Gay teens: Do they belong on the tween networks?
Image Credit: Lisa Rose/NickelodeonGay characters are all over teen TV these days, as EW’s cover story reports this week. Our cover boys Darren Criss and Chris Colfer — as Glee‘s Blaine and Kurt — are leading the way, of course, but there’s also a staggering number of gay teens across the dial these days. And better yet, the characters designated as gay are getting more diverse and well-rounded. There’s 90210‘s hunky playboy Teddy, Pretty Little Liars‘ gorgeous and popular Emily, Skins’ punky lesbian cheerleader (yes!) Tea, and Shameless‘ tough-kid Ian — to name just a few. In fact, youth-oriented networks lead the way with LGBT representation; ABC Family and MTV rank at the top of GLAAD’s annual Network Responsibility index, and TeenNick’s Degrassi has included a staggering eight non-straight characters (including this season’s female-t0-male transgender teen, Adam). And yet, there’s one place full of teen characters — but zero gay ones. That’s the tween networks, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.
Such channels, which aim most of their programming at pre-adolescents, make for a tricky environment when it comes to introducing gay characters. They’re populated by high school stories mainly because kids like idolizing actors and characters slightly older than themselves, living in a kind of fairy-tale version of teenhood. The High School Musical movies were notorious for their chastity — though their characters were supposed to be the same age as, say, the sophisticates of Gossip Girl, the lead couple took the entire first movie to get to just a kiss. On sitcoms like Hannah Montana and iCarly, characters develop occasional crushes, but a mere peck is cause for audience oohing and aahing. But, as AfterElton.com’s Michael Jensen pointed out in a recent post, “Obviously, Disney deals with the sexuality of its teen characters all the time as they have crushes, flirt, and go on dates.” Why not have a same-sex crush, flirtation, or date? Sources at the networks said it still felt a little “inappropriate” for their light-hearted programming given the complications and drama involved in the life of a teen who’s just coming out, while Disney issued the following statement: “We recognize our responsibility to present age-appropriate programming for millions of kids age 6-14 around the world, and we aim to tell great stories with an array of relatable characters and themes that address the needs and aspirations of our young viewers, augment Disney Channel’s themes of communication and optimism, and fulfill our brand promise to encourage kids to ‘express yourself,’ ‘believe in yourself,’ and ‘celebrate your family.'”
Fair enough. But what of the more flamboyant characters whom viewers have sometimes interpreted as possibly gay, as one fan pointed out to AfterElton.com about Shake It Up!‘s Gunther? “We leave it up to our audience to interpret who these characters are and how they relate to them,” Disney Channel President Gary Marsh told the site. “It’s great that this child has interpreted Gunther this way and that it speaks to him in a way that makes sense for his life. And that’s what we’re trying to do — create a diverse cross section of characters on television that kids can have different access points and entry points to connect with.”
These networks — to which parents pay particularly close attention — may be the final, complicated frontier for gay teen representation on TV. What do you think, PopWatchers? Could we — and should we — see gay crushes on the tween networks?
On Twitter: @jenmarmstrong