Perhaps the most notable thing about the recent shift towards more egalitarian LGBTQI representation on television has been how narrowly those letters tend to be applied to the stories being told. Like queer cinema, queer television generally applies to examples of the medium which explore LGBTQI stories and, less commonly, use aesthetic practices, typically from queer writers and directors. But in general, these stories are typically about gay men.
Just last week I was able to write a piece about two distinct African-American gay male main characters in sitcoms, but it becomes frustratingly difficult to find the same breadth of representation for lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex or other diverse characters.
MTV’s Faking It is perhaps the boldest exception TV has yet seen, and this is in part because representationally it may be the first TV show for Generation Z and Millennials. This is not a criticism; conventional wisdom about Gen Z is that their social politics are more liberal than any before. Having grown up in the digital age and therefore been afforded the degree of access to information and niche media that provides, they have become – sometimes aggressively – aware and considerate of the social status of their peers and beyond.
Premiering in 2014, Faking It had to battle against its own image early on. The initial premise centres on two best friends at a hyper-progressive high school, Amy (Rita Volk) and Karma (Katie Stevens), who lean into the perception of them as a lesbian couple in order to become popular. As their ruse grows, Amy becomes increasingly uncertain of the falseness of her relationship with Karma, and her questioning causes confusion in turn for Karma. Initially, the show was watched with a wary eye. It had shades of “I Kissed a Girl”, Katy Perry’s shitty ode to performing queerness for male attention – in the show, Karma wanted to become popular to get closer to school heartthrob Liam (Gregg Sulkin).
While the show has never really moved out of the shadow of this plot, which at this point is hugely overextended, showrunner Carter Covington and the writers have taken the opportunity to use the setting – Hester High School, a land of safe spaces where the stereotypical outsiders are the in-crowd – to scour the LGBTQI acronym for story opportunities. With this has brought an unprecedented story to TV: that of Lauren (Bailey De Young), who is intersex.
In the show, Lauren is the true outsider. Conservative and ambitious, she functions as the pseudo-Regina George without that character’s status. She consistently decries Hester’s progressiveness, having moved there with her father after he married Amy’s mother. It’s not until the season two premiere that the show reveals that Lauren takes hormone pills because was born with an intersex condition. With the show now in its third season, she is still grappling with this element of her personhood, but the show is cleverly using the setting and its supporting characters to push someone with a great deal of defensiveness about who she is towards acceptance.
Lauren was born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), essentially meaning that she was born with XY chromosomes and internal testes but no uterus or reproductive organs. There is a wide variety of intersex conditions, with intersex traits generally considered to be present in around 1.7 per cent of live births. Intersex variation is also commonly confused with being transgender; while intersex people may be both intersex and trans, they are distinct experiences. Lauren’s is just one intersex story, and as the first intersex main character on any TV show, hers is not the be all and end all. But it’s an important step towards expanding the scope of stories about LGBTQI people on television. In season three, Lauren finally seems ready to take ownership of being intersex; having had a speech about saving Hester go viral, she attempts to make a documentary about her life but realises she can’t without being able to talk openly about who she is.
Faking It is not a perfect show. Its reliance on love triangles has placed strain on it at times when those have become stale, but its foundation is so well-constructed and its scope unparalleled. Beyond Lauren being intersex and Amy being questioning, their friend Shane (Michael J. Willett) is openly gay and he and Karma both fall for a student, Wade, who is bisexual. In season two, Laverne Cox guest stars as the director of the school’s drama club, and season three has introduced Noah, a love interest for Shane played by trans actor Elliott Fletcher. And in a recent episode, Karma’s mother and father reveal to her that they’re polyamorous.
In many ways, Faking It feels like the future for queer television. It flies directly in the face of the idea that a show will falter under the burden of representation, and shows that there are media organisations who understand the kind of stories that cater to Generation Z, only half of which identifies as exclusively heterosexual. Faking It is setting the standard; now we just have to hope that the rest of TV can follow suit.
Faking It will air on SBS2 at 8.55pm, Monday May 30.