And the TV viewers who love them.
These days, there are gay characters all over the TV schedule, but the most well-adjusted and popular are students at Degrassi Community School and King High, the settings for Degrassi: The Next Generation and South of Nowhere, respectively. It's no coincidence that both shows appear on The N —the nighttime tween incarnation of Nickelodeon's Noggin. The N is a channel with a mission: realness. According to its Web site: "[T]he shows on the N are about your real life and the things you're dealing with every day." Ah, issues! Once the stuff of earnest and dull (but bizarrely beloved) after-school specials, didactic television is now earnest and hot, full of cuties baring yards of flesh (even in chilly Toronto, Degrassi's setting) and telegenic problems like promiscuity, teacher-dating, and whether one's bikini is sufficiently filled out.
At TV high school, gayness is just another issue.Clicking on the Degrassi character bios is like flipping through DSM IV: Craig is bipolar and was abused by his violent father. Ellie's mom's a drunk, and she used to cut herself to numb the pain. Jimmy once took his friend's Ritalin to get up for a basketball game, now he's in a wheelchair after a school shooting, and so on. It's the student-body president, Marco, who is gay. But, with everyone else so screwed up—and yet so lovable—it's not surprising that Marco's gayness isn't particularly problematic. Marco found a sweet age-appropriate lover soon after he came out, but the relationship—with Dylan, an out-and-proud hockey-playing jock—foundered because Marco was uptight about his family finding out they were a couple (well, that and the fact that he walked in on Dylan making out with another guy).
While Degrassi has been around (in various forms) for 25 years, South of Nowhere just started its first season. It's a new twist on the classic "Midwestern family loads up the truck and moves to L.A." story line that worked so well for Beverly Hills 90210, but this time around, it's all about questioning. One of the show's trailers spells it out: Basketball-obsessed Glen is "trying to figure out 'the jock thing' "; adopted, African-American Clay is "trying to figure out 'the black thing' "; and cheerleader Spencer is "trying to figure out 'the sex thing.' " Spencer's "sex thing" is that age-old question: boys or girls? Or both?
Judging from The N's hyperactive discussion boards and the plot points emphasized in the show's promotional spots, Spencer's attraction to wild-child Ashley is South of Nowhere's biggest draw. Trailer after trailer shows Ashley, who's "not into labels" but not into guys, either, exchanging lingering looks and sensual touches with Spencer. Who knows if they'll get together—Spencer is also hot for Aiden, Ashley's ex and Glen's arch-rival on the basketball court—but the depiction of the agony and the awkwardness of a confusing attraction is utterly convincing, not to mention sexy. (The first two episodes of SoN were directed by Donna Deitch, whose 1985 movie Desert Hearts explored similar themes of conflicted attraction between women.)
Needless to say, not everyone's crazy about South of Nowhere. A spokesman for conservative group Concerned Women for America called The N, "MTV's new assault on young teens" (Noggin and The N are part of the MTV empire) and warned that the "homosexual agenda is grabbing for our kids at younger and younger ages." This ignores the wholesome family values the Carlins embody: They begin every meal with a prayer, and mom and dad fret endlessly about the kids' morals.
In these shows, it takes teens just 22 minutes to work through their initial discomfort and learn to accept and more or less respect their gay classmates' sexuality. Parents are the big problem. On Degrassi, Marco came out to his friends two seasons ago, and last year to his mom; on this week's episode, his homo-hating dad is going to learn the news. In South of Nowhere, Spencer's Catholic ER-doc mom, Paula, is uncomfortable with Ashley touching her daughter even in friendship—freaking out when she walks in on the two of them locked in a prolonged but chaste embrace.
The producers of Degrassi and South of Nowhere were smart to make parents the ones that just don't get it. Kids watching at home know that friendships can be fleeting, but you're stuck with your parents—and your resentment of how unfair they can be. High school is a large community full of team spirit (not for nothing do all these shows feature cheerleaders, jocks in team uniform, and school mascots); there's much less room for experimentation in the confined spaces of the family home. But the high-school years are also a time of questioning for parents: Are they making appropriate decisions and instilling the right values? The two groups no doubt view the shows in different ways—what appears to teenagers as a lack of trust may seem like appropriate protection to parents.
Anyone who has heard a gang of teenagers erupt in a chorus of "EEEEEEWs" at the trailer for Brokeback Mountain will be surprised that gay characters are such an accepted mainstay of teen TV. But adolescents are the ultimate pack animals—proclaiming one set of attitudes when they're in a group and quite another when they're indulging in their favorite solo activity: watching television. For all The N's diligence in providing discussion guides to help families deal with the "tough issues" the shows bring up, I doubt there are many Ned Flanders dads who lead a dinner-time conversation about "things that happen when someone is uncomfortable discussing his sexual orientation."
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, 68 percent of 8-to-18-year-old Americans have a television in their bedrooms. In private, kids can figure out their own response to gay and lesbian characters—and to prima donna cheerleaders, school bullies, and annoying parents—without peer or parental pressure. Maybe homophobia is a problem society will grow out of; we just need to encourage kids to spend more time alone in their rooms.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
Photograph of Degrassi kids courtesy KRT. Photograph on the Slate homepage courtesy KRT.