standard racist ideology (Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have been wearing his hoodie at night).

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Season 1, Episode 21: Jude asks Lena how you know the difference between friend like and romantic like. See, Jude is jealous that his best friend Connor wants to go on a date with a girl, but he’s not sure if he’s jealous of Connor’s time or of Connor’s sexual interest. Lena’s first reaction is to assume the former, and explain it’s “totally normal” (in juxtaposition to the not totally normal same-sex sexual jealousy?). But here’s the beauty of the scene: Lena goes back and corrects herself. She tells Jude “lets not use the word normal at all.” Instead, she tells him his jealously “doesn’t necessarily mean you gay, or that you’re not.” She references the many complex feelings a person can have for another person, which might be unrelated to (but does not necessarily discount) sexual ones. Again, she concludes in a very atypical way: rather than definitively answering his question, she simply assures him that whatever he comes to realize will have no effect on the way he fits into their family. This doesn’t solve his question, but it resolves a lot of the anxiety built into the subtext of his worry.

So yea, it’s a show on ABC Family, and the family is pretty financially secure, and all of them are thin and, as the show progresses, the girls get more adult beautified, the boys get a cool hipster vibe. But it’s how the show illustrates the complexities of life and then addresses it in ways that move beyond the surface fix of portraying normalcy, that keeps me watching. Oh, and also THE CALLIE/BRANDON/WYATT LOVE TRIANGLE.

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About Meredith Heller

The Saucy Scholar is Faculty Lecturer of Queer Studies in Women's and Gender Studies at Northern Arizona University. She holds a Ph.D. in Theater Studies and a doctoral emphasis in Feminist Studies from UC Santa Barbara, and specializes in performance and entertainment, gender studies, and queer theory.
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