E4’s Revenge Highlights A Worrying Trend In American Teen Drama

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Last year, US TV show 90210 did something radical. It shouldn’t be radical, but in the world of American teen dramas, it was radical. It was revealed one of the hot leading male characters, Teddy, was actually gay. The third series of the show saw him coming out to his close friends and becoming confident within his sexuality. It was done really well, and was a bold step for a major television show.

Of course, there have been gay characters in US teen TV shows in the past, but they have been sideline characters (such as Eric on The CW’s Gossip Girl). It was bold to make a lead, sympathetic central character gay. But then it all went to pieces. As soon as Teddy came out, he was sidelined. He started to appear in less episodes, and the storylines that included him dwindled. What started as a well-meant attempt to do something good became just another failed attempt to make gay characters on US teen dramas mainstream and normal.

Now, we have a new drama in a similar teen-show mould. Revenge is a series made by The Walt Disney Company for their ABC network, and plays in the UK on E4 HD & E4. It’s about a girl who returns to the Hamptons under a new identity, determined to get revenge on the people who destroyed her family life. It’s got a more serious streak than 90210 and Gossip Girl, but it’s clear it has the same audience in mind.

During the opening episodes, no LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual) characters are made apparent, so I guessed (rightly) that someone’s sexuality would be revealed as a plot device. This annoys me somewhat. It is my firm belief that being gay should be as remarkable as being left-handed. But television dramas still like to use it as a major shock-point. Although done with sensitivity, both 90210 and Gossip Girl had done exactly this. But Revenge has gone one step further. The ‘big gay reveal’ when it came was even more of a kick in the face for those who want to see TV’s attitudes to homosexual people transformed. The writers chose to make evil, manipulative, creepy Tyler gay. He is a conniving, two-faced, nasty piece of work. Many have compared him to the talented Mr Tom Ripley – the murderer in Patricia Highsmith’s novels. Up until the big reveal, when the true evil nature of Tyler is revealed, he had been masqarading as the straight Harvard roommate and best friend of one of the other main male characters. Of course, this all has to end.

Not all gay people are nice. Not all straight people are nice. I wouldn’t go so far as accusing Revenge as being homophobic as a whole. An individual character, who happened to be gay, turned out to be a bad guy. It’s just a shame that this plays into a long Hollywood tradition of making villains homosexual, effeminate and a threat to the ‘straight-norm’. Wouldn’t it have been refreshing if a leading character in Revenge was gay, and that this was known from the beginning, and wasn’t focused upon unnecessarily. Wouldn’t it have been great if their love lives were treated the same as every other leading character?

Although it is good US teen dramas are willing to have a discussion about people coming to terms with their sexuality, I fear this current trend is continuing to ‘otherise’ gay teens. There is tolerance towards them, but still a degree of unease and suspicion. Thankfully this is not the case in British dramas aimed at similar audiences. Waterloo Road, Skins and Hollyoaks have all dared to have central, sympathetic gay characters that don’t disappear as soon as someone realises which gender they prefer. The teen television imported from across the Atlantic, however, still seems to have some growing up to do.

Revenge can be seen on E4 HD & E4 on Sunday nights. Past episodes are available to watch for a limited time on 4oD. 

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Second year BA Film & English Student. Watches too many films and enjoys good novels.

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