Getting Teens Right: Why ABC Family Deserves More Credit Than It Gets
Let's be honest: When most people hear "ABC Family," they think "cheesy teen TV that isn't worth a second glance if you're not a thirteen year old girl." Most people, it turns out, are dead wrong.
I'm not here to tell you ABC Family is churning out reams of Emmy-worthy television programs (though, for what it's worth, it is the home of Descendants breakout star Shaliene Woodley, and long-time Hollywood favorites like Marlee Matlin and Molly Ringwald). What ABC Family does do, however — and what it does better than most of the major networks — is tell stories featuring the kinds of characters who are painfully underrepresented on the small screen.
This is a network that believes teenage girls (even popular, stylish ones) care about more than boys and gossiping. It's a network that employs deaf actors not named Marlee Matlin (although Marlee Matlin, who is wonderful, does star in ABC Family’s Switched at Birth), handles issues of sexuality with grace, that once aired a show where the majority of the cast was overweight (Huge).
Most importantly, it's a network that does all of these things while avoiding over-sentimentality. Its shows are, if not always artistically magnificent, at least fun and engaging, integrating diversity seamlessly amidst all the mysteries, switched identities, and generally addictive drama. It teaches a lesson of inclusively without ever making you realize you're in class.
The Daily Beast's Jace Lacob recently wrote a wonderful feature highlighting the myriad ways Switched at Birth is truly groundbreaking in its portrayal of deaf and hard-of-hearing characters. I encourage you to read it. I don't have much to add, but I want to reiterate the biggest takeaway: Switched at Birth features several deaf main characters, portrayed by deaf actors, who are allowed to speak in subtitled ASL. That is unprecedented, and it's happening on a show many people don't give a second glace because its soapy premise — two girls were, well, switched at birth — doesn't seem serious enough to adult audiences.
While Switched at Birth is the most obvious example of ABC Family pushing boundaries, it's hardly the only one. Another noteworthy case is 2010's Huge, a smart, wistful show about teens attending a weight loss summer camp. Almost every significant character was obese, and they were all allowed to be individuals, dealing with body image issues in their own specific way.
Importantly, though, people dealing with body image issues wasn't all Huge was about. While it didn't have a flashy premise like Switched at Birth, it dealt with so much more than weight. From gender-identity to fraught friendships, from family drama to good old fashioned heartbreak, Huge captured the small cruelties and deep joys of teenage life better than almost any show, ever. In doing so, it avoided becoming a PSA about loving yourself. The fact that Huge was cancelled after one season is an overlooked TV tragedy; the fact that it made it on air at all should be applauded.
Huge and Switched at Birth do things that are practically unheard of elsewhere on TV. Of course, not every ABC Family actively features actors who are normally relegated to the sidelines; not every script can be groundbreaking. However, something ABC Family shows almost universally do, and something that is very, very heartening to see in a network aimed at young women, is put female characters and female relationships front and center.
As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time hanging out in feminist TV-geek circles (yes, they exist, and yes, they are awesome), I constantly hear the complaint that TV is really bad at representing female relationships. Individual kick-butt female characters are all over the place on major network shows, but too often they aren't shown interacting with other women, and when they do, the spend their time talking about men, men, and more men.
While this is hardly a universal truth, it is a notable, and disappointing, pattern on TV. Not so on ABC Family. Every one of its current shows has a female protagonist and, more importantly, female friendships are often given the spotlight. For a prime example, you need to look no further than one of the network's biggest hits, teen murder-mystery Pretty Little Liars.
Part Veronica Mars, part Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars centers on a group of girlfriends being stalked and tortured by the omnipresent, texting "A." Also, their friend was murdered a while ago, and basically every authority figure they meet is out to nail them for said murder.
However, lurking under the veneer of tangled mysteries is a web of genuinely felt relationships, at the center of which is the bond between the four (female) protagonists. Each girl has important love interests, and those relationships — from Aria’s (Lucy Hale) illicit affair with her teacher to Hanna's (Ashley Benson) teenage dream of a relationship with bad-boy Caleb (Tyler Blackburn) — get plenty of screentime.
But in the end the girls always return to each other. Their friendship is what drives the plot; they rely almost entirely on each other to navigate the never-ending challenges "A" throws at them.
If any of the men of Pretty Little Liars were to leave the show tomorrow, some shippers might moan, but the main story would remain relatively unchanged. And it's easy to imagine that whichever Little Liar lost a boyfriend would, eventually, move on. If one of the Liars left, however, the show and other characters would be profoundly changed. The girls are essential, the boys are, for the most part, not (unless it turns out one of them is "A"...). How many network shows can say that female relationships are at the core of their shows? More disturbingly: How many can say the exact opposite?
And I haven't even touched on Emily's (Shay Mitchell) coming out arc, which was a beautifully nuanced exploration of the difficulties of coming out to a parent who doesn't understand, but still loves their child.
I'm not saying this network is flawless (one only has to scan their show page to notice how white its protagonists tend to be); nobody gets everything right all the time. What I am saying is this this: ABC Family may produce teen TV, but it's definitely worth a second look from adults.