How Teenage Bounty Hunters reconciles female pleasure, sexuality, and conservative Christianity
"Religion and sex are so much more complicated than the binary ways that we think about how they intersect," creator Kathleen Jordan says.
On the surface, Teenage Bounty Hunters looks like a fun, wacky adventure. Netflix's new comedy (streaming now) is about fraternal twin sisters, Sterling (Maddie Phillips) and Blair (Anjelica Bette Fellini), who rebel against their conservative Southern community by becoming bounty hunter "interns," teaming up with veteran bounty hunter Bowser (Kadeem Hardison) while also navigating normal high school drama. But the 10-episode first season goes deeper than you may expect: The first episode opens with Sterling, the "good" sister, convincing her boyfriend that they should lose their virginity to each other right then and there in the car (she even prepared by bringing a condom!), despite their extremely religious beliefs. He's unsure, but she works hard to convince him with a lot of mental gymnastics.
It's the first but hardly the last time Teenage Bounty Hunters puts female sexuality at the center of the story, conservative Southern religious setting be damned. Both Sterling and Blair are devoted Christian girls who also prioritize having healthy sex lives as they explore their sexuality while remaining confident that God still loves them. It's an unflinching look at what life is like for religious teens who can't honestly be expected to follow abstinence-only programming in the year of our lord 2020. And that's exactly why creator Kathleen Jordan wanted to make the series.
"I grew up in a very conservative part of Atlanta called Buckhead," she tells EW. "And I just didn't ever really feel like I fit in, much like Blair. A lot of the stories and the themes that we explore on the show are based on my own desires and fantasies and how I wish I'd acted at my own Christian preppy high school. Sterling and Blair are like two parts of a whole for me. Beyond that I wanted to tell a show with funny, smart girls sometimes acting like teenagers and sometimes acting foolhardy."
The series charts new territory around topics that have been around forever but are rarely discussed so openly. "Obviously sexuality and religion are not mutually exclusive," says Jordan, who also wrote and co-executive-produced the show. "Most American teenagers are religious, and most American teenagers are sexual and have sex lives. So we wanted to reconcile that. There's this kind of belief that those two things can't exist at the same time, or harmoniously, so we wanted to make sure that especially Sterling's relationship with her religion and her sexuality didn't feel in conflict, because ultimately a tenet of Christianity is that if you believe in God and you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then you're good, you're forgiven."
In the rare pop culture instances where teenage sex, sexuality, and religion are tackled on screen, they often depict female characters being punished in some way for being sexual. Just look at the 2004 cult classic Saved!, in which the main character has sex with her boyfriend to "save" him from being gay, only to end up pregnant and ostracized from her entire school. It's refreshing to see Sterling and Blair explore their sexuality without facing those consequences (which is not to say everything goes swimmingly for them, because otherwise we wouldn't have a TV show).
"Religion and sex are so much more complicated than the binary ways that we think about how they intersect," Jordan says. "Because I come from a really conservative part of the country, and I grew up in a very Democratic and liberal family but I have a lot of love and respect for a lot of people who think differently from me, it was really important to me that we didn't poke fun but we also didn't pull any punches. We had the idea of being open-minded and agnostic about religion when we were writing the show."
Jordan also wanted to make sure they were being authentic and fair. "One of our rules for ourselves in the writers' room is we didn't ever want to be making fun of Christianity," she says. "We had a lot of diversity in our writers' room, and one element of diversity that was important to me was that we had a Christian writer in the room, and that was really helpful as kind of a gut check. All of us live in Los Angeles and have been here for a while so we've absorbed the culture that's around us, but so much of the country is religious and we want to respect different points of view. But we also want the girls to have fun and have fun sex."
Another goal she had for the series was to put female pleasure front and center. "Male pleasure is so centered, it's such a central part of TV and media representation in general," Jordan says. "And so we wanted to have a show where female pleasure isn't respondent or like a side effect of this situation; we wanted these girls to be actively exploring their sexuality in a world where they can be honest and fun and they can have pleasure. Obviously they run into challenges when it comes to their sexuality, but they also get to be in control and they get to be the center of the narrative."
That was always important for Jordan to include because "it's something that I wish that I could have seen growing up, when I felt a little bit lost about how to reconcile all these different seemingly conflicting ideas surrounding me about morality and purity and sexuality."
Despite the taboo nature of exploring sex and religion, Jordan isn't worried about backlash. "We aimed to show a version of the world that we believe is there, and we don't need to sanitize," she says. "I feel confident about the fact that we've created fully realized characters based on a wide range of experiences and people from in the writers' room and research and all of that in order to represent real human beings. We're certainly not saying all X type of people are this way or all Y type of people are this way; we just want to show real, fun, and authentic stories."
And since part of that authenticity comes from her own life and upbringing, Jordan is the de facto expert on that. "Blair is based on a lot of my, like I said, fantasies, but also a lot of my very real insecurities as a teenager. Her music taste and her clothes, that's all ripped from the headlines of my own life," she says. "But what felt the most honest part to me of Blair's personality is that at her core she's searching, and she's looking for the next thing, and a lot of times when you are a rebellious teen it's because you're acting out and performing different kinds of personalities trying to see which one fits."
In lesser hands, Sterling and Blair could have fallen victim to TV character tropes: the good sister and the rebel, the preppy dumb blonde and the anti-establishment activist. But they're both smart, and they're both naive. They're both religious, and they're both sexual. They're both confident, and they're both insecure. In short, they're both teenage girls figuring things out.
"With Blair, it would have been easy to make her this one-note badass, but there's so much vulnerability and codependence there that we really wanted to stay true to," Jordan adds. "And then with Sterling, she might have felt one-note up until the moment before the pilot, and then in the pilot she makes a really tectonic, life-changing decision that flies in the face of some of her beliefs or the expectations that her community puts on her. The fallout of this giant decision to have sex is what puts her on uneven footing with herself and puts her on a path to looking inward and exploring who she is and where she wants to be in life."
But Teenage Bounty Hunters isn't all serious — it's first and foremost funny. "More than anything I really want to make people laugh," Jordan says of the bubblegum-pop-meets-goth-metal comedy. "It's such a dark time. We want to make people laugh and also sneak in some opportunities for people to ask questions about the things that they assume about the world. We wanted to flip things on their heads and challenge people's assumptions about what they think they know about certain groups of people."
As for the moment the creator is most excited for people to see? "The moment that sparks the season — there's a scene in the first episode where Sterling and Blair become bounty hunters, they get into a car accident, meet their soon-to-be mentor, and that launches them into this bizarro after-school job," she says. "I love that scene because it's such a fun mix of action and jokes and high stakes — plus their outfits are cute."