Popular media, for better or worse, helps to teach audiences what is valued, and what is possible. Inclusive representation, or portrayals of people with diverse bodies and identities in the media, can influence not only how we see ourselves, but also how we feel and behave toward other people. In “The Importance of Social Media When it Comes to LGBTQ Kids Feeling Seen,” Amber Leventry explains that “[coverage] of topics and people that have historically been considered taboo can take back the emotional burden of LGBTQ people by educating people about gender, pronouns, gender expression and sexual orientation.” Various studies have shown that when we see sympathetic depictions of marginalized groups, our opinions of those groups improve (Schiappa, Gregg, & Hewes, 2005). One study found that people are more accepting of transgender individuals after seeing them depicted on-screen, which could have positive implications for persuading the public to support policies that combat transgender discrimination (Flores et al., 2018). Representation serves to educate, familiarize, and also to develop empathy for people we may otherwise be biased toward.
Representation is important in itself, but it needs to be handled responsibly. Reliance on reductive stereotypes or tropes can reinforce harmful messages despite the best intentions. There is more queer representation on television and in media today than ever before, which is an incredible achievement. GLAAD’s annual “Where We Are on TV” report found a larger than ever percentage of not only queer characters on network, cable, and streaming television, but also an increase in queer characters of color: from 2018-2019, 8.8% of regular series characters were LGBTQ (up from 6.4%), and queer characters of color outnumbered white queer characters for the first time (Deerwater, 2018). But sometimes we celebrate too soon. LGBTQ visibility is important, but not always an advancement in and of itself. While yes, there are more, queer television characters are often limited to a few categories: “safe” and celibate, deeply pathologized, or otherwise preoccupied with homophobia, to the detriment of their mental health and development. While considering contemporary examples of LGBTQ+ representation in media, we will explore how the Netflix series One Day at a Time showcases nuanced queer characters in a way that offers drama, empowers queer youth, and provides learning opportunities and positive depictions for both queer viewers, allies, and allies-to-be.
One Day at a Time focuses on a Latinx family that faces multifaceted issues and challenges. The grandmother is a devout Catholic from Cuba, and part of her narrative arc is becoming a U.S. citizen at a time when Latin American immigration is a painfully charged topic in the United States. Her daughter, Penelope Alvarez, is a single mother as well as a war veteran who suffers from depression and PTSD. Penelope struggles to become a nurse practitioner and often deals with racism and sexism in the doctor’s office where she works. Most importantly for this chapter, Penelope’s daughter Elena is a lesbian teenager. In order to explain why Elena is a noteworthy LGBTQ character on television, we need to discuss a trope that is regularly featured in queer naratives: plot archs that center homphobia and “calling out” bigotry.
Most shows that explore homophobia or transphobia resort to the “calling out” method of dealing with discrimination. To call someone out is to expose their problematic behavior, often in a stern way that allows onlookers to also judge them. In “Speaking Up Without Tearing Down, Loretta J. Ross writes, “[calling] out happens when we point out a mistake, not to address or rectify the damage, but instead to publicly shame the offender. In calling out, a person or group uses tactics like humiliation, shunning, scapegoating or gossip to dominate others” (Ross, 2019). The TV network Freeform has perfected the call-out scene. In their hit show Pretty Little Liars, teenager Emily Fields has a relatively conservative mother who is horrified to learn that her daughter identifies as a lesbian. Pam Fields’s journey to acceptance begins when her own husband, who fights in the U.S. military, gently chides her for judging their daughter so harshly: “I don’t like this, but [Emily] is struggling with this; I can see it…She is alive and healthy, and after everything I’ve seen, alive and healthy counts for a lot, believe me” (Norman, 2011). The turning point for Pam comes at an even more severe calling out session, when multiple members of Emily’s high school English faculty confront a belligerent father who insists that Emily only won her spot on the swim team due to the school’s “gay agenda.” Pam’s moment of redemption is not, as we might hope, an embracing of Emily on her own terms, or a realization that nothing has changed or broken about her daughter or their relationship; instead we get a moment of protective instinct that pits Pam against this other parents’ even more egregious form of homophobia: “My daughter never got anything she didn’t earn. That’s how we raised her. That is who she is. So you drop this…or I’ll show you what a real agenda is” (Grossman, 2011). The audience does not get to witness a substantial transformation from Pam—instead, at best, we see her realize that her daughter is subjected to a lot of pain and anger in the outside world, and she does not want to add anymore: “Emily—I still don’t understand, but I love you. You are my child, and nobody hurts my child” (Grossman, 2011). Before she can apologize specifically for her prejudice, Emily stops her with a hug. The gesture suggests that Pam has done enough hard work for the day and that Emily should acknowledge her for such.
Pam and Emily have a very moving relationship throughout the series, but Pretty Little Liars erases the discord in the family about Emily’s queer identity by contrasting Pam’s tortured religious homophobia with the privileged white man’s supposedly much worse homophobia. Pam saying, essentially, “my love for you and desire to protect you matters more to me than my misgivings about your sexuality” is not the same as saying, “I am sorry that I had an unhealthy reaction that made you feel unsafe and less loved. I am your mother and I love you the same now as I did when you were born.”
When the message is always and only, “I love you more than I hate queerness,” the bar for compassion and acceptance remains very low. Not only does it magically let family members and friends off the hook for problematic core beliefs, but it reinforces the idea that an LGBTQ teen’s happiness rests entirely on the benevolent epiphanies of the prejudiced people in her life. It necessitates that bigots come around in order for the character to have a happy ending. It also often makes the LGBTQ teen character take responsibility for or accept the homophobia of adults.
One Day at a Time moves away from the “calling out” narrative in favor of “calling in.” Calling in usually involves a more sympathetic way of addressing problematic behavior: “Call-ins are agreements between people who work together to consciously help each other expand their perspectives. They encourage us to recognize our requirements for growth, to admit our mistakes and to commit to doing better” (Ross, 2019). The emphasis is on educating and changing an individual, rather than shaming them. Elena’s mother, Penelope, is not onboard when she first comes out as a lesbian. The first refreshing and positive aspect is that the calling in is not Elena’s responsibility. In Season 1, episode 11, “Pride and Prejudice,” Penelope makes every effort to support her daughter’s coming out. The audience realizes that Penelope is battling her own homophobia, but at no point does she make that Elena’s problem. Penelope notices that out of everyone in their life—her other child, a close family friend, her own mother—she is the only one struggling with Elena’s news: “I feel really weird about this Elena stuff…I hate that I feel weird about it but I do.”
While Penelope is figuring out her hang-ups about her daughter being a lesbian, she knows to put on a supportive face because “[her] reaction could affect Elena for the rest of her life,” and instead turns to trustworthy adults for help. She meets with a friend, Ramona, who is an out lesbian, to talk about her reservations: “I’m a monster. My daughter came out to me and I am not totally okay with it. And I hate myself for it.” Often this conversation could turn into Ramona making Penelope feel ashamed of herself; or guilting her into magically getting over her homophobia because she wants to prove she is a good person. Instead, Ramona fields Penelope’s questions: “How do I know if a girl coming over is a friend or more? Does she all of a sudden think men are disgusting?” and validates her process of coming to terms with the loss of heteronormativity in her life: “You’re just not there yet. It’s a complete adjustment in how you see your daughter. Your heart is okay; you just need a little time waiting for your [mind] to catch up.”
The actors of One Day at a Time discuss Elena’s coming out story.
Aside from the inclusive coming out narrative, Elena serves to educate audiences about queer identity and the gender binary. The first season of One Day at a Time focuses heavily on Elena’s upcoming quinceañera (or “quince”/“quinces” for short) and how or if the occasion will reflect that she is gay. According to My Quince: The Ultimate Quince Guide, “This coming-of-age ceremony plays an important part in preserving the heritage and cultures of the individual. Similar to the process of planning a wedding, the quince requires the same amount of effort, time, and proper preparation in order to make the person’s birthday a memorable event.” The event traditionally celebrates a teenage girl’s emergence into “womanhood” and marriageability at the age of 15—but now the family also has to reckon with Elena’s expression of womanhood not matching the underlying message and expectations of a traditional quinceañera. According to Marybel Gonzalez, “the quinceañera marks an important milestone in a girl’s life. Part birthday party, part rite of passage, it symbolizes a girl’s entrance into womanhood when turning 15, traditionally showcasing her purity and readiness for marriage.” It is similar to debutante balls, a tradition of upper-class Southern white society in the United States, that signifies that a teen girl is ready to be married to the best suitor. Elena’s resistance to the event’s heteronormativity manifests as concern about her dress as well as the role of her relatively absent father, who is supposed to close the event with a father-daughter dance
Elena’s grandmother happens to be a great seamstress and insists on making Elena’s dress; the only problem is the grandmother’s best design does not seem to be very moving to Elena. In Season 1 episode 13, “Quinces,” the grandmother confronts Elena about why she is not yet excited about her ensemble. Elena suggests, “[maybe] what you’re picking up on is that I’m not really comfortable wearing a dress…What about instead of heels I wear my Doc Martens?” Elena confirms that she wants a “feminist quinces” that undoes some of the heterosexist traditions. Ultimately the grandmother redesigns the dress and reveals it to Elena the night before the quinces. The audience does not see it yet, but we know she did something important to the dress that is truer to Elena’s gender expression. When she is finally revealed at the event, we see that the grandmother eliminated the “dress” portion entirely, so that now the glamorous glittering bodice of the gown is a top paired with a white suit. She is wearing more “masculine” pants, but with a generous amount of feminine sparkle.
One concession Elena makes is that she dances with a boy, presumably for the benefit of her father, who is still unhappy with Elena coming out as well as the unconventional interpretations of her quinceañera. Dancing with a boy while being dressed similarly to him actually highlights Elena’s queerness, and it is at this point that the father decides to leave the quinces and not participate in the father-daughter dance. Note that during this episode, the father’s homophobia is not centered. Beyond Penelope entreating him to show up at the quinces, no undue amount of energy is spent trying to guilt-trip the father into accepting Elena or changing his mind about LGBTQ identities. No one realizes he is gone until the moment the dance is supposed to start. Elena is sad to see he is gone, but that sadness could have as much to do with the familiar disappointment of being let down by her father as his homophobia. She is immediately joined on the dance floor by her mother—who is a more fitting choice in any case, since she has been the sole provider for the family. Penelope says simply, “I got you,” as she holds Elena, before they are soon joined by the closest family and friends who make up Elena’s loving support system (Fryman, 2017).
One Day at a Time does not present a utopia where everyone is accepted without conflict. But instead it refuses to pathologize queerness or to divide the world between people who love you and people who hate you. It educates viewers on the dilemmas surrounding queer brown immigrant youth, and demonstrates an alternative possibility where adults recognize their bigotry as their own problem, and the happiness of a young LGBTQ person does not rest entirely on the acceptance of their family.
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