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In Praise of The Fosters

I’m finding myself strangely besotted with ABC’s The Fosters, and it’s not just because it’s summertime and the television pickings are slim. Summertime is, after all, the time of year when the weather is theoretically lovely and I’d rather be floating down a river somewhere, eating fresh cherries and spitting the pits lazily onto the bank. Which means that my bar for television I’ll give up outdoor time for is set rather high.

Here’s what The Fosters isn’t: hard-hitting, edgy, stunning, shocking television. Which makes it pretty radically different from most of what’s on air during the summer months. The goal here is not to make audiences reel in disgust or salivate in titillation. In fact, given that it’s part of ABC Family, The Fosters is quite tame, with a hint of soapyness, and it is at times rather maudlin and unbearably cutesy, with utterly predictable storylines and largely cardboard characters.

Yet, at the same time, it’s revolutionary, which is why I find myself drawn to it even though it has all the problems that usually make me turn away from a television series. Normally, the combination of caricatures, appeals to emotion, and plots right out of the textbook would put me off, but in The Fosters, it comes together in a rare combination that, while it’s not exactly good, is definitely attracting attention, and it’s worthy of it.

The Fosters, you see, is about a gay biracial couple living in the US, one of whom is a police officer, and the other of whom is a vice principal. And they live with five children; Brandon (David Lambert) is the natural son of Stef (Teri Polo), while the other four children come from the foster system. Twins Jesus (Jake T. Austin) and Marianna (Sierra Ramirez) have been formally adopted into the family, while newcomers Callie (Maia Mitchell) and Jude (Hayden Byerly) are brother and sister, separated by several years.

So basically, this is an explicitly family show, intended for people of all ages to watch, possibly even together around the television screen/laptop/other device as a group. And it’s about a gay interracial couple and their mixed family of foster kids. Can we talk about how huge this is? Because a lot of people definitely are, since they’re finally seeing themselves and their families represented on screen, and they’re actually being treated with respect.

This is a show about families and how they come together and how they can be complex and myriad and fascinating, but it’s also a show about love and bonds and respect. And it’s a show that presents itself as totally normal: here’s a pair of moms raising their foster kids, struggling with all the things parents deal with (bad behaviour, problems in school…). And here are teens living in a big household dealing with being teens and all the things that come with big families (limited personal space, jealousy, trying to watch out for each other…).

The Fosters isn’t about parading gay parents and their children as a freak show, but just about telling their stories. And while it may be sappy at times, it does actually come with a bite. When Callie’s introduced to her foster moms, for example, she says: ‘So, you’re dykes, then?’ Brandon responds: ‘Well, they prefer the term ‘people.’’ Score one for Brandon.

While The Fosters isn’t setting out to send any Great Political Messages, it does slyly insert them throughout the action, without making them overly obtrusive. There are little nods and gestures of respect to the queer experience, the Latina/o experience, and more buried in the text, creating layers of complexity. While families might settle on the couch with some popcorn to be entertained by the soppy drama, like insecure girlfriend Talya’s (Madisen Beaty) constant assertion of her territorial rights over Brandon, they’re getting a little something extra with their pop culture.

And that something extra is basically ‘gay couples exist and some of them have kids!’ And ‘hey, multiracial families exist and are a thing,’ which is something people apparently need to learn in a country where people go absolutely sooky-la-la over a Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial family. I mean, seriously, the United States is a place where an adorable biracial child eating one of the nation’s favourite breakfast cereals is grounds for racist hate speech. Clearly its citizens need some remedial education on How to Be a Human Being.

Because here’s the thing: gay couples and multiracial families are not going anywhere. They’ve been around for a long time, and they’ll continue to be around for a long time. And I am all for increased pop culture visibility that treats them with respect and brings them into the popular consciousness in a positive, empowering way instead of one that’s objectifying and demeaning. Because pop culture is one of the most powerful shapers of change in a society where so many people take their cues from pop culture.

That’s what The Fosters represents, and maybe that’s why I love it so much despite the fact that it’s incredibly cheesy family television. It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that the show was produced by Jennifer Lopez’ production company, Nuyorican Productions, which has taken on a number of projects involving diversity in the US, particularly with respect to race. This is the kind of show that gets made by women producers with an intimate knowledge of why this kind of television is so important, women who know that there are little girls tuning in to ABC Family with their families who deserve to see themselves.

And who deserve to be something more than passing references or recurring backup characters. The Fosters has a lot of key, central personalities, and they aren’t uniformly white and straight. That alone may doom it, setting aside the question of whether it’s good television, because it’s daring to go where a lot of ‘family’ television fears to go: it’s admitting that a family looks like a lot of different things.

And as we’ve seen, a lot of people in the US don’t like to be reminded of that.