Sunday, July 5, 2009

Gay When Convenient (South of Nowhere)

South of Nowhere is one of the most progressive mainstream shows I’ve seen for its treatment of homosexuality. One of its primary storylines involves the female protagonist Spencer’s realization of her homosexuality and subsequent same-sex romance with love-interest Ashley. However, the treatment of bisexuality, while not outright negative, is rather sketchy with both good and bad portrayals of the sexual orientation.

When the show first starts with episode Secret Truths, we are introduced to the girl-liking Ashley who Aiden “turned gay” according to locker room gossip Glen overhears. As Ashley puts it, she did the guy thing for a while before she moved on, likening her time going out with boys to a period of immaturity. At the end of the episode, Spencer asks her if she’s “gay, straight, all of the above?” Ashley replies that she is “not into labels”.

Well, that’s fine for Ashley’s own sense of identity. However, whether or not she’s into labels, labels still apply to her. As a viewer of South of Nowhere, I have to do my best to analyze the show and its characters.

Now, later on in Put Out or Get Out, Spencer refers to Ashley as gay while in conversation with her. Ashley doesn’t deny being gay and seems to accept it as an adequate description within the conversation. In First Time, when Ashley records everyone talking about their first time having sex, she herself only talks about her first time having sex with a girl. Though she would seem to have previously slept with a boy, she doesn’t consider that worth discussing. In Girls’ Guide to Dating, she calls herself “gay/lesbian”.

After having a heartfelt conversation with Aiden in What Just Happened?, Ashley tells him that he would “make a great girl”. This could be interpreted as a tease about his non-masculine behavior in sharing emotions and such. It could also be interpreted as Ashley expressing her affection for her ex-boyfriend while acknowledging that she is only into girls. I’m honestly unsure how to interpret that line, and have seen both interpretations on reviews around the net.

In any case, Ashley turns out to not be entirely through with Aiden. In the second season, their relationship gets rekindled despite Ashley’s current relationship with Spencer. Spencer feels threatened and tells Aiden to back off, leading to a big fight in the season finale.

After Spencer rejects Ashley in the third season, Ashley goes back to Aiden. They have an ongoing sexual relationship, even as Ashley tries to get Spencer back. In Spencer’s New Girlfriend, Aiden gets fed up and confronts Ashley. During the fight, he exclaims:

Aiden: “You’re gay when it’s convenient. You’re straight when you want me around…”

Ouch.

Well, into the label or not, Ashley seems to be bisexual. That’s not flip-flopping between gay and straight. It’s a legitimate sexual orientation of its own.

Yes, Ashley needs to make up her mind and choose between Aiden and Spencer. That’s not the same, however, as being confused about her sexual orientation, which is assumed to be either homosexual or heterosexual.

For a show based around Spencer discovering her sexual orientation, it seems remarkably clumsy of them to never present the subject of bisexuality. Spencer even reads the acronym LGBT off of a flyer in episode Gay Pride, a very gay-friendly episode that featured shots of banners for prominent gay organizations like GLAAD. Would it have killed them to at least introduce the concept of liking both boys and girls without veiling it behind the vague “not into labels” description?

So, in conclusion, I’m disappointed with the treatment of bisexuality in South of Nowhere. On the one hand, Ashley is a likable character who displays bisexual behavior. On the other hand, bisexuality is never explicitly referenced and is associated with Ashley’s inability to decide which partner she wants to be with. South of Nowhere was awesome, but there could be improvement as far as representation of bisexuality goes. Here’s hoping the next mainstream gay show has some room for positive portrayal of bisexuality.

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