How ABC Family is getting it right: 'The Fosters' and 'Pretty Little Liars'

A friend of mine recently started watching The Fosters on ABC Family, and commented, “I love it. It just comes across as very natural…The fact that [Stef and Lena] are together isn’t a big deal.” As GLAAD’s Network Responsibility Index (NRI) points out, while there is still room for improvement in terms of the quantity and quality of LGBT representations, we have reached a point where there are enough LGBT characters on TV to start discussing the quality of those representations. This brings me back to The Fosters. Some of the most effective LGBT characters are the ones whose sexual orientation or gender identity is just one layer folded into the rest of their character, much like the parents on The Fosters, Stef and Lena. But, The Fosters isn’t the only example. Another ABC Family show,Pretty Little Liars, also tells stories that effectively show LGBT people as more than just their sexuality, encouraging society to do the same.

The Fosters, a drama about a "multi-ethnic family mix of foster, adopted, and biological kids being raised by two moms," delivers an honest, balanced portrayal of lesbian parents by focusing primarily on issues every working parent or couple faces. For example, Stef and Lena deal with a lack of intimacy in their relationship because balancing work and kids is difficult, or how best to discipline their children. Like everybody else, Stef and Lena struggle to balance work, family, and their own relationship. By creating characters who wrestle with everyday concerns, these people are easy for audiences to identify with, regardless of sexual orientation or gender; a parent is a parent.  After only a few episodes, the fascination with Stef and Lena as lesbian moms fades into the background and, as my friend said, “isn’t a big deal.”

However, it is important that the audience also sees Stef and Lena face some of the same issues that many LGBT people do. For example, Stef confronts her father's homophobia on more than one occasion. We see her struggle with his lack of acceptance, but those moments are just a thread of the fabric that makes up Stef's identity and are part of a story told in a compelling way without preaching to the audience. When Stef or Lena face challenges specifically because they are lesbians, straight viewers are given the chance to experience life through someone else's eyes, and hopefully develop understanding and compassion.

The Fosters airs on the ABC Family network, which specifically appeals to a younger demographic. For LGBT youth drawn to the show by The Fosters’ kids and their stories, they also have the benefit of seeing Stef and Lena in a stable, loving relationship. In parts of the country where families like the Fosters may not be as visible, not every LGBT young person has other community members to look up to. In many cases, these young people turn to TV characters to see stories they relate to, and Stef and Lena serve as an important beacon of hope that they can grow up, find love and create a meaningful, loving family just like anybody else. In addition, the Fosters exemplify what it means to be a family—love, support and good values.  Ultimately, it’s a good example for all audiences to see.

Similarly, Pretty Little Liars also organically and seamlessly incorporates LGBT characters in the same way The Fosters does. However, while The Fosters is a down-to-earth family drama, Pretty Little Liars has been described as "a mix between Desperate Housewives and Gossip Girl." It's not unusual for the four female protagonists to be blackmailed, poisoned, run over, shot or set on fire while they try to thwart and discover the identity of their mysterious and violent antagonist, 'A.' One of the four high school-aged leading ladies, Emily Fields, identifies as a lesbian, and came out early on in the series.

For shows like Pretty Little Liars, which focus on teenagers, including a coming out narrative for LGBT characters is important, as that is a typical struggle teenage LGBT viewers can identify with, but that cannot be the character's only story arc. Emily first struggles with accepting her own identity as a lesbian, but eventually finds acceptance with herself, her friends and even her traditional family. Over the course of the series Emily has also had several girlfriends, just like her three straight counterparts have had their own relationships. These romantic plotlines are folded right back into the drama of teenage life, planning for a future and whatever extra challenges 'A' presents for the girls. For young LGBT viewers watching, it demonstrates that there is a lot more life after coming out, and Emily is a role model, confidently navigating her world just like her straight peers.

In the realm of Pretty Little Liars, Emily being just like her friends also means she gets poisoned, sent creepy dolls, trapped in numerous dank buildings, drugged and led to a grave yard, hit by a car, trapped in a burning building, and the list goes on. While these are all horrible things, Emily experiences no more or less danger than her three straight friends, and it is important that Emily is not treated with kid gloves just because she is a lesbian. She isn't held off to the side for "after school special" type lessons, but is fully and equally immersed in the Pretty Little Liars world. True equality on Pretty Little Liars means that Emily gets equal parts beat up and time to make out with her girlfriend.

What both The Fosters and Pretty Little Liars have in common is that after a while, Stef, Lena and Emily's identity as lesbians become so organic to their characters, it is almost forgotten. What these shows have done so successfully is integrate sexual orientation into complex characters that have a lot more going on in their world than being LGBT. While there are many shows with LGBT content, these two struck me as unique as a viewer because I found these characters easy to relate to and many others feel the same way. They are compelling people whose sexual orientation is only one important facet of their character; they transcend stereotypes. Whether viewers identify with them as lesbians, parents, partners, or students, Stef, Lena and Emily are familiar and relatable on some level to almost everyone, which can create a powerful, personal understanding of the LGBT community. The Fosters and Pretty Little Liars have mastered it.

It is not a coincidence that both of these shows air on ABC Family. As part of their successful strategy to attract younger viewers, ABC Family shows are inclusive and diverse. In fact, ABC Family received an 'Excellent' rating in GLAAD’s 2010-2011 NRI, only the second broadcast or cable network to ever receive this high rating in the history of the report. In the years the NRI has tracked ABC Family, their ranking has never fallen below 'Good’ and their dedication to inclusive programming has included shows such as The Secret Life of an American Teenager, Kyle XY, Huge, and GREEK.

Furthermore, both The Fosters and Pretty Little Liars are huge successes for the network. The Fosters, which premiered in June 2013, ended its initial ten-episode run as the highest rated new TV cable drama for the summer in the target demographics of viewers 12-34, females 12-34 and female teens, ranking second overall only to Pretty Little Liars. Now in its fourth season, Pretty Little Liars continues to be a hit for the network—a fan favorite and a social media dynamo. During the airing of the series’ season three finale, Pretty Little Liars became the most tweeted show, reaching nearly 1.9 million tweets during the live airing of the episode, with over 70,000 tweets per second during the last minute. Pretty Little Liars remains a dominant presence in the Twitterverse and, along with The Fosters, the hearts and minds of young TV viewers.

The inclusiveness of ABC Family's two hit dramas, The Fosters and Pretty Little Liars, are excellent examples of the kinds of stories we need more of on television. Coming to terms with issues specific to sexual orientation are certainly an important part of an LGBT person's life, and as such, should also be portrayed on TV, but the story can't stop there. LGBT people experience life just like everybody else; sexual orientation and gender identity is only one part of who they are, and TV characters should reflect the true complexity of real people's lives. The multi-faceted LGBT characters folded seamlessly into their TV worlds, like Stef and Lena on The Fosters, and Emily on Pretty Little Liars, are reaffirming to LGBT viewers, but also serve the important role of continuing to show the world that LGBT people are not that different in the first place.