The jumbled warmth of an unmade bed. Steam rising over a cup of coffee. Syrup oozing over a plate of pancakes. A refrigerator plastered with children's photos. The opening credits of ABC Family's new series, The Fosters, just finishing its first season, take us through several quick shots of everyday family life in progress.
But it's the final shot: two handswomen's hands, brown and white and clasping tight on top of a comforter, that is the most striking, the most unexpected. For me it captures what this show does best: a rush of intimacy and shared desire and its necessary place in this family portrait. The Fosters, produced by Jennifer Lopez, is powerful because it portrays the ordinary and extraordinary in the life of a queer family, and it does so by making the intimacy between its two mothers its anchoring strength.
Despite the hypervisibility of teen sexuality, and lesbian sexuality (at least the "Girls Gone Wild" kind), there are very few representations of either group in popular culture that allow for a realistic treatment of desire or emotional complexity.
The Fosters isn't afraid to portray a mature lesbian relationship along with the lives of its teen protagonists. Parents Lena and Stef, together for 10 years, debate "lesbian bed death," the pros and cons of marriage versus domestic partnership, the importance of maintaining friendships with past lovers, the dynamics of butch/ femme, even the appeal of a woman in uniform. Lesbian politics are enfolded with the rest of family life.
Along with its mothers, the show expands its definition of queer family, including foster children (Callie and Jude), adopted children (twins Jesus and Mariana) and a biological son, Brandon. The family is multiracial, comprised of Latinos, whites and an African American, intertwining racial and queer political issues. As Mariana tries on dresses for her Quincenera, we watch her negotiate a Latina saleswoman's discomfort with her mothers. Later, Mariana admits that she is ashamed of being given away by two women. Lena, who is mixed-race African American and (presumably) white, struggles with her own mother's envy and dismissal of her as inauthentically Black.
ABC Family's current advertising slogan is "A New Kind of Family," which is intriguing. I admit I'm not used to feeling like a television network "gets me." While ABC Family is not perfect, at least some of its shows, including The Fosters, and Switched at Birth, feature multiracial, multicultural casts and some realistic dramatic situations. For example, Switched at Birth is the only show currently on television that portrays the complexity of deaf culture and politics. Like the best Young Adult Literature, these shows appeal to teens and adults, because they attempt to capture some complexities that young people face, sometimes alone, sometimes with the help of supportive adults. In one recent episode of The Fosters, foster daughter Callie is stalked by her past foster brother, Liam. She must decide whether to reveal his sexually predatory treatment of her in order to save another young woman now in his household, risking being labeled by the foster care system as sexually volatile, which could have her sent to a group home. The show gives room for vulnerability, confusion and a lack of clear answers.
The Fosters doesn't erase sexuality, or play it for laughs. It presents a family joined across lines of class and color, and it doesn't erase the differences between them. Sure, the kids and the adults are cute and mostly good-natured, but their lives are also messy. In the midst of the coziness of this household, the show also offers a critique: their lives aren't untouched by the systemic violence of a corrupt child welfare system, the foreclosure crisis, internalized racism, unfair U.S. policies of citizenship, religious bigotry or homophobic bullying. The boundaries of family in The Fosters is porous and their lives include deep connections to ex-lovers, students, coworkers and friends. If previous representations of the nuclear family embrace self-sufficiency and individuality, The Fosters provides an image of positive interdependency.
The Fosters has raised some conservative hackles. For example it has been boycotted by the group One Million Moms for "pushing an agenda that homosexuality is acceptable." And it will probably be debated in the public sphere beyond its first season. Indeed, the show seems to welcome it. In one episode, the Fosters are joined for dinner by one of their sons' girlfriend and her traditional Latino parents. Stef's father also joins them. He struggles with the fact that his daughter has left a "perfectly good marriage" to a man to be with a woman. Conspiratorially, he asks the visitors if they disapprove of this lesbian-led family. The other couple declares, "Of course not. What could be more Christian than family?" The Fosters hijacks the discourse of family values and changes it for the better.
Francesca Royster is a Professor of English at DePaul University, where she teaches courses on Shakespeare, Popular Culture, gender, race, sexuality and performance. Her books include Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era (University of Michigan Press, 2013) and Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon (Palgrave, 2003).