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The Fosters and the Successes of Representation

September 14th, 2013     by Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite     Comments

One of the things I did to numb the pain of my beloved Bunheads’ cancellation this summer was to search through the ABC Family lineup for a suitable replacement. I was looking for something funny with a dash of sass and maybe a little dancing. Instead, I found The Fosters, a heartfelt family drama about a blended family living in San Diego, California. I was pretty skeptical of The Fosters at first, because the premise felt like it might be gimmicky; The Fosters is about an interracial lesbian couple, Stef and Lena (Teri Polo and Sherri Saum), who are raising Stef’s biological son, Brandon (David Lambert) together with a set of Latino twins, Jesus and Mariana (Jake T. Austin and Cierra Ramirez) adopted out of foster care. In the show’s pilot, Lena and Stef agree to be a foster family to a girl just out of juvenile detention, Callie (Maia Mitchell), and her younger brother, Jude (Hayden Bryley).

The Fosters

Before watching the pilot, I was anxious about what I might see, especially considering that the show appeared to be throwing in everything but the kitchen sink in an attempt to reach the widest audience possible. I was worried that the series would fall victim to tokenism: racial diversity (check), LGBT representation (check), female protagonist (check).

As I watched the first few episodes of The Fosters, I began to realize that the representation of diversity on the show was actually quite smart and sophisticated. It’s hard to create a balance between acknowledging difference and making a character one-dimensional in an attempt to acknowledge their particular position in life. On The Fosters, every character is nuanced in their relationship to the world, and their stories are clearly shaped by their personal experiences and identity markers. Both Lena and Stef are aware of the unique experiences of their children and each other, and the show’s writers make it a point to have them acknowledge and accept these differences without demeaning or trivializing them. In the fourth episode, Lena and her mother, Dana, (Lorraine Toussaint) have a frank discussion of shadeism while attending Mariana’s quinceanera. The conversation exposes the ways in which their different experiences have affected their personal relationship. In the scene, Dana tells Lena that Mariana may be Latina in terms of her skin colour and parentage, but she is not “culturally” Latina just because she has a quinceanera. The following exchange occurs:

Lena: Maybe we are trying to make up for what we couldn’t give Marianna. But I understand how she feels. Dana: Do you now? You were raised by a black mother. Lena: And a white father. And I never felt accepted by either community. Dana: I’m sorry you had such a tough time being a beautiful light-skinned woman. Like it or not, the colour of your skin has afforded you more opportunities than anyone like me has ever had.

This dialogue is pretty revolutionary in terms of discussions of race in popular culture–both characters are given the opportunity to express their unique position as women of colour and then tie these personal experiences into wider issues of racism and shadeism. Lena and Dana’s conversation is one of many elements of The Fostersthat deals with the ongoing negotiations of culture and identity politics. We also see this with Jesus and Mariana, whose experience of adoption has complicated their feelings about their own cultural identity.

Dana (Lorraine Toussaint), Lena (Sherri Saum), and Stef (Teri Polo) in “Quinceañera”

In spite of these interesting developments in writing, The Fosters does have its problems. It’s admirable for the writers to tackle important issues like homophobia, poverty, drug abuse, rape, undocumented immigration, emergency contraception, and racism (just to name a few), but some of these plot points are much stronger than others. I’m most surprised that a network like ABC Family (also home to more conservative shows like the Christian 700 Club and the now-cancelled The Secret Life of the American Teenager) can make shows like The Fosters, the new series Twisted (starring mixed-race actor Avan Jogia as protagonist Danny Desai), and the innovative Switched at Birth, which features deaf and hard-of-hearing actors in lead roles.

It’s a testament to how well The Fosters has dealt with representation issues that I am reminded every episode that representation does matter. It’s hard to find a word to explain how it makes me feel to see such a diverse group of people onscreen, dealing with big issues and also the minutiae of everyday life in a way that makes them multideminsional rather than an after-school special. I hope that by the time The Fosters returns in January, more networks and producers will take a cue from ABC Family and take more risks when it comes to representing diversity onscreen, because it’s possible to do it right.

Tags: media savvy, race and racism

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